Testing Times in the Classroom: Personal Educational Experiences and Influences

The first task for Week 2 of Exeter University’s Future Learn course: Testing Times in the Classroom: Challenges of 21st Century Education is to reflect on our own personal educational experiences and to consider the impact of these experiences on our understanding of education. We have been asked to consider our earliest memories and what was effective, what wasn’t, and what could be changed.

I have a terrible memory and an especially poor early memory. I put this down to the trauma of having to leave India, where I was born, at the age of eight and return to a boarding school in the UK. I remember very little of my education or even life before the age of 11, when I was taken out of the boarding school and returned to live at home with my parents. Others in the course have mentioned how trauma can negatively impact on education.

But I do have memories of my schooling from after the age of eleven, and like others in the course I can remember specific teachers whose teaching had a life-long effect, notably my secondary school literature, geography and biology teachers. But if I reflect on my educational experiences there was one event that established my career trajectory, and three people who have been hugely influential in determining my educational philosophy.

The event

I went to University in the 60s, where, in the first year I studied zoology, chemistry and physiology. I don’t know how common my undergraduate experience was, but mine was not good. Most notably, not a single lecturer knew my name, or me, for my entire three years. With one exception, the event which shaped my life and career, my university education consisted of sitting in large lecture theatres, staring at the back of the lecturer who was writing on a blackboard and frantically trying to copy down everything he wrote ( I don’t remember having any female lecturers) – or – of sitting in solitary silence in the library writing essays. The exception was that in my first year the physiology lecturer ran group seminars in which we were required to research, prepare and give a presentation on a chosen topic to the rest of the group. My chosen topic was ‘pain’. This was a significant event for me because it was when I realised not only that I could teach, but also that I loved it. The rest, as they say, is history.

The people

At the time when I started my teaching career, behaviourism (think Skinner) and teaching machines were the thing. I got a high mark for a project in my teaching diploma year (following graduation) for writing a mini textbook on ecology in the form of a teaching machine, i.e. programmed learning with in-built feedback. It was a while before I began to be influenced by constructivism and social constructivism and theorists such as Dewey, Bruner, Piaget and Vygotsky. Whilst these theorists of course influenced my thinking and practice, they didn’t have such a huge effect on my thinking, my practice and educational philosophy as the following three people, all of whom I have met and in some capacity have worked with or alongside. I will try and explain why they had the impact they did.

  1. Etienne Wenger. I am an introvert and my natural tendency would be to work alone. Etienne’s work introduced me to social learning theory, the power of communities of practice and working collaboratively with others. He has also written extensively on learning and identity. It was Etienne who really brought home to me how learning is about learning who I am.
  2. Stephen Downes. Being an introvert, I am not a natural networker. Early in my career I was told I needed to improve my networking skills. Stephen’s work on the theory of connectivism was hugely influential in helping me to see that everything is connected, and that knowledge is in the network; learning is the ability to make connections and traverse the network.

Connectivism depends on certain principles which now form the basis of my philosophical and pedagogical approach to education.

Images from: https://prezi.com/owiih87ovrhc/the-ideals-and-reality-of-participating-in-a-mooc/

I have also been influenced by Stephen’s thinking that – To teach is to model and demonstrate. To learn is to practise and reflect.

  1. Iain McGilchrist. Iain has been the most recent influence on my thinking about education. By listening to Iain and following his work I have reconsidered educational issues such as depth and breadth, ways of knowing, embodied learning and truth. Perhaps one of his most significant ideas for education is that everything is in flow, always changing and that therefore we have to be able to live with uncertainty and ambiguity. Another is that knowledge comes through a relationship. Iain discusses this in terms of ‘betweenness’. To understand this we need to think about “a world of ‘togetherness’ and intersubjectivity, rather than one of competition and bias; a world where we transcend the apparent duality of subjective and objective, of realism and idealism (p.144, The Master and his Emissary). This is a world which focusses on the relations between things, reciprocity and empathy.” This approach to education would promote ‘both/and’ thinking.

Iain’s work has made me realise how important it is to learn how to think, and I have wondered why philosophy is not a stand-alone subject in the national curriculum for all ages.

I haven’t explicitly written about what was effective, what  wasn’t and what could be changed. I am hoping that this is self-explanatory in this post. This was a useful and enjoyable task to complete.

5 thoughts on “Testing Times in the Classroom: Personal Educational Experiences and Influences

  1. Bruno Annetta September 23, 2019 / 4:10 am

    Hi Jenny
    As a retired teacher I offer a very powerful strategy that I used in my very first class with any new group of students. I won’t go into the details unless asked for. In a nutshell – I taught the students a mnemonic technique to remember information (using personalisation and humour). They completed two short tests. One with out the mnemonic technique and a second one after teaching them the mnemonic technique. The results showed a dramatic improvement in the students memories of some simple information. While the students completed the tests I used the mnemonic technique to remember their names. After the first test was completed I introduced the mnemonic technique and demonstrated it by naming every student in the class. They wanted to know more, specifically how I used it to remember their names. After completing the second test using the mnemonic technique they were amazed at their scores which had improved. The top score after the first test was 25 out of 40. After the second test most student got 40 out of 40 and the lowest score was 25 out of 40. They were excited to try the technique in other subject areas and … I had developed an excellent rapport with them which lasted for the rest of my time with them. I had students coming to me excited to tell me how they had use the technique to remember specific things. As a result of this strategy I was quickly able to remember all my students names and give them something they could actually use … in the very first class/encounter with me.

  2. jennymackness September 23, 2019 / 6:27 pm

    Hi Bruno. Thanks for the comment. I have occasionally used mnemonics in the past. My problem is that I quite often forget the mnemonic 🙂 Yes – my memory is that bad!

    One mnemonic that I always remember is ‘My Very Easy Method Just Speeds Up Naming Planets’ – Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, Pluto. From what you have written it sounds as though you make up your own mnemonics. I have never done that.

    As a retired teacher myself, I agree that it is very important to know all your students’ names, so I am not surprised that your students were impressed.

  3. Bruno Annetta September 24, 2019 / 2:22 am

    Hi Jenny
    I not only made my own mnemonics I had the students make up their own as well, and share them with each other. I would first present one of mine and then ask them to create theirs. An example is when we studied DNA. I gave them one of mine, which was as follows. On the board I would write the letters D then N then A but I’d leave out the rung of the A and ask them what was missing. They would yell out ‘the rung” … No! I would say … it’s a negative symbol! They would all go Ahhhh! and grin. This reminded them of DNA’s negative charge which was particularly relevant to the topic of gel electrophoresis. One student offered the following mnemonic : ca+ion. I told her it was brilliant! … we expanded on it. Firstly we get that cations are positive because she replaced the t with a plus sign … but then we get that anions must be negative and then … with more playing we decided that cations go to their “cathome” (cathode – replace d with m) which caused some giggling and reminds us that the cathode is negative and therefore the anode is positive. SO … by simply swapping the t with a + we get 4 very important pieces of information and have a little fun in the process. I always told my students that I believed that learning can be fun and easy. The key to having this strategy work is obviously my own enthusiasm and creativity, which I used to inspire them … but once they saw the possibility of it they ran with it. I have presented this work to teachers … and I love how they all responded in the same way as my students when I stated that it is the negative symbol that was missing from the A in DNA!
    Cheers Bruno

  4. jennymackness September 24, 2019 / 6:42 pm

    Thanks for sharing your examples Bruno and your enthusiasm. I expect you miss teaching now that you are retired.

  5. Bruno Annetta September 24, 2019 / 11:38 pm

    Yes. I miss THAT part of it.

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