This is the fourth part of my Reflection Series – a self-reflection of my year teaching in the UK.
Which student in your class do you think showed the most improvement? Why do you think this student did so well?
Having 427 students makes this question a lot more difficult than you might think. There are so many students who have improved, and in so many different ways. Some got better at drawing graphs, some better at doing experiments, some better at talking to the other students, some better at controlling their anger or rudeness. I refuse to think of improvement as an increase in grades though—you can increase grades without students truly learning anything more than how to answer questions. Yes, this is the type of improvement that school boards are looking for, but it’s not a true improvement of learning.
I am pleased to say that the improvements I’ve seen this year in my classes were generally to do with confidence and comfort with science, rather than distinct academic ability.
Science tends to be one of those subjects that students either love or hate. If they love it, they are willing to put the time and effort into understanding it, and feel more comfortable. If they hate it, they often build a mental wall they are unable to climb.
So many times this year I told individual students that ‘yes, you can understand this. No, you don’t need me to tell you how to do it. You are fully capable, you have a good brain in that head, you just have to let it learn’. The most pleasing outcome of this conversation, repeated many times with students in almost every single class of mine, was the eventual lightbulb moment. Their little faces light up, sometimes they even grin a little or look a little embarrassed, when they realise that yes, they actually do understand it, they can do it, they don’t need help. Their satisfaction in that moment is my satisfaction. I know I’ve taught them something.
So many times I saw students sitting there, saying they didn’t get it, couldn’t do it, didn’t know what to do. The majority of the time they were simply waiting for me to come over and tell them what to do, or read the text to them, or reword the question they may or may not have read. I refused to do this. They need to learn how to read text, how to read questions, how to follow a list of instructions. Yes, they are capable. (The only time they aren’t capable is when they actually physically can’t read or do the task.)
Sometimes they might need a nudge in the right direction, but I truly feel like they are being brought up with a support complex. If they can’t get it right away, they give up and wait to be told by someone else. There is no resilience, because we are spoon-feeding them in order to make the results look good. We need to get through the content, increase the grades, so we give easier questions, mark easier, or even give answers (as I’ve seen done all too often). All this does in the long run is teach them how to be lazy, how to avoid thinking for themselves. I can’t say this is unique to the students I’ve taught here in London, as I found the same thing happening back in Aus, albeit to a lesser degree. I do feel that the students here in the UK have less resilience, and rely more heavily on teacher input here though.
Stripping back the scaffolding, marking hard but fair, and refusing to help unless it was absolutely necessary were the best things I did for these students this year. It means that when it comes time for an exam or assignment when I can’t help them, they can actually think for themselves and do it themselves. They have the confidence to do it, because they’ve done it in class before, on their own, with no help from me or the ‘smarter kids’.
Comfort and confidence are the keys to tackling new content, so if I have increased either of those aspects in a single student this year, I can say I’ve been successful! If you can improve comfort and confidence with a subject, improved grades are guaranteed to follow—I’ve seen it in every single class I’ve ever taught, particularly maths.
On a slightly different note, one of the biggest improvements I can think of as a specific example was one of my year 9 girls. She came into the year with an active and distinct dislike for science, not seeing its relevance, and far more interested in the boys and friends. Once I told that class I was leaving at the end of the school year, she came up to me quite upset. She told me she didn’t want me to leave, because I’d ‘made her’ like science, so much so that she wanted to be a chemist when we finished school. She liked this idea even more when I told her that makeup was designed and made by chemists! This new-found love of science perfectly explained the improved grades she’d been getting on her latest exams.