Notes on “The Classroom Experiment” (BBC/Dylan Wiliam)

Here are my notes on two one-hour BBC programmes about innovation in methods in an English secondary school.
It was billed as “One professor, one term, 24 students” and featured some faintly contrived dramatisation and character development, which TV producers seem to think is necessary to make anything watchable. I’ve stripped that out so there’s nothing remotely entertaining in my notes. If you want the sweeteners and the irritating Apprentice-style music, you can still view the programmes in full until tomorrow evening.
The students were 12-13 year olds, in a mixed ability class, in Hertswood School, which has 1,200 students in all.
The professor is Dylan Wiliam, henceforward known as DW. Each of the headings below is one of the innovations he sought to implement in the experimental term, and what happened.

1. Distributed participation abolishing “hands up!”

Some kids can’t wait to take part, but others never do.
DW says only a quarter of kids consistently put their hands up and this pattern is damaging.
Those that do participate get smarter, but those that don’t don’t. So the practice reinforces divisions in achievement.
DW recommends that teacher’s select students to answer at random (pot of lollipop sticks with all their names on).
Kids are frustrated and aggravated by this at first, especially those who know the answers and really want to participate. Then some of the smart ones get picked when they don’t know the answer, and this is an unusual experience for them.
One teacher tries choosing two lollipop sticks at once; another allows the kids to do the picking.
Previously reserved kids start to find that it’s not so bad answering, even if you don’t know the right answer they get drawn into a discussion.
Ultimately the clever students learn something different: that the non-participants are not as thick as they previously thought.
One of the most advanced kids removes her lollipop’s sticks, because she doesn’t want to be found out on the few areas where she doesn’t know the answer she has her reputation at stake. DW has to explain that school is a place where you’re not supposed to know the answer: that their focus on being right all the time is just showing off.

2. Burst of daily exercise in the morning

Physical activitiy causes release of chemicals in the brain.
Have to get in 15 minutes earlier to do 10 mins exercise.
Students report feeling more awake for the first period.
After two and a half weeks, there’s no sign of them at 8.40am, however. The timetable is so tightly constrained that there’s no scope to do any exercise if they’re not there.
A few more weeks later, and every student has a heart-rate monitor and a log-book attendance is much better. Kids are now measuring their own progress.

3. “All Student Response Systems”

All 24 students to answer
No child left behind in class.
Mini-whiteboards are the most important new technology in education, according to DW, as a means for each student to write down their answer and hold it up. [I am not clear how they are different from a pad of A4 paper, on which students could write and draw in very similar ways except they’d have to recycle used sheets instead of just erasing the board.]
Initially, the kids do daft drawings and rude comments on their whiteboards.

4. Traffic lights

Every child has green, amber and red cups, indicated whether student wants teacher to slow down or stop.
Works because it’s quicker than students having to hold hand up teacher can see immediately if there’s a problem.
In one case, lots of kids show red cups at once. DW says it’s important for teachers to recognise when students just don’t get their brilliant lessons.

5. Student observer training

A few students selected for training in giving feedback to teachers about how good their teaching was.
The feedback they gave was that the teaching was fine, but was undermined by poor behaviour and inattention when teacher’s back was turned.

6. Comments not grades

When there’s a big gap between the top grades and the bottom ones, those students with the bottom ones just give up. Students focus on the grades not the comments.
If your feedback is causing kids to think and engage, that’s great. If it’s causing an emotional reaction, you’ve lost.
Again, the high-achieving girls are the ones who miss the grades most.
Although the students start to read the comments more carefully (partly for clues about performance), they still hanker after grades.
DW asks how long teachers could last without giving grades. Answer: not long. DW says we’ve got our students hooked on these grades.

7. Parental engagement

Parents invited into the classroom and subjected to the same disciplines (inc the lollipop sticks). They see how their kids engage.

8. “Secret student”

Make students more responsible for their own behaviour by using peer pressure and positive reinforcement.
A student is selected at random the teachers know who it is, but the students don’t and their performance (tick or cross) is recorded in each lesson for a day. This performance stands as proxy for the whole class, and the class either gets a point or doesn’t according to the number of ticks in the day.
It encourages students to police each other: “you could be the secret student, so watch out.”
The identity of the secret student is only revealed if they win a point for the day failures are not exposed.
Teachers start to remind class, “One of you is the secret student, so if you are, you’d better look out.”
There is more collective identity, with weaker distinctions between the old friendship groups.

Review of impact of all the changes together

The changes in methods (e.g. no hands-up) and technologies (mini whiteboards) have created openings for new kinds of disruptive behaviour. It’s not surprising that one of the first questions kids ask about new things in the classroom is, How to subvert them to make mischief.
The challenge appears most acute with the high-achieving students. DW suggests that the mini-whiteboards are the answer: a means for these students to engage and show that they know the answer. It seems to be the teachers who haven’t been quick to take on the whiteboards.
Generally it’s the able students who were used to “owning” the classroom, and had a big adjustment to make.
There are statistically significant increases in English and Maths (but not Science) by comparison with equivalent classes. [It seems highly likely that a Hawthorne Effect is also at work.]

15 Responses to “Notes on “The Classroom Experiment” (BBC/Dylan Wiliam)”
  1. @agilelearn THANKS for sharing… great!

  2. RT @agilelearn Notes on “The Classroom Experiment” (BBC/Dylan Wiliam) < excellent!

  3. Tânia Lopes says:

    I liked the method feedback, is important that the speaker the teacher is evaluated in real time, and be creative to make it different.

  4. @agilelearn A great post – plenty to think over.

    I found the comments on grades particularly interesting. I wonder how much of students wanting grades is due to habit, and how much is because there is an inherent drive towards measuring success in a tangible way. For people where academics is their arena of best achievement, not having marks of some kind would be akin to suggesting that one would tell the best athletes that we should stop keeping score at football games. Grades and scores may (or may not) be the only/best measure of achievement or mastery, but a little healthy competition can be a motivator to many, even if it is internal competition (e.g. runners are legendary for always wanting to beat their personal best).

    It’s a tricky balance, to be sure. Grades can (for some) easily become the sole aim, as opposed to just being on indicator of progress. To go with the ‘runner’ analogy – if the goal is fitness, or health, improving ‘personal best’ times is one measure of progress to the goal, but so are a host of other things, some more measurable than others. In the same way, there are multiple measures for learning; I doubt grades will disappear, and I don’t know that they should; like any other tool, they can be used (or overused, or underused) poorly or well.

  5. Kirsty Mc says:

    I watched this show and really enjoyed it, thanks for a wonderful recap, this will enable me to point teachers in my dept in the right direction having missed it. Thanks!

Check out what others are saying...
  1. […] David Jennings made a great review of the show and the results here. […]

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