This is, probably, one of the most important posts I’ve published here. It’s pretty much a philosophy applied in teaching, but, in reality, it’s the worldview we can hold and pass on to our students. See the world and all its parts as a system. Teach them to see the connections between everything. Learn to see topics in relation to other units, subjects, real world outside of your classroom. Isn’t it the whole and sole purpose of teaching?
Top-down and Bottom-up
The approaches are no news to anyone in teaching. Normally, preparation to teach any course starts with learning about the course objective, assessed skills, and required outcomes. Those tend to be general and sound something like “analyse and evaluate sources” or “justify personal perspective(s) using evidence and reasoning” with descriptors for different levels. Those are great but to develop those skills there should be some content or material as well. Unless you teach something as skills-oriented as Global Perspectives and Research, you will be provided with a list of topics. In many subjects the list goes on and on, barely fitting in the academic year and making teachers rush through the units to make it for the exam season.
Can’t see the forest for the trees
Teaching all the content from the syllabus is obviously and undeniably important. Sadly, in this process our students (and us) can lose the connection with the bigger picture: those main course objectives, real-world applications and examples.
Anyone who’s ever been a student (which is literally everyone) knows the feeling of being lost in the process of learning, memorising, filling in the gaps or using a formula or a method for tens of problems while drilling the topic. At some point that’s all one can see – organise your data, find the formula from your list, substitute, apply, ta-dam! Do I have the answer? Yes. Is the goal achieved? Yes, kind of, is it? But hold on a second, why do I even do it? Do I still see how that theoretical material works in real life? Is it still relatable? Do I see how it connects with all other topics I’ve learned before and where does my curiosity take me now from this this mastered step?
Unfortunately, too often we focus on one isolated topic and forget everything from the previous units. It is truly obvious after one big topic is over and the teacher gives a relatively simple task from the previous topic and students look at it as if it’s the first time. For the same reason revision before big exams is such a big deal for way too many students. It is not about refreshing one’s memories; it’s often re-learning the material from scratch. Usually, students are blamed at that stage for not putting in enough effort and not learning properly at the right time. However, there are more sides to that and the issue can be entirely different, almost the opposite: those students gave all their attention and effort to one topic at a time. With the way of teaching or the way the syllabus is organised, the topics did not but were merely replacing each other till the end of the year.
Teach systems, not single topics
Teachers can significantly help their students by shifting the focus to connections and relations. It also implies the conscious choice to use the top-down approach. It might appear tricky at first but, in reality, it is more applicable.
If you learn a foreign language and start from scratch, you will need to learn the letters, and basic words and memorise at first some basic phrases even if you don’t understand the grammar behind them. Yes, you cannot teach all tenses at once and you need to start somewhere to build on top. However, it is never too early to explain the system of the language in general. Once we have some idea of what to expect, we are more confident with the building blocks we use to fill in the gaps.
Simple ideas to turn around lessons
- Give your first lesson of the year to properly explain what is coming. Not in general (we are going to study History, Mathematics, Chemistry) but actually go into details: those topics will focus on this and that. It builds up on what you learned in other subjects or last year and you will use it later for this and that.
- Make it applicable. The question “How will I use sin and cos in my daily life?” is not so simple but if you spend that much time on it, there must be a good reason. Share it with your students.
- Share the syllabus and/or yearly plan with your students. It is a common practice (if not a requirement) in universities but, for some reason, school students are usually disregarded. High school students certainly are mature enough to make the most of planning. It helps students to see what is covered and how much more is there to do, what topics are coming and how much they need to study for the exams. I cannot overestimate the importance of this simple action.
- Come up with practice questions or tasks that will require your students to use knowledge of different topics (maybe even material from previous years). Spaced learning is great and bringing up covered material again will be the best revision technique. Don’t be afraid to include some real-life contexts or situations your students might not have enough background for – if it’s real life and applicable, a little googling or shared explanation won’t hurt but may promote curiosity and show that in life knowing only one field is never enough and you have to learn how to fill in the gaps on the go.
Unfortunately, this type of questions is almost never found in coursebooks so teachers will have to find their own ways around it.
- Use visuals to show how everything is connected. No need for fancy visuals: simple arrows, thought bubbles and side-notes will do just as well. Timelines are outrageously underestimated even in history classes when it comes to putting the events from different regions; timelines are totally and sadly forgotten in literature, art, philosophy but they actually can clarify a lot and show how all those thoughts were not in the vacuum.
- Allocate time in your revision lessons to show how everything is connected. Elicit it from your students but don’t tell directly; they already know those bits and pieces but need to learn to see those connections between them.
Example: A Level English Language
Since I happen to know this course best, let me give it as a more detailed example.
First of all, the course focuses on spoken language which is something students never paid much attention to. Everything they’ve been doing for years in their English classes is great but will have little use in their final year of this subject. Yet, it does not take the class away from reality. What happens is exactly the opposite: I get a chance to connect everything with real life, case studies, primary research and daily experiences all of us can share. The course has four distinct topics which are tested in two exam papers, let’s look at them in more detail.
Paper 3 includes two topics that at first sight have little, if anything in common: Language Change and Child Language Acquisition. Even the format of the questions is different: any original text without editing represents a certain timeframe and a script. However, let’s look closer. The Paper is called ‘Language Analysis and this is the first hint. For both questions students do the same – look for language features from the texts and comment on them using the same skill set. What about the content, is it a coincidence? Not at all. Language change looks at the development of the language in time, the scale is huge, big historical events involved, throngs of influential in their own ways people affect the development and one needs to know how exactly the language was changing along the timeline. Zoom in and we get a single tiny human who just starts mastering the language. Again, the timeline of language development, the influence of people around, events like moving or the fact of having siblings might lead to serious changes in one’s language down the line. The same process for both questions, the scale is different, and the processes vary but the message is the same: change is normal and expected, with going back and forth, mistakes happen but it never stops and always leads to some interesting features, examples of which we will find in the source texts in past papers.
This paper is more consistent in terms of how the questions are formulated but the topics are again quite random for some students. Again, it’s just a question of the scale. English in the World looks at the big picture, this time in the present moment (you remember that there was Language change when we were looking into the past), now geography covers the globe and we actively bring up other languages and cultures to tell the story of English as it is today. Business, education, aviation, global organisations, tourism, politics and economic power… Case studies and up-to-date information that changes every few years (yes, you need to look for newer data for this class and topic all the time). Zoom in and from the big world of people we get into the endless world within one person: Language and the Self. Our identity, the way we think, our personality and belonging to groups all through the language lens. Examples, examples and, certainly, turning to ourselves to understand ‘Why I speak the way I do and how much I am in control of it”. And guess what, all of that does not happen overnight and is slowly acquired, luckily we study Child language acquisition, so we know about it as well.
One of my favourite lessons in this course is at the very end when we look at the language change theories. I save it for later because my first-lesson promise that everything is going to come together and be perfectly connected is the prophecy that came to life. Students see how each theory pulls something we have covered before in all four topics, how they can on the spot give real-life examples and connect it all with other theories. The beauty of freely floating between all those concepts and seeing the connections between them.
This post is the result of long conversations with my very good friend about education and how else teaching can be done. Those talks were going on for a long time with no outcome at first. Some ideas are hard to accept and implement in practice even if you really like the concept – it just feels too new and unusual to teach with the big focus, constantly zooming in and out of the topic. Yet, it is one of the most rewarding shifts in my understanding of teaching and I am grateful for inspiring me and supporting me in making it a consistent change.