Category Archives: teaching and learning

Jaffa Cakes and Writing Less, Better

Without doubt one of the best ways of finding out about new tricks and ideas to use in the classroom is by chatting with other teachers. I have been lucky enough to work with some fantastic educators since I started teaching and my current place of work is no different. Our Teaching, Learning and Assessment Group meets regularly and it is a fantastic way to catch up with staff from across the school to swap stories and listen to ideas. This is something that I find can be quite difficult to do during the non-stop treadmill of term time unless there’s the excuse of a TLAG session. In the last couple of years I have incorporated many of the ideas staff have spoken about at these meetings. However, in this latest blog post I am going to mention a couple of ideas from a colleague that I actually heard via the pupils themselves.

I first heard about “The Jaffa Cake Conundrum” from a Sixth Form class when trying to press upon them the importance of precision in answering Biology questions, both verbally and in writing. Although I am loathe to play the exam game too much (see my previous post on failure) it is important that students understand how they will be assessed and therefore how to show themselves off the best they can and avoid any potential pitfalls. A classic example that I use to illustrate this is a two mark AS exam question which asks the candidate to describe the role of amylase in the small intestine.

Did you hear the joke about the small intestine? It wasn't villi funny. (image taken from Wikipedia)

Q. Did you hear the joke about the small intestine?
A. It wasn’t villi funny.
(image taken from Wikipedia)

What can follow as a response to this question is quite a bit of information on amylase, e.g. it’s a protein with a tertiary shape, it has an active site, the two theories of enzyme-substrate action. Pupils are surprised when I tell them they would have gained no marks for these answers. Even worse the candidate might mention salivary amylase, which certainly does not Answers The Question! (This phrase is often shortened by us teachers to the acronym ATQ in the margin of a piece of work. The slightly more impatient amongst us might use ATFQ, which of course stands for Answer The Full Question. If you thought the F stood for a naughty word then this acronym has acted as a Rorschach test and I’m afraid you’ve been classified as a potty-minded degenerate) I’m sure most teachers have heard of and use ATQ or the related RTQ, or Read The Question, so I am not breaking any new ground here and more importantly you might be wondering what any of this has to do with Jaffa Cakes? I’m getting there I promise!

Returning to the exam question above many candidates completely miss the point that it is only what the enzyme does in the small intestine that is relevant, thus they lose easy marks. This phenomenon is seen quite regularly in the answering of Biology exam questions. I would guess this is because the subject has a great deal of factual recall and on seeing a certain word from a topic pupils cannot help themselves but write everything they know about that topic. Perhaps other subjects have the same problem? In Biology pupils seem to have a real fear of missing a fact out, sadly this means they mostly fail to actually ATQ and lose all precision in their answer. While discussing the fact that it is easy to include superfluous information that wastes time and does not gain marks, a couple of Sixth Formers mentioned a phrase they use in Geography. Their teacher, Dave Payne, who is also the Head of Geography and a regular attendee of the TLAG, teaches the same idea using the phrase…

2014.08.07 write less better

…instead of writing everything that they know on a topic or process students are urged to be much more selective. Just as in the exam question example above there are times when showing off how much you know does not help pick up marks in an exam. It was after seeing how we could apply “write less, better” to Biology that I discovered another idea Dave was using in his teaching. This time it involved Jaffa Cakes (I told you I’d get there eventually).

Yum (image taken from Wikipedia)

Yum (image taken from Wikipedia)

Firstly “The Jaffa Cake Conundrum” is not whether a Jaffa Cake is classified as a cake or a biscuit. It is obviously a cake, but for anyone who still needs convincing please see http://www.hmrc.gov.uk/manuals/vfoodmanual/vfood6260.htm for more information. So what is The Jaffa Cake Conundrum? Picture the scene: the time is 11:43PM and an underpaid and underappreciated teacher moonlighting as an exam marker is onto her 43rd script. Peering at the dim-glowing screen of her computer monitor she absentmindedly reaches with her free hand to a packet of Jaffa Cakes nearby; their quick release of sugar is one of the few things that have maintained the focus to read and mark the plethora of answers over the last three hours. Imagine her shock that there are no more Jaffa Cakes left in the packet. She still needs to mark five more papers to keep up with the schedule. There’s nothing else for it, she’s going to have to go cold turkey and do it without the Jaffa Cake… This is where Dave brings the story back to the classroom: how can exam candidates ensure that their answer is not adversely affected by the dip in their examiner’s blood glucose levels*? The answer is, of course, to RTQ, “write less, better” making sure they ATFQ! This is the crux of “The Jaffa Cake Conundrum”, concise, well-worded answers that include as much relevant information to gain the marks on offer without any extraneous fluff.

2014.08.07 table

I now use all of the ideas mentioned in this post when discussing with pupils how to approach exam questions and I think the names Dave gave to the last two really resonate with them. Above is a table that I show to students to try to help them understand the importance of the phrases I now use in the classroom. I encourage them to use it as a step-by-step process in how to approach a Biology exam question. It still needs tweaking so let me know if you have any suggestions!

*This is obviously all very tongue in cheek. Both Dave and I use it to highlight the importance of writing precisely in response to a question. In no way are we calling into question the standards of exam marking!

Success, Failure and Multiplication

Something that seems quite a paradox to me is the balance between helping students succeed against helping them gather independent skills for success in the future. I’m sure everyone agrees that while spoon-feeding and teaching to the test might bring better grades in a specific examination, this process certainly does not prepare students sufficiently for any other kinds of assessment or future experiences they might encounter.

However, I am certainly guilty of focusing on exam practice at certain points throughout the year whilst teaching my classes biology. In addition I am hugely in favour of having regular end of topic testing and reviewing pupil progress accordingly. This is probably due to my inclination for students to enjoy success and do well but also, and more importantly, I am trying to teach about the importance of failure and how to learn from it. On finishing eighth at the 2014 London Marathon Mo Farah was quoted as saying

“I’m not going to finish it like this. I will be back… It was pretty tough. I’m quite disappointed but you try things and if they don’t work, at least you gave it a go…you learn – life goes on”

To me this is the crux of the matter, don’t just judge something by the final measurable outcome but rather by what is gained by going through the process; failure is part of success. So although I certainly do not equate running almost full tilt around London for 26.2 miles to an end of topic test result, the actual result is just a starting point and another stop of the learning process but definitely not the end.

Mo Farah running the 2014 London Marathon (image credit here)

Mo Farah running the 2014 London Marathon (Image taken from Flickr)

Most schools do not celebrate failure quite as much as they celebrate shiny A* grades and league table success for obvious reasons. As co-ordinator of my school’s Teaching and Learning Group we have often discussed the best ways to encourage independent work and it always comes back to the balance between success and failure. In particular when and how we allow our students to fail, if at all. I doubt any school would wait until the final examinations, KS4 and KS5 are currently too important an indicator of learning. Without getting into the debate as to whether current methods of assessment in all their guises are the best way to measure ability, they are used as the main and seemingly most important indicator to many people.

So where does or can failure occur? I would suggest that the list is actually quite extensive, end of topic tests, mock exams, homework and classwork to name a few from my own teaching. Some of our students volunteer to take Higher and Extended Projects and this always seems a glorious opportunity for them to showcase their wider interests. I also believe it is a glorious opportunity to allow students to fail. Of the 60ish students that start an EPQ half will not complete it. However, those that have failed to complete the project have actually learned a good deal and had the realisation that there is not always a “rescuer” waiting in the wings.

The “rescuer” is an interesting concept introduced to me though the book The Multiplier Effect: Tapping the Genius Inside our Schools by Liz Wiseman, Lois Allen and Elise Foster. This book was initially recommended to me by a friend Nick Dennis who is a Deputy Head at Berkhamsted School. After beginning the book at the start of the academic year I emailed Nick straight away very enthusiastically extolling the idea that teachers can be multipliers for their students; the book went on to describe how to get more out of others by inhibiting diminishing behaviours. In March I was lucky enough to listen to Elise at the outstanding TLAB14 giving me further food for thought. An excellent example of a diminishing behaviour that immediately struck a chord with me was when asking a question how long do you give people to answer… When I reflected on my own practice I realised that I am incredibly gung-ho and expect an answer within nanoseconds often answering it myself if there is no answer forthcoming. I now wait longer, in some cases much longer, for a response and the difference is quite remarkable. Since reading the book I have noticed other diminisher traits in myself that I have always thought helped scaffold students but perhaps prevent failure and thus disrupt the learning process; it is easy to be a diminisher with the best intentions. Coming back to the example of “the rescuer” who steps in to save a student from failing, are we too quick to rush to the rescue? At this point I must paraphrase Alfred Pennyworth in the hugely successful film Batman Begins

“Why do we fall Master Bruce? So we can learn to pick ourselves back up.”

Perhaps if we don’t let students fail they will never learn to get back up.

Header image created by Michael Smyth inspired by similar found widely on the internet.