Why schools and teachers are needed for deep learning

I was inspired to write this by a Guardian article of 18 April 2016.

 High-quality, low-cost on-line courses could be used to shift schools away from being ‘exam factories’ and help students keep pace with the threat of automation, according to a new report by the Institute of Directors. The report argues that the internet allows schools to be more flexible and adapt learning towards “a future in which more and more work is taken over by robots or computers”.

This makes no sense at all. Surely in a future world dominated by robots, it would be even more important for humans to have a deep understanding of fundamental science so that they are the masters of robots and not the other way round. Why would the Institute of Directors feel qualified to make pronouncements on the most effective methods of teaching and learning for deep understanding? This suggests to me a tacit assumption that, ‘Teaching is telling and listening is learning‘.

If this is so then why not let the computer do the ‘telling’ and all the learner has to do is to interact with the computer screen in accordance with the on-screen instructions? If you have read the article linked to above, you will be beginning to understand why deep learning will always need not just teachers, but also fellow learners that can cognitively interact with each other as well as with the teacher. This is the definition of a school. 

For the benefit of those that are not science teachers, I want to try to explain, through this example, the power of practical science lessons to inspire, engage and promote understanding. By practical, I mean real, hands on, tactile, feely-touchy, noisy, smelly pupil experience that cannot be replicated by any DVD or on-line computer or tablet representation.

However this example is not applicable just to science teaching. It applies universally to learning about anything that is difficult to understand. It is just as relevant to literature, the humanities and the arts as it is to science and maths.

The topic of ‘electricity and magnetism’ is one that many GCSE science students find difficult and which may therefore be a common ‘turn off’. I am a retired science teacher. I liked to start my series of KS4 lessons on electromagnetism with some practical activities involving that most cognitively demanding phenomenon of electromagnetic induction. The following approach breaks all the (behaviourist) rules by starting with the difficult and complex, which real life always is, and then reaching down to seek a simplifying structure of explanations, rather than the other way round. The first stage in such learning is therefore grounded in concrete experience and is therefore thoroughly Piagetian.

Our science classes usually contained 24/25 students. Groups of five, preferably of mixed ability even if within a setted class are about right, even if there is enough apparatus for smaller groups. This is to facilitate essential social interaction and peer to peer discussion (Vygotsky) in response to the activity.

Each group has a demountable transformer of the sort designed for Nuffield physics in the early 1970s. Every school I taught in from 1971 to 2003 had this kit. I hope this is also true for the new Academies and Free Schools. The transformer consists of two identical insulated coils of enamelled copper wire and two laminated iron ‘C’ cores. One ‘leg’ of each ‘C’ core can be inserted into the centre of each coil. The cores can then be butted together to make a continuous iron loop threading both coils. Modern schools may have a different version of this kit that does the same thing, but for this activity to work the cores, each with its own coil, have to be separable. I have seen demountable transformer kits in science equipment catalogues where this is not case.

One of the coils should be connected to the 12V ac output of a lab power pack. The other coil to a 12V 24W car headlamp bulb in a holder.

The pupils are told to separate the cores then switch on the power pack. The coil connected to it and its core make a scary 50Hz buzzing noise and the core becomes a very powerful and noisy electromagnet. Let the students explore and experience the power of this magnet by encouraging them to play with some iron or steel objects. The very powerful buzzing electromagnet they have made is impressive and causes much excitement and engagement.

Next, with the power pack still switched on, ask a student to take one of the ‘C’ cores and coil in one hand and the other in the other hand and slowly bring them closer so as to butt the cores together into a continuous iron loop threading both coils. The student will feel a very powerful attractive force and will not be able to prevent the butt ends of the two cores crashing together. At this, the 24W lamp suddenly lights brightly even though it is not electrically connected to the power pack. The student will not then be able to separate the cores, so strong is the attraction.

Then ask the student to switch off the power. The two cores will immediately separate and fall apart. Now for the astonishing bit. Ask the student to switch the power pack back on and repeat the experiment, but this time try to stop the cores finally coming together. This is very difficult and requires great strength. The idea is to get the cores within a centimetre of each other. There will be much buzzing and drama and the 24W lamp will begin to glow dimly even though the cores are not touching. If they crash together then the student can try again after switching the power pack off. All the students in the group should then try to make the lamp just glow while maintaining an air gap between the butt ends of the cores. This is massively exciting and engaging.

This activity will eat time and the students should be allowed to play and experiment with the phenomenon, without too much domination by the teacher, just a bit of help when necessary.

The students should be asked to discuss with each other what they have experienced reminding them that the lamp lights even when it is not connected by wires to the power pack, and it even glows when the iron cores are not even touching. The students will already be very familiar with lighting lamps by connecting them into electric circuits, but that is not what is happening here. Somehow energy is jumping between the two cores to make the lamp glow, but how and why?

If there is time they can try putting pieces of card between the cores and trying other experiments of their own. At the end of the lesson tell the students that they will not discover the full truth of what is happening until the end of the series of lessons on this topic, but the process of finding out will begin next lesson!

If I was to conduct this lesson for an OfSTED inspector I would likely fail – no three part lesson plan (in fact not much of a lesson plan at all), no lesson objectives written on the board, no worksheets and no final summary session bringing it all together, to tell the class what they should have learned. This is because none of the students will, in fact, understand anything yet, but they will certainly be keen to find out.

The following series of lessons would then proceed with the usual Michael Faraday style class experiments with appropriate references to the great man and pointing out that he was not a trained scientist but a lab technician who literally electrified the world by doing just what the class was doing. Without the hands-on experiments of Faraday, Maxwell could not have produced his work on electro-magnetic waves and Einstein his Special and General theories of Relativity. Fortunately, Faraday, Maxwell and Einstein did not have their learning inhibited by the availability of on-line learning and pronouncements like those of the Institute of Directors over 100 years later. 

It is important to use beefy amounts of power in such an experiment. A 24W lamp gets very hot and the surge of energy when it lights through electromagnetic induction can be felt through many senses. The 50Hz buzz gives a powerful sense that something is vibrating and that this is significant in some way. It is important for pupils to experience phenomena directly through the senses whenever possible as this prepares the mental ‘soil’ for concepts to take root and have meaning for the individual learner. Practical experiences and engagement are of value not so much for any factual knowledge gained, as at this stage that may be diffuse and uncertain, but for the personal cognitive development and engagement that the experience stimulates in the learner.

There is a danger that a group may try to repeat the activity using 12V dc rather than ac. This is potentially very cognitively rewarding, as surprisingly the lamp does not light even when the cores are together in a single iron loop despite the magnetism being just as strong. Even more curiously, the lamp flashes briefly when the power pack is turned on and off.

The danger here is that on dc, the coil connected to the power pack may overheat, so experimenting with dc instead of ac probably needs another more controlled activity in a later lesson.

I offer this lesson suggestion not as a model, but as an example to be discussed and criticised. It raises further pedagogical questions that I have never fully worked out. For example, how to manage such a lesson to get the best outcome for the girls in the class, whose excitement in such contexts may be less easy to stimulate than my own for a whole raft of complex reasons that women may be able to explain to me. Should the teacher dictate the make up of the groups, or let the pupils organise themselves? Should the teacher insist on mixed sex groups? Would this be counter-productive and just feed stereotypes on who does, and who just watches?

I would hope that science teachers in a science department would be encouraged to develop their own ideas, like this one, for further practical science activities and discuss and share them in science department staff meetings, along with other ideas for promoting deep understanding. If such meetings are always dominated by agendas passed down from the non-teaching Executive Principal, or by issues of behaviour and discipline, then a lot of whole school developmental work will be needed amongst the staff as well as the pupils. The culture of behaviourist managerialism that comes with academisation may well not be able to cope with this.

So if any members of the Institute of Directors are reading this and you do not agree with me, then please leave a comment on this article.

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