Where did it all go wrong?

Fed Up

Originally uploaded by Michael of Scott

Do you ever have one of those days where nothing seems to go right? Nothing goes terribly wrong, it’s not been a disaster of day, it just feels so terribly… devoid of success.

Yesterday started off like one of those, and it left me pretty glum. It’s taken me a while to unravel it all, but I feel a bit more hopeful about it now and thought I would share.

My Y9s that morning were supposed to be creating forms in Access for a simple relational database to record high scores. I’ve run this SoW a few times in the past, though usually with a flat-file (they play the Helicopter Game, Bop-It and compete to find out whether boys are better than girls, see what effect eye colour has etc.). They ended up getting quite frustrated with the lesson, but they were actually pretty good about what was ultimately a boring and pointless hour. The flaw was, it was a lesson where I was trying to get them to learn how to perform some function in some program, which is a pretty poor lesson objective.

The students don’t ‘get’ relational databases yet. In most of the Y11 classes I’ve taught, about half the class has failed to ‘get’ relational databases – this despite typically 20-30 hours of lessons on the topic. I’ve got a class of kids 2 years younger and I’ve spent the sum total of one hour trying to teach them about relational databases (as well as reminding them about fields, records, primary keys…). What I *should* have done was to try to teach them about the purpose and function of a database. Why we store data electronically, how we store data electronically, how we can take advantage of a database to make life simpler, easier and take away some of the boring, repetitive nature of tasks – like looking up responses to questions.

Next came my Year 8s. The lesson was an introduction to modelling, following last week’s revision of Y7 spreadsheet skills. The main resource is a multi-page spreadsheet file with a variety of activities to help pupils investigate models. And again, the kids just didn’t seem to get it. They were working out the answers on a calculator at times, instead of using a formula. They couldn’t seem to get to grips with using a fill handle to replicate a pattern (so what start 2, 4, 6 would end up 7, 8, 9). The Formula 1 model where students try to work out the best the strategy (hard tyres, with longer life but slower laps vs the soft tyres with faster laps but more pitstops) was an unmitigated, and ultimately unfinished, disaster.

This one has a more involved problem underlying it. I have one Y8 class early in the week who respond really poorly to any kind of discussion work or any opportunity to become the centre of attention. Give them a task to get on with, even one that involves actually reading the instructions, and they’re fine. Try to explain what you’re trying to achieve verbally and the lesson descends into anarchy. Inevitably, I’ve been gearing my lessons towards independent work with as little class discussion as I think I get away with. And that’s changed the way I treat this Year 8 class, later in the week. This lot clearly found it more challenging to read instructions and try and solve the problems themselves, preferring the group discussion and teacher explanation type stuff. My flaw was to try to use the same technique with very, very different classes.

Another key point was that one pupil (as always happens when we’re using spreadsheets), decided to find out how many rows there are. As always, my stock reaction is to tell said pupil that it goes down to 65,536. And now they know that they can get on with the work. Said pupil’s neighbour then asked why that number, and how do I know? I replied that it’s a power of 2 (2^16 as it happens) and then directed the students back to their task. What I briefly considered doing, and what I know I would have done a few years ago, is to stop the lesson and go and explore some binary. It’s fun, it’s geeky, it’s something I’m passionate about, something I enjoy and it would have allowed the pupils to exert some influence over what we did in the lesson.

We would have failed to meet the original objectives, but I’m pretty sure we did that anyway. And I think that’s why the day really knocked me so much. I stuck to a lesson plan twice in a row that was not working and was not helping the students to learn, to make progress, to achieve. I need to remember to be more flexible and adaptable in my lessons. This makes lessons more interesting, more useful and more fun!

On the plus side, since I didn’t get paid for working yesterday, at least I didn’t adversely affect the school’s value for money 🙂

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