I took a chemistry GCSE – and got a great reaction

5th January 2018 at 00:00
Pupils took delight in coaching their deputy head, Alistair McConville, to pass his exam. Now, a teachers-as-learners revolution has been sparked in the staffroom…

Regular readers may recall an article by a holiday-fuelled, and possibly sun-affected, teacher recklessly proclaiming that he would study for chemistry GCSE in a year with his Year 11 students. He had been deprived of almost all scientific knowledge by his earlier education, which focused more on Latin than lithium.

Eighteen months on, a retrospective…

There were numerous days when the undertaking seemed distinctly rash. It turns out that there’s really quite a lot to learn in a chemistry GCSE. Especially when your foundational knowledge is electron-sized and you think “atom” is an Egyptian god.

And it’s not easy stuff, either. I had imagined a gentle reading of the textbook, a few casual drop-ins to the chemistry department and a glance from a galloping horse at some past papers would probably suffice. This turned out to be hubris of the most grotesque kind. My daughter’s accusations of arrogance started to haunt me as soon as I looked at the specification. I felt like one of those hapless Victorians trying to decipher hieroglyphics before they found the Rosetta Stone.

I knuckled down, driven by the twin motivators of absorption and fear. The story of Icarus kept popping into my head, darkly. “Free time” became a fond memory and holidays passed with my hammock neglected. My children protested movingly, their tiny fists beating the study door in vain.

Perhaps I exaggerate a little. But I certainly found I had bitten off more than I had intended. I quickly established a revitalised respect for my Year 11 students. They had built up a vocabulary and a practice over several years that was more dense and complex than I had imagined, and could only be penetrated with some serious graft.

Pomodoros and Porsches

I had originally been inspired by Barbara Oakley’s A Mind for Numbers, which outlines a methodology for effective learning rooted in modern research. I worked in short, sharp bursts, employing the Pomodoro Technique of time management, rewarding myself after each sprint, as prescribed, usually with a quick stroll with my faithful hound, Violet.

I made up zany metaphors to remember the names of substances. The image of me weeping over a melting white Porsche Boxster enabled me to recall that bauxite (a white powder) is dissolved in cryolite. Without a strategy, these words would just have been noises.

I tested myself relentlessly as I progressed, spurred on by Barbara’s emphasis on active recall as the great solidifier of neural networks. Slowly, I started to piece things together.

I had also vowed to work with my students. They were wonderful props and prompters. I submitted myself to their amused care in various practicals, and they appeared to take pleasure in teaching their teacher.

They cheerfully enquired about my progress with a regularity that often sent me scurrying back to my books. I struck a deal with a scientifically superior Year 11 that he would help me with my chemistry in return for some Latin coaching. A symbiotically fruitful relationship was born.

The appliance of science

My presence at the GCSE exam itself caused the students some mirth, and I suspect de-compressed the event for them a little. Not that I was without nerves. For all my efforts, I knew that I was to some extent guilty of a cardinal learning sin, according to the Book of Oakley, namely that I had crammed too much into too few corners.

I knew that I had not reached the heights of comprehension for which I had been aiming when I struck out. I experienced that sense that most students must feel as they approach an exam hall, which is that I could have done substantially more.

The paper smiled on me. I was able to strut my knowledge of cryolite and I am now, mercifully, the proud owner of a chemistry GCSE. A modest achievement for a 40-something teacher, one might say, but I heartily commend the experience of starting out on a new avenue of learning to anyone who will listen.

Do it in the full glare of the school’s gaze. It provokes excellent conversations about the learning process, puts you back in the shoes of a student and gives you a chance to model good learning to your pupils. You might even spark a teachers-as-learners revolution in the staffroom. One of my colleagues took his GCSE biology last year, too, and another is tackling Ancient Greek this summer. A third mutters about German at lunchtime. Revolutions start with such lunchtime mutterings. And I’m a little less ignorant of the fundamental workings of the universe.

I hereby throw down the gauntlet…

Alistair McConville is deputy head (academic) at Bedales School, Hampshire

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