Library girls

Originally uploaded by dcolson5201

Let me take you on a short journey.

Around Easter time I wanted my Y8s to try web design using WordPress instead of Dreamweaver. Not an IT expert? I wanted them to use a new piece of software they hadn’t used before. So, I prepared some supporting resources and did my ‘teaching’ bit – standing at the front of the room, demonstrating how to do various things.

The result, perhaps predictably, was that the students got bored pretty quickly, didn’t really pay attention, I got cross and little progress was made – both in terms of the physical outcome (a website) and in terms of student understanding.

I realised that the students weren’t paying close attention because they didn’t need to know that bit of information at that time. I knew they would in about 3 minutes, but they didn’t. And so I showed everyone at once, no-one really cared, and then I had to do it again, 20 times over, as each person got to the point where they *did* want to know. But by then, I was grumpy and that only put the students off wanting to ask.

My immediate solution was to produce a quiz based around the software (What button do you press to do this? How many different themes are there to choose from? Etc…). The next lesson I got the students in groups, handed out the quiz and explicitly refused to help the students to get the answers. The result this time was students that wanted to know the answers and were engaged in trying to figure out the software and also helping each other. Resilience, peer support, all that (pedagogical) jazz.

That wasn’t a big pedagogical realisation for me, it was just part of the day-to-day continual reflection and readjustment that forms part of my job.

A month or two later I went to the Computing At School conference in Birmingham, and there I was fortunate enough to choose a session run by James Franklin entitled “The productive teacher”. There, I learned about Sugata Mitra, an Indian professor who has done pioneering work in the field of Minimally Invasive Education. The theory is quite simple – take away the teachers and rigidity, provide an environment in which people have the tools and resources required to learn, then just let them get on with it.

I realise now that this is exactly what I did with that pesky Y8 class. I provided the tools (computers and software) and the framework (quiz) to allow the students to learn. I then took myself out of the equation. The concepts were simple enough, the software relatively intuitive and the students now had a reason to want to learn. It’s a small experiment, and hardly conclusive, but I think there’s something in this idea.

Jumping ahead to the last two weeks of term and I’m trying a (slightly) longer experiment. Those same Y8s (2 classes of) have been given the CodeAvengers URL and been told that most of the rules no longer apply. They can talk to each other, they can move around the room at will, and I won’t be answering any questions. “Can we use a calculator?”, I’m not answering any questions. “How do I do this bit?”, I’m not answering any questions.

So far both of my Y8 classes have had a 1 hour lesson. The atmosphere has been massively more positive and there’s been a genuine sense of energy. The fact that students are walking around the room adds to that sense of energy and hasn’t detracted from the sense of purpose. The students are talking about their progress, how far they’ve got and what they can do to help each other. I did have some reservations about the idea, and here are the kinds of questions I would ask if this was someone else’s blog post:

What about the student who chooses not to engage or do the work?

I know this student. I’ve had a full year to know which student it is. And I’ve watched him (and her) like a hawk. This students chooses not to engage in ‘normal’ lessons. They typically find the work hard and find the option of not trying easier than having to apply effort and probably failing. In both lessons this student worked harder, and for longer, than they have in any other lesson this year. This student is not suddenly top of the class, but he/she has made significantly more progress in this lesson than in previous lessons. The momentum in the classroom pulls everyone along.

What about the student who finds it really hard and doesn’t want to look stupid in front of friends or the loner?

While there are loners in secondary schools, there are no hermits (that I’ve met). Even the student who hates working in groups and would much rather do his own thing has ended up engaging with others – far more than they would if they were forced to work in a group. One of my quietest and weakest students spent most of the lesson out of her seat. She made middling progress over the lesson, but having been shown how to solve one problem, she went on to help about half the class solve the same problem. This from a student who never speaks and is totally overwhelmed during group work.

How do you measure progress?

Measure, shmeasure. you don’t fatten a pig by weighing it every day. That said, you do need to measure progress, rightly or wrongly. Observation is good, and if I was going to make this a longer term strategy (which I am), then there would need to be some assessed tasks. But that comes *after* the learning, not during. Formative assessment can be informal and can be as simple as giving out a couple of stickers, or an occasional “well done”. It’s important to stil be there and to offer encouragement – just not ‘teaching’.

How do you make sure that the work is the students’ own?

If I give a student a series of 4 buttons to click on to achieve the outcome, and they do the clicking, whose work is it? Them because they did the mouse work, or me because I’m the only one who understands which buttons to click and why? Most good learners that I know *want* to learn. If they get stuck and they end up getting help then they have a burning desire to know *why* this answer is better than theirs. Now, yes, some of these students are not the most effective learners, but they do still want to know – especially when it’s from a peer. Me, I just *know stuff*, or I know loads of stuff, or I do this all the time (this is what the kids have told me). Peers are on an equal footing. It is to be expected that the sage on the stage will just know everything. If little Johnny in the next seat understands it, then why the heck shouldn’t I?

And those challenges, and my responses, are the reason why I think this idea might just be a huge one, for me at least.

Next year I plan to do a lot more MIE (or ‘sitting on my backside’, as it probably appears), and over prolonged periods. We (the students and I, together and separately) need to do some reflection on what we’ve learned, how we’ve learned it, why we’ve learned it, and whether this new (to me) strategy is a good one. I suspect it’ll require quite a bit of setting up in terms of preparing resources that the students can access independently and in a non-linear fashion, but I think the rewards might well be worth it.