Wednesday, 18 January 2017

Year 13 University Entrance

Results are in for 2016, when my goal was to increase Year 13 University Entrance in Biology at Tamaki College...

Term 1 felt long and unsettled with student's attention split multiple ways between Polyfest, new student leadership positions, their first internals and the introduction to their end of year Biology exam. It  also took a few filming sessions for me to get into the swing of Class OnAir and for all of us to settle into our rhythms.

We made our way through the first internal about homeostasis and blood glucose regulation, and most of the class at least Achieved (one needed to complete a full resit on osmoregulation but was able to demonstrate much better understanding) with some students setting high standards they continued striving to meet for the rest of the year. 

Term 2 dragged towards it's end, Term 3 disappeared in a flash and Term 4 seemed to barely exist (the same pattern that plays out every school year!) I continued to help students wrestle with new concepts until they understood and were confident with them; sometimes this was a quick process, other times took days of repeatedly returning to concepts in different ways. Occasionally students would look at me in desperation and frustration because they couldn't understand, but the wrestling continued until they could. 

That's what biology learning is sometimes. A battle. Not with me, not between me and the students, but between the students and the new information. Sometimes it is SO new and unfamiliar that it seems the content is equipped with an unfair advantage, and it's my job to give students the basic weapons of scientific vocabulary, an overall schema, or a reference to something they DO already know so they can begin to wage war in their minds, and pull and push the information until it finds it's place in their brains.

Term 3 arrived and I was getting stressed. In an act of lunacy that turned out to be pure genius I gambled on filming four consecutive lessons with Year 13, hoping desperately the filming equipment would cooperate. It so happened that in the week of filming I was introducing students to one of the most complex ideas in our 5 credit exam; biorhythms in plants and animals, which included the photoperiodism mechanism of flowering in plants. 

Filming and editing those four lessons showed me more about my teaching and more about the learning of my students than any other observations, discussions, appraisal meetings or filmed lessons put together. 

For starters, the first lesson filmed that week was the first time in something like... 40 lessons in a row that I had ALL NINE students present in my class, and happily their full attendance also coincided with the introduction of a concept!

This meant when I returned to the concept the next day and we discussed the main idea, went through revision activities, and I extended students onward - EVERYBODY was there at the same point and ready to go. They could build on yesterday's understanding. They could discuss with one another, ask each other questions, and help each other to learn collaboratively and it was just beautiful to see the boys learning together. This amazing sequence of learning was interrupted on the third day when three students were absent for various reasons.

I learned early in my first year of teaching that the building of understanding is not linear, as I arrived believing. I thought that to understand D, one must first learn all of A, then B, before progressing to C and finally mastering D. 

Now I believe the learning of my students to be far more of a spiral. I give them a glimpse of D, to hook their curiosity and show them where we're going. Then we return to the basics of A and build confidence and skill and basic knowledge, before progressing to the more complex B, and maybe venture a little into C during  same lesson. Then we return to A. Then jump to C. Back quickly through A, before spending more time on B and C. Then put it all together in D. If there's time, we return to any of the letters the students are unsure of. Maybe a quick review of A, B, C and D all together, or drawing links between them. 

That means that if students miss a day of A they will be confused, but we will return to it eventually. It will just be harder for them. Harder for me. There will be gaps in their understanding. There will be missing links, lower confidence, and will take more time - both mine and theirs - that is not always available.

Anyway, I digress. The wonderful learning taking place during the week was also interrupted by my giving of an activity outside of student's ZPD on the final day.

Without scaffolding HOW to shape their new understanding into an NCEA-style answer (because there IS a style) I expected students to sit a practice exam question, and chaos and loss of confidence ensued. They weren't filmed but it took another two lessons to build that back up again. As a result my focus in Term 4 shifted slightly to include "the art of exam answering." Moving beyond A, B, C and D, to a skill set allowing them to express that understanding.

Term 4 rolled through like a runaway truck, with some students suddenly realising how close they were to sitting their final exams and entering the unknown world! An extended last-minute (weeks long) push ensued; for some it paid off, for a few it was just too little too late. I hope the successful ones take with them the knowledge that effort is what brings (exam) success, and those who were unsuccessful hopefully learn to try harder and for a more extended period of time the next time they desire something.

Here are the exam results for Plant and Animal Responses to the External Environment AS 91603 - for the first time in four years over 50% of the students in Year 13 Biology gained University Entrance by passing at least 3 internals AND their final 5 credit exam!

Looking back I definitely enjoyed teaching during 2016, both the courses and the curious (and hilarious) students! I wish them all the best for their futures, whatever those may be. :)

Not Achieved

1 comment:

  1. I look forward to seeing you build on this knowledge of learning and teaching in the future Nicola. Your honest reflections throughout the year and in this post are so helpful to your colleagues working with priority learners.
    Have a great year.