Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Classroom observation

I get to take my younger son to school three mornings a week, not something every parent gets to do.  On the way home recently I found myself thinking about levels of understanding and evidence based practice.    As you do.

The children enter the classroom ten minutes before registration.  On the whiteboard (electronic) is a piece of work.  They do that work on individual whiteboards (the sort that need pens).   It might be writing down the nouns they can see in a picture, or adding adjectives to a sentence.  When ten minutes is up, the bell goes, and grown ups, who are allowed to stay and help with this work, have to go.

For some grown ups, "help" is writing the questions on the whiteboard for their child (the teacher would rather they didn't), for others (including me, sometimes), it is frustration when their child does not engage with the task.

Sometimes the whiteboard work is numbers, and recently it was partitioning numbers - 25 is 2 tens and 5 units, 123 is 1 hundred, 2 tens and 3 units, for example.

My son could not remember what to do.  He had done the work before, and at the time had understood it well enough to explain it to me.  On this occasion, everyone else on his table had made columns, one for hundreds, one for tens and one for units, and then filled them in.  Reading the question on the class whiteboard made me think this was a possible way to do it, but I could not remember how he had done it before.

I suggested he try the table and columns method.  Just before I left for home, though, the teacher mentioned to me that the column way of doing it was what one parent had done, and then everyone on that table had copied it.  I am not sure who copied it - parents or children - but it was not the method they had been shown in class.  That might explain why my lad was reluctant to do it that way, even though he could not remember how he had done it in class.  I wonder where the parent had come across the method?

The child next to him offered to help, but his help was to allow my lad to copy his table of columns.  My lad obviously did not understand what he was seeing but copied it anyway.

Several things occurred to me on the way home.

First, my lad had understood partitioning when he did it the first time, and had explained it to me.  When they had partitioning to do on whiteboards at that time, he had been able to do it.  And now not.  Why not?   Had he forgotten?   Lack of practice since?  What form did his understanding at the time take? The fact that I could not remember what he had explained to me is telling, too!

Then, he did not feel able to use the method that those around him were using.  I could see it made sense, but did he remember that it was not the method they had used before, even though he could not remember that method?

Then, what did the parents see as "help"?  Completion of the task?  Doing it for their child?   However, I am not sure I saw that - even if a parent writes down the questions, they don't write the answer.   Even if it was a parent who thought of the table and columns method of partitioning, it was the child who was filling in the numbers.

As someone involved in higher education, I then started to think about medical students.   They have learnt to do something in a particular way, and they might remember that way.  For example, they have learnt to search Medline in a particular way and might remember it for an exam.  But do they remember why that way is the "best" way, or a good way, at least?  Have I covered that in my teaching?  Can they apply those skills in another context?  They learn to search to complete an exercise, and again to pass an exam, but can they use it to find information for assignments or even, in due course, for patient care?   Do they see that those skills apply in those other contexts?   Can they remember those skills for long enough to use them in another context?  Or if they can't remember those skills, do they at least remember they need them, and go and learn them again?

What do they see as the aim of learning a particular thing?  Just to pass a test or click a box?  What application does it have?  And what happens when they have spent time learning other things, do they still remember it?

Then there is the "see one, do one, teach one" model - that is copying what you have seen.  Can you teach it if you don't understand it?   If you keep up to date and find out about a new way to do it, then do you need to understand what you did before in order to be able to change your practice? 

And having thought of all that, I got home.

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