S t r e t c h….and squeeze……

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I always try to be very mindful of the need to take pupils into the ‘unknown unknown’. Indeed, I suspect that the type of teaching that only delivers what was stipulated at the outset is one of the main causes of the death of curiosity. It seems to me that young people have not – entirely – lost their curiosity, but that needs must dictate something beyond the limits teachers traditionally drew.

This week, curiosity was roused by an unusual errand that a pupil was asked by her tutor to run for me. As the colleague concerned also happens to be my lift-share and near neighbour, questions were forthcoming asked about our friendship. Normally, I would respond with ‘don’t be nosey’– but instead I responded to the question, “Who is your best friend?” with the reply, “My wife”. It seemed to gain approval. I was then asked whether the teacher concerned was “my best school friend”. I replied that it takes many years’ knowing someone before I would consider them to be a ‘best’ friend, but yes, said individual is a good colleague and indeed friend. I could see the cogs whirring – and again the response was favourable. Thus far am I prepared to go in the hope of compensating for some of the more antisocial attitudes to which modern children are exposed. I think the positive reception was down to the unexpected answers – and I hope those children are marginally wiser as a result.

The need to challenge understanding arose again later in the week – but this time the surprise was on me. We are often urged not to under-estimate children’s prior knowledge, and I suppose this relates to differentiation. I have always had strong reservations about formal differentiation – I worry that its real effect is too often to constrain progress, while being yet another source of additional work for the teacher that skilled heuristic classroom practice can actually remove. And furthermore, I have deep issues with mixed-ability teaching which is the provenance of the concept.

PowerPoint (and Prezi) may have their detractors, but for the geography teacher, they are a god-send, to the extent that virtually all my lessons use them at some point. The capability to bring images of the real world directly into one’s teaching, to annotate, inter-leave with data, animate ideas and more is, in my view unsurpassed.

Over the years, I have increasingly also used them as a tool for differentiation. My  typical lesson plan will involve the making of a PowerPoint. I hasten to add, I do not use it to script lessons, as I see done often. For me, it is a matter of preparing the images and information around which my narrative, discussion and other activities will be built. I used to prepare differentiated presentations for different classes, but increasingly I have integrated differentiation into single presentations. This makes for lots of slides –  for example, there may be several consecutive slides which present different complexities on the same issue.

Judicious use of the freeze button allows me to select either more or less complex versions of each concept according to how the lesson is going. I can simplify or complicate pretty much at will. Each lesson ends up being a unique combination of images, while still allowing me to teach in the traditional, teacher-led way that I prefer.

The week’s second surprise illustrated its potential: I was introducing a new topic, sustainable living, to various classes. The task in hand was to define and discuss under, over and optimum consumption. I expected that less able classes would need considerable time on this while more able ones could progress to the extension tasks. But as the week progressed, it became increasingly clear that the concepts were alien to virtually all pupils. Even the most able struggled with the abstracts behind taking too much – and perhaps too little – from our environment. Far from being conceptually ahead, the brightest class actually took longer to assimilate the ideas than some of the supposedly weaker ones. If they were thinking about in more sophisticated ways, then it was certainly well-hidden. In fact, they simply struggled.

While this is not customary, neither is it unique. I find it concerning that in recent years, I have encountered many able pupils whose on-the-ground practical and cognitive ability appears little different from supposedly much weaker students. I fear it is the pernicious effects of media and commercialism that are increasingly levelling down to the same common denominator – but the able have further to fall. In a lot of cases, attitudes to learning seem to be taking the same trajectory.

Far from stretching children to new heights, it seems the job in hand is increasingly remedial – of bringing pupils up to what one might once have deemed the starting-point. Luckily, creative uses of the tools to hand should make it possible to squeeze rather than stretch – even if we worry that it shouldn’t be necessary.

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