Geoff Tennant - Promoting access to mathematics for all
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7/1/18: at school (2): individuals in classes

A very happy new year to all my readers, I trust that 2018 will bring peace, prosperity and happiness to you and all you love.  Christmas already seems a long time ago, doesn't it?

We went back to school on Wednesday to a full teaching day.  I'm searching my memory cells and am sure that, last time I was school teaching on a full time basis, the first day of term was a training day, a concept which had only just been formalised at the time by the then Secretary of State Kenneth Baker.  So the training days were known as Baker Days or B-Days, which gave rise to the joke: why are training days called B-Days?  Because - everybody knows what they are but nobody knows how to use them.

(Parenthetical thought: I'm aware that this joke may not make much sense particularly to my non-UK readers, so let me try to explain.  A 'bidet' is originally a French word, pronounced 'Bee Day' more or less, meaning a bathroom fixture for the purpose of washing one's bottom having been to the toilet.  They're rarely found in the UK, I have seen them in Continental Europe but never worked out how to use them properly, my attempts have resulted in water flying everywhere.  So the joke works, doesn't it?  (Parenthetical thought to the parenthetical thought: jokes are so much better once they've been fully explained, wouldn't you agree?  End of parenthetical thought) End of parenthetical thought).

So, back to work with a bit a bump but soon feeling back in the swing of things, mixed feelings about only having one full week topped and tailed by weekends off over Christmas, but a 3 day week to return to has been quite nice.

One of the major differences between school teaching and University teaching, of  course, is that the amount of contact time is massively greater, so I'm frequently teaching five lessons per day, with also registration, duties, voluntary activities such as lunch time choir practice, lesson preparation, homework marking, then occasional parents' evenings, etc. etc.  A class of 30 come in, constituting 30 individuals with 30 different home lives, experiences first thing that morning, views on mathematics based on many different factors, etc. etc.  So on the one hand one wants to recognise members of the class as individuals and treat them as such.  But there's a problem here.  If I were to do nothing in an hour long lesson except speak individually with every member of the class, then on average each member would get 2 minutes.  I'm reminded of Professor Anne Watson's book chapter "The fallacy of 'getting to know' learners" in her 2006 book 'Raising achievement in secondary mathematics" in which she warns, eg. that a judgement that a child 'is a good kinaesthetic learner' (ie. learns best alongside some form of physical action rather than listening or abstract conceptualisation) can be made on the basis of very brief observations, with the clear possibility of over-interpreting isolated incidents.

Alongside this, there is clear economy of scale in explaining new material to the whole class rather than individuals.  But that does necessitate people to be listening.  And it seems to me self-evident that one can't be listening effectively if you're talking yourself or thinking about something else.  But insisting on silence itself takes up time and also risks losing the good will of youngsters wanting to learn but also, it seems to me, wanting to be treated as individuals beyond what can be done in a meaningful learning context.

It is in the nature of teaching that one has to make an endless string of judgement calls as to what to do, not all of which are going to be right. I'd be interested in responses from teachers and others across the world as to how you manage the many, many different things a teacher can be doing.  I think I'll stop here today, look forward to hearing your responses and will be back again soon!

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