My Vision for Chemistry Teaching in 2017
Next year at Bedales, the Science department have managed to negotiate an extra teaching period for our Block 3 (Year 9) students. This precious extra 35 minutes will need to be used wisely...
At the start of this year, we moved to mixed attainment groups rather than sets for the first time. The idea behind this change was that labelling students by 'ability' does not really reflect the growth mindset of the school. Science involves such a wide variety of skills that the idea that students can easily be divided into sets which fully reflect the talents of the students seems untenable. It also becomes very demotivating for lower attaining students who can feel that they will never make progress. The 'experiment' with mixed attainment class has so far been a great success with great improvements in the self-esteem of the students in Science.
With all of that in mind, what should we be doing with our extra 35 minutes? I have recently taken the National STEM Centre's free online course on Differentiating for Learning and been inspired. Rather than trying to teach the syllabus faster and have more revision time at the end of Block 5 (Year 11), what about redesigning the teaching so that students finished Block 3 with a far more richer understanding of the topics covered, with a deeper appreciation of the underlying scientific principles and a secure foundation for progressing into Block 4? I have also recently read Barbara Oakley's A Mind for Numbers which breaks down some of the tips and tricks for excelling in Science which many educators in those fields take for granted. Pulling these ideas together I decided that the extra period would be used in Chemistry to achieve the following aims:
To teach students study skills in Chemistry: such as how to learn and revise information, how to present their ideas or experimental findings, and how to make good notes.
To encourage students to take more ownership over their learning and the quality of their written work.
To promote independent learning.
To differentiate effectively between students with a range of talents, providing challenge for the highest attainers and a range of different kinds of support for lower attainers.
To consolidate learning effectively throughout the course so that students have a very firm foundation going into Block 4 by embedding interleaving rather than overlearning into the curriculum.
To provide an opportunity for teachers to conduct learning interviews with individual students in order to monitor their progress more holistically.
With all of that in mind, the plan is not to teach any more content, but to use the extra 35 minutes for students to work independently through various tasks which challenge them at their own level, and for the teacher to hold a 5 minute learning interview with each student to encourage students to show their progress over the three week cycle.
We have started trialling these sorts of resources on Block 4 classes this term to great success: it turns out that student choice is an incredibly powerful teaching tool. Instead of students looking at the next problem and thinking "I don't know how to do that", they are looking at the tasks thinking "which one can I do?"; instead of students thinking "these problems are all the same as the one on the board", they are thinking "which problems can I solve by the method on the board, and which ones do I need to solve using last week's learning, or the week before's?"; instead of students thinking "none of these problems is challenging me" they are mentally ranking problems in terms of difficulty and thinking "I am going to choose the most interesting problem to solve". These transitions are good for learning because they reflect the movement from a fixed to a growth mindset. The students this approach was trialled on worked with incredible focus as the level of challenge was exactly right for them.
I am very excited about rolling this teaching approach out across an entire year group on a weekly basis and being able to evaluate the changes in their attitudes to learning Chemistry, as well as in their attainment in the summer exams. As expected of a scientist, I will, of course, be setting identical assessments at key points in the year in order to compare the progress of the students on the new system.
Expect progress updates...