I have this quote from Samuel Becket’s play Worstwood Ho! up in my classroom and regularly refer to it. It’s there as much for me as my students and there’s been plenty of times when (after another cunningly wrought lesson has nose dived into a flaming ball of shame) I’ve been grateful for the sentiment. Never mind, I tell myself, it’ll be better next time.
I hear about the need to make students independent learners all the time but I think that might be missing the point. It’s not really about independence. Although there are times in life when we have to rely wholly on our own resources (exams) normally it’s reasonable to ask for help. What we really want is for students to be resilient. To be able to have a go and bounce back from having failed without seeing themselves as failures.
I saw Jim Smith, author of The Lazy Teacher’s Handbook, at Teachmeet Clevedon this week talking about students being stuck. He has some great strategies for getting kids to think for themselves when confronted with that anguished cry, “Sir, I’m stuck!” My favourites responses are:
- “What would someone who wasn’t stuck do?”
- “Would you be able to have a go if I offered you a £1 million?
- and, top of the list: the Billy Ocean Method. Simply play the following video until they agree to have a crack at it:
Great stuff! I tried it the following day and my Year 9 class said that as long as I promised never to play it again they would promise not to say they were stuck.
Other strategies I use include giving students question tokens at the beginning of the lesson and when they pop up their hands and ask something banal I ask them if they really want to spend their token on that. Usually they don’t.
And my own personal favourite: ask Chloe. Chloe is a very sensible student in my Year 11 class who deals with all my silly questions. “Sir, should I use blue or black pen?”, “Sir, can I hand my homework in before the due date?”, “Sir, should I write on both sides of the page?” My answer is always, “I don’t know, ask Chloe.” They quickly get the message.
This is another favourite clip for getting kids unstuck:
The fact that these things work is amazing. They shouldn’t. Not if kids are really stuck. The point is that they’re not really stuck, they’re afraid to fail. And it’s easier not to try than fall on your face and have people laugh at you.
Ex-circus strongman and Chronologer to the Queen, Darren Mead told me how the humble list could be used for getting students to reflect on how they learn and what to do when they get stuck. It goes a little something like this:
The set up
What strategies did you use?
They might have tried alphabetical. geographical, personal experience. But what you’ll find is that most students will list countries alphabetically and then get stuck. Usually on ‘D’.
Did you use numbers or bullet points?
It’s worth unpicking the benefits to using bullet points (clarity, motivation, next one waiting etc) and encouraging them to imitate successful strategies.
Did you miss out a country because you found it difficult?
E.g. azabyejian,azebiybarn, You get the idea. What does say about how important confidence is in learning? What’s better – to have go and make a mistake or not take a risk? Do we learn from our mistakes?
By writing that list have you learned anything?
No, all they’ll have done is recall stuff they already knew.
Still individually, ask students to organise their countries into Northern and Southern hemisphere, adding new countries as they remember them.
Students should now be asked to reflect on the usefulness of their list; whether prior knowledge is important in working things out and whether it’s important to review their learning.
Ask them again if they’ve learnt anything new. The answer will still be a resounding NO. So, would it be different if they were allowed to ask someone else?
The next stage is get them to label those countries which contain deserts with a D and those which contain mountains with an M, but now you should allow them to confer.
This time when you debrief, ask them if could they do the task without their prior knowledge of countries but with the ideas and questions?
You need to gather examples of how the students helped one another.
I thought it was useful when Andrew explained that the Himalayas were formed because india is crashing into Asia- so I worked out that india must have mountains
Ah, so you learned because you asked a question. Who else asked a useful question?
There’s loads of obvious opportunities to talk about listening skills, strategies for group working, dealing with frustration
You could always end by asking them to define what learning is based upon their experience. Who knew lists could be so complicated? Or so useful for getting unstuck.