Learning how to learn…Chemistry – Al McConville in TES

Posted on 08th January 2018

In a recent article for TES, reflecting on his experience of sitting his Chemistry GCSE, Alistair McConville extols the virtues of learning something new and urges his peers to try something similar.

Despite an education that had deprived him of almost all scientific knowledge, in 2016 Alistair announced that he would study Chemistry and take the examination with his Year 11 students. There were days when he felt like this had been a rash decision; he says: “There is a lot to learn, and it is not easy stuff.”

Driven by a combination of absorption and fear, Alistair knuckled down to the task. Quickly, he found that he had bitten off more than he had intended. He explains: “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.”

Alistair was inspired in his mission by Barbara Oakley’s A Mind for Numbers, which outlines a methodology for effective learning rooted in modern research. Accordingly, he worked in short, sharp bursts, employing the Pomodoro Technique of time management, and rewarding himself after each sprint.

He made up zany metaphors to remember the names of substances and tested himself relentlessly as he progressed, spurred on by Barbara’s emphasis on active recall as the great solidifier of neural networks. Slowly, he started to piece things together.

Alistair’s fellow students proved to be wonderful props and prompters who appeared to take pleasure in teaching their teacher, and he came to experience the sense that most students must feel as they approach the exam hall – that they could have done substantially more. He says: “I knew that I had not reached the heights of comprehension for which I had been aiming when I struck out.”

Having been awarded his GCSE, Alistair commends the experience and has advice for other teachers considering a similar commitment. He says: “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.”

The full article is available on the TES website (subscription may be required).

TES | Al McConville | Barbara Oakley | Bedales Chemistry