This research project seeks to explore the extent to which the learning environment within a school can be improved by capitalising on the intellectual and leadership potential of pupils themselves to innovate, identify and contribute to the direction of their own learning through the introduction of a Student Leader Scheme as a component of whole-school behaviour for learning policy. It sets out a rudimentary framework that has served as the basis for a pilot scheme that has been used with a top set year 9 mathematics class for the academic year 2012/13. By analysing the results of pupils’ experiences as Student Leader throughout the year, the project establishes that not only is there broad support for the idea of increased Student Leadership but that there is an appetite to extend the mandate and responsibilities that the position entails. It suggests that by incorporating this feedback and extending the scheme to other mathematics classes and the sociology department for the academic year 2013/14, an effective Student Leadership Scheme can be developed that can be rolled out across the school.
Download: Student Leader Research Project
Every time I have used a code-breaking activity in my lessons I have relished how pupils are captivated and keen to decode the secret message first. With exams finished, I decided to organise a cryptanalysis project for the 60 pupils in the parallel year 9 top sets that would really give them an opportunity to test themselves in an exciting area of maths in which there is a recognised shortage of recruits.
I arranged to take both classes off timetable for three one-hour lessons with the following structure:
LESSON 1: History of codebreaking
LESSON 2: Spy School
LESSON 3: Cryptanalysis Exercise
Given the proximity to the end of the year, I tried to draw in a range of different maths and history teachers, and an outsider speaker, in order to maintain an intensity that would mirror the WWII backdrop against the activities were framed. I approached David Stupples, a Professor of Systems and Cryptography at City University’s School of Engineering and Mathematical Sciences, who kindly agreed not only to present a lecture on the history of cryptography, but, moreover, to actually bring in a genuine WWII Enigma machine! He drew on early examples of codes from the ancient Egyptians and Romans before exploring the mathematics behind modern codebreaking. This led on to an opportunity for pupils to get up close with the Enigma machine and then try to use factorials to find out how many combinations were possible (1.075×1023). He continued by exploring the fundamental role codebreaking played in winning the war as analysts at Bletchley Park intercepted and deciphered German messages sent using Enigma. Finally he rounded off his talk progressing through the Cold War and looking at the role of cryptanalysts at GCHQ today in countering cyber-crime and cyber-terrorism.
For the Spy School I used activities that I had adapted from Charlotte King (@Chk_ing) after reading her article ‘My best lesson’ in The Guardian. The session was introduced by a history teacher who set the contextual backdrop and emphasised the importance of decoding German U-boat messages in order to ensure Britain received sufficient supplies through the war. Five maths teachers then took a 10 minute session each to cover; the Caesar cipher, the Pipgpen cipher, the transposition cipher, frequency analysis and the Vigenère square. As the last section came to a close, I used graphics from Mathew John James (@MatthewJohnJone) to simulate my computer being hacked by military intelligence. This set the scene for the final session of the day when pupils were provided with a series of coded messages which would require them to apply all the skills they had learned at Spy School to successfully decipher.
Incredibly, five groups successfully deciphered all of the codes before the end of the day which was tremendous testament to their enthusiasm and determination. This enabled pupils to access a final challenge: the chance to go down in history as a master cryptanalyst. I had previously come across an article on CIA Analyst David Stein who had taken more than seven years labouring over piles of gibberish to finally crack three of the four coded messages encrypted in the KYRPTOS sculpture at CIA headquarters. The fourth, however, remains unsolved and hence provided a unique opportunity for pupils to launch their cryptography career:
The staff were hugely impressed by the collaborative spirit within groups and the intense level of competition between them as they pitted their mathematical abilitites against each other to crack the codes first. In summary, Professor Stupples emphasised that this was not merely a historical exercise as, in years to come, GCHQ would be relying on people like them to continue to protect the UK from hostile actions!
Download all resources (including Professor Stupples’ presentation) here.
Each week pupils will ‘observe’ more lessons of more teachers from more subjects than I am able to over the course of the year. Their day-to-day experiences of myriad teaching styles, resources, behaviour management strategies and interventions provide them with a unique insight into teaching and learning which, with the right class, could act as a useful benchmark upon which to make comparisons and generate constructive pupil generated feedback.
Flying high: top students on the Fast Jet Training course complete a second tour as instructors
The Armed Forces know a lot about training and no-where is this more apparent than in the training pipeline for Fast-Jet pilots in which split second decisions can have far-reaching and manifest consequences. It is, therefore, interesting that the Royal Air Force (RAF) recognises the value of drawing upon its best student pilots to inform and impact upon future training in order to ensure consistency and improve standards. Having experienced many different instructors with different teaching styles during their transition from ab-initio to combat ready fighter pilot, the top graduates have been able to draw upon best practice from a range of different sources and, as such, are uniquely placed to inform and improve the training program when they complete a second tour as an instructor. Given the emphasis placed on drawing on comparative student experiences to inform learning in a life-or-death environment as pressurised as military aviation, are there any parallels that can be made in the relatively more benign environment of the secondary school classroom?
As part of my Continuing Professional Development I am completing a Research Project on the impact of a Student Leadership Scheme I have introduced with a top set year 9 class this year. Consequently, I e-mailed my students a survey to complete over half-term with a range of questions including the extent to which they enjoyed their experience as Student Leader; whether they think next year’s class should adopt the scheme; and what I could do to improve the scheme. However, upon reflection I thought I would take the opportunity to include a few more general questions. As we approach the end of the year, I also asked the pupils to reflect on which aspects of my teaching they have enjoyed most, which aspects they have enjoyed least, and to briefly summarise their general feelings about their maths lessons over the year.
As the responses start to trickle in there are, inevitably, a range of opinons but I hope that, given this is a top set year 9 class, I will be able to adopt the wisdom of crowds approach to identify any areas of my practice that I should consider as professional development targets for next year. Inevitably, inviting pupils to submit open-ended feedback has the potential for the pupils who got a grilling at parents’ evening to vent their grievances, however, having just finished Dr Carol Dweck’s excellent book ‘Mindset’, I am keen to enable pupils to draw upon their extensive bank of ‘observations’ to offer constructive criticism in order to allow me to develop my teaching practice.
Whilst the pupils were completing their surveys over the half-term break, I came across two articles which lend support to this idea of embracing pupil feedback. The first, ‘Employing a student to criticize my teaching’ explores how a university Professor, used to teaching final year students, struggled to engage Freshers until he enlisted the support of one of his former students. The second, ‘Want to Improve Teaching? Listen to Students’ draws upon a Primary Teacher in Florida who periodically asks her class: “What are ways that I teach you that you like or that are really working for you? What could be changed to help you learn even more?” This is indicative of the collaborative emphasis on student voice by the school and local authority in the region which has become a critical part of improving teaching and learning. The article emphasises that teachers who listen to what students tell them they need to learn gain more than just a better understanding of the children they teach – they gain clarity on their roadmap to better teaching.
As I look ahead to completing the analysis of the pupils’ responses over the next few weeks, as part of the Research Project, I hope the experience will be constructive and allow me to effectively identify areas of practice to improve – watch this space!