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Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Get off the escalator! An Experiment in Independent Learning

Yet again this is something that I was inspired to do by the Jim Smith (aka the lazy teacher). In our INSET session back in January he showed us this video:

In the video, two well-dressed people are shown standing on a moving escalator. The escalator suddenly stops working and the people start to panic. "I'm already late" moans the woman. "Someone will come to help" says the man. They stand there looking increasingly foolish, but it doesn't occur to either of them to simply WALK up the escalator.

I showed this video to my year 9s and they thought it was hilarious. Then I asked them - does anyone ever act like this at school? And they came up with loads of examples: students who say they couldn't start their work because they didn't get a worksheet when there was actually a pile of spares at the front, students who get stuck on a question and sit there waiting for help when they could just move on to the next one and come back to it later, etc. etc. They are all trivial examples of Dweck's "learned helplessness" idea.*

Then I showed them clips from these two videos about the "hole in the wall" project.

The gist of these videos is that some children in India were given access to computers and by using the computers they were able to teach themselves high level skills in various different subjects.

My year 9 class were suitably impressed. Personally I think the results of the hole in the wall experiment are much more nuanced than these videos allow, but the message that children can research and learn things for themselves is certainly important.

So I challenged my year 9 class to do a similar thing. I put them into groups of 6 and gave them 6 data handling topics, along with outcomes, objectives and sample questions. The topics were: Random and Stratified Sampling, Pie Charts, Box Plots, Scatter Graphs and Cumulative Frequency. I asked them to research the topics themselves and prepare mini lessons to teach the others in their group. At the end of the cycle of lessons I gave them the data from the old GCSE coursework project "Mayfield High" and asked them to use all the techniques they had just learned to investigate different hypotheses.

The projects are due in this Thursday, so I haven't started marking them yet, but I'm pretty optimistic about them so far. Apart from a couple of notable exceptions, the year 9s really took on the challenge of researching and delivering their own lessons and I think they did a great job. One of them even got her students to do a test at the end of her lesson to check their progress!

I don't intend to let my y9s teach themselves everything but it has certainly inspired me to take more risks with student led learning. AND I now have a great phrase to use when one of them starts falling into the trap of "learned helplessness. I just say "Get off the escalator!" and they know they should figure it out for themselves. 


*(Just as a little aside - a lot of teachers will be nodding their heads now thinking of students who act like this, but adults do it too! A friend told me this story recently about her parents: her dad was in the shower when he suddenly started to shout downstairs to his wife. "Sarah! Sarah!" he cried in desparation. "What is it?" she said, in a slightly worried tone. What could have happened to cause so much concern? The reply - "I've put the conditioner on first!! What do I do?)


  1. Thanks for this great post - I showed the escalator video to two of my classes today (intentionally to my year 8 class, and slightly more spontaneously to my y11 when a student stopped after answering two questions and said he was "waiting for the answers...") They had one of those brilliant moments where they couldn't understand why the people wouldn't walk up the escalator, but then realised they were doing that in their own learning. I used this with the 'three Bs before me - Brain, Book, Buddy' and they all started telling each other to 'get off the escalator!'

  2. Brilliant! I have to say I was also partly inspired to get y9 to teach themselves by my visit to your school - particularly the evening before at chez Helen, when I saw you printing off resources that your sixth formers had made for the lesson. Genius tactic!