Teachers as Innovators
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Improving motivation through industry links
Nick Kerswell, Ivybridge Community College
There is a sizable group of around 20% of students in most secondary schools who are unmotivated, lacking in basic skills or simply disaffected because school seems irrelevant. Nick Kerswell at Ivybridge Community College in Plymouth does not have all the answers, but he has been part of a project funded by NESTA that has looked at ways of appealing to some fairly hard-to-reach Year 9 science students.
Keywords: health, industry links, student engagement, learner voice, relevance
Two years ago Nick received funding from NESTA and the DfES Innovation Unit to improve the attainment of the lowest 20% at Key Stage 3. “We thought that it would be good to work with Year 9 students to devise engaging lessons and projects based on industry visits. We selected kids who were demotivated or who could not access science because of the literacy or numeracy problems or were just struggling with science, in other words, kids who might profit from a different approach. The strategy was then to take the curriculum apart and separate it into biology, chemistry and physics.”
Nick ensured that they had industry link activities that were relevant to each curriculum area: biology, chemistry and physics. They formulated visits based on project work relevant to that. In the first year they worked with a local organics farm (biology), a yacht builder who was building a round-the-world yacht racer (physics), and with the local university in the materials lab (chemistry). The size of the student group was 15, mixed sex and, to some degree, mixed ability. Students were in the group for many reasons not just lack of ability; the title of the course was ‘Not failing in science but failed by science’.
“It was a success in 2005/6. Although we did not get noticeably higher SAT results we felt that the kids did improve slightly in SATs. More marked was their improvement in motivation and attitude. They have now been returned to more conventional groups in Year 10 and they are benefiting from what we did.”
This year the course is running again with some differences. It is now using the two lower sets, and that involves 49 students: either 24 or 25 in each group. “We are not working with the boat builders but the National Maritime Museum. Chemistry is the most difficult area to find companies for, largely for health and safety reasons. In chemistry, in industry, there is often a clean room and students would have to be cloaked up which is a severe problem with a large group.”
“We are taking the pressure off, letting them run along in their way, develop at their own pace. I don’t have a strict homework regime. I have a spreadsheet so that I can monitor what work they have done so I can remind them if they are falling behind. There is no testing structure except the SATs at the end of Year 9.” Work is recorded in a number of ways. Each child has a book to keep notes, a scrapbook, and they have class work folders where a student presents finished work. On the computer each student also has a folder where they store work, which is marked online.
There have been differences this year. The character of the group has changed: there are more students with learning problems and not as many who lack motivation and are otherwise able. The size of the groups also caused problems: two groups much larger than the one group last year, which leads to travel problems. Last year they could use a minibus, but with this number they have to use a coach and that makes each trip into a major outing.
Nick described one of the links in more detail. “This is a farming area so it was comparatively easy to find a farm. However, just visiting a farm would not target many areas of the curriculum, but when you go to an organic farm there is more: the environmental aspect, biological control, even healthy eating. The farm we visited provides food for local primary schools. We even get our students to eat there. The farm has a field kitchen where food prepared from their produce is served.”
One aspect of the work that proved intriguing for the students was the biological control of pests rather than the use of pesticides. Nick was able to introduce quite naturally the concept of a healthy eating diet and the importance of vegetables in diet and how organs are affected by diet. “We looked at the environmental aspects of farming. It was hitting many areas of the curriculum. We did get a great deal of work from one visit. As part of the preparation we did the healthy eating issues before the visit and the work on plants after the visit. It is a question of looking at the curriculum: finding the stuff that works well in the classroom and maybe using the industry links for the stuff that they find boring or conceptually difficult.”
Nick gave the students a blank PowerPoint template to complete and emphasised to them that they had to capture as much information as possible. It is probable that in the future they might be able to use PDAs. There is some software, Articulate, that enables video and audio to be inserted into PowerPoints.
There are difficulties, but not enough to deter Nick from continuing. He was given one hour per week to organise things and it does take more than that to visit the companies and liaise with them. Money is also an issue to pay for the trips. The larger group sizes are difficult to manage and extra staff are needed.
“I suppose working like this we do not cover about a third of the curriculum, and I have to pick that up in revision time. I have to gamble that it doesn’t come up in much details in the SATs. There is a risk there. The kids have more time to absorb the key areas and to become passionate about areas. At the start of Year 9 they had no interest in science and now they are back in mainstream groups in Year 10 and they’re thriving. In terms of SATs and academic progress we probably don’t gain much but the benefits to the individual are huge.”
To Nick the benefits are clear: “It gives the children a focus in society. They know more now. It’s not just about teachers telling them that scientists do it like this. They’ve seen it first-hand. It’s good when they hear someone else in the outside world talking about all of the things that they studied, such as the biological control. It suddenly means more to them.”
There are additional successes. They have produced some very worthwhile industrial partners. The teachers and the employers have learnt about what can be done for children like this. “We have had a great deal of interest from other colleges in understanding this approach to Year 9 work. The resources that have been produced are available to other people.”
Nick acknowledges that there is a risk. “For anyone else working like this the major concerns will be about cutting the curriculum apart. For us we selected the areas on the basis of the local industry. Every school would do that in their own way. As soon as you start to say that we will focus on these areas of the curriculum, the other bits will have to be pulled together at the end of the project, and that might cause some concerns for those who are under pressure for results.”