Thursday 19 September 2013

Ten Vital Adjustments to Make in the Sixth Form

In the last eight years I have often found myself writing on pupils’ reports at the end of the first or second term of their sixth form about the extent by which they have made a transition to sixth form work practices and expectations.  At the same time, I have never heard of a school spelling out exactly what that means to members of Y12.  This seems unreasonable to me, so this morning, I sat our Y12 down, and told them, and then I emailed it to them.

In 24 months the vast majority of them will be going on to university this weekend, where it will basically be entirely up to them whether they buy in, or drop out, and follow up/pastoral care will be far less evident than it is at school. So the process of adjustment that takes place in the Sixth form is not just necessary to prosper at A level, but also to survive at university.

So here are the ten key things Sixth formers need to do:
  1. Offer opinions in class backed up with good reasoning.  At GCSE, pupils can merely recount facts, whereas at A Level students of most subjects are invited to add to these facts a judgement, and give reasons for this judgement.  Practising this in class is essential for doing it well in an exam. 
  2. Ask questions about areas of confusion.  The onus is on the sixth former to say when they don’t understand and to find help, rather than on the teacher to discover what it is the student doesn’t know and offer help uninvited.  In this way students are expected fully to be collaborators with their teachers.   
  3. Think about what they will be studying in lessons before they actually study it.  Sixth formers should be given some guidance as to what they are studying at various times of the year, and should be getting ahead with it.  For some that will mean reading works of literature during the holidays before studying them during lessons, and for others it will mean that looking at areas of study that are coming up and familiarizing themselves with them before encountering them in the classroom.
  4. Revise each teacher's work each week as if having a weekly test, whilst fully knowing that the teacher will not set such a test. Most pupils will have studied with a teacher who gave them a weekly test and may remember those for example in the area of language vocabulary. In the sixth form all students should be learning as if they had a weekly test but shouldn’t actually be using class time or prep time on a weekly test of that sort.
  5. Read things which help work in lessons, although the teacher hasn’t asked pupils to.  This might include reading the newspapers, websites, and magazines.  Doing this is a key way in which a student might be able to show a university Admissions Tutor that they are more worthy of a place than other applicants, and it will provide them with a lot to write about in their personal statement on the UCAS form.
  6. Plan what work to do and when.  Study periods should be being used to do homework no longer set according to a timetable. This organization of the working diary should be being done explicitly in writing, and regularly, to make sure the student is allocating appropriate amounts of time to each subject and to work as a whole.
  7. Talk to fellow students about areas of subjects outside lesson time.  I remember walking past two students walking from History to English arguing about some aspects of the Reformation which they had been studying in the lesson that they were coming from.  This kind of discussion sharpens understanding and ability to craft arguments and it develops ability to do all this under time pressure in an exam. 
  8. Show enthusiasm in lessons.  If a student is not speaking up very often and not working outside what teachers have set, how are they showing enthusiasm for their subjects?  After all these are subjects that they have chosen. If they are not showing enthusiasm, what are they expecting their tutor to write on their UCAS form about their work ethic? And actually, enthusiasm comes  from hard work because it is hard work which leads us to enjoy academic study.
  9. Invite a teacher to lunch occasionally to continue discussions started in lessons.  If a student is never interested enough in what has been studied in a lesson to want to talk to their teacher about it after the lesson I seriously question whether they have chosen the right A Levels. Students should get that lack of interest out into the open with their  tutor so that they can help the student to find enthusiasm for subjects, or find subjects for which they have enthusiasm.
  10. Take responsibility for their  own learning. In many respects this is a summary of all of this.  If a student is not regarding their work as being primarily their responsibility, secondarily the responsibility of their teachers and thirdly the responsibility of their tutor and year head, then they haven’t yet 'got it'.

Sixth form should be intellectually thrilling. If it isn't, one of these may need more work. It will be worth getting the method right!

Monday 2 September 2013

Beginning of Year Assembly

At our Prizegiving last term, I drew the attention of parents to the fact that the most important thing that happens in a school is learning. At our first assembly of the year, I developed that a little further when I suggest to pupils that it was fundamental for them to be constantly asking themselves this question regularly: ‘What am I learning in this situation?’.

If this seems unnecessarily obvious to the reader, I recommend asking a teenager after an academic lesson, or a musical instrument lesson, or a drama rehearsal, or a sports practice: 'What is it that you were meant to be learning during that period of time?' Many often don’t know, or haven’t thought about it.

The Director of Music at Monkton (see helpfully draws a distinction between playing the piano and practising the piano. Similarly, there is a difference between doing practice papers for an exam, and seeking to learn how to do the questions on a paper which one currently isn’t able to do. There’s a difference between going down to run around with a rugby or hockey ball, and practising skills or planned moves for a team. There is a difference between completing a practical leadership test, or a Duke of Edinburgh Walk, and learning from it.

In each case, focusing on the intended learning points is a high value activity. When students do a practice exam paying special attention to the questions they can’t do, looking up the answers and the method, and practising lots of similar questions, their marks go up. If they simply complete lots of past papers without considering why, their marks might go up, but they won’t go up by much.

A teenager who turns up for a rugby practice simply to run around like a headless chicken, probably won’t get much better. One who simply plays their way through pieces of music repeatedly, won’t get much better either: practice is repeating small segments of a piece are found difficult, until they are played exactly as desired.

I am convinced a large number of school pupils see the learning activities of the school days as things to get through: lessons, courses, activities, experiments and practicals. Viewing such activities in this way deafens the participant to the learning that can take place. Instead, being alive to what teachers call the ‘intended learning outcome’, and responding to it is important. Every student can accept that the habit of asking ‘What am I learning in this situation?’ is one they can master, and which might help them to use their school experiences more productively.