It’s over 10 years since I’ve taught a KS3 class in a comprehensive school. Gosh! I’m using some skills I haven’t needed in a while and, in the last few weeks, I’ve been getting my match-fitness back, dusting off the rust and oiling those wheels.
My Year 8 class is a mid-range ability group with 26 students. Our first topic is about Elements, Mixtures and Compounds. We’re exploring the concept of particles and kinetic theory to explain states of matter and phenomena such as evaporation and diffusion; we’re looking at the idea that elements have characteristic properties and that, after undergoing chemical reactions, atoms join to make compounds. There is a rich array of practical work in the scheme of work, lots of very fundamental theoretical ideas and a goes dose of awe and wonder. Everyone loves pulling the iron filings out of the sulphur powder – it’s magical.
So, the material is great. It’s certainly possible to pitch it high so everyone is challenged; it’s also possible to make it accessible for everyone in the class. The challenge and complexity for me comes from the dynamics and diversity of the individuals in the group. I don’t think I’ve ever had a class that was so heterogeneous.
Meet some of the characters: (All names and some details changed – this is impressionistic to preserve anonymity but otherwise entirely real.)
Shafik. Bursting with enthusiasm. Great background knowledge but holds a few misconceptions. Hand up all the time. Great homework. He goes beyond, bringing in ideas of all kinds. He did a presentation on his chosen element and threw in the full Elements song (by Tom Lehrer) completely unsolicited. A joy to teach.
Ruby. Conscientious and insightful. Excellent written work and able to give deep verbal responses. I’m surprised she’s not in the highest ability group – but actually her presence tells me that the setting is approximate with tons of overlap which is great. She’s one of a core group I think of when planning my lessons – Ruby must be challenged!
Abdul. Very quiet. Never volunteers answers except when I select him. Writes really well and shows very good understanding – but you’d never know it from an unstructured free-form discussion. He’s too shy to jump in. Looking at the data he’s got top CATS scores; he’s a classic case of a student it would be easy to under-estimate.
Suki. Hard to work out. Looks at me with suspicion and doubt and avoids eye-contact most of the time. Gives that ‘do not ask me a question’ look when I call her to attention and a hateful glare when I ignore that and ask her anyway. Always in a bad mood, doesn’t do the homework very well and defaults to one-word answers or incomplete sentences. We’re going to need a chat pretty soon so sort all this out.
Josh. It’s like having a puppy in the room. Up and down. Hyperactive. Wants to answer every question. Wants to touch everything. Is capable of some insightful explanations using concepts like particles and kinetic energy. But will not write a single word unless forced to in very controlled conditions. His work was profiled in this post about re-drafting. He needs very firm boundaries just to comply with basics and is aware of his relative immaturity compared to others which seems to pain him. Boy, can he sulk! He could hit the buffers with our new behaviour system so I’ll need to work closely with him on that.
Mo. Seems to be hugely under-confident with English; rarely speaks and writes very slowly with massive letters. Needs prompts and scaffolds to get him to form a full spoken sentence but appears to chat merrily away to his partner. I can’t work out what he thinks about the science because, so far, his written work and oral contributions are a barrier. Mini-whiteboard responses seem ok – he can draw a particle model for evaporation, for example. Homework? None so far. It’s as if homework is something he just doesn’t do. Or he finds it too hard and doesn’t have the resources to seek help. I’ll need to get on top of this issue with parents and our outreach team.
Evelyn. Engaged, lively and charismatic. Very conscientious. Lovely, neat work in her book. But capacity for recall and mental models seems weak. Lots of conceptual errors on basics. This doesn’t seem to trouble her nearly enough. She seems to have developed some good masking strategies – doing things well without learning much – so I need to push her further every way I possibly can.
Toby. Written work and oral work don’t match. He’s a quiet and sensitive but also keen to offer answers and gives great extended explanations showing strong recall of key concepts. His written work doesn’t match – it’s quite scatty and hard to read. I wonder if he’d have been placed in a higher set if his writing was better. He’s in my thoughts alongside Ruby and I’ve told him that he’ll do as well as anyone in the top sets – so not to worry.
Ronnie. A nice kid I’m sure but he seems to operate in a parallel space where time runs slowly. I’m explaining diffusion but he’s somewhere else. I imagine the he sits there in a fog of random thoughts – ‘ great, last lesson, it’s nearly teatime, what’s this bloke on about, is this science?, look at the picture, he looks really funny, I’m tired now, that pizza at lunch was horrible,….’ and then, suddenly, I burst his bubble with ‘Ronnie……Ronnie… are you with us? I’ve asked you how smells travel across a room?’ He can’t focus for more than three minutes – so his written work is shocking – and his natural state is to face away from me, wherever I stand in the room. I want to hold his face in a some kind of metaphysical clamp so he has to focus on what’s going on. Again, a one-to-one may be needed very soon so we form some kind of connection.
So – there they are. My Year 8s. Every learning sequence in the lessons is punctuated by reminders, calls to attention, little pieces of rule reinforcement. We’re getting better at stopping and starting but it never ceases to amaze me how hard some students find this – especially when they’ve got equipment to play with. I’m trying to work out the best balance of practical work, theory work with direct explanations from the front and demonstrations. I think I’ve over-planned most lessons with too many phases and not enough heads-down consolidation with questions. I’ll need to address that. Homework has been good -but a few have struggled with the open-ended tasks. I must remember to give some scaffolding to those that need it. That’s a basic error; I could get away with it at KEGS but not in this class. I think the top-end challenge is going well; I’m teaching this topic with similar expectations of the depth that I’d have had at KEGS and the students are responding; they seem to relish being asked to learning things off by heart.
On the face of it, there is nothing simple at all about teaching this class. It’s hard work to juggle all the different modes of my output with the different learning needs of all those students. It’s the mental equivalent of herding cats.
But the simplicity comes from necessity; the need to stay focused on some key things over and over again, setting high expectations and insisting on them with a relentless focus on some clear and challenging objectives for the learning at each point. Simplicity does not remotely suggest lowering expectations – it’s about keeping sharply focused on an idea, reinforcing it in multiple ways.
Where I’ve lost the plot a couple of times it’s been because I’ve lost focus on the specific ideas, getting bogged down in procedures; trying to tackle too many learning points at once or failing to create time to secure the learning from a practical task. It’s been all ‘doing stuff’ without the substance. I’m also finding that simplicity is needed in securing improvement with listening, using full sentences, good presentation, using proper terminology and so on. It’s about repeating the same messages over and over again, applying them to every student. Yes, Ronnie, that includes you!!
I’ll keep you posted.