Review - A lollipop stick solution to our grade-addicted pupils

1st October 2010 at 01:00

The Classroom Experiment

Monday September 27 and Tuesday September 28, BBC2, 7pm

You can tell what type of documentary this will be from its opening line. "Our education system," the narrator pronounces, pausing for effect, "just isn't working well enough." A-ha. One of those. First: portentous statement. Next: class of pupils at an ordinary comp. In this case, Year 8 at Hertswood School in Borehamwood, Herts.

Enter the education maverick: Professor Dylan Wiliam, of London's Institute of Education, in black suit, earring, bushy eyebrows and bald pate, wielding a box of educational tricks. These will be met with initial scepticism, before - in the final third - winning over hearts, minds and one inevitable, doggedly recalcitrant pupil.

Check, check and, once again, check. First to be whisked out of Professor Wiliam's box is a box of lollipop sticks. Calling on pupils who put their hands up favours the bright, he says. So he suggests writing their names on the sticks and picking them at random.

Then there are the mini-whiteboards. Like a classroom version of Blankety Blank, these allow pupils to hold up answers to teachers' questions. Year 8, however, has no interest in a commemorative chequebook and pen: 10 minutes in, one boy is writing "can't be arssed" (sic) on his.

Pupils then use green, amber and red-coloured paper cups - there are always paper cups in education-transformation documentaries - to signal whether they understand a lesson, find it difficult or have lost the thread entirely. "It's a lot of stuff for them to play around with and break," one teacher sighs. A few weeks later, however, and - surprise! - there is less misbehaviour, boredom and teacher shrillness in lessons.

"We are like drug pushers," Professor Wiliam announces. "We've got our kids hooked on levels and grades." So, instead of handing out grades, teachers offer detailed feedback. But, like drug addicts, pupils are inventive in the hunt for a high: "I got all excellents, but two goods," one says; "I got one excellent and the rest good," one replies. It is the methadone of grade comparison.

Occasionally, however, The Classroom Experiment delivers some pleasant surprises. The recalcitrant pupil, for example, is not any of the misbehaving usual suspects. Instead, it is bright Emily, who demonstrates her intelligence by removing the lollipop sticks with her name on from every teacher's pot. "If I don't know the answer, it's quite embarrassing," she explains. "I've kinda got this reputation that I'm smart."

"But this is a school," Professor Wiliam counters. "If you knew all this before, there wouldn't be any point you being here."

By the final 15 minutes, obviously, even Emily has been won over. Behaviour has improved, as has pupil confidence. And, more significantly, so have grades, even if pupils are not aware of this.

Hertswood plans to extend the experiment to the rest of its year groups. Schools elsewhere, meanwhile, can only hope that the lollipop stick with their name on is eventually pulled out of the filmmakers' pot.

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