Why learners must be stretched: avoiding boredom

There are two great quotes I’d like to share with you. The first one is from Robert John Meehan, who says:

“Teachers who love teaching teach children to love learning”

Carl W Buechner also once said:

“They may forget what you said, but they will not forget how you made them feel”

Learners will forget some individual ‘facts‘ they learn in school. Not everything can be retained all of the time, and I know that this is still the case in adulthood (believe me – if it isn’t written down then it stands no chance of being committed to memory!). But, children will never forget a good teacher because they remember how they made them feel about learning. Seemingly, our memory of feelings and emotion is greater than our memory of words.

This brings me to the story I wanted to share with you to illustrate this point. My daughter started secondary school this September, which is a massive milestone in her young life. I never worried about her settling in to her new school and she has made some new friends as well as keeping her close circle of friends from primary school. However, secondary school brings a very different level of responsibility – she had never previously had to worry about which room she needs to be in, which books she needs to take or whether she’s completed the homework ahead of the next lesson. 

Her favourite subject in primary school was Maths. It was also mine at the same age, and I was always on cloud nine when her teachers reported that she was top of her class for Maths at parent’s evenings.

However, when she started in Secondary school her attitude towards maths changed suddenly. She described it as ‘boring‘ and rolled her eyes when she talked about it. So what had changed? Well, two very simple things. 

Firstly, I have surmised that her new maths teacher made little attempt to bond with the learners or get to know much about them. It is apparent that a large part of her dislike with the subject was due to the fact that the teacher ‘shouted‘, ‘got angry quickly‘ and was ‘confusing‘. He, in my daughter’s own words, managed to make her favourite subject boring.

The second thing he did was actually something he didn’t do. As I’ve already said, my daughter was a high-achiever in Maths. Part of her boredom came from the fact that he failed to challenge her in any way. She was asked to complete work at a level she had been exceeding a full academic year previously. For example, she was asked to identify that the angle at 90 degrees is called a ‘right angle’. In primary school she had been measuring and calculating angles of far more complex polygons. She was one of the first to complete the work, and then asked to ‘help others’ until the end of every single lesson.

With boredom came disinterest, a lack of  motivation and an attitude that ‘maths is rubbish‘.  How dangerous is that attitude at the age of 11?

Now, as luck with have it she was moved to a new class after half term and the difference is like night and day. She LOVES maths again. Her new teacher is the exact opposite of everything the last teacher was – he makes a few jokes without being a stand up comic, doesn’t shout yet the learners listen to him, has the respect of the learners because he shows respect back. Maybe most importantly though, he has quickly determined each learner’s ability and sets an appropriate level of challenge in each lesson. Now she once again has the spark in her eye when she talks about maths. This week, she actually came home excited for the next day so she could learn the next equation in the list. In fact, she did not stop talking about it all evening, she waxed lyrical for about six hours about how great her new maths class is. As a parent, how could I ask for more than that?

As a future teacher, isn’t this the goal?

Now, please don’t think I’m berating the previous teacher. I don’t think for a second any teacher goes into work planning to do a bad job, and I’m absolutely sure he was trying his best. Maybe he is inexperienced? Maybe he is just finding his feet in a new school? I don’t know, but what I do know is it highlights two important points:

a) how we make learners feel has a huge impact on how much they get from our lessons. unmotivated learners are a dangerous element in a classroom.

b) children want to be challenged and stretched in order to feel like they have achieved something. My daughter wasn’t happy  because she ‘wasn’t learning anything new’. Challenge them, make them think. Plan for the highest achievers just as much as the lowest.

As I reflect on my teaching practice for the future, I know these are two points that will be very much at the front of my mind.

Right, pencils down. That’s the end of our time. Until next time – hwyl fawr!

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How can technology support learning?

Today was a good day. Today I did something I’ve never done before. Today I stood in front of 255 Year 11 pupils at the University of South Wales, Treforest Campus, and delivered an hour-long session on the topic of ‘Digital Revision’, looking at ‘How technology can support learning’.

Around a month ago I volunteered to deliver this session, but little did I know at the time it would turn out to be one of the most interesting experiences I’ve had since starting my degree.

The use of technology to support learning and understanding is a really big interest of mine. However, it’s fair to say I was a little daunted when given the brief to introduce the pupils to technology that will help support their GCSE revision. That’s quite important, right? What if I stand in front of them and try to teach them things they already know? Even the most patient of adults couldn’t sit quietly whilst being taught to suck eggs for an hour!

So imagine my delight at the opening few minutes: I’ve introduced myself, I’ve successfully logged 250 pupils onto the University’s WIFI network – no mean feat in itself – and I’ve introduced the premise of the session, “I’ll show you technology that might just help you get better grades in your GCSEs“. A bold start, but they’re listening.

So far so good.

The first area I address is using technology to test your own understanding. This looks at ways in which we can use websites or apps to see how well we truly understand a topic. I offered three suggestions: KahootSocrative and Quizlet.

The majority of the pupils had used Kahoot before and the room erupted into excited chatter when I hinted that we might even do a Kahoot quiz during the session. Hardly any had used Socrative or Quizlet, so naturally I gave more time to discussing these resources. I stressed the point I was trying to make on more than one occasion – of course this should be fun, but think about what you’re having to do in order to make these quizzes. A few faces looked at me knowingly, they understood the point. In order to create the quiz you need to know the answers to the questions you’re setting. You need an in-depth knowledge of the subject matter so that you can make the quiz difficult, otherwise everybody will simply answer every question correctly and it won’t be fun.

I offered the pupils the opportunity to take photos of the slides on the screen so that they could document what I’d shown them for use in the future, but hardly any did. Though my experience tells me this is widely done in University lectures, I suspect there is a certain stigma attached to an act like this at their age. A clear learning for me, duly noted.

I then discussed resources that might help those who learn best by watching. The obvious example is YouTube, and the point I emphasised here was to be aware of who the author of the content is when you’re watching something. Do they seem reputable? Are they trustworthy? A Donald Trump ‘fake news’ reference had been made in my notes, but in the moment I decided against introducing politics to the session.

The next resource was one which nobody in the room had heard of, which I was secretly pleased about. I introduced the Khan Academy, explaining that from my own research I had found few sites that compared to the Khan Academy in terms of the sheer volume of content. My enthusiasm for this resource must have come through in the presentation, because I was genuinely blown away when I signed up to test it.

We then moved away from ‘watching‘, and towards those who might prefer ‘reading‘ and ‘listening‘, discussing the merits of iTunes U and BBC Bitesize podcasts. Most had heard of them, but a surprisingly small number had engaged with these resources.

I then moved the spotlight to those who prefer to learning by ‘doing‘, discussing how the app Book Creator could be used to make an e-Book on a particular topic that the pupils wish to revise. Essentially it’s a way of revising and making notes, but in a more engaging format and with the benefit of being able to use pictures, audio and text. You can share the book by publishing it to the iTunes bookstore, which judging by the number of raised eyebrows in the first few rows, seemed to appeal to the pupils.

I briefly talked about how Google Drive could be used to collaborate on a revision document, as groups of pupils could work on them from home at a time to suit them, rather than having to be in the same place at the same time to revise together. This didn’t seem to appeal to them as much as I expected it to, so I swiftly moved on.

I finished by pointing pupils towards Twitter, and some twitter handles that they may find helpful, such as @GCSEPod, @getrevising and #revisiontips.

So what have I taken away from this?

A big learning: Year 11 pupils do not like answering questions in front of their peers. Don’t build your session around their interaction, because you might not get it unless you offer a ‘mask’ – for example, none of them had an issue with answering questions in an online quiz.

Another learning: I regularly stopped and asked them to discuss a question with those next to them. That really seemed to help break up the session so I wasn’t lecturing them for a whole hour.

Finally: online quizzes such as Kahoot are fantastic for any age. If you’re a teacher, seriously consider using it. If you’re teaching older children, however, be aware that no matter how many times you say ‘any offensive names will be banned’, there will always be one that tries, especially in a group of 255.

The trick, it seems, is knowing when something is actually offensive. Final learning: whatever age group you teach, know enough of the pupils’ slang terms so that you know when a word is offensive. Ideally, before you read it out to congratulate them on a high scoring round in an online quiz.

That aside, I am ever so grateful for this experience and I hope the opportunity presents itself for more of the same in the future.

Right, pencils down. That’s the end of our time. Until next time – hwyl fawr!

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Placement Looms: Real pupils in real schools

The day after my very first post, an email arrived from the University’s School Experience Officer. The subject left no air of mystery whatsoever:

‘PROVISIONAL PLACEMENTS: BA PRIMARY YEAR 1’

It was an email I hadn’t expected, but had been eagerly (and anxiously) awaiting for some time. What school would I be going to? Would it be a good school? How far will I have to travel?

Each student on the BA Primary course has to undertake a placement in a learning environment in each of the three years. My placement this year is scheduled between March and May. With it being the very first one, I don’t think anyone truly knows what to expect. Until now I’ve been able to put the idea of actually teaching children – REAL children – into a part of my mind where I can acknowledge it’s going to happen eventually, but satisfy myself with the thought that it’s still some way off.

Until now.

Now it’s very real. Now I have a school. Now I have something I can’t file away. I have something to put in my diary, a website I can look up, an ESTYN inspection report to read, and a Twitter profile to start following.

It doesn’t matter how relaxed you are about the idea of teaching (I’m genuinely really looking forward to qualifying) because when you’re faced with the thought of going into a school and teaching your very first lessons, I would challenge anybody who says they’re not a bit nervous.

But is nervousness a bad thing?

Sure, it might shave some hours off your average sleeping time. But doesn’t nervousness keep you sharp, focused and ‘on-task’? Doesn’t it make sure you don’t rest on your laurels? We’re nervous, apprehensive and maybe a little worried for one simple reason:

We care.

We care about doing it right. We care about doing a great job, and showing how good we can be.

Whilst the email from the School Experience Officer left no air of mystery, my first teaching experience is a huge step into the unknown.

Right, pencils down. That’s the end of our time. Until next time – hwyl fawr!

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The Difficult First Post

I’ve written a personal blog for over three years now, so I should know exactly how to get started with a new one, right? Wrong.

Somehow, the responsibility of starting a professional blog seems like a very serious undertaking. If I start too strongly, I might mislead you into thinking this blog will be something it can’t live up to. If I don’t start strongly enough…well….you won’t still be reading now.

Could do better. Stronger start needed.

In September 2016, I turned my back on a 12 year career in Retail Management to embark on a new venture into the world of teaching. Teaching is something I’ve always dreamed of doing, but entering Higher Education as a mature student is still no less daunting than my 18 year old self would have found it.

Much better. Keep it up.

The University of South Wales in Newport will be my home until the summer of 2019 (doesn’t that seem a long way away?) but in the meantime this blog will chart my thoughts and ramblings as I negotiate the choppy waters of being a student teacher. My hope is that my experiences will resonate with other students also trying to keep their metaphorical vessels from sinking.

As I survive lectures, assignments, observations and placements I will be sharing everything I find useful, whether it be apps that could add value in the classroom or lesson plans and ideas that I particularly like. But maybe most importantly, I’ll tell you what it’s like to be a mature student teacher in Wales in 2017.

Right, pencils down. That’s the end of our time. Until next time – hwyl fawr!

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