Sunday, January 15, 2012

Seduced into education - again

I was seduced yesterday - my day taken over by the temptation to participate in an Education Think Tank at BETT. In London. No, I didn't actually go there - but having found the livestream online I lurked quietly for all of ten minutes before I found myself being drawn in. The first tweet gave me away, and from then on I might as well have been there. Seems that some of my experience is still relevant to the discussions that were taking place, and I found myself asking questions. One of them found a public response, and it is this that I want to explore now.

The question I asked, in a discussion on collaboration, was this: Does collaboration work to the advantage of all if there is inequality of ability? It might clarify where I was coming from if I sketch in what I had in mind as I asked. 

In the last ten years of my career, I made several discoveries about my own teaching. I volunteered to take an all-boys class for S2 in a year group with a preponderance of boys, thus freeing other colleagues who preferred mixed classes to get on with it. I've often cited this class as an example of the best experience I had as a teacher, and as an example of what can be achieved. In the end, I had the same class right to the end of S4. Three boys jumped ship at the end of S2 - they wanted to be in a class with girls. The others, who were all offered the possibility of reorganisation, stayed put. This gave a class of 28 boys, of whom five or so were expected to gain a Credit Grade 1 at the end of S4, and six of whom were classified as Foundation and destined to a grade 5 or 6. Completely mixed ability, then, but together from a stage when adolescent attitudes hadn't formed. 

I could wax boring about this class and the fascinating developments that took place over the year, but we're looking at collaboration here - collaboration between pupils. By the time we were in that first winter of Standard Grade, I could see that there were clear patterns springing up of collaboration among the boys. Most noticeable was the willingness of one of the very brightest in the class to sit down with possibly the poorest - intellectually, socially, in self-esteem - and quietly enable him to keep up with the rest of the class, pointing out how he could tackle a piece of writing, helping him to understand a bit of text that was causing bother, pairing him in Process Writing so that the limited subject-matter of the weaker student's writing was expanded and enhanced. He did all this quietly and unassumingly, and no-one raised an eyebrow. Other fruitful pairings grew up and flourished. When the results came out at the end of S4, no-one had a Foundation award. Fifteen had Credit passes, nine of them at level 1; the rest had 3 or 4. 

So it worked. But I used to look at what the more able boy put into this collaboration, and wonder what he was getting out of it. He'd certainly deepen his own understanding in the way I think we all do when we have to share our learning; he'd know he was doing something really important for another person; he'd feel a sense of achievement. But my job was to make sure his experience in the study of English was as enriching as possible. And I used to fret, slightly.

Now I'm not so sure. He's graduated from University and is doing well. He seemed to be happy with what he was doing, and he stayed with me for Higher English. Maybe what he learned from the process of collaboration was precious to him - I don't know. I'd love to have the chance to ask him. The other boy, who was a delight in that class, seems to have taken to a life of petty crime. His background was stacked against him, and I sometimes felt that the all-too-brief time of civilisation that he enjoyed during these three years was the only chance he ever had.

Maybe that's it. Maybe collaboration is the bedrock of civilised - and civilising - behaviour. And I haven't even started on the business of collaboration with one's colleagues in teaching. Guess that's for another post. Comments on a postcard, please .... you know what I mean...


  1. What a thought-provoking post! From one point of view is the moral dilemma of self versus others. Then there is the teacher's dilemma of what is best for one student versus what is best for another. All the questions of life and its meaning in one classroom of boys!

  2. An excellent post. What's notable is that (I think) STUDENTS made the choice to collaborate, when and with whom they wished. Your job was to make sure that whatever collaboration then happened also had the best conditions for success.

  3. A fascinating, though-provoking post, Christine. I feel sure that the fact that the class was single-sex accounts for so much of what you describe. No distractions and no fear of losing face in front of girls you might want to impress by appearing 'soft' in enjoying working together, especially in an already 'soft' subject like English.

    My answer to your specific question would probably be yes, there is advantage to all. Education isn't just about academic achievement and the lessons learned in collaborative working could have far-reaching consequences in future life.

  4. Perpetua, I always said that I was the only female they had to impress!
    And like the learning I talked about a couple of post ago - it was fun, for me as well as them. I used to laugh so much that the tears came.

  5. Dear Christian,
    I don't understand some of your terminology because of having been educated here in the United States. But I do understand the concept of collaboration and learning.

    I find myself in full agreement with "Ewan" and with "Perpetua." The students made the choice and education is more than academic achievement. It's growth in and of the human spirit. It's recognizing the possibilities for that growth and it's sharing them.

    Your posting really got me thinking. Thank you.


  6. Dee, if it aids understanding: the boys were with me from age 13 to 15/16. At the end of the third year of the class they sat their first National exams. "Higher" is the most common upper grade of national assessment in Scottish schools - in my day you needed 5 Highers to get into Uni.

  7. Another thing that caused me confusion was the grade system. When RGU used numerical grades, grade 6 was highest and grade 1 lowest. However, to make sense of your post, I had to conclude that the order is reversed in your universe. I also guessed that "Foundation" means somewhere near the bottom, and that a credit grade is better than a normal grade, both of which seem reasonable assumptions.

    None of this detracts from the significant content of the post, of course.


  8. That was most interesting. Collaboration was frowned upon when I was at a single sex streamed classes for each subject group....and my only experience of teaching was taking students to 'cram' them through law exams, which was a one to one thing.
    I found I learned a lot going over what should have been basics with younger people with enquiring minds and, usually, foreign backgrounds, who made me think about the social context of law.
    As far as that small anecdotal example goes...yes, advantage to all.

  9. Robin - the grades were Credit (1&2); General (3&4) and Foundation (5&60 with Foundation, as the name suggests, at the bottom. Most pupils would sit the exam at two levels, thereby giving them the chance to do better than predicted.

  10. Dear Christine,
    Thanks for the explanation. Now the whole posting makes more sense to me. What a great and glorious experience you had with those young students.


  11. Duffy7:14 PM

    Excellent post.
    As someone who was a member of this class, I can honestly say that it was one of the most enjoyable learning experiences I had in secondary school - and for this very reason.
    Helping the 'poorer' people in the class actually helped further *my* understanding of the topics at hand and we all really enjoyed listening and learning from each other - there was no patronising or arrogance - just fun. And yes, Ewan, we chose to do it; it seemed natural.
    One of my greatest memories was doing 'Journey's End' - a play with an all male case set in the trenches of WWI - we had such fun! There were no inhibitions and everybody just 'went for it', which had a knock-on effect on other areas, such as our final S-Grade talks. We had the same level of confidence and enthusiasm, knowing that there was no judgment.
    I remained in Mrs B's class for Higher, which was mixed and I’m afraid to say it wasn't quite the same. The boys from the previous year (myself included) were thought of as loud-mouthed and over-confident, but for us speaking out and having good debates was what we knew – we’d been doing it since we were 12! We soon took the new members under our wing, but they never quite ‘got’ it and were fairly boring to be around as a result.
    Collaborative and cooperative learning are now a huge part of my daily teaching and I always think about my time in English and hope my children are having as much fun as we had.