Tag Archives: learning

The TLABoratory

Next Saturday sees Berkhamsted School hold its third Teaching, Learning and Assessment conference (TLAB15). I have been lucky enough to attend the two before and both times came away awash with ideas and, more importantly, renewed enthusiasm for my work. Each visit has benefitted me in numerous incalculable ways; from my classroom teaching to decisions made at a departmental and even whole-school level. With tickets now sold out and the event just eight days away I feel the familiar professional curiosity of what might unfold. Based on previous experience I am sure to be in for a real treat… In fact one of the main problems I have faced each time is whose workshop to attend. However, away from the key note speeches and conundrum of which workshops to go to, I am also looking forward to the chance of chatting with everyone there. Over the last year there have been so many tweets and blogs that have influenced my work that I cannot wait to actually speak with the people who have written them.

...and to think they said this design wooden work

…and to think they said this design wooden work (image taken with permission from Nick Dennis

Just like my dilemma of choosing a workshop to attend, there will be so many people there who share my interest and, dare I say it, passion for teaching and learning that there is no way I could speak to them all. To some extent this is what I would term the laboratory of collective enthusiasm and this is the real driving force of the teaching profession. The fact that people are prepared to give up a Saturday to further their own practice and feedback to their place of work. There are plenty of displays of this dedication across the country at various events. However, I single out TLAB as it just happens to be the one that properly sparked my interest in teaching and learning and therefore I owe it a great deal.

I remember being in the audience of the keynote speeches and participating in the workshops of TLAB13 and thinking: THIS. IS. INCREDIBLE. Swiftly following this day I asked to set up a Teaching, Learning and Assessment Group (TLAG – imitation is the greatest form of flattery!) at my own school and started co-ordinating a cross-curricular ideas sharing forum. In many ways recreating the TLABoratory like conditions of endeavour, curiosity and openness. This group has been operating for the last two and a half years and is a fantastic conduit for creativity and collaboration. Yes, we do not set the world on fire with what we discuss, but the accumulation of small gains is very much what education is about.

This brings me nicely onto some shameless self-publicity *pretends to hang head in shame*. I have the very enjoyable task of actually delivering a workshop this time around. The concept of this workshop is to look at the small margins of improvement – refining what works well to make it even better. The session is brazenly called “The Twenty Five Four Percents” in homage to Sir Clive Woodward and his one hundred one percents. I hope to share twenty five ideas that might enhance learning and teaching in the classroom and beyond, one hundred would have been pushing it in the 50 minutes provided! Please be forewarned, I will not be delivering earthshattering advice and no doubt a lot of what I say people do already, but most likely twice as well. In fact I fully admit that most of the ideas have roots (pun intended bearing in mind the conference logo) elsewhere. However, having the chance for some open discussion and ideas sharing is all part of the laboratory that is teaching and if I can give something, anything, back then it will be my honour to do so.

And at this point I must return to my slideshow… I have a presentation to plan!

Header image taken with permission from Berkamsted School website.

(Tab)let them eat cake II

A few recent blogs have re-kindled my interest in “EdTech” and its place in teaching and learning. Following my post on discussing tablets during a Teaching, Learning and Assessment Group meeting last term I also feel obliged to give a quick update of what happened next. My own thoughts remain very similar to before. I have the same healthy scepticism for any new learning directive or teaching strategy regardless of whether it includes technology or not; convince me that the benefit outweighs the cost. This theme was further highlighted by Tom Bennett’s Raging against the machines? Not really. Adventures in misunderstanding post on EdTech. He too has a “hearty scepticism” and would like to see “wide-ranging evidence” to persuade him it has a significant impact  – but too often this sort of attitude is perceived as technophobia rather than a considered stance to new methodologies. As Bennett says

“If tech adoption were cheap or easy, and didn’t take much time, I wouldn’t worry so much about it. But if you want to persuade people that it’s right for them then it’s not unreasonable to ask what evidence is there that this will have a positive impact before they money on it. That’s just good governance.”

The fact is that it is not cheap nor easy to implement ,on a whole-school or even departmental scale, changes to EdTech so we had better be sure that they make a measurable difference. I am pretty open-minded about most new ideas but can be prone to paralysing cognitive dissonance when I fear that they might cause colossal amounts of work… In this respect I would imagine I am very much like everyone else who actually works as a classroom teacher and understands all of the trials and tribulations required to semi-successfully teach and assess a large(ish) class of students. In fact a blog post from December by the excellent Heather F on how technology has transformed her teaching struck a chord with me. In addition to her, as always, sensible musings her point that “if applications of technology are genuinely useful they won’t need the hard sell” is bang on the money (pun intended). I have no doubt that tablets will prove very useful both in specific subjects and across the school at some point, but I have not yet been made aware how. Perhaps this will be something I find out as I look to delve deeper into their impact in the classroom. However, I am equally open to the idea that we are not at that point just yet. That is what I mean by having an open mind and not being immovably one way or another, pro or anti EdTech.

Ain't no party like an S Club party! (Image taken from Flickr)

Ain’t no party like an S Club party!
(Image taken from Flickr)

So what did we do next after our aforementioned TLAG meeting? We set up a ‘working party’ to explore staff attitudes further (it seems from my own personal experience that jokes on the theme of “well it certainly is work but I’m yet to get to the party” are either unfunny or have been said before).  The group was made up of seven members of staff from a range of subjects across the School and hoped to represent a spread of opinions, from those very open to EdTech, those with experience of its implementation and those who were healthily sceptical. I believe that we got the balance about right other than we seem to have more “sceptics” than “champions” to borrow from Harry Webb’s superb recent post on why EdTech sucks (and what to do about it). The aim of the group was to discuss how best we could survey what teachers across the school thought about the possibility of EdTech, specifically personal devices such as tablets, aiding teaching and learning in the classroom. One thing that we all agreed with is that coercion of having to use EdTech will simply not work, as Harry Webb says “mandation is clearly not the answer”. However, there are definitely some benefits or “lots of small gains” as a member of the working party mentioned at our last meeting. We also felt that people did not know enough about what you could do with a personal device in the classroom; the “unknown unknowns”. I include myself in this category – I do not know exactly what I could or could not do with something like a tablet – and aim to expand my knowledge by attending conferences, reading blogs and participating in workshops to see what they can offer. No doubt you’ll hear my experiences in the eagerly awaited third instalment of the (Tab)let them eat cake saga, release date to be confirmed.

I am lucky enough to work with a range of talented people and one such colleague summarised a sensible approach to EdTech and the vast array of shiny gadgets available with these two simple questions:

  1. How does ‘it’ make the teacher’s job simpler, easier and more effective?
  2. How does ‘it’ make the student learning process simpler, easier and more effective?

If ‘it’ does not have evidence that it improves either of the above then you need to re-consider whether ‘it’ is the right approach to learning and teaching, whatever ‘it’ might be. The working party has also focused the direction of how we will canvass the opinion of the staff body; in our most recent meeting a method we considered and agreed upon was to actually go into departmental meetings to discuss the range of options available. Following a chat with one or two members of the working party (staff with the “known knowns” to bastardise further the Rumsfeld quote) there would then be a short departmental questionnaire to fill in. Our aim is to roll this out in the next half term and try to get round every department before the end of the academic year. I am intrigued to find out what people around the school think and this will then inform the next steps of the working party. Additionally I am also looking forward to discovering myself, first hand or via the conference circuit, what might be possible. However, if it does not improve upon or simplify what is currently in place then I may well remain the open-minded sceptic. To be continued…

Header image taken from Flickr.

Gridiron greatness

As stated before in my posts I very much enjoy reading; both for pleasure and to learn. Due to the latter, heavyweight pedagogues litter my desk, bookcase and floor by my bed. Yet sometimes I feel I can learn just as much looking outwards and away from education’s ripped abdominals of wisdom and conjecture. Over the past couple of weeks I have been reading the wonderful The Score Will Take Care of Itself by the late Bill Walsh (just the very name of this book brings smiles of joy to my face; focus on the process and not the outcome). Walsh was a Hall of Fame American Football head coach and general manager of the San Francisco 49ers and the book captures the musings, ideas and standards of an extraordinary man who helped revolutionise a sport with his approach.

ALRIGHTY THEN (Image taken from Flickr)

ALRIGHTY THEN
(Image taken from Flickr)

Although the book is more business-orientated than straight biography I really enjoyed the snippets of detail I picked up regarding the sport itself. This is coming from someone whose sum knowledge of “football” is from watching Ace Ventura: Pet Detective and Any Given Sunday. The former film a seminal classic from my youth; and to think if it wasn’t for that pesky Dan Marino holding the ball laces inwards, Ray Finkle would never have kidnapped Snowflake the dolphin in the first place.

In fact I found the sporting history of the book fascinating and will make a more determined effort to understand the game in future. Walsh took a team that many people regarded as not only the worst in the National Football League, but also the worst sporting franchise in North America, and turned them into champions. All within three years of taking over.

Image taken from Flickr

Image taken from Flickr

Right from his very first day he sought to impose the highest possible “standard of performance”. From the players, to the coaches, to the administrative staff, everyone knew exactly what was expected and how they should go about implementing it. This was not simply offensive game plays or travelling to away fixtures, even the secretaries who answered the phones were fully briefed on exactly how they should carry out their role. Often when I hear someone is concerned about this level of detail it makes me think that their micromanagement might have a negative or diminishing effect. Walsh was worried about this too with a chapter entitled Don’t delay delegating (Famous last words: “I’ll do it myself”). In fact he had a bad experience with a boss who did their best to keep him as an employee, at the extent of communicating to other franchises that Walsh was not particularly good.

Diagram of Bill Walsh's former colleagues who became head coaches

Diagram of Bill Walsh’s former colleagues who became head coaches (Image taken from Wikipedia)

The coaching tree diagram above shows the extent of Walsh’s influence and the huge impact he had on American Football. In 1998 half of the 30 coaches in the NFL had worked for either Bill Walsh or fellow Hall of Famer Tom Landry. This is surely a sign that, although he feared his diminishing tendencies, at heart he was a multiplier.

As a teacher I have no real interest in making decisions based on inspection bodies; I lose count of the number of times I have discussed with like-minded individuals this concept. At no point should we be looking to make things right for inspection. Instead time, effort and hard work should be spent finding ways to improve learning, thus allowing students to achieve to higher standards. You don’t need any “OFSTED-whisperer” to tell you that. To me this book exemplified this attitude of high performance for the sake of doing things better and not for just a final outcome. I am not so naïve to think that leadership in schools should pretend inspectorates do not exist or not consider them in their thinking, however, the key is that they do not use them as a focus to direct teaching and learning. An inspection rating “will take care of itself” if everyone is willing to put in time, effort and hard work into reviewing and refining the practice that does work and being open to new ideas and methodologies for the sake of advancing pupil learning.

A few other things I have taken from reading the book:

  1. The top priority is teaching – educating those in an organisation to continue your good work and that through hard work, elevated thinking and a sense of joint responsibility anything is possible.
  2. Standards of performance – to bring the best out of individuals and the group give them high expectations. This will be required for both actions and attitudes.
  3. Unleash mentors – allow individuals within the group to teach and help others to improve, give them the chance to lead and a share of responsibility.
  4. Discussion is important – chatting through ideas, allowing people to contribute is vital to allowing creative solutions to be found. Everyone can and should be involved in and influence this process BUT once a decision has been made that is the end of the discussion and energy is concentrated on implementing the change.
  5. Being wrong for the right reasons – it is fine to make mistakes if you are looking to improve; to succeed you must fail. However, it is important not to allow ego or pig-headedness to make a mistake into a major problem.

It is interesting that as I solidify my thoughts on this book more and more I see parallels between being a multiplier and what Bill Walsh ultimately did for the San Francisco 49ers. I would hugely recommend this book to anyone with an interest in leadership philosophies and how to get the most out of people they work with. Steve Jamison and Bill Walsh have weaved a fascinating insight into top level sports management and coaching; there are lessons here that should be shared beyond sport. Remember: “quick results come slowly”! Next up as part of my sporting reads, when I get the chance, is Legacy about the All Blacks, which came just as highly recommended as The Score Takes Care of Itself.

Header image taken from Flickr.

(Tab)let them eat cake

Last Monday we held our first Teaching, Learning and Assessment Group meeting of the term. I have mentioned this group before  but I would reiterate what a really good vehicle it is as a way of getting staff from across the school together and this week’s meeting was no different. The topic of the session was “the future of tablets in education”. Although this was a broad and wide ranging matter it gave rise to some very interesting discussion and exploration. From the start we put the issue into context by outlining that the technological infrastructure required to run tablets was not the issue we were trying to address. We felt that there was no point spending time talking about WiFi, charging points, storage, etc. Instead by imagining that all of these administrative details were in place we could focus more squarely on actually using a tablet for teaching. As a final reference point it was also made clear that we were talking about tablets in general rather than any particular model.

The session was incredibly illuminating and as a quasi-luddite I was fascinated by the ideas staff had for using tablets to help teaching and learning. In fact it presented me with quite a challenge to transcribe the minutes. Not only was there a range of opinions but also different levels of actual experience shared during the session. (As an aside with reference to meeting minutes, my personal feelings are that there is a real art to getting them right. Whoever writes them can be a scribing Shane Warne, spinning comments one way or another. In my other life as a head of department this can be quite useful! However, to try to keep as much veracity in the TLAG minutes I emailed a draft around to those who attended so they could check I had captured the sentiments expressed correctly) To lay my cards down on the table I am currently cynical of the effectiveness or tablets in improving teaching, learning and assessment in my own classroom. There is no real problem that I think they would address and I wonder whether they might actually make life harder for me. Whenever I think about change, new ventures or novel ideas these two points are my fist questions: “what problem does it solve?” and “will it make more work than the previous option?” However, I am always open to listening to new ideas and the wisdom of others:

“I not only use the brains that I have, but all I can borrow” Woodrow Wilson

Over the issue of teachers using tablets for email and as organisers there seemed more agreement in their usefulness. It is easy to see how a Drama or PE teacher could give feedback on a performance or skill instantly to a group of students by using the video or camera and then playing it back; you would be mad to suggest it would not help or be an impact on their learning. My personal opinion is that I would definitely benefit from having access to a premium model as an organiser and way of working away from my desk.

However, there were the beginnings of two camps with regards to student use. Some could see subject specific niches that they would fill and therefore enhance learning opportunities. But here comes the greatest sticking point for me; how do we know that they actually improve learning? Where are the double-blind placebo-controlled studies? It makes me twitchy to think that such finite hardware costs so much. Is it a humungous white elephant? Especially considering my dubious views on the end product; I struggle to think of any use for them in my next week’s teaching. Genuinely nothing. I have no doubt that they would be great for a research lesson and a colleague who has taught in a school that used tablets confirmed this. However, it was also pointed out that even 100 years ago pupils at our school have had access to more information and knowledge than they would ever possibly need via the library. The problem is guiding and focusing learning.

Just in case you were unsure, The animal above is a dinosaur. (Image taken from www.commons.wikimedia.org)

Just in case you were unsure,
The animal above is a dinosaur.
(Image taken from www.commons.wikimedia.org)

Whilst I am airing my slightly prehistoric views I also raised the point that the vast expenditure of buying in tablets and pimping up the technological infrastructure could be used to employ more staff. Perhaps this might alleviate some of the admin tasks that teachers face on a day to day basis actually allowing them more time to focus on their teaching, learning and assessment? I also think that without days, if not weeks, of expert training the teaching body will never be able to make the most of tablets.

A common theme that cropped up in our meeting was that using this sort of equipment should not be foisted upon staff. A lot of my reaction to tablets is most likely the “yuck factor” that my university lecturers used to explain why people took certain views on ethical issues in biology. I certainly have some fear of the brave new world of techno-education and I will admit that most of it is probably due to not being aware or exposed to the opportunities that exist for using tablets effectively in the classroom. However, for me the biggest issue is the doubtful pedagogical effect these devices would have. As another colleague who got all Tom Cruise said during our session:

SHOW ME THE MONEY! (Image taken from Wikipedia)

SHOW ME THE MONEY!
(Image taken from Wikipedia)

For me the crux of the matter is what problems do tablets solve and will they create more? A common concern was whether they will prove to be a greater distraction in the classroom. In my opinion undoubtedly. You might argue that we should be guiding students in how to use technology and avoid potential distractions. After the session I was interested to read a blog from a university lecturer in the US who has moved away from using technology all of the time with his classes. The writer references a metaphor used by Jonathan Haidt of an elephant and rider which I think neatly sums up the problem of student distraction. There will be many who think we should indeed be strengthening the “rider” when using new technologies and I would agree to a certain extent. But why introduce a definite distraction unless it has a definite positive effect?

There is no doubt in my mind that tablets have the potential to be very useful, but they are no panacea for improving student performance. And I would go so far as to say they never will be. Instead they will be another tool in the arsenal, a quicker method of completing tasks, another resource to use in conjunction with a variety of others. The tablet should not be central to learning but rather a device to support it. My line manager is a very wise beast and he summed it up nicely when saying that we should not be blinded by “tabletmania”; only when a sub-£100 tablet makes them truly ubiquitous within education will we start to really see their best uses as they start to naturally evolve. To conclude I found the information shared and the issues explored a real eye opener. I have a lot more reading to do on the subject and I look forward to coming back to this topic with a little more wisdom and perhaps different point of view in the future.

Header image taken from Flickr.

The one hundred one percents

I love a good book. Or a bad book for that matter. I’m happy reading all kinds of books: from the trashiest holiday novella to a bicep-building tome on biochemistry and everything in between. Today I’ve just started a book on the Trojan War and last night I finished Thomas Harris’ The Silence of the Lambs (much to my wife’s disgust and fear that I would suddenly start developing sociopathic tendencies –nothing to report. Yet.) However, my guilty pleasure is the sport biography; I will devour them! At times this can be slightly obsessional. Having read The Damned United by David Peace I immediately ordered every Brian Clough book on Amazon and absorbed everything that there was to read about Old Big Head.

In a similar vein in the years after England won the 2003 Rugby World Cup I would purchase and read every member of the England squads’ biographies as soon as they were published. It was almost as if I was building up a database where each book gave me a different piece of information or perspective. It was an extremely sad day when space literally ran out in my bookcase and I had to cull these memoires. Out went Martin Johnson’s The Autobiography; sad farewell was said to Full Time by Jason “Fun Bus” Leonard; Matt Dawson’s Nine Lives was unceremoniously dumped in the blue IKEA bag destined for Oxfam; I even donated the musings of one of my all-time favourite players, Austin Healey’s Me and My Mouth: The Austin Healey Story (yes, I know he was not actually part of the World Cup squad. Please don’t remind me. The pain still hurts); Greenwood, Jonny, Robinson and the rest of the lovingly assembled set also waved goodbye to my rich mahogany shelves. What I would not allow myself to do was remove Winning! by knight of the realm Clive Woodward. Sir Clive’s book is less autobiography, more retelling of the six years leading up to that astonishing night in Sydney. Unfairly panned by some critics I hung on its every word. From setting up a player code-of-conduct to left-field team building sessions, there were few ideas Woodward wouldn’t try in an attempt to glean a competitive advantage. Visual awareness computer tests, asking Nike to develop new skin-tight strips, building state of the art facilities both in Twickenham and at their Pennyhill Park training base were just some of the ideas he tried. Admittedly it is likely not all of them worked, but in the search for improvement no stone would be left unturned. In fact the thing that I will always remember from his book* is the quote below which sums up his philosophy:

“Winning the Rugby World Cup was not about doing one thing 100% better, but about doing one hundred things 1% better”

The man. The legend. (Image taken from www.commons.wikimedia.org)

The man. The legend.
(Image taken from www.commons.wikimedia.org)

Thus Jonny Wilkinson’s right footed drop goal at the Telstra Stadium in Sydney with just 26 seconds left on the clock was not an accident, but a culmination of years of hard-work and planning. I try to think about the attitude embodied by this message with regards to my teaching. Every so often we are sold a story by an interested party about how their method is the best and will revolutionise teaching. Sometimes these crusades advocate dropping everything else you might be doing. I can think of a number of ideas communicated to me over my teaching career, for example AfL, “no hands up”, the three part lesson plan to name just a few. Each time the message was clear: this is the right way and what you are doing is the wrong way. What rot! This is not to say that trying new things is a bad thing: I am in no doubt that new ideas are vital for the profession and are needed to inject verve and vim into our daily dealings, but not necessarily at the expense of everything we are currently doing. Instead we should be looking to bring in the small gains, increasing the impact of many of the things we currently do by reviewing and analysing what went well and what could be improved. Or perhaps bringing in some new ideas to use in conjunction with what we already know works. This is what Sir Clive meant by doing many things 1% better.

As the start of term approaches I am already looking to my one percents. Having taught enough to understand what increases attainment and having built up a decent variety to my teaching, I hope to refine this and eke a little more out. In addition I have a few new ideas that I am going to use and perhaps, if I think they are any good, push for my department to start using. Of course some will not work. Some might not be any better than what we are doing already and I will certainly not be throwing the baby out with the bathwater, but there might just be small tweaks that make the difference. Using yet another tired cliché (I know I use far too many) it truly is a case of looking for evolution, in the Darwinian sense of the word of small adjustments that slightly improve, rather than revolution. I also think it is important not to obsess about the final product, whether it is improved exam scores, greater independence of learning or whatever else will benefit the students. Just the other day my old chum Nick Dennis tweeted a link to an article about Sir Dave Brailsford’s quest for improvement with British cyclists.

Tweet

The wise words of @nickdennis

The quote that he selected to accompany the link is another perfect embodiment of always looking for improvement in the things we do. However, it makes explicit to me that whatever we might try to improve in the classroom, in education and beyond should not have the sole focus of exam results, inspection ratings, etc. Just as Brailsford did not look at just the winning, but what could be improved. It is unfortunate that Woodward titled his book Winning, because it implies the outcome is more important than the process. Having read the book this is not the case and he too emphasises the things you do before the outcome; the one percents.

This year it is my intention to take up the quest of looking at the many ways of improving the little things and making the process more efficient in my own teaching; I will keep you posted.

* As an aside the other thing I remember most vividly from the book was Sir Clive’s brief obsession with Carly Simon’s You’re So Vain. What a song. What a man.

4254349316_7f1569a002_b

(Image take from Flickr)

Header image credit Wikipedia

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!