It was a heartening experience to attend the Optimus Education national FE conference on English and maths 2015 in these dark days of funding cuts and area reviews. The uplifting thing was the “Yes, you can!” attitude to encouraging learners to build their skills in English and maths. All the presenters spoke eloquently about the vital importance of these skills for life and work and showed passionate belief in the capacity of teachers to help learners achieve. They shared a range of creative and practical approaches to developing English and maths without needing to be a specialist in either area, so the underlying message was ‘Yes, we can!” from classroom practitioners embracing this challenge.
The sessions focused on a range of topics with a recurrent theme emerging from the dialogue in the room. The mindset of teachers and learners in approaching work on English and maths figured strongly in all the discussions. All presenters made reference to it:
Bob Craig talked about the importance of teacher language and assumptions about learners in his rich and interesting session on mindset, stressing the importance of building learners’ resilience and capacity for positive struggle in learning. We discussed the practice of praising learners based on the efforts they are making and the strategies they are using, to foster belief in themselves as learners, able to improve their maths and English skills. The “Yes, you can!” mindset in action, helping us tackle the negativity often born of prior experiences in school.
Julie Sinclair looked at practical classroom strategies for embedding English in vocational settings during her engaging and useful session. We completed a thought-provoking task looking at the naturally occurring opportunities to highlight English in a range of vocational tasks. We found that using a list of the specific sub-skills of reading, listening, speaking and writing enabled us to identify many relevant aspects of English and feel confident that we could practise those explicitly with learners. The “Yes, we can!” feeling was evident. Our table discussion focused on the value of planning to embed English- looking out for those opportunities within the vocational topics we teach- without wrenching in additional, less relevant content that doesn’t really fit. Colleagues were clear that they are not specialist GCSE teachers and need to tailor their content and focus in embedding English accordingly. It is good to see this professional clarity emerging from our conversations in the sector, as it can be easy to feel that we are being pressurised into becoming English specialists as well as vocational ones.
Julia Smith led a lively and fascinating session on overcoming barriers to maths, embodying the “Yes we can; Yes you can!” attitude all at once! We tried out a range of rather mind-blowing approaches to multiplication tables using drawing and our fingers. The point was repeatedly made that if a previous method hasn’t worked for a learner, we need to share another different approach and this way lies progress and success. This ethos inspires hope and helps teachers take a creative, persistent approach to tackling challenges with learners. With the negativity around maths that many learners feel, I think this is a valuable mindset to adopt. If we don’t model the “Yes, you CAN!” approach, what can we hope for from students?
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