Long-term learning and life-long learners

This year, the Year 7 team in the Science Department took a bold leap into the unknown. We changed the curriculum. We changed our teaching style. We changed our methods of assessment. In short, we left our comfort zones.

The department was in agreement that more emphasis on skills was needed from early on in students’ science learning. We could see from observational and assessment evidence in various year groups that this would have a great improvement on student performance. Moreover, to prepare our students for the modern world, we know that education has to evolve from a knowledge-based ethos to a skills-based ethos.

The old curriculum was shelved and we began from one of the first principles of science: curiosity to answer questions. Three ‘Big Questions’ were chosen as stimulus for learning.

What is life?                  What is everything made of?              What is energy?

Take the first question: What is life? We can look at the definition of life, the basis of living things, the variety of living organisms, interactions between living things, life processes and body systems, health, continuity of life and more. Considering each question from different perspectives encourages students to make links, comparisons and connections leading to greater understanding and long-term learning. The Big Questions are clearly related to the fields of biology, chemistry and physics, but allow for (and even encourage) overlap and cross-referencing during learning.

Beginning with a question allows the students to share what they already know and creates curiosity for further answers. These are challenging questions to which there is no single answer – it all depends on your perspective.

This foundation allowed us to construct a flexible framework for lesson-planning. We wanted to maintain a certain level of consistency across the year group for various reasons (consistency, mutual support, enabling changes in tutor groups between Year 7 and 8 without problems, facilitating monitoring and evaluation to name a few). However, we also wanted to give each teacher the freedom to choose the best route to understanding for their students. To achieve this, we determined the basic knowledge and understanding every student would be expected to have by the end of the year (keeping content to a minimum) and combined this with a list of key skills to be developed in Year 7. With these two standards, each teacher was then free to explore the Big Questions with their class in the way that best responded to their students’ interests and needs as well as their own personal strengths and styles.

We maintained a high level of communication and collaboration throughout the year, sharing resources and ideas. However, there were times when we took different approaches and, as long as we were sure to cover the basic knowledge and understanding for each Big Question and develop the Key Skills throughout the year, this was OK. In fact this was a key benefit to the teachers because we were able to modify our lessons according to the students’ needs with a lot more flexibility than with traditional curricula.

At first, it was a challenge to avoid falling into old habits of note-taking, explaining at the board and setting tests. As the year progressed, we got more accustomed to lively class discussions, students got into the habit of thinking for themselves and Science Journals became less like miniature textbooks and more like works-in-progress. We found ourselves frequently amazed by the enthusiasm of the students and the insights they achieved through exploration, investigation, research and discussion.

One of my worries, throughout these great changes, was the feeling of letting go of control. I was really not sure if all the positive signs from the classroom were going to translate into good learning at the end of the year. Assessment methods changed; some of the Year 7 Science groups didn’t have a single test this year. Instead we assessed their developing skills through writing, activities and projects. This is more time-consuming initially, though once in the habit it is no more demanding. The biggest change I noticed was that it was such a pleasure to assess the students’ work because they were really trying, pushing themselves to work at higher levels and to achieve more. In my feedback to them I noticed that I was repeating myself less and was able to give more specific, positive comments on their skills. The students knew what they needed to do to improve and they took notice of the targets I suggested from one activity to the next. They seemed to be more inspired to make progress. Still, is it really sufficient for a teacher to make observations and draw conclusions?

How did the students really feel about these changes? Well, being in Year 7, they didn’t really know what to expect from Secondary science lessons. However, their perspective on the learning over the year, their feelings about science and their personal progress would tell us whether we were on the right track. We swallowed our pride, steeled ourselves for the worst and asked the students to complete an anonymous survey telling us what they really thought. The results were overwhelmingly positive. Students had really appreciated looking at real-life examples and applications of science. The projects and activities had interested and stimulated them. They recognised their own progress and they were able to identify practical strategies to improve further. Most of all, the students recognised the benefits of learning to understand rather than to memorize.

Ok. So far, so good! But we were to face two more obstacles before the end of the year. Firstly, how do you prepare an end-of-year assessment for students when you have spent the whole year encouraging them not to cram for tests? Secondly, what do you do with students who haven’t reached the necessary skill levels to proceed into Year 8?

In keeping with our commitment to long-term learning and understanding of science, we designed a form of end-of-year assessment that would not rely on last-minute revision and that would give all students a chance to demonstrate their learning. We crafted questions ranging from ‘simple recall’ to ‘controlled answer’ to more challenging ‘open questions’. We included some choices of questions to accommodate the different learning done by different groups of students and to allow students to show their best work. The students were given no warning about the activity so they had no chance to revise; their responses would be purely based on what had stuck in their heads, in some cases from February until now!

Of course, I explained to my students the importance of checking how we had done this year. We discussed the need to know what they know and what they understand and what they will still remember next February instead of finding out what they could remember after revising for an exam but would have forgotten by the following week. We considered that, in their lives, having so much information available on the internet means that the successful people won’t necessarily be those who can remember more information, but those who can find, understand and apply the information quickly and correctly. I also made clear that their participation would help me to know how to help next year’s students to learn better. The assessments were not graded, but they were used to finalise trimester grades, especially for borderline cases.

What happened to the students who had not managed to progress sufficiently during the year? Those who would struggle going into Year 8? Should we give them an exam? It seemed to go against all that we had worked for. We couldn’t just let them pass the year, though, and enter Year 8 already struggling. What about their excitement and motivation? How could we maintain that while knowing that ‘coming in December’ is seen by so many students as such a punishment?

Again, we turned everything upside-down. In consultation with the Head of Department and Head of Middle School, we got permission to waive the Y7 Mesa and replace it with a Science Skills Workshop. Students who had not managed an average of 7 over the year were required to attend the workshop. A couple of borderline students who passed were also invited to attend, as an opportunity to strengthen their skills. The activities were planned to cover key skill areas: Language Skills (communication of science); Practical and Investigative Skills; Knowledge and Understanding of Science. We discussed the importance of languages and communication, learned how to make mind-maps and revisited their end-of-year assessments, using peer-teaching to fill in gaps in knowledge and understanding.

The workshop ended today at 12pm. All students attended, including invited ‘guests’, and for two days, they threw themselves into a hectic mix of practical tasks, discussions, creative mind-maps, investigations and collaborative learning. They ended with brain-ache and smiles on their faces, not only because of the brownies and Certificates of Attendance received! Both teachers and students felt that this had been a worthwhile ending to a year devoted to skills-based learning, learner-centred teaching and a fresh approach to curriculum design.

So after all that, have we been successful in encouraging life-long learning and inspiring future scientists? Let’s look at the evidence…

Speedy Stats:
94% of students feel that they have made progress in science, with two-thirds feeling that they made progress all or most of the time.

Over ¾ students (76%) knew all or most of the time which areas they were doing well in and where they needed to improve, whilst 91% knew at least some of the time.

4 in 5 students feel that the style of teaching made learning easier at least some of the time, with over half preferring this teaching style most or all of the time (56%)

Some student quotes:

“What I really loved from this classes was that we learnt things but we didn´t only learnt them we proved them by doing experiments.”

“That because we didn’t have many tests [I] wasn’t pressured so learned more than other years because we didn’t learn by heart.”

“Que pude administrar mas el sentido de la ciencia.”

“Lo mas positivo fue aprender todo lo que aprendi porque cuando llegue no sabia nada de lo que aprendimos este año y a lo largo del año fui aprendiendo mas y mas.”

“The most positive thing this year was the learning.”

Learning collaboratively from each other’s Body Systems posters

Discovering members of the Secret Garden community

Investigating the environmental preferences of maggots

Comparing the strength of popular antacid remedies

Finding answers to the question ‘How does light travel?’

Feeling the vibrations of sound waves with the help of a familiar toy!

Julia Corbett

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