Geoff Tennant - Promoting access to mathematics for all
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20/01/19: at school (6): revising with my year 11 class

If memory serves correctly, when I was doing mock O levels (now GCSEs) in my 5th year (now year 11) we were only required to turn up when we had an exam to do, otherwise we were on exam leave.  That has now changed - whilst doing mock GCSEs year 11 is required to be in school for the normal school day, if there isn't an exam scheduled in any particular time period, then they go to lessons as on the normal timetable, then to use the lesson time to revise.

So, what that means in practice is that, over the last two weeks, I've seen revision going on in a whole variety of subjects.  Which I've actually quite enjoyed and learnt a few things.  Do you know what diogetic music is?  No?  Nor did I until a week or so ago.  It's a term used in the context of film, basically, music which the audience hears may also be heard by the characters in the film (diogetic, eg. a scene in a night club) or not (extra-diogetic, eg. background music used to build up suspense).  Good, huh!  Could easily come in useful next time I play Trivial Pursuits!

I have also been with them when they've been revising for an RE exam looking at Islam.  So what, I ask, is the difference between Shia and Sunni?  Don't know, comes the reply, it's not on the syllabus, in a manner which clearly implies that that is the end of the conversation.

"Well, I do beg your pardon!" I'm pleased to tell you I did not say, because that would have been sarcastic.  Nor did I continue, "I do apologise for discussing with you something outside of the bounds of the GCSE syllabus!  What could I have been thinking, to imagine that such a thing could be important!  I will do what I can to communicate to the outside world that the distinction between Sunni and Shia really doesn't matter because the UK GCSE RE examiners won't be awarding marks for it!  That ends that!"

But the one which really got me thinking is when I was asked to show YouTube videos devised for physics revision.  Fine, says I.  They start to watch them and so do I.

It was clear, from the reaction of my pupils as they watched, from the comments left on the videos and also the sheer number of views, that these videos are extremely popular.  Which on the face of it I found rather puzzling.  A middle aged man dressed in a suit and tie, standing stock still and po-faced on the right hand side of the screen, speaking in little more than a monotone, with graphics filling the rest of the screen.  How can this be so popular?

Well, let me suggest some answers. The videos are brief, about 3 minutes each. The viewers have control over them, whether and when to watch them, able to pause, rewind and fast forward.  They have clear, bite-size explanations of key concepts.  They are very much geared towards the kind of questions which come up at GCSE.

One might consider that, because of the hard work of my physics colleagues up and down the country, the learning to a very large extent is already in place, what these videos are doing is cementing this learning and getting credit which, rightfully, could be shared on a something like 90:10 basis, with the school teachers.  But pupils don't see it like that.  These videos are giving quick easy answers, they are the heroes, not their teachers.

Which is all slightly depressing, really.  We try to engage pupils with the underlying concepts, all they want to do - it would appear - is memorise the relevant equations.  As I get older and uglier, I find it more difficult to navigate the rights and wrongs of these issues.  Who is right and who is wrong?  I used to think I knew - we are looking for underlying understanding - but I am  no longer so sure.  Maybe equations can come first and understanding later?  Or, if the passing of exams is so important, memorisation of equations is the be all and end all and underlying understanding can go by the board?

I want to be true to what I believe but I want also to live in the real world.  How to resolve this?  I don't know, and am always interested to know what you think.  Next week's post pretty well already written in my mind, do please come back!

3 Comments to 20/01/19: at school (6): revising with my year 11 class:

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Karen Jones on 20 January 2019 12:59
Geoff, I think you're right in saying that first comes knowledge, then comes understanding. As Jesus said of knowing truth 'If they do not hear how will they know, if they do not know, how will they understand?' Of course everyone 'hears' differently, some people learn through sound and some learn through vision, hence the video style being so popular?! I think also it helps the pupils who need to hear something repeatedly to be able to rewind video. And for those of us who are a little slower to turn knowledge into understanding the pause function is invaluable ;-)
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Geoff on 20 January 2019 13:07
Thank you, Karen, much appreciate your thoughts on this matter. Would say that I'm asking questions rather than expressing a definite view! I think you'e right about the advantages of the control we have over videos, but still....


Karen Jones on 20 January 2019 13:02
Also, I think it's great to listen to the music that the younger generation are listening to. I let my daughters play their music in the car...it gives me a great insight into what styles they are attracted to or what issues matter to them
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