It is interesting how my approach to teaching has varied over the years. At the start, I was more interested in teaching stuff – regardless of whether that was useful and meaningful. Towards the middle, I tended to focus on stuff that would have a meaningful impact on what students could do. Now, the more I think about things the more I think we need to spend more time on misconceptions in English. For all the talk about what students need to know, there isn’t enough talk around misconceptions for my liking.
The question we tend to apply to English is:
What do students need to do or know to be to succeed in this task?
Then, we go away and plan a series of lessons building up to the final task. Each lesson will, in part, focus on one of these nuggets a student needs to supposedly achieve or master. We might practise a task to see if they have mastered some elements. The problem with this is that you largely don’t understand the issues until after the event. The post task analysis highlights all the problems they had made and what didn’t and what did stick. Wouldn’t this level of understanding be valuable in the first week of teaching or planning? Yet, we don’t formalise or build on it. Instead it is saved for next time the class do a similar task.
Let’s add another question and a question that is possibly more important for success:
Where do students go wrong with this task?
We all address mistakes on a microlevel, but we rarely look at mistakes on a macrolevel in English. When given a text to teach for the first time, we buzz with excitement over the things we can do and things we can teach. We are joyful about what they could learn from it, yet we never engage on the danger zones or the areas of misconception. Any thought of those are not concerned until we reach that bridge. Precision is what makes students better in their reading and writing, yet we don’t always have that level of precision when approaching texts. We don’t start with the mistakes. We don’t go here are the major mistakes with this question.
Take the novel ‘A Christmas Carol’. There are a number of areas for misconception such as context, plot, analysis and writing. Each one brings with it it’s own set of issues. Let’s just take the plot as an example. Look at these points:
· Scrooge is evil.
· Bob Cratchit is an example of the poor.
Whatever text you study there are a number of these plot misconceptions that students pick up somehow when reading the text. When you identify these misconceptions, you can explicitly teach them alongside the text. As you read the Stave 1, you question students about Scrooge’s evilness. Is Dickens presenting him as evil? No. Building misconceptions into teaching English, helps informs and makes learning precise. You address the misconception and attack it in tandem with what you would normally teach. Some misconceptions are collected well before the students read a text. Take ‘Frankenstein’ and ‘The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde’. They need addressing and challenging at the start. For these two texts, I’d always check and address a student’s prior knowledge of the text. It is amazing how many students think Hyde is bigger than Jekyll.
So, how does this apply across the rest of English and exams? Well, I think misconceptions should be part and parcel of what we teach. Take the Paper 2 GCSE English Language paper for AQA and the summary question (Question 2). The following are misconceptions around answering the question:
· You just reword the text in your own words
· You spot differences between the texts
· You need techniques to support you ideas
· There is a set number of things to find so it is best if you can spot everything you can
Once you understand the problem areas you can address these in your teaching. We are teaching X because Y is wrong.
You just reword the text in your own words - no, you must make an inference
You spot differences between the texts – the difference needs to be an inference
You need techniques to support you ideas – only need a quotation so wasted time talking about techniques
There is a set number of things to find so it is best if you can spot everything you can – about the quality of explanation and not the number of things spotted
At KS3, we have more of a collective emphasis. Misconceptions around aspects that affect all year groups. Two things I am working on this holiday are comma splices and inferences. Both areas that affect a large population of students and need finetuning if students are to improve. The key thing, however, is making the misconceptions visible and talking about them. Other subjects do misconceptions so much better. They spend large chunks of time on addressing them or repeatedly revisit them. I think English teachers can learn a lot from other subjects on how they deal with mistakes. Unless we adapt our teaching around mistakes, then students are going to endlessly make the same mistakes again and again.
Mistakes, errors and misconceptions shouldn’t be the post assessment discussion they should be the grammar of lessons. Students need forewarning of the traps, the tricks, the slipups and the confusions. Without them, how do we expect them to get better? An assessment or task should be an opportunity to shine and show off and we need to do more than give them the skills and the knowledge. We need to give them the common mistakes. Firstly, we need to tell them the mistakes.
There’s a sense of irony about the name of this blog. Learning from my mistakes. If we don’t build structures around the learning gained from mistakes, then we will continue to keep making them. The better teacher is always one that can pre-empt problem areas. That’s what we should be building up in staff at all levels. What are the problem areas? Pre-empt them.
Here's a question to take back to departments:
Does your department list the common mistakes students make in a topic and area?
Thanks for reading,