Learning about teaching

Blossoming

Last night found me at our kids’ school, for a talk on revising. Aside from being a reminder of how quickly people decide that facemasks aren’t prudent any more, it brought home some lessons about the way we construct teaching for others.

The talk was primarily a run-through of what will be happening after Easter with exams, plus subject-specific sections on useful resources and good revision practice. Its content was much as you imagine, and as familiar to me (as a teacher) as it was to my daughter (who’s now on her third time of hearing it all in as many weeks).

So what’s worth mentioning here, on a site devoted to university education, where we don’t (usually) draw parents into it all?

The teachers here have clearly had some training on revision, including some useful models of ‘how to revise’, which they brought to the table. But what was missing (for me at least) was an unpacking of how revision fits into the broader process of learning.

Back at the start of the year, we got a welcome talk about what the next cycle for our daughter would be (the two years up to her first major external exams). In that was lots of stuff, but not so much about how keeping materials and notes would be a key part of ‘revising’, in the sense that they discussed last night. Revision implies vision a first time, and all the revision techniques set out in the current talk require a baseload of substantive knowledge and understanding to be able to produce the materials for effective assessment performances.

Put the other way around, if you’d not done the work until now, having six weeks until the tests to revise as the school would like you to is not a viable proposition.

And this is where this all matters for you (and me). Assessment (and by extension, revision) is too often treated as a disparate element of the educational experience; something tagged on the end, just because we have to.

Instead, assessment is an integral part of learning and should be handled as such, a logical extension to what happens in a class and in a student’s broader package of work through a programme.

This disconnect was evident in a couple of other places too, last night.

One of the teachers asked that students didn’t come to them, asking for ‘help with something vague’, but rather with a precise and focused query: ‘I have tried to do this past paper question on topic X and I can’t seem to make sense of it, despite several tries’, seemed to be the preferred line.

Now, as a teacher, I appreciate that more precision means more scope to get into the nuts and bolts with a student, but I also appreciate that the bigger problem is students not coming to ask for help at all. If I were a student who was struggling, being told I now needed to come with a precise inquiry strikes me as more daunting.

Here the issue is one of assumption-making about student engagement and buy-in to the programme of study. Even the most wonderful teaching set-up does not guarantee that engagement and we always have to be alert to those students that haven’t found their place within it.

That’s best treated not as the fault of the student, or the teacher, but of the specific instance. In a university setting we have more discretion to change and adapt that instance to accommodate individuals on a different path, but in a much more prescriptive system – such as that found in schools – the need to nudge/shove everyone into the same track is much more considerable.

The key take home for me from all of this it that we need to be thoughtful about how we communicate with our students. That means not simply setting out what to do, but rather explaining what we’re trying to achieve (in the broad and narrow senses): it doesn’t stop us from recommending techniques to follow, but it does then require us to explain why these might work.

Since I don’t want to paint our school in a completely bad light, they did do this last night when talking about planning revision. As was explained, prioritising topics is a key first step in making a revision timetable: the focus should be on what’s less comfortable or familiar, because that’s where the biggest gains can be, rather than sticking to the stuff you know.

Of course, sometimes even the stuff you know turns out to be not as simple as you might think.