– Two ideas to ideas to help students construct knowledge
After nearly 6 months on a stodgy diet of 21st century science for the hard of thinking, my year 10 students were experiencing some distress at the higher fibre content of additional science. They were being weaned on some proper chemistry, and some weren’t sure they liked it.
First up was a starter size portion of atomic structure (reviewed from a previous lesson), followed by a main course looking at formation of ions and the formulae of ionic compounds, with a bit of equation balancing for pudding.
Explaining how to solve the problems would have been relatively simple, but as this was a top set class I wanted students to work out for themselves how each piece of information related to the next from first principles.
My usual strategy for doing this would have been to ask the class a series of sequential questions, using each to tease out another piece of information until the group as a whole had constructed a set of rules for writing formulae. I was discouraged from teaching this way in this instance because this would involve a lengthy bit of chat about the topic before I began and guessed (correctly) that I’d be sick of the sound of myself before any questioning started. I was also worried that if any individuals got lost it would become impossible to help them catch up if the whole class was involved.
Strategy 1: sequential question cards
I wrote down an idealised version of the dialogue I had hoped to have with the class, then chopped it up into individual questions and chunks of information which I put on numbered question cards. Students were asked to work through the questions collaboratively in groups, finishing each question before they moved on. The answers to previous questions were not given directly, but they were referred to. I worried that students would peek forward to get hints, but in fact none thought to do this.
Student groups worked through the questions at a slower pace than they might have been expected to as a whole class, but they made steady progress and were generally successful at making links between one question and the next without any external support materials such as textbooks.
Having each question on a new card encouraged students to consider them independently rather than giving them a worksheet which they might have rushed forward without completely understanding each stage. Without me having explained why elements formed particular ions, by the end of the lesson some could work out why this must be the case from first principles, which was exactly the goal I had in mind. Most did not get this far however, and there were some problems specific to this approach. My attention was spread thinly over 10 student groups, and some made early errors which I did not spot until their later efforts had dissolved into a muddy puddle of mis-comprehension.
There were also some weaker students who hid behind brighter group members, and it was hard to spot and support these individuals – although this problem would have been worse in a whole class teaching environment.
Strategy 2: Using self-correcting worksheets to highlight early misunderstandings
In the subsequent lesson, I used an idea I’d been introduced to through some collaborative work with the maths department to help students selfassess whether they had understood a step well enough to move on. Excel worksheets can be made which check students’ answers for you (returning a smiley face for a correct answer).
Using a maths template sheet, I created a workbook with 5 worksheets, one for each step in understanding I wanted students to develop. Each worksheet had 3 problems, and once all 3 were done correctly, students had to write a worked example in their books before they started the next sheet.
While students worked on these sheets in pairs or independently, I gave microteaching sessions on each stage for students who identified (based on the worksheets) that they needed it.
By the end of this lesson, many students had constructed a method for writing balanced equations for reactions where ions are formed based only on information they could get from the periodic table and their knowledge of electron structure. Others had at least consolidated their knowledge of atomic structure and how ions form.
“Through working corroboratively, Maths and Science have been able to share and reflect on good practical teaching and learning strategies. Through conversations with each other and students, we have been able to critically analyse and adapt a resource which could be used commercially across departments.
Through lesson observations we have been able to see how this resource is viewed through the eyes of a student at Cramlington. This has been such a powerful experience and would encourage teaching staff to observe lessons outside of their own department. You will be amazed at what you might find and hopefully be brimming with ideas. ” – David Gray
Student feedback was that they enjoyed using the worksheets. They were familiar (as used so often in maths) so needed no introduction, and they felt encouraged by the instant gratification of a smiley when they got something right. Students worked very independently, so I could really focus on microteaching rather than keeping half an eye on the rest of the class.
I’m a rubbish multi-tasker, and for this reason I struggle with microteaching in a normal rambunctious classroom, but this wasn’t a problem here. Interestingly, many of the students who came forward for microteaching were those who rarely ask for help in normal lessons, and I managed to have a reasonable dialogue with one student about his learning for the first time this year. I think the fact that the smiley feedback made their misunderstandings so obvious may have helped them approach me for this.
An obvious downside of the worksheets is that they can only be used to correct questions which have a defined answer which can only be expressed in a limited number of ways. I would not use them regularly, but as a tool for helping students develop a methodology in a logic-based topic I found them very helpful. I suspect there are many other subjects where this kind of instant student feedback could be useful in making discovery learning a little bit more palatable and easier to digest.
Katherine Shorrock & David Gray