Performance and Learning in English and Science

Alex Weatherall and David Didau have just had an interesting Twitter exchange. David has written a blog post suggesting that a fundamental point about AfL may be flawed – he’s suggesting that learning is invisible, only performance can be seen and that therefore the idea of checking learning regularly in order to guide teaching is misguided, since you cannot check what you cannot see.

After a bit of to-ing and fro-ing and some 🙂 to pour oil on troubled water (opportunity missed to estimate the size of hydrocarbon molecules), Alex tweeted “I *think* it’s due to some fundamental difference between how Science and English are taught. I will ponder.” and David riposted “That would assume that learning is visible in science?”

This made me sit up and take notice – I’ve been vaguely wondering about how much teaching approaches / knowledge v skills / constructivist v didactic etc. is subject dependent, and I think maybe it is more so than a lot of folk are assuming.

So what about assessing learning? Well, I do think there could be a major difference between English and science. If I teach some concept in science e.g. Newton’s 1st Law, then it’s fairly easy to almost immediately ask some questions to see if they’ve got it (in this case I will probably have used several familiar situations as part of the teaching and I can just use several different familiar situations in my hinge questions and ask about the size of the forces acting). There will be a clear difference between the answers from students who’ve ‘got it’ and those who haven’t. This is because I’m testing whether they are still holding onto misconceptions (which give wrong answers) or are actually applying Newton’s 1st Law (which gives correct answers). On the basis of this, I can decide whether I need to have another go at getting the concept across. I would be really surprised if science teachers don’t all see this as an inherent part of good science teaching. That doesn’t negate the need to come back to the same concept in a subsequent lesson – David suggested three times but it’s often a lot more than that for deep-rooted physics misconceptions – but it makes a big difference to how this particular lesson proceeds. In English (and I apologise if my lack of expertise shows in quality of examples) if a lesson is about how to relate Dickens’ personal experiences of Victorian England to his empathy with characters in Oliver Twist then I can see how it might be hard to do anything to ‘assess learning’ that isn’t asking pupils to just regurgitate what they’ve just heard/said/written/done with no indication of whether this has transferred to long term memory. You certainly can’t just ask a question about some other Dickens novel. Equally, if you’ve just taught them about correct use of apostrophe’s by showing them examples and getting them to spot errors (yes, its ironic!) then what can you do in a few moments to check that they have understood – get them to tell you what you just told them were the rules? Well, actually, I still think there might be a role for AfL in deciding whether spotting twenty errors is enough or whether another twenty would be a good idea, but I can see the difficulty in really knowing if they’ve ‘got it’ until they write some blog post at a later date and either fill it with apostrophic errors or do’nt.

4 thoughts on “Performance and Learning in English and Science

  1. Maybe I’m revealing my vast and unmapped ignorance here but, like, what’s the difference?

    Knowledge about Newton’s First Law and knowledge about Dickens’ context differ only in terms of subject matter – they’re not (as far as I can see) fundamentally different forms of knowledge, are they?

    So children ‘regurgitating’ stuff about Dickens is no different to recalling or repeating something they’ve just learned about physics. Is it? Don’t we really want to see how they can apply this knowledge and how it connects with everything else they know?

    One problem is that English is considered to be a ‘skills based’ subject whereas science is ‘content based’. But really, haven’t we all agreed that teaching one without t’other is a fool’s errand? The real problem is, I think, how the subjects are assessed: science (at least up to GCSE) allows students to just dump knowledge without thought for how it is shaped. English exams assess how well students demonstrate contentless skills like persuasive writing about pointless pap. And ,, as always, what we assess is what we teach.

    Not so?

  2. What if I write Newton’s 1st Law on one card along with some illustrative examples, and a series of key facts about Dickens life and how this relates to Oliver Twist on another. If I gave those to an intelligent person with no relevant specialist knowledge, I’m thinking they would get close to full marks on a suitable question in English (but I could be wrong), but might well get zero on a suitable question in physics.

    A lot of science, and particularly physics, which is my specialism, is about application of (fairly) simple ideas in unexpected, but simple contexts. (However you are correct to criticise some bits of GCSE as being about memorising then dumping knowledge – and it’s pretty clear that if the new KS4 is like the new KS3, this will get worse. I can absolutely see that if some bit of science just needs memorising, then checking whether pupils can remember it, two minutes later, is a waste of time.)

    I was thinking that a lot of English is about application of (fairly) subtle ideas to (very) complex contexts (Oliver Twist is a lot more complex than “a mass travelling at a constant velocity”) or it’s about applying (fairly) simple ideas to irrelevant contexts (I could quite happily apply apostrophes to some massively obtuse philosophical essay without understanding a word of it). In the first case you cannot change the context – essentially this is about memorising the information – so I agree that checking whether pupils can remember it, two minutes later, is a waste of time. With the apostrophe thing, again checking if pupils know the rules when you’ve just taught them isn’t helpful.

    But maybe doing twenty examples and quickly analysing the errors would be. If half the class have got “Lucas’ shoes” wrong, wouldn’t you want to know that, and go back over the rule for when the ‘ goes after the s, then try twenty more examples, rather than just having pupils doing twenty more examples without intervention and them getting all the s’ wrong again? That would be AfL.

    My ideas about English may be rubbish but I’m confident that in science, asking questions which switch the context provides useful information about whether, at the end of some activites designed to do so, pupils have grasped the concept in a way that allows them to (however temporarily) apply it. If they can’t, then I need to keep trying until they can. If they can, then I need to keep them practising (maybe at intervals rather than continuously) until it’s fixed in their long-term memory. In other words, my AfL has an important effect on my immediate teaching decisions, but perhaps not on the structure of a topic and the repetitions already planned in.

    By the way, massive apologies if you thought the use of ‘regurgitated’ was any suggestion that English was about doing that. I certainly didn’t mean it that way.

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