Climbing the mountain – Term 2

Mr Mark Richards | Director of Learning and Innovation

As the days shorten and the winter chill descends, we are trudging our way up what feels like a mountainous second term for our College.  Whilst it is fantastic to return to classes of smiling faces, inevitably this also signals the return of assessments and reports and the ogre of stress and struggle.  This term, more so than most, students and staff are feeling the pressure as we try to steer our educational journey towards the pursuit of excellence.  Managing this stress is a delicate balancing act.  We need to have a certain amount of stretch and strain in our education system to allow us to learn and grow, too much and we flounder and drown.

“We cannot direct the wind, but we can adjust our sails.” – Dolly Parton

The reality is, if you demand more from students, they will learn more.  As I look around my Year 12 Chemistry classroom, watching the learners taking part in a group discussion about their experiments, I find myself wondering what they are getting out of it in terms of language or confidence. Should I be content that most are using some English, occasionally incorporating some recently learned scientific terms?  Are my students being under-challenged?  Would my students learn more if I demanded more of them? And if so, what is the right kind of ‘more’ to demand?  Am I enabling them to aspire the College’s value of excellence?

Demanding more does not mean ‘making things more difficult’.  It is a demand that comes precisely at the point where the learner can take the next steps forward – and helping the learner meet that demand, rather than ignore it. This is a doable demand. On the other hand, simply making things more difficult (e.g. setting exercises that are too hard) is an unhelpful, undoable demand that actively discourages learning.

Here are a few snapshots from SCOTS PGC lessons. What thread runs through them?

  • A student gives the right answer to the teacher’s question (i.e. the right words in the right order). The teacher doesn’t say “Good” and close the matter, but rather asks: “Can you say that in a different way? How would you teach that to a younger student?”
  • The teacher does not just collect answers from the first two or three students who volunteer but puts questions to a range of people around the class, intuitively adjusting the difficulty to what she knows of each student.
  • The teacher gets students to listen and comment on each other’s answers, rather than designating any as correct or incorrect herself, at least until it is useful to do so.
  • The teacher withholds saying “excellent” or “very good” and instead gives precise feedback indicating how the student might improve some aspect of what he or she said.

In each case, the teacher is starting from where the student is and then hoping to go further, however good the student is. Nothing is being done just to ‘get it right’. The teacher is not concerned with closing a question to move on, only with pushing, nudging each student further along the road, from whatever their starting point is.

At the College we are constantly trying to improve and grow our students.  Instead of giving the correct answers straight away, we invite other students to state if they agree, or ask a student to explain an answer, or propose an alternative answer and ask the class to decide who is correct.  Our aim is not just to put a ‘tick’ next to the right answer, but to swim around it, to explore the language and the thinking that lies behind the question, and to involve as many learners as possible.  This is all to try and encourage tenacity and to inspire students to try and adopt a growth mindset, going beyond what is ‘right or wrong’ to start asking ‘why and how’.

The flipside of this is how we manage the stress that comes with assignments and exams.  These can be a challenging part of school life for children and young people and their parents or carers. There are ways to ease the stress; having someone to talk to about their work can help. Support from a parent, Tutor or study buddy can help young people share their worries and keep things in perspective.  Encourage your child to talk to a member of school staff who they feel is supportive. If you think your child is not coping, it may also be helpful for you to talk to their teachers.  We encourage all parents and carers to be involved with their child’s education as much as possible.  The community has shown how supportive, creative, and resilient it is throughout the Learning from Home program and it is imperative we continue this into the future.