One of the challenges we face as teachers is knowing how much help to give. There are so many examples of structured support across a range of learning experiences: arm-bands in swimming, stabilisers on a bicycle… the vocab crib-sheet in language learning. They are all designed to provide support in the early phases of learning, with the explicit goal of removing them later on. The question is when. My feeling is that, too often, we leave the support structure in place for too long and students develop a dependency; an over-reliance on the support and a mutually reinforcing fear of failure.
I remember teaching my daughter to ride her bike. It was a classic parenting moment. With stabilisers, it was a piece of cake. But, once they were off, she didn’t find it easy. One day I was running along behind her, pushing her along to give her momentum. After a while she said ‘you can let go now’. The beautiful thing was – I already had! She was away; I was so proud of her I actually cried.
So much of teaching is the art of building confidence and minimising the consequences of failure, showing the way so students can go it alone. A crucial element is the explicit determination to take the supports away in the end and it helps for students to be fully aware of that. In lessons it is often very easy for students and teachers to create the illusion of learning when the supports are all around. Over the years I’ve seen a lot of lessons where students are immersed in ‘learning’ based on supportive resources; they’ve been saturated with facts and ideas but, all along, they’ve been wearing impermeable skins that leave nothing behind. The ‘in the moment’ learning hasn’t left a deep enough impression. All of us need to guard against that.
Take this example from MFL: A routine vocab sheet:
Look at me: “Ich muss Hausaufgaben machen”. “Am Vormittag habe ich ferngesehen”. Easy. Students can practise these things repeatedly in the class giving the impression that they’re getting the hang of the structures. BUT – take away the vocab sheet and what do you have? That’s the question. What they need to do, explicitly, is learn the vocab sufficiently so that they can put the elements together without help. That requires a shift in emphasis: if the goal in the lesson is for students to aim at doing this unaided from the start, they will process the information differently to a situation where all they need to do is produce the goods from the sheet. They need to develop the techniques for retaining key phrases, building up their internal resource-bank. That requires lessons with opportunities to wing it a bit, speaking unaided using what they know without the worry that getting it wrong might matter too much. Great MFL lessons can do that as I’ve seen at HGS and KEGS.
There is a similar situation in English. Writing frames are great; lists of interesting or effective openers, closers and connectives can be found everywhere. Students can use them really well to produce well structured pieces of writing. I remember by daughter beaming after her KS2 SATS test because, as she put it, “I got in my ‘crimson’ and my ‘consequently'”, (words she never actually uses…). But what is left after the supports are removed? I wonder if we could do more to make it more routine for student to ‘do one with help and now do it on your own’. That approach should be built-in. I once visited a primary school in a very deprived area in Essex. The Year 1 teacher had been working on adjectives: the wall was covered in rich vocab to describe a villain in the story they were reading: scary, crabby, wicked, unkind, terrible, grumpy, selfish. They’d used them in their writing. But when the children were asked to describe the villain in the class discussion with books closed, they reverted to the basics ‘he’s bad, he’s old and mean‘ and simple things like that. It was an uphill struggle. They didn’t own these words; they needed to go much further to absorb them, internalise them and make them their own. To me this seemed to be a question of making the learning for memory more explicit; less support and not more – apart from the odd crutch for a few?
The same is true in science. My wife (also a science teacher) and I have phrase we often use for nonsense learning: “an ibble is an obble”. That’s our short-hand for all the rubbish text books and hoop-jumping teaching that leaves students with absolutely no residual understanding of science. I’ve been thinking about this a lot with my current Year 8 topic: reactions of metals. Each one is easy to learn on its own: Magnesium + Oxygen –> Magnesium Oxide. Got it. Then we introduce acids. With endless repetition, students get the idea that Hydrochloric acid makes Chlorides; Nitric acid makes Nitrates and Sulphuric Acid makes Sulphates. It’s a name game. With the grid on the board, everyone’s a genius. We learn that the gas produced is Hydrogen, linking it to the formula for each acid – the atoms have just been rearranged. It’s always Hydrogen – so you can’t go wrong. What gas is produced? Hydrogen! Of course.
Roll forward a week: we start with a TEST! This was the homework – to learn for a test. I was impressed; without any aids, they could still get it and the scores were high. But, then came the reality check: we moved onto Metal Carbonates reacting with acids. Now we have Carbon Dioxide in the mix. Crumbs. The students now had to make choices and began to diverge. The deeper learners still got it; they’d learned why it was Hydrogen from metal + acid; it stuck and they still got it when asked. The surface learners were starting to guess. Last week’s geniuses were taking a 50:50 punt: it’s either carbon dioxide or hydrogen…and a few even threw in Oxygen as a wild card (even though we’d actually had a discussion about why the gas couldn’t possibly be oxygen last week).
So – what to do? Do I give them more help? More scaffolding? I don’t think so. Firstly I think I need to work with some students to improve the link from the surface learning to the underlying models; deeper models will lead to deeper recall. Secondly, I think I need to do more testing for the recall itself. Next week we’re kicking off with a short synoptic test; and we’ll do it again and again, each time reinforcing the conceptual models (the rearranging atoms) and the simple recall routines for each type of reaction: a bit of rote action! That should help them relate to the models. It works both ways. They’ll get there.
The stabilisers have got to come off in the end!