What the students DO remember, I

Like many fellow teachers, I am perpetually mystified by this perennial question: why can’t my students remember a word I say, or indeed anything that they’ve been taught?

A theory put forward by one group of my Year 7 students is: firstly, they crammed all they needed to learn before SATs, then learned nothing afterwards; secondly, they forgot most of what they had learned at school after the long summer holiday; and finally, they simply didn’t think that it’s important for them to apply those skills again in secondary schools. And of course, there were other more personal or individual opinions, but these three were met with general nodding consensus. And these claims pretty much concurred with the teachers’ theory, too. Pretty convincing, huh. Do we then take comfort in such conclusion?

Of course, many further actions can be taken, for example, what can teachers do to make sure the continuity of maintained between primary and secondary phases? As far as the rupture of memory, or “forgetting”, is concerned, the more scientifically-minded scrutinisers would demand some empirical evidence to support such claim of knowledge derived from a spontaneous and informal solicitation of opinions (student voice). Here lies precisely one tension between professional knowledge based on classroom practical experience and theoretical knowledge generalised by formal research conducted by often university-based academics.

Hoyle (1970), Stenhouse (1975), Hargreaves (1994) and Sachs (1997, 2000) and many others have repeatedly addressed the issues of teachers (re)claiming their professional knowledge through an extended professionalism that urges teachers to become researchers themselves through, for example, classroom-based action research. This debate, however, is not this blog’s concern. It is meant to present an observation pertaining to a new collaborative scheme of work that I’ve designed and tried out last term with my top set Year 9 students – surprisingly (or not), the students DO remember! What they DO remember may not be what you have expected.

How I/we teach

1. Using visual clues

How the first group set up their segment of the lesson brought an acknowledging smile to my face.

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Figure 1. Teacher students introducing learning activities

So, I presume that they have found sequencing the learning useful. Helpful, too, is summarise each task in writing. I remember how I used to refute the need to write lesson objective on the board, so long as they were conveyed to the students at some point in the lesson. Watching my students teach has made me think twice.

Lesson objective aside, recently, I’ve found myself replicating some of the teaching methods that I have observed from my MEd course at Cambridge. Task-based structure has helped focus the learning. I have begun to use more and more the methods in which I have been taught in my own classroom – and some of them have produced pleasing outcomes. It is why I smiled an inward smile when the students began to write: “Task 1. . . .”

2. Following the whole-school behaviour management policy

Contrary to some teachers’ sceptical views on the effectiveness of a reward and sanction system, my Year 9 students’ action does seem to suggest that they DO want to be given stamps for doing well, and equally they DO care when they are reprimanded. When the students were leading the learning, in addition to board markers, I had also given them  my stamps. They wanted to be “proper” teachers – the power to reward and issue sanction. When one of their peers offered a good answer, a stamp was given, followed by an encouraging, “Well done!”

A bit like teachers finding it hard to resist the temptation to be “bad” in role-plays during a behaviour management CPD, some of them did “try it on” with their fellow students who had suddenly become teachers. One girl from the teaching group raised her voice (smiling as she did so), “I don’t care.” Suddenly, such dismiss expletive, though not quite a full-on swearing, made it uncomfortable to watch and hear it repeated by my students. The students might have found this close-to-life exchange funny, it did reinforce the fact that they DO remember more than we give them credit for – including things that we’d rather them forget.

3. Using technology confidently and competently

Task 1 states clearly, “Look on email and open email with survey”. The actions may sound straightforward, however, as many teachers would readily vouch that technology has a nasty habit of letting you down at the time when you most desperate need it to work. First action of “looking on email” requires other external factors to work before it can be performed. For example, they did the Internet connection. What would the teacher students react if there weren’t any? Secondly, the assumption was that everyone in the class had received their emails. Thirdly, what would the teacher students do if some of them either didn’t have their iPads or couldn’t get Internet connection, or indeed, hadn’t received the required email? Task 1 would be a challenge not to the class, but also to the teacher students.

Right on cue, hands went up, “Miss, I haven’t got Internet connection,” “Miss, my iPad’s being repaired at the moment.” I was recording the lesson using my iPad. One footage covered this scenario. Another girl from this teaching group calmly walked over to the table at the back of the classroom, “Tom, you go and sit with Mark. Joyce, you go and sit with Mary. You can share” (all names are pseudonyms). It’s truly remarkable how the students DO remember some of our most effective classroom strategies to resolve practical problems.

Then, there’s the second part to Task 1: open the email with survey. Once every student could access an iPad and the email containing the survey, they needed to open it before they were given further instructions in Task 2. The class found it straightforward enough to follow the link to open the survey on Survey Monkey via the link. What impressed me was the fact that this group of girls possessed the expertise in designing a questionnaire using a free web-based software, Survey Monkey. At this point, I did go over to tell the girls that hey must teach me how to use this service (I had an account, but I had never managed to design one successfully).

Task 2 was clearly designed to test and assess the learning of the class. I was particularly impressed with the fact that they had managed to condense the instructions to the minimum: “Use the chapter and your knowledge from the film to answer the survey.” The following snapshot shows how the class’s response was analysed and displayed on the teacher’s desktop computer.

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Figure 2. Analysis of student response to questions on survey

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Figure 3. Individual answers displayed on Survey Monkey

Conclusion of Part I

With two more groups to go for their segments of teaching that I shall include in my next blog, it is worth pausing to reflect on the evidence of what the students DO remember through peer-teaching so far.

It seems that they do observe how teachers teach. And what they do remember seems to be deemed by them as the most effective (or memorable) styles. It seems, from the first group of girls, they have remembered/learned that to engage the students varying teaching styles is imperative. They have chosen predominantly dialogic and collaborative approaches. They have also demonstrated remarkable awareness of the fact that teachers have to follow whole school policies in the classroom. They seems to be very clear about where the boundaries are.

The next two groups will shed more insight into what the students DO remember from their lessons. Let’s hope it’s more about “what I teach”.

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About W. S. Lien

Tweed Wearer - Country Lover - Teacher Researching Professionalism and Identity@Clare College, Cambridge - Keen Amateur Photographer - Devotee to Poppy my Labrador
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