Greeting an old friend

I haven’t taught any A Level subjects for a few years now, and my favourite – Economics – for even longer. But I’m back in the game, and three lessons in I’m loving it.

Being a headteacher, I don’t teach much. For the last two years I filled a gap teaching Computing to Year 7 students. This was great for my development (an age-group I have little experience in teaching, and a subject I have only taught sporadically over my career), but I missed the intellectual cut-and-thrust of A Level Economics teaching. Coming back to it was like greeting an old friend.

Except, like reuniting with someone you have lost touch with, you realise how much you have changed since last you met. In the intervening years, I have learnt considerably more about how we learn and have changed the way I teach. I remember how I used to teach A Level classes, but that is not how I want to approach the task now. I am venturing in with the the hope that I can deliver something better.

It is early days, but I am definitely a very different A Level teacher to my past self. Here are a few of the things I’m noticing: I’m capturing these to structure my reflections, but hope that these vignettes might resonate with others also.

Don’t expect them to know it if you haven’t yet taught it

I am using an A Level textbook as a prop in my planning – to make sure I am ‘covering’ the right stuff and check my memory of the content. Each chapter has a ‘starter activity’. They are terrible. For the topic of ‘Demand’, the book suggests asking students to consider what the meaning of ‘demand’ might be. Now, if students have taken GCSE Economics, perhaps this could be considered retrieval practice – but I don’t think this is the assumption. It appears to be pitched as an ‘engaging’ activity to lead students into the topic. Students will need to connect an economic understanding of this term (which is specific and technical) to their existing knowledge, so it may be worth establishing the everyday meaning of the word in order to give us something to hang the new knowledge onto. However, I can’t help thinking that the best starting point is for me to tell them precisely what the term means in this subject – clearly and unambiguously. Surely this will be quicker and avoid confusion? I used to waste time with this kind of stuff. Nowadays, I’m inclined to tell them something rather than hoping they will guess the right answer.

Abstract architecture is made of concrete

I used to under-value the power of example. Let me give you an example.

I am teaching the students about scarce resources and opportunity cost. The classic economic example is the farmer who owns a field. The farmer can either use the field to grow wheat, or to farm cattle. There is only one field, but more than one use for it. Which should the farmer choose, and what will he forego in rejecting the ‘next best’ option?

At the end of the lesson, I asked what was meant by opportunity cost. The answer volunteered:

“Well, if you were a farmer and you owned a field…”

You can imagine the rest. the student has internalised the example, but not the meaning of the term – or, at least, this is what they were most able to express. This is unsurprising. I had provided only one example. Once, I would have proceeded in ignorance of the fact that abstract concepts are understood through exploration of multiple examples (and non-examples). Our minds must find the boundaries of the concepts meaning, and settle on the ideas that combine to construct the concept by looking for what makes the examples part of a set. My job now was to provide different examples – to allow students the chance to turn the concrete into abstract.

Tougher food needs more chewing

I have one particular student in my class who processes questions very quickly, and jumps in with the (often correct) answer. After three lessons, the student next to him poked gentle fun at his ability to answer the question before she had even considered the question. We are covering some pretty difficult concepts. Already, I expect the students to have grasped the basics of market systems – we have touched on Thatcherism, Adam Smith, price caps, equilibrium prices, communism, political ideology and rationalism.  This is tough food, and it needs chewing. I always knew about the importance of thinking time, but nowadays I have hyper-awareness of the need to give all students the chance to formulate a response. My bad habits of immediately directing a question are evidence that my past self under-valued whole-class participation. I’m slowing my teaching down.

Low stakes – high success

And slowing things down also means that students will consider their response more, and be more likely to provide a quality answer. Getting things wrong is fine, but typically I want students to get things right.

Push for precision

I notice myself asking students to be more precise in their thinking, and the way they express their thoughts. I see articulation now as a reflection of ordered thought. By challenging students to reach for the technical term, say the same thing in fewer words, or refine another’s answer, they will be thinking harder. And as Willingham said, memory is the residue of thought.

“The economic problem is, like, when there isn’t enough for everyone.”

“It isn’t ‘like’ anything… tell me again but this time use the word ‘scarcity’.”

“The economic problem is when things are scarce but there are infinite wants.”

“Better. What do we call the process of deciding who gets what?”

“The allocation of resources.”

“Good. Use this concept to improve your answer.”

“Okay. Errr… the economic problem is how do you allocate resources given that consumers have infinite wants, but there are scarce resources to satisfy these wants?”

Don’t forget forgetting

Retrieval practice; spaced practice; the forgetting curve. These are concepts so familiar now, but so ignored from my practice in the past. Acknowledging forgetting, and appreciating the power of remembering, changes how you teach. I used to get frustrated that students couldn’t draw a supply and demand diagram with precision, on cue – but when did they practice? They were ‘exposed’ to the diagram again and again, but familiarity does not guarantee retrieval. Every lesson includes this now.

Teaching is a responsive process

Checking for understanding and retrieval practice force responsiveness. I taught the class the four factors of production. I asked them what they were the next lesson. They could remember two, at best. One of the more perceptive students pointed out that she remembered me telling them what they were, but there she had no example or way to connect this to something she already knew about. I taught it again – differently. they got it. The next lesson they remembered three factors easily, and the last with a prompt. Without checking, without trust, without dialogue, without my willingness to respond, learning would have been impeded.

Teaching is like a game of tennis where the teacher always serves, but what follows is a back-and-forth. The play is shaped by both players. We can’t just keep serving balls and ignoring what comes back across the net.

We’re only three lessons in. The students are great – interested and sparky – and the class is small. However, the pace at which we have progressed, and the depth of their understanding, already exceeds what my experience tells me is ‘normal’. I’m going to enjoy getting re-acquainted with this old friend.

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