What’s the point?


My Year 7 class had something of a revelation this week.

We have just started looking at coasts and coastal processes and spent the lesson learning about different types of erosion. Knowing that coasts, like rivers, are responsible for three processes (erosion, transportation and deposition) and that these shape the landscape are fundemental to the understanding of physical geography and in seeing our dynamic landscapes for what they are. Knowing about four basic processes of erosion helps them to fully understand how erosion actually works; without this, there can be a sense that there is just something magical called erosion which wears away the land.

I had talked them through these processes, illustrating them with examples, hand movements and diagrams. They were then told to write their own explanations for each type of erosion and illustrate it with an image. The idea being that they would have to think hard about the meaning in order to be able to show it. 

After a couple of minutes a pupil put her hand up and called me over. “Is this excellent yet?” she asked (pupils in our geography department ask this rather than tell us they are finished). “I don’t know” I replied “let’s find out.” I closed her book and asked her what abrasion was. “Where the land is scoured by the rubbing of the rocks”. Good. “What is solution?” I asked. “I don’t know” she told me “but I’ve done it.” Sure enough, there it was in her book. But not in her head.

I have a feeling that “I don’t know, but I’ve done it” could be the summary of any number of lesson that I have taught over the years. And what’s more, I know I am not alone. I have had conversations with fellow teachers time after time following their classes having bombed out on a test or practice paper. “But we only did this last week!” the teacher will cry. “I know we did this. It’s on the scheme of work”. A lot of work is being done – but how much learning? It can all feel a little pointless. 

You really notice this at the start of year 7. Pupil arrive having had very different experiences of geography in their primary schools. Some have done a lot, some a little. Some have done cross curricular projects and others discrete subjects. When we started a unit of work on rivers I asked them, as I always do, whether they had studied rivers before. About half thought they had (it’s in the KS2 curriculum – they all should have). We started with a little quiz to see what they knew and flush out any misconceptions. Half the class thought rivers started at the sea. They were evenly split between those who had studied rivers and those who hadn’t. I don’t doubt they had “done” rivers. But they hadn’t learnt it. So what was the point?

Back to my Year 7 class. 

We have started using knowledge organisers and quizzes at the start of lessons and their recollection is improving as a result. What soon became clear though was that they still hadn’t grasped the purpose of doing work. They genuinely hadn’t realised that they needed to learn anything. They hadn’t thought beyond “doing the work”. It was like a light bulb going on in their heads. As soon as anyone else finished the task they started quizzing each other; wanting to prove that they hadn’t just done the work but had learnt it.

We have a department planning day this week. Over the last two years our department priority has been to raise expectations with the motto “Expect Excellence”. Our next focus is on “Excellent Geography”. One thing I want us to do is have a very clear idea of what we expect our pupils to know, understand and be able to do. What is it that we want them to learn rather than what we want them to do. No more pointless tasks and more purposeful learning. 

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4 thoughts on “What’s the point?

  1. It occurs to me that when one follows a “it only matters if they have constructed it themselves” narrative, it’s easier to excuse lack of learning. They will learn it when they are ready is an abdication. Yet at the same time, we have an activity culture where something has to be done in the lesson and marked for SLT/Ofsted to see. Hence you can see why it’s doing a task to hopefully (fingers crossed they want to and are ready for it) not the actual specific learning that is end result.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I guess the girl including ‘solution’ in her explanation (presumably correctly), but without knowing what it means, is representative of a danger which can remain even with efficient use of knowledge organisers and quizzing. She might well have ALSO been able to recite a good explanation for what ‘solution’ represented, but still without understanding it.

    To my own mind though, a child hasn’t learned something until they can paraphrase an explanation for it (rather than simply recite). It way well be that they do this in a clumsy and imprecise vernacular, but if it demonstrates that they nevertheless ‘get’ the concept, then the most precise vocabulary can then be refined and engrained.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. – Sorry – my point above shouldn’t undermine the fact that I think your overall point about the difference between ‘doing the work’ (or ‘covering the ground’ from the teacher’s perspective) and LEARNING the material is spot-on. 😀

    Liked by 1 person

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