Part 1: Poetry by Heart This week at KEGS we published the latest in our Learning Lessons series. This issue documents a fabulously exciting project masterminded by our Head of English, the esteemed Dr David Greenwood. David and two colleagues, French teacher Alex Steele and Latin teacher Frank Garcia, all teach the same Year 7 class, 7M. In the autumn term the boys in 7M engaged in a wonderful Poetry by Heart project linking the three subjects.
I thoroughly recommend reading the full article via our Learning Lessons blog and following the links to the clips of various recitals and rehearsals. The philosophy is very clear – that learning poetry by heart adds significantly to experience of learning and, ultimately to the students’ appreciation and understanding of the material. If you have ever found yourself saying something like ‘learning things by heart for the sake of it is pointless‘, this article and the clips may change your mind. There IS a sake. There IS a point. We launched the Poetry by Heart initiative in an assembly last term where I featured a couple of clips of my step-father reciting some medieval English and some Beowulf. He is a retired professor of Medieval Latin with an astonishing library of poetry in his head that he can browse and select from whenever the right moment arises. I even joined in to model the process with a rendition of the only poem I ever learned at school: Jabberwocky! Here it is: (not word-perfect, but hopefully not too far off!) Poetry by Heart was the extension of earlier projects focusing on reading aloud – our ‘Reading with the Ear’ and ‘Talking Texts’ projects, both of which are profiled in the Learning Lessons archive. Part 2: Physics by Heart Recently, I have been thinking a lot about how best to teach some of the less confident students in my A level Physics class. I am repeatedly frustrated by their resistance to retaining concepts beyond the few lessons in which we explore them in depth. As we learn about more ideas, they seem to find it difficult to build a conceptual framework that keeps things in order such that they can make connections. At a more basic level, they seem to forget the fundamental equations and waste a lot of time and effort trying to dredge up basic definitions, units and equations every time we need to use them. One of my most well-worn teacher clichés is “I’m not asking you to KNOW; I am asking you to WORK IT OUT”. This applies to any number or questions where students have given me the ‘I don’t know’ brush-off when invited to answer a simple question. But with some of my students, I am starting to think that I need a new approach – influenced in part by the Poetry. My normal approach to teaching would be this: For most students that works reasonably well. They grapple with the concepts, explore them in various situations and, in so doing, learn things such that they can recall them later as they need to. They then revisit each set of ideas prior to a major assessment or exam, filling in the gaps. The idea is that it is easier to learn and remember something at a deep level if you understand it at a deep level first. That’s been a pretty solid foundation for most of my teaching. However, I have found that the less confident students are operating on shaky ground too much of the time. Their basic physics vocabulary isn’t secure enough; they mix things up and morph ideas together. For example, they might start talking about Force and Energy as if they are the same thing; Momentum and Force are lazily interchanged; current and charge or power and energy are similarly fused into a mush of confusion. They write R = I/V and don’t realise it is wrong. They might even think that Joules, Watts and Newtons are more or less the same thing – or have a guess. This gets more confused as the ideas are more sophisticated. Gravitational Potential (V, units J/kg) and Gravitational Potential Energy ( units, J) become intertwined with each other and Gravitational Field Strength (g, units N/kg). Some students are virtually tossing a coin to decide whether to measure the gradient or work out the area under a g vs r curve to find a change in potential. Asked to find the mass of a planet, they calculate this to be 8 x 107 kg and don’t flinch because they don’t automatically reference this to the mass of Earth = 6 x 1024 kg, thereby realising they might be a few powers of 10 out in the calculations. When asked for the units of the universal gravitation constant, G = 6.67 x 10-11 Nm2kg-2, the units are not secure so they have work them out each time from the equation, which costs time. It could be that students have become too reliant on their ability to look things up on the internet or on the fact that most of the equations and constants they need are given in a formula book during the exams. Knowing things off by heart is not part of the deal and they know this all too well. My feeling is that it is actually the weaker students who suffer the most because of this, not the strongest – who have other resources to draw on. I’ve decided that my students would benefit from more explicit emphasis on learning by heart. I am about to become a driller-killer for units, equations, quantities, definitions and graphical methods. I am going to test my students on basic formulae and units early on, asking them to learn them by heart before we have explored their application. Here is the new insertion: We are going to chant, recite, and regurgitate until the students know the basics so well, they will never forget. Just like Jabberwocky: it might not make sense, but you won’t forget it. My thinking is that, with these things securely learned, we will be better placed to apply the ideas to different scenarios with less confusion and more confidence. For example, in maths or physics, students need to know how to use the suvat equations:
The value in knowing these off by heart is that students will be more likely to notice when they have got them wrong. It is obviously important to know where the equations come from and to be able to apply them to different situations but if you know them by heart, S = ut + ½ at or v2 = u – 2as are obviously wrong and you are less likely to make mistakes. The deeper understanding could follow later. So, that is the theory. Physics as Poetry, coming soon to a classroom in Chelmsford. Here is a sample Y13 basic knowledge test:
Post-script: For those familiar with Martin Robinson’s fabulous Trivium 21st C (as featured in this review post) I wonder if this approach could be an example of Trivium in action: Grammar (learn the basics very solidly without too much debate); Dialectic (explore it all from different ways and see how it works); Rhetoric (express and explain the ideas in a range of formats). I think it is.