Three top tips to help your students learn to take an objective approach

Last October, I sat in a school in the North of England, not far from where I grew up, debating the use of mobile phones with a set of 13 year olds. While I hope not to give too much away about my age; this was not a debate that I ever had to have at secondary school. In those days, we instead debated how this novel thing called ‘the internet’ might someday allow us to communicate around the world and share small, pixelated images if we were lucky.

During the debate, we went through all the pros and cons of owning a mobile phone as a teenager and using it in school. The group decided in the end that mobile phones encouraged bullying and it would be better if people didn’t bring them in. One girl, Sarah read out the statistics about the rise of cyberbullying as they rounded off their discussions. Yet despite that, as she went to vote she told me she would vote to allow phones in the school. When I asked why, she simply shrugged and said she liked having her phone on her.

Objectivity is not a segmented skill which should be taught in PSHE lessons and then dragged out whenever there is a political debate. It is a vital cross-curricular facet which can enable students to excel at all their subjects. In a science lesson stepping back from opinions and assumptions will enable students to make more accurate hypotheses and apply more rigour in testing. An English student with a clear and open mind will be more likely to identify with the sentiments, thoughts and background of an author. Objectivity in ICT will encourage students to be open to new ideas for app features, or suggestions for how to improve how a system functions.

With that in mind, I have come up with three top tips to help teachers encourage these skills to develop without having to dedicate a great deal of time or planning to it. These are not even close to exhaustive, they are simply practical steps to encourage objectivity in the classroom.

Top Tip 1) Making the ridiculous a reality

This activity can be as simple and off-the-wall as you like. It can also be employed in any subject at any level. Subjectivity comes from countless assumptions which encourage us to think that what our beliefs and opinions are likely to be correct. “I am right in thinking that footballers earn too much money because I’ve seen pictures of Ronaldo driving around in a Ferrari”. One way of challenging these hidden assumptions is by asking students to write an argument for a ridiculous idea and to keep going until it starts to become plausible. Take a common subjective idea your pupils have e.g. footballers having too much money, and flip it round. Ask them instead to come up with a clear argument for why footballers don’t have enough money and should be paid more. Asking students to consider a question like this will not only help them become more objective, it will also help them to have a better understanding of that topic. It also only takes 10 minutes.

Top Tip 2) Practice empathy with opposite views

This skill centres around being able to pull your own interests and feelings out of a situation. A useful way to illustrate this is to show students examples of people being highly subjective. Newspaper headlines, politicians’ speeches and social media feeds can all provide accessible examples of people being subjective. For a quick, five-minute activity, take a headline, an excerpt from a speech or a tweet and ask students to analyse whether the person who made it was being objective or not. Then ask them to try and edit it so that it shows no bias or assumptions. This can be done in Geography via a discussion about climate change, for example.

Top Tip 3) Repetition, repetition and uh… repetition

Even those who pride themselves on being analytical and fact-driven must regularly to scrub the bias from their brains. Objectivity does not snap into place; students need to be reminded constantly when they are applying bias to a judgment. The best way to ensure that students are aware of their own assumptions and are able to step clear of them when they prepare for or participate in debates, is to have regular, weekly exercises where they need to shake any bias from their heads. Applying either of the above two tips once a week should do the trick.

Helping students to become more objective is a task implicitly given to teachers, but one that should be explicit. Analysing facts without them being clouded by one’s own thoughts is a vital process for young people to learn so that they can approach debates correctly, study effectively and apply themselves in jobs. Developing this skill at the very least might lead to less phones in schools, which (is possibly?) a good thing.

Searching for the secret politician inside all of us

We’re all aware of the virtues of getting young people debating. Debating arguably develops confidence and helps in later life. Whether that means having the nerve to speak out at a meeting, making a case for a refund after you’ve bought a dodgy kettle or giving a presentation in front of your scary SLT team, early exposure to debating really can help!

I only wish I’d had the opportunity to get involved myself when I was in school, but that’s a whole other story…

It’s probably the reason why I’m now so passionate about introducing debating into my classroom.

But there’s a huge problem that I face whenever I run a debate at school and it’s this: it’s always the same few hands that go up when I ask for volunteers to come to the front. 

And, guess what? Those hands tend to belong to more outspoke and confident students who tend to engage regularly in class discussions. I’ve consistently found that running a formal debating society only goes so far, in that it attracts the already converted and leaves the ones who perhaps need it most in terms of building self-esteem, out in the cold and disengaged.

So, experience has led me to running a rather different type of debate.

What seems to work is to get young people chatting in a more informal setting about something that’s in the news, trending on twitter, featuring on Facebook and buzzing on Buzzfeed. The more engaging the topic, the more the students forget the embarrassment of speaking out, lose the self-consciousness and just dive in.

If it’s a question of whether zero size models have a place on the catwalk or if parents should be allowed to drop off their children at school wearing pyjamas, it’s amazing how quickly that reluctance to speak out melts away.

Another advantage of brining in a more informal style of debate is that the quality of the ideas and expression improves. Far too often, when reluctant debaters confront formal, ‘old-chestnut’ topics, I’ve noticed a marked tendency for students to start sounding like a young Margaret Thatcher, using an overly formal register that ends up sounding stilted and stops the natural flow of ideas. I think it’s because of a combination of nervousness and a tendency to try to find “the right debate argument” to make, instead of just expressing themselves in an authentic, clear, fluent way.

My advice to students is always just to imagine you’re trying to convince a friend in an argument, speaking in a neutral, natural tone, and drop the overly formal register that nervous debaters frequently reach for.

The other big plus of choosing a topic that is relevant, fresh and newsy is that, never mind the pupils, you’ll also find yourself absorbed in the debate. It’s genuinely fascinating to hear what my students feel about the latest news story. I’m often staggered by the sophistication and open-mindedness of young people: Brexit, the sugar tax, celebrities tweeting about politics? Bring it on!

Sitting through yet another debate “For or Against Capital Punishment”, “Should Euthanasia be legalised?” can, I’m afraid, be a real chore and, unless you’re a professional actor, can so easily be communicated to the class.

Debates based on the news agenda just feel more relevant, fresh and engaging…for the teacher as well as the pupil!

So on to some deeply practical bits. However fresh and relevant the debate topic may be, there are some tried-and-tested rules that have stood the test of time (even if the debate topics haven’t!)

In my experience, the first key to success is to bring in a few good old-fashioned ‘rules’. However engaging the issue is, if students can’t hear each other, and follow through the arguments, what’s the point?

A good way to approach rule-setting is to encourage the students themselves to agree a clear set of rules, rather than imposing some on them. This should also help the students to properly think through the elements of a debate. As I mentioned last week with school councils, giving students elevated responsibility in the school and classroom is shown to help them become engaged learners*.

Having said that, it’s always a good idea to have the ‘end game’ of where you want to end up in mind, so that you can ‘facilitate’ the discussion and gently encourage the students towards a desirable outcome. So here are a few ideas:

  • Agree as a class that we’ll always listen to each other
  • Agree that we will always respect other people’s views
  • Set an expectation of always entering the debate with a really open, clear mind, ready to change our view if the evidence indicates
  • Make a group commitment to leaving behind preconceptions and received ideas about how a particular student will think and feel about an issue before actually hearing what it is they have to say
  • Set a rule where we all agree not to use offensive language
  • Make sure that everyone understands that it is not acceptable to express extreme views specifically designed to shock and cause offense

So now that we’ve got a newsy topic, an engaged set of students and a clearly articulated set of rules for them to stick to, agreed and endorsed by them, we’re ready to go.

Or are we? One of the biggest challenges to introducing debating in schools is finding a suitable time slot in the unremittingly busy school day to fit in a debate. With the ever-increasing imposition of targets, goals, metrics and a burgeoning list of Government curriculum requirements, with the best will in the world, it’s a tough call.

Relegating debating to an after-school activity raises that same issue of self-selection, with only the very keenest, most engaged students willing to give up free time for this.

Ideally, there would be time during a Citizenship or SMSC lesson, but I know from hard-learnt experience this isn’t always possible. To get round this, I’d suggest you use that tricky-to-fill slot of Tutor time to fit in a speedy, punchy debate. We’ve all struggled to fill this time practically, usefully and meangfully so running a speedy debate can be perfect!

It does mean that you have to be fairly structured in your approach, with only fifteen minutes available, but with a good set of resources and pre-agreed rules of engagement, it can work beautifully, making a positive benefit of this time and really fostering a positive group experience where everyone gets to know each other better in a relaxed framework.

If you can persuade SLT (using your finely tuned debating skills!), try introducing the topic during an assembly. When I’ve done this, there’s a buzz and excitement around the school which can then be picked up and acted on by individual Tutors.

So, newsy topic, clear set of rules, suitable time slot in which to deliver. Is that it?

Well, no. I’m saving my very best, tried-and-tested tip till last.

And it’s a simple one: add on a vote to follow the debate. Knowing they will be asked to formalising their views into a vote, can make for more thoughtful engagement from the students, a clearer sense of purpose, an increased focus on the key issues and an heightened sense of ownership

With the option to then act on the result of the vote wherever possible (a yes vote for mixed-gender football teams? Persuade the sports department to set one up; Yes to the sugar-tax? Put a 20% surcharge on chocolate bars).

Debating newsy topics with whole-class involvement, combined with a vote? I’ve listened to the arguments with an objective, open mind, weighed up the pros and the cons, reflected thoughtfully on the issues…and it’s a definite, big yes.

References

*Leila Walker, Ann Logan, NFER Future Lab 2008, https://www.nfer.ac.uk/publications/FUTL80/FUTL80.pdf

More than replacing sports equipment; making student councils more effective

November 2012 began with the second of what turned out to be four Ofsted inspections that year at my school. Each one was a unique, stressful and terrifying experience comprising of late nights making lesson plans and early mornings printing a tree’s worth of resources. On this particular visit, the inspector dropped-into the student council session that I was running. Needless to say, I was not overjoyed at seeing said inspector as I had hoped that lunchtime would at least provide a small amount of breathing space.

The students were discussing what to spend a small allocation of the extra-curricular budget on. They were all relatively engaged and keen to debate the benefits of a ping-pong table vs. a new communal set of footballs and the inspector was happy enough with what she had seen. With a decision made and a table-tennis table purchased, all were happy enough with how the council conducted themselves.

The problem was that the council was nothing more than a box-ticking exercise. Students enjoyed the debates but they never gained anything substantial from them. The council did not help its members to understand politics better, it did not help them access the political world, it did not bring significant changes to the school and it did not markedly boost the career prospects of any of the members. Having helped your school to build a third ping-pong table is hardly something worth putting on your CV when attempting to become a special advisor to a cabinet minister.

The student council was underutilised and underappreciated in my school, it came into being to make the school look better in inspections. This does not have to be the case. Student councils have the potential to accelerate learning, increase engagement and even revitalise a school. Graham School in Scarborough provides a useful case study for this. It was graded as Inadequate and placed in Special Measures in 2014. At the centre of its revival was the creation of a Student Parliament, which had specific committees setup for separate areas such as ‘Behaviour and Safety’ and ‘Community Liaison’. The students participating became ‘influencing learners’ and took responsibility for improving education in the school themselves1. It was attributed as being the key change that brought the school out of special measures.

As Graham School experience, there are distinct pedagogical benefits to creating an effective student council. The NFER ‘Learner Engagement’ model demonstrates how involvement in setting the direction of education leads to higher learner engagement2. It has also been demonstrated that an effective student council is a pathway to creating positive, active learners throughout the school, who both support their education and want to take part in shaping it3. Unsurprisingly, it is becoming clear that effective student councils boost progress in schools.

With that in mind, here are three practical tips for making your student council more effective.

Tip 1 – Give your student council a difficult decision to make

Rather than asking students to pick the colours/types of pencil cases that can be given to their peers as rewards for good behaviour, ask them to come up with a solution to a question that staff are genuinely struggling with. This could, for example, involve having an input on the selection of a new school governor or member of staff. It could also involve council members taking part in shaping the school day; the amount of time devoted to different subjects and approaches to teaching. None of these questions can just be thrown to students; they will need to be framed carefully and accompanied by background information. They also involve handing some control over to students on serious school matters, which will depend on having a brave SLT. But in giving responsibility over an issue that has a real impact on staff and pupils, you are enabling students to become leaders in later life. You are also helping them to boost their future personal statements with significant school contributions.

Tip 2 – Vote on a live government petition

A difficulty with the learnings and experience pupils gain from a student council is that they are limited to the school sphere. A student council that doesn’t look at the external community and politics in the UK will not prepare pupils for decision-making outside the school environment. In order to address this, you could encourage the student council to pick a government petition to sign and then watch as it progresses through parliament. All open government petitions can be found here. The student council could look through the open petitions and come to an agreement on whether to sign one or launch their own. Then they can learn about the political system in the UK by watching it progress. This is a quick and straightforward taster for how political protest works in the UK.

Tip 3 – Use engaging resources to prompt active discourse

Finally, there are great resources that can be picked up by schools and used in combination with the student council to encourage a whole-school role in decision-making. Student councils do not need to be designed to offer sole benefits to their members, they can encourage engagement in the whole school. VotesforSchools for example, sets a weekly debate based on current affairs for all pupils to discuss in tutor time, PSHE lessons or assemblies. The topics are intended to be tangible, this week for example the debate concerns social integration and the local community. Students can debate this topic as a whole school and the student council can go away and decide what action to take following the results of the vote. In this week’s example, councils are encouraged to decide on a community-focused new year’s resolution, which all the school will adhere to.

As one of my year 12s wrote their personal statement for their university application in 2012, they included their student voice involvement in order to boost their prospects. She mentioned that she had helped to bring in one healthy option per day in the canteen as evidence of her leadership skills. I wished that she had been given the time and responsibility to write that she had worked with peers to consult on the appointment of the head of governors, to motivate the school to contact government about cuts to the NHS or that she had developed a community action plan after the school decided they needed to do more to help those who were disadvantaged in their community. Student councils are a tool to open up opportunities for real leadership and difficult decision-making which should not be missed.

 

References

To buy Blue Bolt or not to buy Blue Bolt

During Period Two Maths with Year 11 on a Thursday, I noticed that Chris* was exhibiting some unusual behaviour. Normally a quiet and diligent student, Chris rarely caused any trouble and could be left alone to work at his own pace. However, on this November morning I spotted that Chris was shaking rather violently and finding it increasingly difficult to concentrate. Rather than listening to me, he seemed to have picked up a new hobby that consisted of throwing pencils repeatedly at Jack’s* head. Jack did not appreciate this new activity. Despite many warnings, Chris’s behaviour deteriorated at an alarming rate and he was quickly sent out of the classroom for knocking a table over.

I found out from the rest of the class that Chris had chosen to spend his breakfast money on two large bottles of boost energy drink rather than on something more nutritious. Having consumed large amounts of sugar and caffeine, he was sent out of every lesson that day, teased by many of his friends and grounded by his parents who were mortified to have discovered how he had behaved at school. He also spent the day with his heart beating at twice its resting rate.

Chris had not properly considered the consequences of his actions. He had simply thought; “if I spend my breakfast money at the shop this morning I can buy 2 litres of blue energy which I love, rather than getting some bland porridge from the canteen.” He had not weighed in the fact that consuming so much caffeine-infused liquid would lead to a terrible day at school and lasting consequences at home. He had not fully thought-through the underlying trade-offs when making that decision.

The trade-offs involved in politics and most aspects of adult life are frequently misunderstood by citizens in the UK. According to a polling study1, the number of people who regretted voting for Brexit, was greater than the margin of victory. This doesn’t immediately imply that the population did not in fact want the leave the EU, but it does suggest that citizens failed to fully contemplate the consequences before they voted.

The difficulty in understanding trade-offs in politics and wider society is not helped by a partisan and sometimes sensationalist mass media. Headlines like “Each illegal immigrant to cost us £1m2” or “Tax the rich, don’t rob the poor3”, hardly present a balanced view that educates people about the consequences of different policies.

Young people are rarely given the chance to understand how a collective choice can have drawbacks for the whole group. If one of my students were asked whether the government should spend more on education, the NHS and on the police force, they would instantly say yes. When asked such a question, they would devote no time to thinking about where that money might come from and what departments might lose out as a result. Neither would they think about how frequently buying energy drinks for breakfast would have a detrimental effect on their learning and grades in the long term.

But how does a tired teacher attempt to educate their students about the complicated costs and benefits of decision-making in British society? It is hardly a resource-abundant field with plenty of dedicated teaching time. I have a couple of practical suggestions which could make doing this more straightforward.

First up is the ‘hidden cost’ activity.  This simply comprises setting a question to a class with an unknown consequence. At the start of the lesson, ask your students if they would like to finish the lesson two minutes early or not (anything along these lines works, such as changing the seating plan or watching a video for five mins). The class will most likely vote for the seemingly-positive offer you have made them.

In the following lesson, reveal that because of their decision they now must finish the lesson three minutes late (or a similar weighted negative consequence). Following the expected negative reaction, you have the opportunity to teach students about questioning offers made to them and fully understanding the consequences of their decisions. Repeating this throughout a half-term with different offers is simple to do and will encourage a determination in your class to seek out the trade-offs behind offers made to them.

Second, allow students to take control of the way in which they learn about a specific subject. Inform students that the lesson is going to be conducted in two or three different ways in the next week. These types of teaching can be something like group learning, a straightforward lecture-style approach or an inverted learning style with students watching tuition videos at home and then completing tasks in the classroom. Once these different approaches have been carried out, bring the class together to discover which they thought was the most effective, focusing on the hidden drawbacks of each. If you have time, you could test students on the different topics to show quantitatively, which was the most effective teaching method for learning a subject across the class.

This introduction to trade-offs will not only permeate into daily decision-making for students, it will also likely improve their engagement in the classroom and learning. By asking students to question their decisions and their learning, you are demanding the type of higher-order thinking which will improve students’ evaluative skills4. These approaches are also a form of ‘dialogic teaching’ which has been proven to identify students’ needs and encourage effective learning. Through engaging students in discussions about trade-offs related to their learning you are encouraging interactions that help them to think in different ways5.

At VotesforSchools, we provide content that deals directly with the trade-offs that students will make when they reach adulthood. For example, in October we ran a VoteTopic on whether Donald Trump should be allowed to run for President. The materials focused on the trade-offs between protecting people from being offended and banning candidates from running in elections. Students were given the opportunity to discuss whether the desire for a more civil debate was strong enough to justify questioning the basic principles of a modern democracy. You can find out more here.

In 2017, UK politicians will be forced to make difficult decisions. Just this week, we have seen how leaders must show both strength and compassion, making extremely hard choices to balance the fears of their citizens against their responsibility for the safety of refugees. It is vital that our young people understand how hard these choices really are.

*Names have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals

  1. British Election Study, http://www.britishelectionstudy.com/bes-resources/brexit-britain-british-election-study-insights-from-the-post-eu-referendum-wave-of-the-bes-internet-panel/#.WFkLqBuLQ2x
  2. The Daily Express, http://www.express.co.uk/news/uk/98847/Each-illegal-immigrant-to-cost-us-1million
  3. The Morning Star, https://streetvisuals.wordpress.com/2010/04/19/tax-the-rich-dont-rob-the-poor-britain-home-morning-star/
  4. National College for School Leadership paper, https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/329746/what-makes-great-pedagogy-nine-claims-from-research.pdf]
  5. Robin Alexander on Dialogic Teaching, http://www.robinalexander.org.uk/dialogic-teaching/

The VotesforSchools approach to SMSC

It is 8:44am on a Tuesday morning and pupils have begun to stream into your classroom. You haven’t had the time to fully prepare for period 1, you have half a set of books to mark before the end of break (which you remind yourself that you are on duty for) and you are expected to deliver an inspirational SMSC, British Values and Prevent session to your tutor group in the next 15 minutes. It is a reality that many teachers are used to.

While teachers struggle to find the time for SMSC, political developments, divisions and misunderstandings in 2016 suggest that an education in citizenship has never been more important. Rather than the internet making the world a broader, more tolerant and open place, it has arguably narrowed the information and insights that young people have access to. Social media sites tend to only show the side of the argument that the students, their friends and their family believe in. Fake news platforms and Twitterbots feed young people stories and articles which are not only inaccurate but partially/entirely fabricated. YouTube ‘influencers’ are consulted more frequently than newspapers. Because of all this, any citizens who are not dedicated enough to seek out the other side of the argument or sufficiently discerning to realise what is false and what isn’t, will find themselves unable to fully participate in a democratic society. Divisions between society stand to become more entrenched rather than smaller.

In this blog series, we will look at using SMSC resources to enable over-worked teachers to have effective discussions with students without having to invest large amounts of time into lesson preparation. We will also look at how senior staff can use data to engage students in whole-school initiatives or social action. Each weekly post will contain an exploration of leading pedagogical theories on SMSC delivery and evidence-based research. Finally, we will feature regular advice from teachers and pupils trying to innovate with SMSC delivery.

Many of the recommendations each week will be aimed at the whole school rather than solely one class, meaning that members of SLT can explore how themes and curricula can sit across the all students. In the weeks to come, we will explore topics such as; how to teach students about prejudices; how to facilitate safe discussions around contentious issues and how to make trade-offs as a politician/minister.

It is worth noting that the SMSC curriculum was not intended to be, nor does it do well as, a stand-alone subject. For example, it is hardly worth trying to teach a year 7 who does not yet know how to interpret a bar chart how different demographics voted in the EU Referendum. Thus, this series will also concentrate on applying SMSC across the curriculum using weekly themes and the application of current affairs. The ideal result would be for young year 7s to be desperate in Maths to learn how to read a bar chart so that they can go back and better understand how young people voted differently to the elderly in June 2016.

After reading each weekly instalment, it is hoped when 8:44am comes around next Tuesday morning, you and the rest of the staff at your school will not only feel prepared but excited about exploring the SMSC, British Values and Prevent curricula with your students.

Matt Beer

(Head of Content at VotesforSchools, Former Teacher)