Some years ago, the Secretary of State for the USA, Donald Rumsfeldt, essentially spoke a Carroll diagram, including the idea of known knowns and unknown unknowns; we now what we know, we may know what we don’t yet know and could find out, we may have forgotten things, so we don’t know what we have known, but we haven’t experienced everything, so that leaves us unknowing about these areas.
It’s a tough one. Can we ever know enough? The manner in which we learn is a mixture of the formal, lesson by lesson approach of school or training, and the informal, those events that life throws at us, which offer opportunities; maybe a visit to a gallery or museum, joining a specific interest group. It could be an ad-hoc television documentary that offers some insights into discrete areas; Horizon or the current Springwatch come to mind, with the latter reminding me of an earlier volunteer role as County Coordinator for Hampshire Watch, the junior wildlife group. Local groups would organise local experts to offer personal insights into their specialism, so one month might be bats, another butterflies etc.
Knowledge was embedded in a series of badges that could be earned, a little like Brownie or Cub badges, by identifying and noting certain flora and fauna types, or undertaking a little bit of local research. Running Watch and meeting with these experts, regularly showed me the gaps in my understanding.
It is in the using and application of our knowledge that we may come upon a point where the detail and security of our knowledge is challenged. This could be a practical situation, when making something, that an unexpected problem means that we have to stop, to think, and perhaps to adapt our approach, to suit the tools available or the material. Learning in a classroom can often throw up the evidence where a child or a group become “stuck”. This is the point where the aware teacher intervenes to identify the reason and, by a variety of approaches, including instruction, enables the child or the group to continue with the task to completion. Education and training are rarely smooth processes, as the complex range of needs in the “audience” ensures that the language, vocabulary and register, of the trainer will be understandable to some, but may cause difficulty for others.
Use and application of knowledge are, in my mind, akin to testing, in that the learner is asked to perform, within a set challenge, to demonstrate their knowledge. The challenge is to identify the areas of need, to address them and to unstick the issues, so that learning can be continuous. Learning within a task can be very valuable, as it is seen in context, so has a clear purpose.
On being a higher achiever
The news this morning, 10.6.16, highlighted the concerns of the Chief Inspector, Sir Michael Wilshaw, about the “plight” of higher achieving children. Since the newest incarnation of the National Curriculum, I have been concerned about this group too, as they can be less well challenged in tasks, even where there are progressively harder task to work through. To spend time on the lower challenges might be wasting valuable learning time.
Reflect on this week’s lessons and answer the following questions.
- What was the point of being bright in the class?
- Would an observer see a difference in expectation, in challenge or in outcome for those children?
- Did they have to sit through the same inputs as the others, every day?
- Did they actually need to do so?
The teacher, or the system within which they are required to work, may be a barrier to learning.
Hackles rise. Of course teachers can’t be barriers to learning!
But surely, if you look at your class and know that a proportion already understand, from your assessment, what you are about to share, why waste twenty valuable minutes?
Why not give them a separate independent task to validate your judgements?
Perhaps they could be given a reflective task to simplify and remember information and teach the rest of the class at the end of the general input?
If “they all look just the same” within the process and the output is identical, where was the challenge and the embedded thinking, leading to children making decisions? Just following a recipe does not make for innovation and we should be looking to our brightest children to provide that level of spark, showing the best and the range of what can be achieved.
If you had as an example, Picasso and Cezanne within your class, how would they be accommodated? Picasso was demonstrating his abilities very early, a prodigy, whereas Cezanne was a late bloomer. Would they both have had the same experiences in art? A liberated Picasso was able to paint prodigiously and create world famous masterpieces early in his career, whereas, arguably, Cezanne’s best work was done in his sixties. The difference? Picasso was a better draftsman early and had the capacity to pull together a range of ideas in novel forms, possibly pure genius. Cezanne worked hard at the craft and got better. He did produce wonderful work. Would Picasso have received all the accolades and Cezanne been told not to bother? See Malcolm Gladwell’s book, What the Dog Saw, the chapter on late bloomers, for a deeper insight.
It is conceivable that the child looking out of the window and daydreaming may just be coming up with a tremendous idea.
Giving children time to be reflective is an important constituent of lessons. If children are allowed to think, discuss then articulate to an audience, their thinking is likely to be significantly deeper than an answer given as a response. The teacher determines this aspect of a lesson, by setting the challenges in the tasking.
Task differentiation is by far the more difficult of all differential approaches, but, let’s take an example of a class with a range of attainment in science. The high achieving children will need to be able to demonstrate independent actions within a fair test, whereas some children may need to have the process scaffolded for them, step by step.
They make observations and measurements to compare living things, objects and events, using equipment provided for them. They record findings using prepared tables and communicate observations using scientific vocabulary. They say whether what happened was what they expected and, when prompted, suggest different ways they could have done things.
Pupils decide appropriate approaches to a range of tasks, including selecting sources of information and apparatus. They select and use methods to obtain data systematically. They recognise hazard symbols and make, and act on, simple suggestions to control obvious risks to themselves and others. They use line graphs to present data, interpret numerical data and draw conclusions from them. They analyse findings to draw scientific conclusions that are consistent with the evidence. They communicate these using scientific and mathematical conventions and terminology. They evaluate their working methods to make practical suggestions for improvements.
Talking to higher achieving children is also likely to show different approaches, in language forms as well as specific vocabulary. A very cursory skim over the descriptors above indicate a greater depth of knowledge required by higher achievers, so one would expect to hear a difference in group conversation and teacher or peer to peer didactic language.
It is possible that such a level of discussion would demand an extended reply as the teacher responds to the cues being given by the children.
There is a need to,
Look at planning and verify the challenge and extended nature of the tasks being set.
Allocate time for reflection and reflective articulation of thinking.
Allow a level of autonomy in decision making and selection of materials and resources.
Reduce prescription and enhance independence.
Give the time, space and resources and see what they can achieve.
Engage, but be conscious of your own role and the danger of becoming directive.
Be self aware, emotionally literate and model the reflective behaviours that you are seeking from these children.
Tasks should be challenging and, by extension, be testing. They should enable children to create ideas, to seek to use their current knowledge to find solutions. They can reprise and embed learned facts and allow extension through need.
If, after the challenge, the child, or children share their reasoning, the process, their choices and decisions, working methodology, outcomes and evaluation, peers can gain an insight into ways of thinking from the success or otherwise of their peers.
Everyone benefits, with the insights informing teacher decisions, as high quality assessment for learning.
A final question.
Would you, as a (demonstrably) able person, currently want to be a child in your class?
What’s the point in being an achiever in this class?
We all do the same, same question, same activity, same organisation, same time.
Some get help to get it finished.
I took my time, lots of time. No point in finishing early,
Just to be told to check and check again.
Quiet, not to be noticed, because doing just enough is good enough.
We move at the speed of the slowest.
It could be different.
My group could have our own question, be allowed to think for ourselves.
To generate ideas, possibilities, choose our organisation, select our resources, check out our working.
Talk together, not too noisily, maybe talk with the teacher to confirm some things, be responsible for ourselves and what we produce.
Share our ideas with the rest of the class, encouraging them to try the same as us.
Instead, we all do the same, same question, same activity, same organisation, same time.
Same as always. It doesn’t get “better”.
The picture at the top of the blog is from FSC, The Field Studies Council, among others, but should be available from local Wildlife Trust outlets.
The science pictures came from Association for Science Education publications in 1984 and 1988. Practical Primary science!