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Monday, 3 November 2014

Something on positive reinforcement in education.

A few years ago, before my misguided attempt to become management, I began a piece of action research. I never finished this and promptly forgot about it with the hatred of all things teaching that followed my movement up and then back down the teaching 'ladder'.

I recently rediscovered this work while I was cleaning through some old files and present it now as the beginnings of a piece of work and no more than that.

A small piece of action research.

The research question ‘does enjoyment raise attainment in science?’ was tested on my PGCE. At the time I found that there was a relation between enjoyment and attainment. When students enjoy a subject they are more likely to engage with what is being offered to them. This means that they are more likely to complete tasks and more importantly they are more likely to remember information being presented. This recall of activities and knowledge is important in raising their attainment.

Since beginning teaching I have noticed that it is harder and harder to keep students enjoying a subject throughout the year. There seem to be definite topics where making the subject interesting and engaging is easier than others. A lot of this depends upon the teacher and their interests but also on the nature of the subject material at hand. I have blogged on the importance for teachers to stay excited by their subject but is this enough to continue to push students forwards?

On area that seems to come up a lot in conversation with other teachers is that students are so disaffected with school and learning that whatever the activity they are reluctant to engage. Teachers feel this reflects badly on their lesson rather than the issue be with the learners and their priorities. I have tried various ways of combating this in my teaching. From relevance of subject matter to constant use of practical science as lesson ‘hooks’ in order to bring students into the topic that is being delivered. However as you can imagine this constant planning, re-planning and attempts at creativity (or finding other peoples creativity) is time consuming and exhausting when attempted over a long period of time.

The question of engagement came up when I started at my current school. I took over two year 9 groups of very disaffected students who had been removed from early entry GCSE owing to their poor performance. This had led to lots of the students to have ‘given up’ on science already before their course had even gotten going. Part of my brief when I took them over was to try to get them back interested or at least engaging with science ready for year 10. I feel that I achieved a measure of success in their respect although at the time it felt like an uphill struggle. This year I have a group of year 9’s again who are in early entry GCSE this time on the C/D boarderline. Being determined that the students would not become disaffected with GCSE science I set about trying to keep them focused on the subject.

I decided to base my teaching on positive reinforcement and to not focus on any negative behaviour but over the top praise those who had got on with work. The lesson structures and plans were the same as they would have been otherwise. There were only 3 real rules that I put in place for this;
1.       Make sure to praise those who were on task and make sure that good work was publically highlighted.
2.       Rather than focus on bad behaviour I would relate it to respect, politeness and manners.
3.       I would try to individualise feedback but from a positive perspective focusing on what the student had done well first and foremost and how I felt they could improve to do even better.
I have been very conscious of my language use during this. At first constant positivity was difficult and some phrases stuck in my throat of felt ‘clunky’ however I remember feeling the same with normal praise on my PGCE. As with that situation the more positive I was the easier it became. However I was keen to ensure that I never was disingenuous as I feel learners are quick to pick up on this. I was also keen to make sure that when students were asking me questions or showing work that my attention was fully focused on them, as a school pupil feedback showed that they know and dislike when a teacher is not paying attention.
B1
The first unit was B1 (biology). I felt that the main issue with most of the students was not being used to the GCSE questions and so not fitting their long answers to the questions asked. However the recall of information was pleasing. As a result I was positive about their results and where they had gone well while at the same time highlighting the areas in which they could improve. This was even though their results in terms of target grades were not amazing.

P1
In many cases the results for P1 dropped. However the recall of knowledge was still fairly good unfortunately most people made silly mistakes and errors on a long answer questions about diffraction in a glass block. Again the response from me was positive and built around improvement and building on what had gone well rather than focusing on where the students had made mistakes in a negative way. There is also a point to make that many students struggle with the mathematics inherent in physics (in a similar way students who are not very linguistic tend to struggle with biology).

C1
The results from C1 show the closest results to the predicted grades. The increase in some students is remarkable. This is pleasing in two ways. Firstly the students have started to take on board the advice and encouragement that had been given and their results had improved accordingly. There were more noticeable mistakes in terms of knowledge recall in this exam and less in terms of how to answer the question. Secondly some students who had shown they were making good progress were allowed to take the higher tier paper for the first time and their results were very pleasing indeed (the A’s and B’s shown).

Conclusion
There is strong evidence that consistent positive reinforcement can improve performance. However there are several points to make with regard this study. Firstly that the improvements were also based upon the students getting used to the standard expected at GCSE. The importance of this cannot be overstated as often the style of exam questions shifts dramatically from key stage 3 to 4. Also it should be noted that behaviour in this class was of a good standard generally and this type of approach may not work with a class that requires a firmer hand. This class were taught with a mixture of independent tasks and directed study as well as some practical work. If the study was to be reproduced it would be interesting to see the impact of greater autonomy and possibly even utilising more enquiry based learning methods.
It should also be noted that very little marking was provided outside of homework exercises and exam practice. In fact it could be argued that this form of feedback was much stronger than the positive reinforcement as it helped to shape and prepare the students from one test to another.
However what has come out from this study is that the attitude of the learners towards science has improved and this has seen to be reflected in their effort levels, which in turn has been reflected in their results.
Data
Student
B1 Test Sc GCSE
P1 Test Sc GCSE
C1 Test Sc GCSE
Target Grade
1
D
F+
C+
C
2
C+
C-
A
B
3
D+
E+
C+
C
4
D
D+
C+
C
5
D
C
B
C
6
D+
C
D-
C
7
F
C+
A
C
8
D
C+
B
C
9
D
D-
C+
C
10
D
E-
C+
C
11
C+
C-
B
C
12
F+
E-
F+
C
13
D
G+
C
C
14
C
C+
B+
C
15
D
D+
C+
C
16
D
D+
D+
C
17
E+
C-
C+
C
18
E
G+
C+
C
19
C+
C+
A-
C
20
E+
D+
C+
C
21
E+
C-
C
C
22
E
D
C+
C
23
E+
D
C-
C
24
F+
E+
E+
C
25
E+
D+
D-
C
26
D
F-
C+
C
27
C
D-
B
C
28
E
D-
D-
C
29
C+
D+
C+
C
30
E+
E-
C+
C

Carol Dweck
Growth ethos – ability can be cultivated and that effort is required for learning. Use of process orientated and task orientated praise. Avoidance of relating praise to personal attributes otherwise it can limited the belief of others that they can succeed. Instead by having praise based upon the task or process then students can see why someone else is being praised, especially when building praise around striving to succeed. It seems to be about building the idea that it is ok to fail providing you keep moving forwards in order to get there in the end.

Dweck, C. S. (1999) Self Theories: Their Role in Motivation, Personality, and Development . Hove: Psychology Press, Taylor and Francis Group.

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

The threat of human extinction.

In the week when the northern white rhino population took another step towards being extinct with the number of breeding males dropping down to one there was also an event on human extinction taking place in London. The Extinction Marathon involved philosophers, scientists and people from the arts all talking about the increased risk of human extinction.

This seems a massively counter intuitive thought. With a population rapidly moving further north of seven billion there does not on the surface seem to be any stopping the incessant march of humans. However as ever this only tells part of the story. Humans may be incredibly successful but at what cost? There are serious discussions being had about renaming the Tertiary Geological time period we are living through to the Anthropocene Period in reflection of the impact humans have had.

What does this have to do with human extinction? Well currently we are living through a mass extinction event (the Holocene Event), the majority of which is due to the impact of our species. This is fine however it is massively affecting the biodiversity of the world in which we live. While it is true that some species are thriving - either as parasites of humans or due to being a species we want e.g. cows, chicken and corn - the majority are suffering. If we factor in the environmental changes we are also creating, whether that is the rise of carbon dioxide due to the overuse of fossil fuels or land clearing and deforestation or even the pollution of the seas due to poor waste management, The trend is clear, eventually the Earth will reach a critical stage and will not be able to continue to support human life.

This is not to say that the Earth will be devoid of life, humans in the grand scheme of evolution are not that special. We are one in a long line of successful organisms to have evolved and developed throughout the Earth's history. The only concession to humans being unique is the sheer scale of how we are affecting the Earth. Yet it is in this that our fragility and weaknesses are exposed.

There are three hundred and fifty thousand species of beetle in the world, that we know of. There are over a thousand species of bat. However there is one species of hominid (the family humans are part of), for all the talk of our nearness to other great apes - chimpanzees and gorillas - the truth of the matter is all of the members of our immediate family are extinct. This means that as successful as we are as a species, we are it.

One species.

Whilst everyone is unique due to the combination of genes in their genotype we are the same species.

This is a fact of biology that we can't escape, regardless of inherited features or environmental factors which might affect differences on the scale of the phenotype. We are the same species.

Whether we look differently, act differently or think differently we are humans. Which is why it is puzzling that whilst we may still have to compete for the same resources that all animals do however for a species that has the power to control so many factors in our environment our anger and behaviour seems to evade us.


The traits that may actually destroy humans are probably those which made humans successful. As a species we possess strong emotions. While this is a very strong feature for survival in a nature red in tooth and claw type environment when we fast forward to modern times there are no apex predators hunting humans. As a result turning upon each other would be expected. However this is not confined to a small scale habitat as we might see when chimpanzees attack other chimp troops. This is global and often not based on a need to survive. 

There is no difference between humans on a species level. Political divisions, religious ideologies and  social conformations are purely applied by humans. There should be no need for these divisions, that is not to say humans will ever reach a Utopia like civilization, but surely we need a paradigm shift for our attitudes towards each other. 

This is where the extinction theme comes back in.

So far even though we have found water present on other bodies in the solar system we have found nothing to suggest that any form of life out there would be much more than simple bacteria. In fact even this discovery whilst possibly close is also still out of reach. 

Complex life exists on one planet that we know of. 

Our species exists on one planet that we know of. 

Unfortunately we abuse both our species and our planet. That abuse can not continue indefinitely. In fact I would go as far to say that it must not. 

Otherwise the Holocene event will claim one more species and that will bring to an end the Anthropocene Period. 

Finally I will leave you with the words of Carl Sagan.