All A Level – Independent Learning

‘The Sixth Form Catch-22’:
A Logical Paradox at A Level

Pascal’s Wager is a familiar staple of A Level reasoning, but it seems I have entered my own wager with another Catch-22 type situation, not such an ultimate existential problem, granted, but one which is very real in the experience of teaching Sixth Form today!

A Level teaching is certainly what keeps me going week to week, as my subject(s) is my passion, but it isn’t really what I imagined it to be (or certainly what I remember it being back in the day – 12 whole years ago!). My technique has always been ‘do what you’d do with lower school’, as I was advised in my NQT year – thus far this has worked in producing excellent results. However, I question whether, this leads to a GCSE style spoon-feed at times. True, there is a structure to exam answers, required content and buzz words, but surely we need to be bridging the gap between school and higher education? Here, the A Level teacher finds themselves in an unending cycle of reasoning – we need results, need them to ‘know’ how to answer the question with all the key content, yet we want to challenge, stretch and prepare them for the next step – which for many is a degree.

Having taught the ‘new’ specifications for RS and Sociology for four years, it is time to re-vamp, re-think and give a new lease of life to my A Level schemes of work. It dawned on me last year that one of the key areas where my students seem to be lacking is independent learning. They seem to have latched on well to Kagan style strategies for collaboration, AfL and so on, but Mike Hughes’ ‘Red to Blue’ ideas of moving towards a student-focussed style of learning (‘Blue’) seems to leave many of them stumped.

Last year I began a small experiment with my Year 12 RS class (mixed ability). If work wasn’t on the PowerPoint they weren’t writing it down, so I began to drop in key hints and phrases every lesson for key points. For example, “great idea Claire, that is REALLY important, excellent idea,” “that would be an IDEAL point for an AO2 essay, REALLY a high level link,” and so on. This got no results, no matter how many times I said the words ‘really’ and ‘important’ together not one pen was put to paper. In the end I asked them, and got the answer I was expecting, “we only write down what’s on the board.” This is disastrous in a subject which lends itself to discussion and bouncing ideas around. Sadly, they still aren’t doing it now in Year 13!

So, what does work? I have trialled a few more, slightly more successful, ideas lately too. Plenty of self assessment seems effective, in some lessons students then took ownership and devised their own piece of homework for the week – I was intrigued as to whether they would complete this work, or if the value would be lost because I hadn’t ‘set it’. Interestingly the majority did complete it, bar the usual suspects. The same suspects also failed my ‘test’ to see if, when given free reign over half the lesson, they would choose to do the set work, use resources and study spaces, or to go home…

In our department I am leading a ‘Tweaking Humanities’ project (based on Hughes’ ‘Tweak to Transform’) with a focus on moving from ‘red to blue’ and the 4 part lesson structure. I hope that by increasing ‘blue’ focussed lessons gradually, there may be improvement. It is impossible to create a total culture shift in one lesson, so my strategy now is to do it gradually. By implementing this throughout the year groups, perhaps we will see more progress. I believe this may be the only way; as otherwise we are sending hundreds of students to undergraduate courses who are unprepared, and sadly without the skills to learn.

Esther Zarifi
Religious Studies, Philosophy & Ethics Teacher
Prudhoe Community High School

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