The school i have been working at in the south west of England have just transitioned over to their next year, with just 4 weeks to go. As a result, i was asked to take a range of GCSE classes before i exit the school and move to other pastures in Plymouth. In that time i am supposed to have completed a specific set of tasks for several classes, but mostly have students complete a descriptive writing task as part of their controlled assessment for their GCSE. So how has it gone, and where did i get to? Some context is needed first:
1. My brief before i started included making sure that students just got it done, and that they edited and edited their work as much as possible as it was part of a controlled assessment.
2. The cohort of students ranged from really able to lower ability.
3. The school serves a very tough socio-economic area, with the majority of students used to a very harsh and aggressive reality. Such context is manifested in the general manner with which students interact with each other, with incredible levels of negativity and pessimism even amongst the closest of friendships.
From the first lesson i knew that these students needed a hell of a lot more than just satisfying a prescribed assessment. They needed to learn to be nice to each other, to learn about life, people, and learning, and how to achieve joy in each of these areas.
Almost every student in every class i taught had little connection to a love of learning, seeing their schooling as a means to an end, and simply paroting their teachers’ tired old manipulation and bribery of the importance of working hard in their GCSE years. So i spent considerable time teaching about life and how learning fits into that, presenting numerous fantastic resources that challenge and inspire, and more than anything, generate thinking and debate. Classes were abuzz, with students interacting at every turn, and openly saying that these were the best classes they had ever been in. When i asked why, students stated that it was because they felt like they were being listened to, that they could express themselves freely, that they felt safe to express themselves. Word quickly spread around the school, and students would come up to me probing, inquisitive as to who i was and what i was about. Of course such buzz raised the ire of some staff concerned that ‘perhaps students were having fun but not learning too much’ (actual overheard conversation).
My method involved giving students as much autonomy as i could intertwined with providing huge amounts of confidence boosting, boosting not fake in nature, but actual feedback on their abilities, and not simply feedback based on levels or GCSE expectations. Disconcertingly and worryingly, students were almost in a state of disbelief that someone was actually taking the time with them, actually seeing where they were coming from as a young person, where their writing and thinking was going. Students quickly realised that if they didn’t do a task, then it was actually their loss, and not an opportunity to battle with the teacher.
Lessons also involved spending time on emotional intelligence, challenging habitual interactions with each other,and challenging accepted notions of what students should expect. Students were well versed in teachers having high expectations of academic progress, but very few students had any notion of what it meant to have high expectations in terms of emotional intelligence.
Measuring progress in these ideas could hardly be determined through testing or assessment, with students often sitting in their seats pondering what had been presented to them, and interacting in discussions to challenge it all. Sometimes students would come back the next day and ask a question. Sometimes a student would come back a week later and discuss something, still trying to work it out. The point is though that they were thinking, engaged, and active.
The result of the 4 weeks: students learnt about 1/2 of what they could have in terms of ticking off the GCSE boxes, but about 2 years worth of emotional learning.
My contention is that with another 4 weeks students would easily catch up the apparent lost time of content learning because they would be enjoying learning a lot more and much more confident in their own abilities. They would understand the reason for learning, feel safer in a more positive environment, and they would be internally motivated to succeed in the tasks.
It’s so simple.