Stop right now, thank you very much

Stop right now, thank you very much

Vohra, Jawaad

Hove you ever experienced the fly in jelly state? Imagine teaching a class of GCSE pupils accounting ratios. You’ve covered the ratios, you’ve given them copious examples and now you ask them a question. Not any question but the question: “does everyone understand?” Given that your blood, sweat and tears went into delivering the lesson, you would like to be met with a chorus of “yes we understand”. Instead you’re met with a wall of silence. You can hear the bird’s chirping outside, a SMS message going off in the adjacent classroom, but virtually nothing from your GCSE class. What do you do? Do you continue teaching or repeat the material. This indecisiveness – to continue teaching or to repeat a concept – is the fly in jelly state. You are suspended in uncertainty.

Even on a good day, when you might get a some shouts of “yes”, you still have a problem. A few shouts of yes should not deflect from the fact that the majority of the class are quiet. A couple of dominant voices urging the teacher to continue is certainly not representative. Given that this is the only response, there may be a reluctant temptation to continue teaching, but what should you do?

Fear not fellow teacher, I have discovered a way to free the fly (which does not involve eating the jelly) and for getting a response from the whole class. This is the “traffic light” way. Pupils are given three coloured cards – green, amber and red – each around the size of cards wielded by football referees. Each colour represents a level of understanding:

* green – I understand

* amber – I think I understand but I’m not sure

* red – I definitely do not understand.

By getting pupils to display these cards at strategic points during the lesson, you can help avoid the fly in jelly state.

The traffic lights

The traffic light cards help to prevent hijacking of the question. Pupils display cards according to their level of understanding. These are clearly visible to the teacher, enabling clear and accurate inferences to be made about the group’s learning. seeing a field of green cards allows the teacher to continue teaching with confidence; seeing more amber and red cards alerts the teacher to problem areas. In this way, a teacher gets a much better feel for the level of learning of pupils.

The amber card is particularly useful. The question “does everyone understand?” traditionally triggers two responses: yes or no. Pupils with some appreciation but not yet completely confident that they have grasped the material are often unsure how to respond. A prudent pupil might opt to say no, an optimistic pupil is likely to say yes. In either case, the aggregate response of the whole class might be biased. This is a clearly unproductive. It might, for example, result in topics being repeated from the beginning or a teacher moving on before material has been properly digested by pupils. The amber card allows unsure pupils – both the optimistic and the prudent – a category to register their doubt. In this way, the teacher will gain a more accurate view of the class’s learning and can implement remedial strategies accordingly.

The cards allow pupils to take responsibility for their own learning. Creating an ethos of honesty and support, where all opinions are valued and respected, allows pupils to appraise themselves and unreservedly express whether they truly understand a topic or issue. I have had a class in which one pupil displayed the red card on every occasion despite all her peers showing green cards. This clearly shows the pupil is concerned and has taken responsibility for her own learning.

The cards should be used at strategic points throughout the lesson and not just at the end in some kind of plenary. For example, when teaching profit margins, the cards should be introduced after the teaching of the formula, after the application of a question and after the interpretation of the ratio. This ongoing use of the cards will enable problems to be addressed as they arise rather than later, and both pupils and teachers will know the areas that require further attention.

How will you feel?

Observing a sea of red cards should not be viewed by the teacher as a failure but as a challenge. How can the red cards be converted into green cards without reverting to the approaches of the likes of Paul Daniels or alchemists? Teachers will be encouraged to think of innovative ways and effective strategies of addressing the problem area from another direction. Asking pupils to display their cards after implementing this new strategy and seeing the sea of red turning into a field of green is a truly satisfying and rewarding experience. It is an accomplishment – you have helped pupils to learn a concept.

The cards promote forward thinking and planning. Teachers can speculate where problem areas might arise and have contingency plans in place.

The cards also help in developing soft skills. Being unashamed to say “I do not understand”, and accepting assistance is surely a good trait to have. The pupil who displayed the red card when her classmates are holding up green cards, clearly exhibits a degree of courage and confidence, and an ability to withstand peer pressure. Having these traits is vital for a pupil’s progression and attainment, and invaluable within the labour market.

The traffic light cards have the ability to remove indecisiveness from the classroom. Indecisiveness creates a wedge between teaching and learning. The cards enable pupils to appraise and take responsibility for their own learning. From a teaching perspective, it promotes effective and efficient teaching, by ensuring the teaching is tailored to desired learning outcomes teach to the green.

Although the fly in jelly state is a generic problem – one faced by all teachers from all disciplines – it takes on particular importance in business and economics. These subjects are laden with buzz words, and a failure to understand basic concepts leads to future problems.

Jawaad Vohra teachers at Chelmsford High School.

Copyright Economics and Business Education Association Autumn 2006

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