Weaning the sixth form

– Promoting Independence in Mixed Ability Classrooms

Great ideas are often born of necessity, and though I would not recommend trialling the calamities visited on the chemistry department last year, if it were not for desperate times, the new way in which year 12 chemists worked would not have come to be. Ideas for what happened next had been seeded through many conversations with Karen, Chris and Abbie from MFL. Indeed I sat in on one of Chris Harte’s lessons with the UK’s oldest man, an Ofsted inspector, in which the students were engaged in a FLIP lesson. Here KS3 students were really taking control and deciding what they need to do to move forward. (Read more about FLIP in the next issue!!). But my story starts earlier in the year……

Last year, when the chemistry department dipped to one member of staff I found myself teaching the students for all 5 of their 7 timetabled chemistry sessions. This presented an opportunity to re-jig when topics were taught. When polled the students preferred to focus on just one topic at a time rather than follow two topics with two teachers. This meant that the pace for me and them really picked up. They simply had to become more independent, and do so very quickly. Mechanisms for quicker and more effective learning were required including feedback and support.

I created a timetable that included every staffed and independent session for their next module (Atmospheric Chemistry). The resulting grid took a little while to prepare for each group, and it took most students a lesson to organise themselves for the upcoming weeks of work, but we found we got more quality time back as a result.

In order for the students to fill in the grid they needed access to every resource they would be interacting with over the module. This included practicals, activities, texts, questions and answers. As part of the planning session they had to skim read through all these and estimate how long each task would take. Also which ones required them to be in a lab, which would be best working collaboratively, and which looked a bit too difficult to tackle individually. For the next few weeks students were working from their own big picture (which they had created) every lesson.

Taught ‘lessons’ on the most tricky concepts and teacher demonstrations were pre-timetabled on the sheets, as were topic-specific seminar sessions, the rest of the sessions available for the students to fill in as they thought appropriate.

Roughly five hours of home study was included per week as well. In the two examples included here you can see how different approaches and needs led to very different organisation each perfectly valid.

The seminar sessions involved groups of between 3 and 6 students of similar ability engaged in an entirely targeted conversation. The A/B students could consolidate quickly what they had done and be stretched and challenged appropriately, whilst those who really struggle could be given some support and encouragement.

Obviously there are still students who, like stubborn hens, refuse to produce, but now I can pick up these miscreants more easily by simply asking them to show me their planner, point to the date and the work they said they will have done by then, and get them to show me their journal for the module in which they should record everything. Cue some eyes cast to the ground and pledges of gifts of learning the following morning.

A core issue with this approach is that in most sessions the class is engaged in many activities, which means the teacher has to be completely on top of all aspects of the module at all times. A question that needs consideration for September is ‘how will this approach work when we revert to two teachers per group?’

I feel this approach really does develop students as independent learners, who are in direct control of their learning. I look forward to running a short workshop in the near future for a more in depth discussion of this model of teaching, and to see how it might be developed within the sixth form context or even further down the school.

New ideas for independent learning

With the next cohort of year 12s I intend to provide ever more opportunities for developing independent learners, responding to students’ feedback.

I intend to give them the answers to all the questions on the course. The large majority have found that they make quicker progress and can self-assess themselves better as they work if they have the answers. I was initially sceptical about this but will put in some provisos so that I can be sure they are making the progress they appear to be.

I will require evidence that work has been attempted in the following ways.

I will not be collecting vast scripts of uniform work, which is woeful to mark and largely unhelpful – the answers to all our published resources are all over the internet anyway.

I will require the full working of three levelled questions that the department has devised themselves, and are inherently google-proof. When appropriate, full and annotated working to one standard question must be submitted. And a paragraph to explain how they found the work in terms of what is easy / difficult etc.

Fergus Hegarty

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