Sciolism (noun): superificial knowledge or show of learning.
In my last post, I described the re-sit GCSE phenomenon, which seemed to resonate with people who teach it. I also made claim to some success over years of teaching it, which was asking for trouble. I’ve tried to reflect on some of the things I do and hope they may help others, though the more I drew on my thoughts, the less this seemed exclusive to re-sits. Therefore, I don’t claim that these approaches are in any way a sure thing (or even original).
I’ve persuaded the college where I teach that resits should be two classes of 90 minutes, rather than one 2 or 3 hour session. This has held for the last two years and appears to improve concentration and achievement in lessons. My argument was that little learning was taking place in concentrated classes. What I mean by this is…
Almost all resit students need grammar embedded into the course. This is too often overlooked in time-intensive courses, where we teach to the next controlled assessment. What is the point of a resit? To improve ability or to get a C? Certainly the former.
With two 90-min sessions, one lesson focuses solely on writing ability and control, the other on curriculum. Grammar can be embedded in more ‘engaging’ (said it) ways than the syllabus. If the GCSE should be reformed for FE it must focus on mastery, rather than teach-to-the-test. Judith Hochman‘s ‘connectives’ sentence expansion activities is an effective method of developing written ability. We have also practised a ‘slow-writing’ approach, with a set of prompts from lessons giving students a methodical process for adjusting writing style deliberately and considering what they are about to write in advance, i.e. ‘Use a subordinating conjunction in the next sentence to add more information’.
To focus on improvement and mastery, ‘slow-editing’ guidance is introduced after writing drills, to ensure students review their work. This may be simple, i.e. ‘count the number of sentences in each paragraph‘ (to improve checks on punctuating control), or more complex, ‘include decalarative statements‘, but is designed to support checking.
GCSE resits should revisit prior knowledge formulaically. Don’t assume students know nothing and show them their gains, as it’s advantageous as a building block and to revisit as more knowledge is accrued. I invite students to organise their prior knowledge on poster paper or Padlet if we have computer access and return to it to add more in plenaries.
Even though they may have much (or little) prior knowledge, introduce something new in every session – ideally something that would never have been done in school.
Although this is very difficult to ascertain, I at least aim to address my 16-19 students as adults in a level-fashion, rather than get some weird group-speak repeating going on (like in Machaela schools). Communication is vital in FE. A resit teacher should speak with:
- a touch of pressure
And often very directly. Though not always motivational, it’s important to be blunt sometimes, to show where expectations have not been met and that the maturity with which your students are treated (in how you communicate to them) has been let down. This is hard to explain without sounding like either a military officer or a feeble teacher whose feelings are easily hurt, but if the rapport is established then students will perform better – and they can hear from your tone where they may lose your respect, if not your confidence.
We’re often confronted by deep existential questions: ‘what’s the point of this?’ The answers can become a bit ‘ventriloquistic‘. Some stock responses:
- ‘You’ll be ahead of the next person in competition for a job.’
- ‘It’s important to know your language.’
- ‘Don’t you find it enjoyable?’
- ‘The Government says so.’
- ‘Low literacy is a form of poverty.’
- ‘You failed at school.’
I might not always use all of those, but think I have at some point where students have been persistently listless. I’ve also given out letters from previously jaded students who succeeded, but some resit students are so negative or have such low confidence in themselves that in truth, I’d advise avoiding that conversation altogether (or it will go on and on). Instead:
Challenge students to see the value in it at the end of May. Promise them if they keep an open-mind the course will be stimulating and transformative. Guarantee them that the more open they are to the lessons, the easier the year will be. Assure them that the easier the year will be, the better the odds of success and (quid pro quo) the more enjoyable it will be.
If students are really inquisitive about ‘the point‘, a microistic level can help, e.g.
Targets and goals.
These are crucial for students to see the bigger picture. I routinely reference dates on the calendar to improve self-preparation, goal-orientated behaviour and organisation.
‘Why are we doing this?’
‘If you understand the terms (knowledge), you can include them in your essay points. If you include them in your essays, your essay has more cohesion and is more informed. This is part of the mark scheme of what to include. Do so and you stand a better chance at qualifying.’
At some point, you can turn this round to ask the students the point in learning activities. If they’ve bought in, the plenary of a lesson is half-written for you.
Argyris talks of Double-loop learning, which is an excellent way to view the re-sitters experience and our obligation to help them. In this model, reflection is critical in order to improve decision-making. I ensure that I have 1-to-1s as quickly as I can to build rapport with students and try to stem any funny business from them. During these meetings, however short they are, I try to broach some analysis of why the student hasn’t passed before. There are countless acceptable explanations: dyslexia, poor teaching at school, lack of interest, poor confidence, long-term illness absences, lost coursework. I try to get students to regard these past experiences as ‘reasons’, rather than excuses. This allows us to establish a contract for improved success opportunities based on personalised targets (ILPs) and gives me a prompt for that student if they’re acting-up or falling-behind.
Rather than nag, we recall what has previously gone wrong and focus on correcting the behaviour by doing something different. If, for instance, the problem is continued attendance issues (and we all have those students who keep apologising and assuring you they’ll be fine), intervene early – the course is short. Ask them how they will remedy the absence with extra work outside lessons.
Put the responsibility for problems on the student. This is not always the case. Some resit students have incredible challenges and we are not always equipped with LSAs to support us. Bitesizing the curriculum is paramount, which is again linked to…
…Targets, because I aim to create a thread-like narrative throughout the course, treating specific and core ‘threshold knowledge’ aspects as key in certain lessons (i.e. the imperative aspects of a unit – for instance the prosodic features for the Spoken Language unit). Threshold knowledge act as knots to help students pull themselves towards those targeted controlled assessment dates. The thread is ‘double-looped’ and requires continual joining-up.
What becomes integral to lessons is a continual internal referencing – looking back and forwards to train the mind on reflection and targets, knowledge learned and the point of it. Using social learning technologies is helpful to self-organising, with a spare use of push-notifications assisting with…
Re-sit students can have very poor memories, studentship qualities (attitudes) and organisation skills. Twice weekly lessons can help with constant consolidation of knowledge (if attendance is secure), but also may improve an overall ‘horizon-scanning‘ approach, treating all targets as achievements towards goals. Currently, on the old spec, the CAs helpfully designate progress in per centages, so after each unit is rushed through (and they are), I over-do the accomplishment with congratulations and ‘what a relief…never again…’, before hoodwinking them into a new challenge: ‘Right. next unit.’ Higlighting where targets have been reached is a good negotiation strategy for sustained endeavour: ‘You’re 3/4 of the way there now. Just the exam left. You’ve done the hard part. Keep going. I can see daylight’ &etc.
This post is dragging on, like most of mine. Clearly to cut-corners and deal with attendance issues, students can be helped enormously with the right resources that can almost guarantee a C for an essay, no?
- Quote-matching activities to language features
- true or false questions to create personalised responses summarising opions about a text
- a ‘sparkling vocabulary’ list
- a template of suggested phrasing, and finally
- a clear skeletal plan of an essay
Obviously this is sciolisitic; it’s far better that students are perpetually writing draft paragraphs with frequent intensive grammar drills and tasks for long-term improvement, but…well, we’re expected to cut-corners and get kids through a 2 year course in 32 weeks, so we cut corners pretty efficiently. However, I’ll be frank: if students miss by a few marks, give them another go at it – even if they are a pain in the arse all year and your marking is piled sky high. Indeed, I would go further and show the student exactly what to include to get the assessment up to a C. If they’re a pain in the arse, I want to give them every opportunity to never have to do English with me again. ‘Controlled’ assessment, I ask you! My arse. AQA, if you’re reading, this is FE. We do things by mastery.
Also, students will always do things half-heartedly. I train focus on the controlled assessment dates by saying in the build-up (with a wee touch of anger in my voice) that it’s down to them to be sure they’re ready. At the start of lessons I measure confidence of writing the assessment based out of 10. This is reviewed at the end of lessons to gauge rough improvements and remind them of their obligations.
I also check in with them: ‘What else do you need to cover. We have two more lessons. What do you want to know?’ Then we do it. And if they don’t say ‘owt, then they must be ready : )
We achieved about 50% in the last year of A-C English resits, not bad for an FE college as national average is reported at around 9%. I hope we improve every year and this year has already started well in terms of attendance, mainly due to improved buy-in from Vocational staff nagging about English and Maths in all sessions and a concerted emphasis of it at induction. This emphasis on the importance of literacy across college is really important, but it still doesn’t help that half the students who passed in school disappear at those times. A reformed FE qualification would see all students take some sort of class. I’ll write on proposals for this later.
Image Creative Commons courtesy: © Tomas Castelazo, http://www.tomascastelazo.com / Wikimedia Commons, via Wikimedia Commons