Key questioning: don’t skip steps7 min read


From firm foundations…

When I was training to teach, one of my tutors had a section on his lesson plan proforma entitled “vocab”. At the time, I wondered what possible reason there would be to have a vocab section for an ICT lesson plan – the kids know the vocab, right?

Early this year, my department ran a survey for all key stage 3 students (11-13 year olds) to find out attitudes and opinions on ICT. I would say I picked the first answer at random, but as the student’s first and second names both began with A I’m not sure that’s entirely accurate. Regardless, here’s what we saw:

Question one: is ICT important?

Yes. ICT is everywhere so it’s very important to understand it.

Question two: what do the letters ICT stand for?

I’m not sure.

So she knew that ICT was important, yet didn’t know what it was? This student was in year 9, so had been receiving two lessons a week for over two years at my school – not to mention the years she spent studying it at primary school – without covering a simple definition of terms.

Saying that she didn’t know what it was is a little harsh, granted, but after realising this good student didn’t know what the fundamental acronym stood for, in a subject littered with abbreviations, acronyms and a raft of otherwise alien words, that vocab section I derided as a trainee started to make an awful lot of sense.

According to this blog’s stats, the most popular resource on this site (by a considerable way) is the Bloom’s taxonomy document. I have to say that I’m glad about that… posters have their place, sure, but they’ll never have the kind of impact that really thinking about how you teach your subject will.

I was responsible for the year 7 scheme of work this year, which I put together largely over the summer, but after reading this girl’s insight into the role vocab has to play in truly understanding ICT concepts I opened it back up to add a vocab section to every unit. Key words were flagged up with definitions, and time built into the scheme for what some might think was a step backwards: vocab tests.

I went to a grammar school which taught very much as tradition dictated, and out of my three French lessons per week, the first ten minutes of the first lesson was dedicated to a simple, ten question vocab test – completed in the back of our vocab books, mere tantalising pages away from the answers which we’d written in the front. Under the keen eye of either of the stern Mr Wilby or the frankly terrifying Mr Ryder, we would learn our vocab in preparation for the test, do it, swap books with a neighbour, mark them together and by show of hands the teacher would determine… something.

What I didn’t know at the time was what exactly they were determining. Check your taxonomy – they’d just assessed our knowledge. What was next? Comprehension of this vocab (applying different cases & genders) & application (forming into gramatically correct sentences).

I realise I’m way over-egging this particular pudding, but in thinking back to my experience in my formulaic but effective French lessons, I saw what I’d been doing wrong as a trainee. Expecting students to understand the difference between a database and a spreadsheet is more than a little unreasonable when you haven’t provided them with a definition of either. I see this all the time with new students in year 7. “What’s a spreadsheet?” “Microsoft Excel.” “Okay, that’s an example of spreadsheet software, but can you tell me what one is? What does it do?”

I’m not sure whether this is something only I have had to deal with, but sometimes we feel like we’re regressing too far. “These kids have had ICT lessons virtually from the womb… why do they need to start from scratch when they arrive in my room?” was an interesting question from a high school ICT teacher I met at a conference. Just as interesting was the question “Do you have to complete the database task in Access, or can you do it in Excel?” from a qualified ICT teacher.

Students with a firm foundation in vocab and definitions go on to form confident opinions, and apply their understanding. By starting lesson one of spreadsheets with =A1+B1, there’s a hell of a lot that you (I) just missed.

Encouraging higher level thought

Equally important is what comes next. At the end of year 7, all students completed a project in small groups where they came up with a vision of some form of information technology they would expect to see in ten years’ time. Here’s how we broke it down:

What can computers do?

Pick a current example of some kind of ICT – mobile phone, games console, PDA – and list what it does. Everything that it does.

What could computers do ten years ago?

Sticking with the same genre of technology, pick an example from ten years ago. If you chose the PS3, pick the original Playstation. Write down what that could do, and note any differences you see.

So what can you expect in ten years time?

Think about the context you’ve just discovered – think about what’s next. Think about input & output devices. How will you control your invention? How will it relay information back to you?

In three manageable chunks we covered past, present & ideas for future technology, with the likelihood being that they’d only really experienced the present examples. Understanding.

Short assessment tasks were prepared – students had five minute interviews with me as an industry expert (eyes rolled) in which they describe their product and I give feedback. Often the ideas were along the lines of “It’s like an iPhone, but with more memory.” Or “It’s a PS3 that can play Xbox & Wii games.”

With that last example, we got into an interesting discussion about why Playstation, Microsoft & Nintendo would allow their games to be played on one console. We also discussed what the controller would look like – they presented me with a kind of Frankenstein’s monster of a games controller – chunks of all three console controllers Photoshopped together, but with a little discussion they agreed it wouldn’t work so moved on to another idea.

While giving current examples, I used the Nintendo Wii (again) as a key example of the kind of change we’ve seen in recent years. I started my lesson with the key question:

Why might it be surprising that Nintendo is having one of its best years on record? And why do you think that is?

As expected, nobody volunteered an answer – those are two difficult questions, and take some thought. So I left it on the board with the promise of a praise slip for anyone who came up with an answer before the end of the lesson. I did this with three separate year 7 classes, and in each one the answer came at around the 30 minute mark.

It’s surprising because we’re in a recession, and they’re making so much money for two reasons. Firstly, the Wii is a lot cheaper than the Xbox or Playstation 3, and secondly it’s a very different interface. You have to be more active to use it, and a lot of the games involve more than one person so parents are buying them to play with their kids.

A question like that digs a little deeper than a vocab test, drawing on awareness of current events as well as understanding the appeal of different consoles to parents – the ones who hold the purse strings. A games console no longer means hours of solitude locked away in a darkened bedroom.

After some thought, these students got that – but it only came after setting those firm foundations in vocabulary & encouraging them to build upon these themselves.

I feel awfully preachy having read this post through, but please don’t imagine me standing atop my soapbox trying to preach to a choir of grandmothers about the virtues of sucking eggs – this is more a description of the issues I had with building competence in my students.

It’s all too easy to fake understanding in ICT lessons: doing doesn’t necessarily mean understanding. By introducing key questions teachers can assess what’s actually being learnt. My resolution for next year is to do more digging in order to assess genuine understanding.

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  • I love Bloom’s taxonomy – it explains so much about learning. I understand why so many would seek more information about it. Excellent post explaining a concept of higher level thinking.

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