Pedagogy postcards – Recall or robust understanding?

reading time 2 minutes

It’s my fault….

Picture the scene if you will – double Year 13 on a Friday afternoon, one of the most able cohorts I’ve had the pleasure of teaching, engaged in an extended open practical. I’m not sure what I’ve done in a past life to deserve this, but I’ll gladly take it.

Out of twelve learners four are hoping to study Physics at University, offers from Bristol, Imperial, Bath, Warwick – these are talented physicists who are getting the grades. I’d set them the challenge of picking anything they’ve learnt and trying to prove it with kudos to the person who gets the smallest error margin. They’d done their research, designed their set-ups, spent time with technicians sourcing equipment; it was the kind of lesson you hover in the doorway hoping for the Head to walk past.

Until, I overhead one of my learners casually look up and say “What’s the equation for period of SHM within a spring system”, and another reply “Dunno, it’s in the formula booklet”. Which is a synonym for “And I’m done thinking”

……These are learners who I expect, and will be expected to, derive second order differentials from first principles, who casually accept not having mastery of some of the most basic concepts. I give them short shrift, whip their formula booklets away and make them consider the factors and mathematical relationships involved, and we carry on.

On the drive home I reflect on the causes of this: It’s my fault. These are the learners who only a few years earlier earnestly asked when presented with equation triangles “Do we need to remember these formula?” only to be told “No, you just need to use them”. I’ve built laziness and an over-reliance on mathematical cheats into them; fine if you’re trying to encourage a lower Year 11 set into getting some marks on a momentum questions, but certainly not the approach I want our future, Doctors, Engineers, rocket builders, to have.

And fortunately they won’t. Gove stopped us. His drive on mastery of facts and basics took away the crutch of the formula booklet. Now we have to memorise it, and with memorising it, I have rediscovered the joys in having them learn the factors that make up an equation, the underpinning mathematics to why velocity is squared and mass is halved, and there are no mindless triangles to be seen anywhere.

Fingers crossed in a few years I will hear “What’s the equation for… oh hang on I can figure it out”

by Adam Hodgkinson – Assistant Head, Stratford upon Avon School