Relevant or relate to?

Harry Webb, one of the many on Twitter with brains the size of small planets has asked me to clarify what I mean by wanting to use the phrase ‘relate to’ rather than the more conventional ‘relevant’.

When I was trained and started teaching there was a strong impetus to make the curriculum relevant. To make sure that we tied what was taught to the relevance in children’s lives. At first this seemed utterly fine an sensible.

I began my teaching in a grammar school in Jersey. Idyllic or what! As a physics teacher having very able students was a real pleasure. Physics is difficult and mathematically challenging and bright kids did really well. But some bright children did not continue with physics past year 9. We used the Nuffield Physics syllabus which taught me so much more about physics than I had ever thought was possible. I loved teaching it. Discovery learning was its mantra and because the children I taught were bright it inevitably worked. I know it will not work with less bright and also the bright could have been even more advanced by a different teaching process. I did have some thoughts about those that chose not to continue with physics past year 9 as they, it seemed to me, had gained little from their three years of secondary level study of the subject.

I then moved back to the mainland and taught in Surrey. Bright kids again but in a comprehensive. Lots more who could not really cope or did not want to continue with physics. I thought about the relevance to some of those children who did not continue with the subject I loved teaching. Was it that the content was not relevant to them? Was the content relevant to those who continued with the subject? How much of my degree content was still relevant to me even in my job as a physics teacher?

Relevant just did not seem to do it. How could the oil drop experiment or colliding trolleys be relevant for more than a tiny number of children? And for those who went into a science job so much of what they had been taught was going to be irrelevant. We could not predict which bits were relevant and which bits were not.

Then, as part of my work with an examination board, we were looking at paring down the physics curriculum. One of the teachers suggested we remove the section on waves. I and another teacher on the panel almost exploded in his face. Waves were THE critical feature of physics. It would not be physics without the study of waves. Waves stayed in but the comments from teacher who wanted waves removed remained with me. He was no fool and his argument was that for the majority of children who would be taking the exam further study of physics was unlikely. He argued that we should be catering for the majority, many of whom did not and would not see the purpose, or relevance, of studying waves as part of their physics course. He was arguing that subject related relevance was not the only feature that would decide a programme of study.

I then re-thought how it was that children were engaged by the subject content. It was not by the relevance of the material. It could not be as they would not see the relevance of waves until they went further with the subject, possibly not until they were at first degree level. That was a very tiny fraction of the number that had started physics in year 7.

While one does need subject purity to allow for further study it would be possible to catch up on any content that was missed from study up to GCSE at A level or beyond. So how was relevance the feature that decided what the curriculum contained?

I then started to realise that it was how children could relate to the content that mattered. How well they found the content affected them now rather than how it might affect them in the future. The content was better defined by how it could be adapted to allow learners to engage with the material than for some vague future relevance. There is loads of physics that we do not study at GCSE. Why do we choose some rather that other? Quite a compromise!

Because we cannot know what will be relevant for a particular child relevance does not seem to me to be a the best way to decide what to teach. Relate is not much better as we don’t really know what all children will relate to but, for me, the other element is the ability of the teacher to choose the particular exemplars which can enthuse a child. For example if I teach speed using dynamics trolleys, and many physics teachers will, then the further examples I can choose will be chosen, by me, on the basis of what I think children will relate to. I can use elephants on roller skates, cars, billiard balls, a baby push chair and a myriad of other contexts. Variety so that each has a chance to relate.

Just for Harry – Relevant is nothing like relate to. Relevance means that learning must be relevant to the learner’s current social and class background. So if relevance was driving the lesson planning then one would not study 19th century novels as the truths they contain would not be relevant to a working class child.

Relate to is my invention which just says we should create learning activities that a child can latch onto. Enjoy is a bit off the beam for this but can do and will be willing to do is closer, but not exactly.

Dumbing down, an Echo Chamber inspired blog.

Having just read two blogs from Twitter links I am again driven to blog. Hopefully a short missive this time and my own assertions as usual. Read on if you will.

The first blog related to misbehaviour and the fact that this was not being dealt with in any effective manner in many schools. First, I would be somewhat cautious about the cry that it is an issue in many schools. I don’t deny that there will be issues in some and I don’t know how to quantify many. But some is too many for me. In each secondary school roughly a thousand students are at risk of having their education damaged by misbehaviour from themselves or other students. John Hattie says the presence of just one disruptive student in a class negates the performance of nearly all the rest of the students. Damaging indeed.

I have a simple response to this and that is that it is, in my experience, relatively easy, though not without some degree of determination and fortitude, to sort out misbehaviour. The way to do this does depend on the detail and will be tactically different in different schools but in essence, if the problem is one student across many different teachers then the issue is one which SLT have to deal with by acting on that child. I am not at all apologetic about the use of the word ‘on’ in these situations. Acting on includes low level interactions which might just be talking to the student to influence the behaviour but will end in permanent exclusion if the child will simply not behave in an appropriate manner. Let me repeat the key phrase of this section, ‘across several teachers’. We just cannot allow one child to continually disrupt 30 others each time they enter a lesson. We can not!

The second is when the issue is one child and one teacher. This is dealt with in a number of different ways which might mean moving the child to another teacher in that subject. I don’t believe in finding a difficult solution when a simple one will do. If the move sorts it, then fine. If this does not resolve the matter then the child is making inappropriate decisions which he/she does not have the right to make.

One teacher and several children is a more difficult issue as one probably can’t just move a few into other classes.

It may be that the teacher does need to alter their own behaviour but to make that decision I would watch the teacher’s lessons with the child present. I would expect to know the typical ‘style’ and ‘triggers’ that the teacher had, from previous visits to the lesson.

I visited every lesson in my own school on at least 3 days each week. The question was. “How’s it going, Sir/Miss?” Any misbehaving child would be removed and dealt with. Perhaps returned immediately but it may be that I would remove the child to spend some time in our Time-Out room. My heads of year and other SLT members would also be following the same procedures, though HoYs would generally only visit their own year group for these lesson visits. These sanctions were applied intelligently and were more frequent and sometimes more confrontational at the start of the behaviour management programme.

There is a lot more to tell but as this is meant to be a ‘short’ blog, perhaps another blog is needed.

Actually I will deal with the second blog at another time.

I have worked with a number of schools, some in some degree of disarray, and the only time I was not able to make a very significant difference to behaviour was where the head teacher was opposed to my methods and worked from a very student centred, restorative justice direction. That school is still in some degree of trouble.

If I were to summarise my approach in one statement it would be that we cannot accept poor behaviour that disrupts the learning of others.