This weekend we cleared out the loft – not a pleasant job, but one that had to be done. Whilst doing so we came across some of my wife’s old school exercise books. Not surprisingly, I had a look through them. The first ones I came across were chemistry. Lianne attended Porthcawl Comprehensive in South Wales and was taught chemistry by Mr Clarke. The first book I came across was when she was in the 4th year (Y10), in 1985. What I thought would be a quick flick through the books, turned into a couple of hours and a lengthy discussion about Mr Clarke’s teaching strategies. It was absolutely fascinating and made me reflect on the effectiveness of some of the more modern approaches to teaching. I’ll try to illustrate with a few examples from this historical ‘book look’ – supported by some anecdotes from Lianne.
High Expectations and effort
Mr Clarke had massively high expectations of all of his students. He would tell his students that he would often teach O Level students, A Level content and A’ Level students, first year degree level. To illustrate this in Y8, they were doing valencies:
It’s worth mentioning that this was not a top set. It was mixed ability, tutor group in a comprehensive school. It’s also worth mentioning that everybody in the class achieved at least a grade C in their O’ Level. Nobody failed. Mr Clarke sounded like an interesting character. He expected 100% effort and hard work from everybody, as illustrated by the following quote:
“You may think you’re clever McTiffin, but without effort and hard work you’ll fail”
He impressed on his classes that success was the result of hard work and effort – nothing to do ‘how clever you were’. Sounds very much like ‘Growth Mindset’. I asked how a low ability student would have faired in his classes. Lianne said this was simple. Everybody knew his standards and expectations, and you had to come up to that, he wouldn’t come down to you. So if you found it hard, you simply had to work harder – because you didn’t want to be one of the ‘Dirty Dozen’. What was the ‘Dirty Dozen’? A list of the 12 students who had demonstrated the least effort in the previous lesson – displayed for all to see!
It was also fascinating to hear that Mr Clarke commonly used a strategy, suggested by John Hattie in this video clip. In it, Hattie says that if students are finding something hard, leave it, go on to something harder and then come back to it. Mr Clarke did this regularly. When O’ Level students were struggling, he’d leave it, go on to some A’ Level work and then come back to it – just to show them how easy it was. It worked.
DIRT is not new!
Mr Clarke marked all of his books, after every lesson. His style of marking may well be frowned upon now (lots of red ticks and very ‘frank’ comments ….. see later), but he did this religiously and knew what all of his students didn’t know. He would communicate this with them, in no uncertain terms:
The marking comment was ‘You need to balance these’. The student then did this, wrote a comment ‘Now balanced’, which the teacher acknowledged with ‘Good’! When I asked Lianne what would have happened if you wouldn’t have done the corrections – she laughed and replied ‘That didn’t happen…..you did what Mr Clarke asked!’
Mr Clarke also made it very clear about what your shortcomings were:
The books were full of difficult past exam questions too and this was a key feature of Mr Clarke’s teaching – lots of exam practice questions:
What struck me here was the phrasing of the question (from 1975) – students had to assimilate a great deal of information from the question and then use this in a complex answer. Another example:
These questions weren’t in isolation. There were pages of them. Mr Clarke clearly understood the importance of deliberate practice and didn’t care if it was a bit boring. It paid off. When they came across questions in exam papers, they knew them inside out.
A few other things that jumped out and were obvious from looking through the books and talking to Lianne.
- Students were expected to take pride in the presentation of their work – all headings were underlined, diagrams in pencil etc
- Students were expected to do a lot of writing and expected to use very accurate scientific language and work layout, from a very young age. There was no dumbing down.
- Every lesson had either a demonstration or a practical to support the explanation of the chemical concepts being studied. Time was always set aside the next lesson to discuss and explain the results from the practical work, to ensure that the learning was embedded.
I found this brief look into the teaching of Mr Clarke – almost 30 years ago – absolutely fascinating. I still believe that as teachers we do a brilliant job and I love hearing about new and interesting approaches to teaching, but I can’t help thinking we would all benefit from reflecting on Mr Clarke’s approach from time to time and do more of the basics…. and less of the gimmicks. Whilst some of his approaches may be questionable, I think he had many approaches to teaching that are essential to successful learning. To summarise:
- Set the bar of expectation high and expect all students to get there…..and beyond!
- Make it your business to know what your students can’t do….and let them know too.
- Expect hard work and effort from all students and make this ethos the highest priority, every lesson.
- Make all students believe that they can do better.
- Expect students to respond to your feedback.
- Provide lots of opportunities for deliberate practice.
This confirms to me that we are on the right path with our approach to teaching at DHS – I’d like to think that Mr Clarke would agree:
Lianne says that Mr Clarke was the best teacher she has ever had and that his teaching continues to shape her own practice today. She achieved an A at O’ Level and a distinction at S’ Level – to prove to Mr Clarke that she could! Mr Clarke won the ‘Teacher of the Year’ award! He is now retired and enjoying life in Porthcawl – much deserved! I think we still all have much to learn from Mr Clarke.