For the Best Experience – Get Out!!!

educational

Thinking back to my school days, I can’t remember many lessons. I can’t remember a single Lesson Objective or Learning Outcome. I think the only classroom experiences I remember were when something crazy happened – like when a lesson went totally wrong for a teacher, or one of the more challenging students lost control and caused a spectacle for most of the lesson.

But I remember all the school trips. Most of them I remember  because they were fun – but I remember the actual learning that took place too. In many cases, they sparked my interest in the world because I saw things that a kid from an underprivileged background would never see from home.

In many schools, there is increasing pressure to deliver lessons – skills and knowledge – to students in the classroom. As schools are judged on measurable results, teachers and school leaders are feeling more under-pressure to lead this from the controlled environment of the classroom so data can be generated easily on student progress and outcomes. However, the closer we move to this model of education, the more I feel our students are missing out on what I think education should be about – engagement and enjoyment.

There has been a great deal of research on Education Outside of the Classroom. I don’t wish to summarise the wealth of research out there, except for supporting the majority of it which identified “Out of Classroom” Learning as one of the most valuable aspects of a student’s education. A summary of this research from Ohio University suggested that:

“Students who directly participate during a field experience generate a more positive attitude about the subject.” (Behrendt and Franklin: 2013)

It is clear that the benefits are far-reaching. But rather than focus on research, I’d like to focus more on my own personal experiences. I’m sure there are many teachers who will share my views and I am also sure that there will be some horror stories out there which may have tainted experiences of getting students out and about.

Some of my most cherished memories have come from school trips or sporting events. I also believe they are vital in cementing a fantastic relationship with students. Some years ago I ran a football team for a school I worked at. Much of the team was made up of some of the most challenging students at the school. Young, working class lads, disillusioned with education. After a few weeks of training and playing competitive matches, something changed. Many of these students, with some of the poorest behaviour in the school, were trying harder in my lessons. Their behaviour was improving dramatically. By the end of the year, their progress was a dream. But I was doing nothing different in this class than any other, really. The difference was – we’d bought into each other. As I coached them, I saw aspects of their characters that never came out in a classroom. I saw them pour their souls into trying to win, especially the comeback from three goals down to win the game. I saw their competitive edge sometimes boil over – and they experienced my wrath when this sometimes manifested itself into disrespectful behaviour towards a referee or an opposite player – but in the end they understood my expectations. I saw them help out team-mates who were struggling and lift the performances of some of the weaker players, and how exposed they felt when they faced a massively superior team and were turned over by a huge scoreline. The dignity and character they showed through this humbling experience was profound. A new level of respect was created that year and it stayed between us until the boys left school, long after I had stopped coaching them. Overall it was a hugely rewarding experience and I would urge any teacher struggling to find their feet in a new school to coach a sports team or a club of some sorts.

Educational trips are no different. There is a permanent bond formed between a teacher and a student when you take them on an intensive trip. Some of the best memories I have come from a trip to the WWI Battlefields in France and Belgium with a bunch of Year 9 and Year 10 students. Their curiosity was amazing and they probably learned as much in that week as running a full scheme of work about the First World War. They were engaged for the whole time – asking intelligent questions and fully immersing themselves in the experiences they were having.

Teachers should never feel guilty about creating some time during trips for “fun” stuff. Why not take some time out for shopping? Recently, a group of Year 12/3 Marine Biology students were taking time out of school for their trips, which I would always raise a sarcastic eyebrow at because wetsuits and the odd surfboard would be seen accompanying the students. But why not? They were still doing Marine Biology and from a “results and outcomes” point of view, the students are certainly heading in the right direction because they have been fully engaged with the subject. Next term, I will be running some Geography field trips to the coast looking at coastal processes and I can feel a surfboard or two coming out during those!

One of the biggest challenges for teachers on trips can be behaviour. However, in most cases from my experiences, most students have the ability to step it up during trips. I think its about giving some of them the responsibility that they maybe don’t get in the classroom. Let them out – trust them – and mostly they’ll repay that by just getting on with it. Rarely have I been let down by students during a trip. Teachers can manage situations really well by being low key. Accept that the excitement of a trip might initially be a lot to handle for some. My golden threat is that any misbehaviour warrants half a day with me – and I can be the world’s most boring human being. It usually works. Clear boundaries, easy instructions and a good sense of humour can work wonders in managing students on trips.

I would say to most teachers – do more trips! If you can find a way of getting the kids out of the classroom, do it. There are clear benefits to their learning – even indirectly. There are hidden treasures. After eating a school lunch in a French school, my students never complained about our dining room ever again!! After seeing the serious lack of litter in Belgium, my students realised how messy they really were!! But apart from the educational benefits, there is a huge advantage on returning from a trip and having that shared memory with the students. They get to see that human version of you which doesn’t come out as much in the classroom! You might find that they’re more engaged, buy into you a little more, want to give you that bit extra that was missing, and help you develop that relationship with them that makes the whole process of getting them through the tough stuff more effectively. From this angle, I think the value is invaluable.

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Lose this subject at your peril!

Recently, in secondary education, it seems that there has been a shift away from some subjects in favour of others. This trend had been a global issue where certain subjects such as the arts, music, drama and languages have taken a hit in favour of the more “functional” subjects such as maths and the sciences.

Now, I am not suggesting for an instant that one subject is more important than the other. Surely, in a good, balanced curriculum, there is room for everything. The maths and sciences are hugely important in training our next generation of explorers, engineers and inventors as we hopefully move towards a more technologically advanced era.

However, without certain subjects being kept alive and at the forefront of learning in our schools, we might not even get there! This is because we are living in an age where we are now making the same mistakes over and over again. Even more worrying – many of us cannot even see it!

What I am referring to here is the subject of History and our tendency towards allowing it to repeat itself. In particular, the fuel for this article came from a disgraceful cartoon recently published by the Daily Mail which depicts immigrants as rats.

dailymailmacislamophobia

There have been several bloggers who have made comments on this and it has been pushed around the social media network avidly over the past 24 hours. Many people might agree with it’s rhetoric. But whatever your views on immigration, there is no escaping the fact that this cartoon bears a horrific resemblance to those found in Nazi Germany throughout the 1930s and those aimed at the Japanese by the Americans in WW2.

As disgraceful as this approach might be (and as ashamed as the Daily Mail should be for publishing such an image), I cannot help think that this rhetoric and imagery comes to us in our mainstream media at a time when subjects such as History are on the decline.

Surely, this serves as an argument to actually increase subjects such as history, religious education and the social sciences in an attempt to educate our young people today about how certain views are disseminated within our society and the damage they have done in the past. Moreover, history can teach us what these views can lead to. What starts off as casual racism towards a group of people turns into widespread persecution and genocide. The dehumanising of any group of people is a by-product of these views. We can look at countless case studies in history to demonstrate this.

I will save the argument about how we teach and what we teach for another day… but one thing is for sure – getting rid of subjects which help our young people recognise these types of approaches is a dangerous game and one which we play at our peril!

A Real Teacher? Ask them…

I had a wonderful moment in my classroom last week… one of those times that money can’t buy and you get a real sense of what this whole thing is all about.

Earlier on this year we had a wonderful trainee teacher in the school. He was a really nice bloke who fit in well with the staff and his department… and by all accounts, a fantastic teacher. Ask my son… he came home regularly buzzing on his lessons and informed me that he was one of the best teachers in the school, in his opinion.

Well… last week the trainee in the spotlight got the chance for a job interview for a permanent position at our school. I was routing for him… personally, I thought that our Senior Team would have a screw loose not to appoint him, but you never know!

So I bumped into him in our staff room about 15 minutes after his interview and he was still waiting for the verdict. I said, “Pop into my classroom and let me know…” Then I started teaching my wonderful Year 11 History class – one of the best set of students I’ve ever had! 20 minutes into my lesson, he popped his head through the door with a big smile and a raised thumb with the words, “Got it.”

At that moment, my year 11 class erupted with cheers and loud applause. I turned to him, he was clearly a little overwhelmed, and said, “So you teach this lot as well?”

He looked around the room, thanked the class humbly and said, “Yes, I do.” And with that, he was gone – hopefully for a well deserved celebration.

We live in a world now where we are judged every step of the way. We produce reams of paperwork to justify our existence, collect evidence to show those in power that we are not the wishy-washy, holiday-enjoying, 6-hour-day, unprofessionals that the media and some from the Government would lead many to believe. Our biggest critics often come from the ranks of our society that know nothing about what we do, really, but claim their expertise on our profession. Well, guess what? I had just witnessed a judgement from the real experts. And they were not cheering because this person was an easy ride, or let them get away with what they wanted to do. This applause came from a bunch of experts who had experienced the changes in the English education system first hand; that had experienced a wide array of teachers – good and not so good. They were in the twilight of their academic lives in secondary education and they knew a great teacher when they saw one and made it clear with their applause because they’d run through a wall for this teacher. This teacher inspired and interested each and every pupil and squeezed every ounce of ability out of them. This person was a teacher. There are more like this person. I should know, I work with them. The kids should know – they applaud them! Maybe we need to celebrate them more because for me, it was a great moment worthy of sharing.

Should we make the choice for them?

Last week we received the lists of our GCSE cohort for next year. Those lovely Year 9’s who have opted to take possibly one of the most challenging GCSE in the current school curriculum – history. Its always a delight when you see the names on the list of those from the top few sets. The nice, engaged, naturally bright, skilled thinkers and writers that will make your life so easy when delivering the units of work. They’re always welcome because they make your day-to-day life in the classroom so much easier (teaching as opposed to crowd control) and come results-day, its a joy for all. You also can’t help noticing the few names that make you think “why?” The one’s who have spent their Key Stage 3 time causing you pain and despair make and all you can wonder is if your GCSE class will be more of the same, or that they might actually mature-up, raise their game and offer you a few positive surprises on the course.

Then after noticing a few names on the list, the ethical dilemmas started to kick in. These names are the students from my SEND group. Amazing, lovely students whom I have nurtured and taught history with for the past three years. The ethical issues kick in because, knowing these kids inside and out for the past three years leaves me no doubt that they would never pass a GCSE in history if they did the course for the next ten years. With the learning difficulties that they experience, simply accessing the material would prove too much, as their reading ages would mean that even the most basic sources would be almost impossible to understand. Sadly, this drew up a number of issues, especially after having a difficult conversation with one of those students at the end of the day, trying desperately to steer her away from taking the subject while at the same time trying to offer support to her in making the right choice.

The issues are not straight forward. This particular student told me that she loves the subject and has enjoyed learning history with me for the last three years. Of course, this is very flattering, and I have cherished the relationship that I have built with that group of students throughout their time at school. I have no doubt that she would give me 100% as she has done in KS3. However, I also have no doubt that she would struggle to get anything above a U grade because her SEND issues make it very difficult for her to read and write to a level which would help her achieve anything higher.

I find this a sad situation because I feel that whatever advice I could give would always have a negative pay-off. To allow this student to take the GCSE in History is potentially setting her up for two years of hell, which could dent her confidence to no end, because she would be so far behind the rest of the group. This “every child matters” culture that we have adopted can work in different ways. Allowing her to make the choice could have a huge negative impact on her general happiness in school. In saying that, telling her she cannot do a subject because it would be too difficult for her could have the same results. Irrespective of the negative result this would give the department, this choice has to be about the pupil and what is best for her, and to set her up to fail just simply doesn’t sit right with me. It seemed like a no-win situation.

I still don’t know if I’ve done the right thing. I have a policy of being as honest as possible with my students. I told her how hard history was at GCSE and that it is really different from KS3. I showed her a GCSE textbook and asked her if she thought she could remember most of the stuff in it after reading it. Her response was worrying because she quite simply cannot forsee what she is letting herself in for. So I left it with her by saying that I would support any decision she might make and help her with anything she needs. It still feels wrong though, because I know that all the help in the world won’t get her the grade she would want, which makes any choice a difficult one.