Why won’t kids study at home? (2/2)

How do we get children ‘flipping’ learning? (Part 2/2)

In my last blog I discussed obstacles that prevent students, especially in challenging schools, from completing independent work. I ran through these with a Year 10 group and they agreed that I was on the right lines. In this blog I’d like to consider ways in which these barriers can be surmounted. Thanks to everyone who has read and commented so far. I’m very much at the beginning of this journey and warmly welcome any suggestions.

Increased workload.

Solutions:

Don’t let students get away with doing too little when they are younger. Continually, right from Year 7, emphasise that your classes are only part of the course you are teaching. Support students in getting into routines when they are young and increase expected amounts of independent work incrementally as they get older so that KS4 doesn’t feel like such a betrayal. “You’ve said I’ve been doing alright for years, I’m the same as I ever was so how come you’re always so angry with me now!”

Give students a range of options for independent work so that everyone in the room, regardless of attitude can complete something meaningful. I might want all my students to complete a thematic, colour-coded mind-map on Medicine Through Time but if that’s unrealistic for Reece who never hands in homework I’ll settle for a five mark exam question over a rushed scrawl done in biro during Form Time. At least for now.

Failure to see the point.

Solutions

Be consistently honest about why independent work is necessary. Explain that the course requires it. Show evidence that this is normal for a student at their level.

Make sure the language you use is always geared towards student ownership over learning. “You need to do this to get a grade that will help you. You need to do this independently so you’ll get the skills you need for a ‘C’, which you need for college.”

We all want our students to love our subject but some just don’t. I passed Maths despite hating it and never feeling like I was any good. Be honest about why the course is still important even if only as a means to an end. Don’t be afraid to be crass if a student responds to that. “Yeah, I know you hate this, but you need to revise properly so you’ll get into college. Then when you’ve scraped your ‘C’ you never have to do this again plus you’ll get to laugh at me when you drive past in a 911.” Displays can help with this too; show students the extra life opportunities they will have if they get a good grade in your subject even if they feel like vomiting every time they remember your lesson.

Fixed mind-sets.

Solutions

Move students from a fixed mind-set to a growth mind-set. This certainly doesn’t mean misleading children into thinking they can become world experts (they’ll see through you anyway!). It just means convincing them that they can get better at something through work, even if they are awful at it to begin with. It can be about just becoming a bit less terrible at something. “If you add a supporting source this would be a bit better.” Honestly praise improvement when you see it. “You’ve got so much better at this, Maria! Compare what you’ve just written with what you wrote before. You’re getting there now.”

Celebrate examples of real improvement not just the high level work produced by students who are already learning well independently. A page of notes from a student who’s never before tried to make them at home is a massive achievement and failure to reward it must be deeply demoralising for those right at the beginning of their independent learning journey.

Share case studies of influential people who’ve started badly at something and got better at it through hard work and put the emphasis on the work they put in to improve, not the stellar success they achieved later. Recently I’ve used Nadia from the Great British Bake Off and students have responded well.

Language can help too. Just remodelling speech can have an impact. Try not to let children get away with vocalising absolute failure. “Sir I just don’t get this! Oh, OK Mike, what don’t you get yet?”

Fear of failure

Solutions

Show students that they can absorb independent learning into their characters and still remain true to themselves. YouTube and social media can be really useful for this by creating learning through a medium that feels more authentic to children than paper and ink. Get onto their devices and show students that learning does not finish when the bell goes at 3.15. Create an environment in which working hard outside lessons seems normal by recognising it but not overpraising. “Pleased to see you favorited the tweet on Jenner. I agree that’s interesting.”

Make failure seem less absolute. Some of the most difficult conversations I have ever had in teaching have happened when a student who has really tried for the first time suddenly realises that they are going to sit an exam and freak out. “I’ve worked so hard and I still don’t get it, I f***ing hate school, I’m not even going to the exam!”   Rather than go through exam technique or stress students out with more material it might be better to point out that failing in the exam isn’t the end of the world even if it did happen. “So what if you fail the exam, Paris? You get history now. Have a go at it but even if you did fail I’d still be so proud.”

Lack of study skills

Solutions:

Get students using a range of study skills from Year 7. It is unreasonable to expect an older student to create and revise effectively from a mind-map if they’ve never made one before. If I suggest to a Y11 boy that he record himself talking through exam answers and then play it back to a friend he won’t because, if he’s never done it before, it will seem weird. “Seriously Sir? Do you do that?”

If it’s too late to do this don’t overload students with strategies. Handing out a whole booklet filled with ideas might seem helpful but the chances are they won’t try any of them. I think it’s far better to spend some time going through one and making sure the student understands exactly what they will do when they sit down at that boring desk. Make them explain to you how they’ll begin. “So, Ali, you’re at your desk, you’ve got your pens out, you’ve got the revision guide. What now?”

Ben Newmark

Head of Humanities and Teacher of History

Twitter: @bennewmark

Youtube Channel: thebennewmark

Teaching and Learning Blog: http://bennewmark.edublogs.org/

December 2015

Why won’t kids study at home?

How do we get children ‘flipping’ learning? (Part 1 of 2)

One of the main reasons children don’t achieve their potential is their failure to learn independently. This is common sense. In an average year most children are in lessons for less than 12% of the time. Even if a child works at maximum capacity in school they won’t get the right result unless they choose to work outside lessons. GCSE courses are planned with this in mind. For most students high grades are unattainable if they don’t significantly extend their learning beyond timetabled classes.

Many students, for a range of reasons, are resistant to this. Over the past year I have been thinking hard about how we overcome very real obstacles and get our students ‘flipping’ learning.

Obstacles

Increased workload.

This is easy to understand. Many students drift through years of education without ever completing much work outside lessons. They are fiercely defensive of their leisure time which they use to socialise and engage with things they are interested in. “I’ll work hard in school but my time is my time!” Suddenly and abruptly saying to a new GCSE class they are now expected to complete two hours of extra work per night and four hours at the weekend isn’t helpful if they’ve never done more than fifteen minutes of homework at a time. I’ve made this mistake before, usually through utter panic with a failing exam class, and it results in either no impact at all or erosion of precious credibility (“Yeah right, Sir, like that’s ever going to happen.”)   Setting such a high expectation can actually even result in students doing less. (There’s no point even starting if Sir expects four hours this Saturday. I’m going to play FIFA instead.)

Failure to see the point.

Too often we lose track of why students are sitting exams. Performance Related Pay and Appraisal tied to student achievement can easily lead us to think of the final result as belonging to us not the student. I think children pick up on this and can come to believe they are completing work for our benefit, not for theirs. If they complete a great piece of independent work or turn up to a revision class they do so to please a teacher they like. This can have a positive impact but is inefficient; at best students with this attitude will do the minimum they need to do to make us happy. (Sir is always banging on about Flipped Learning so I’ll have a go at a mind-map because he loves them.) We need to get students viewing their grades as their own and working independently to improve them because they understand how this will enhance their own life. (It’s a real pain Mr Newmark is an awful teacher and I hate him because I need a ‘B’ in history to do English at college. It means I’ve got to work extra hard.”)

Fixed mind-sets.

Many students don’t believe they can improve at something they are bad at and often say so. “I’ve always been crap at history Sir, I just don’t get it. I’m never going to be able to do this.” If children believe they won’t get better then they won’t work independently. This is quite logical. What is the point of devoting hours and hours to something you just know you just can’t do? I sympathise with this. It’s why I have given up on snowboarding.

Conversations I’ve had with effective ‘flipped’ learners have been revealing; they feel that those who don’t complete independent work believe that those that do were born with innate talent. They don’t appreciate that what looks like intelligence and flair is actually the product of years of hard work. This is very annoying to effective independent workers and demoralising for those who aren’t. “What’s the point? No matter how hard I work I’m not going to be as good as Lauryta. She’s just clever.”

Fear of failure

It’s much scarier to try and fail than it is to not try and fail, especially if trying means changing things about yourself you value. Many challenging students have a self-image at odds with the personal characteristics they think are needed to learn independently. Being ‘funny’, or ‘cheeky’, or ‘pretty’ are really important to many of children and these characteristics just don’t dovetail neatly with the depressing image of a desk, highlighters, a row of nuts and Mr Newmark’s nerdy microteaching videos. “I’m Billie! I love dancing with my mates! I just don’t do work outside school ‘cos it’s boring and it just isn’t me.” I think we should be sensitive about the enormity of what we are asking kids to do; effectively changing as a person to try and achieve something they aren’t sure they are capable of anyway. That’s hard.

Lack of study skills

I’ve been teaching for a decent amount of time now and have, to some degree, become dependent on what I call the ‘Y11 Christmas Bounce.” This is when seemingly inert students suddenly wake up to reality and realise they are a long way from where they need to be.   These students are suddenly, for the first time in their lives, ready to learn independently. Some get stuck in and I’ve seen many children move from an “E” to a “C” in a matter of weeks. Others sit down at that depressing desk with their exercise books, textbooks and highlighters and realise they have no idea where to begin. Many never do.

A depressing set of barriers.  Is there anything anyone thinks I’ve missed?  In my next blog I’ll consider solutions.

Ben Newmark

Twitter: @bennewmark

Youtube Channel: thebennewmark