Teaching Style

... and why we don't teach like we're in school

What we're not

Many students' experience of the classroom is from school. Often the teacher runs the class from the front, imparting their words of wisdom, with all the students following along doing the same thing at the same time. We've all been there either as teachers or students, and it theoretically can work well when:

  • You can be certain all of the students are at the same starting level of understanding
  • The students are all expected to work at the same rate and have the same ability
  • The students are expected to finish at exactly the same point at the end of the lesson with the same outcomes

There's an argument that in academic subjects with small class size, and a high-degree of streaming (or setting) and a curriculum that is constantly fixed that some of these assumptions are more likely to be true. Even then, we would question whether this is really the case.

Many teachers also find that this style of teaching is the easiest as if the teacher has taught the topic before it requires minimal preparation and a gifted communicator can often 'blag it' pretty well! (Don't get us wrong - we've been there before and understand the pressures teachers are under with minimal preparation time given and having to 'teach to the test').

At Tech Camp, teaching like this wouldn't work at all. For a start:

  • We teach rapidly-evolving topics with courses that are new every year and practical projects where students are building complex projects. It's never possible for all students to be at the same point without making sure everyone goes painfully slow!
  • We have campers with a wide range of starting knowledge. As we teach topics that are more advanced than those taught at most senior schools, we need to be able to cater for those just starting out and those geeky kids (we can say that - we were those when we were younger) who are up late at night learning about the latest in programming and engineering by themselves.

In most schools, there's also sometimes a philosophical view that the focus should be on the lowest-performing students and the least-advantaged (in fact there is strong pressure in the UK for this currently and schools are incentivised to do this). This is indeed an admirable viewpoint but with relentless focus on the lowest 10% and a 'traditional' teaching technique, it's almost impossible to give the same focus to high-ability students and really stretch them.

We have a LOT of high-ability students at Tech Camp, and we need to make sure everyone is stretched, novices and experts alike.

What we are

So what's the alternative to this? It is highly differentiated teaching, with each student working at their own rate, often on very different 'strands' of the course material. This is so much more tricky to do as it requires development of much more curriculum material, allocating the students to different groups, and continually going around all students helping them progress the best that they can.

We have developed our own electronic learning system based on teaching these type of courses for the last 15 years that allows this to all happen rapidly and effectively. We can have multiple streams of course material being made available to different students at different times, and the tutors are able to control what material is visible at any point. To the student when they first start it can appear that they are 'just following an online course' but this is far from the case. As well as enabling each student to have the best version of the course tailored for them, it frees up the tutor time enormously so instead of having to deliver each topic personally, they're able to spend 100% of their time assisting students with problems and answering those clever questions that Tech Campers always come up with themselves. This, along with small group sizes (an average teacher:student ratio of 1:6 and a maximum of 1:8) allows a novice 9 year-old to make as much progress as a geeky 17 year-old).

In each course we also have points in every session (often at the start and/or end of sessions) where there are interactive moments with the tutors. Depending on the course, there are whole-group activities, group games, competitions, presentations, and discussions about what the campers have just learnt and what is coming next. These are important not only to consolidate learning, but maintain energy and enthusiasm particularly where there's lots of individual work time for the campers.

The best teachers tend to more often be the 'Guide on the side' rather than the 'Sage on the stage'.

An example

So what does this look like in practice? Let's look at 3D Printing: one of our most popular and high-tech course that runs three strands of course material in the one class.

The week starts with a short getting-to-know-you session lead by the tutors and a presentation on the history of 3D printing and technologies. The students are then shown how to access the learning platform and then start building their 3D printer. We're one of the few camps in the world where each camper has their own printer and even more rarely, where each camper takes their printer home at the end of the week. All campers start at this same point, but once they have built and tested their printers, they embark on one of three learning paths:

  • The youngest learners (often pre-teen campers) start with some simpler 3D CAD tools (such as 'Tinkercad') which enables them rapidly to build quite complex models but all using drag-and-drop techniques that are simple to master.
  • The more experienced learners (often teen campers but also those younger ones who have already completed the simpler 'Tinkercad' version) learn professional 3D CAD software (called 'Fusion 360'). This starts off with dimensioned sketches and then uses tools to extrude and modify shapes. This is harder to learn than Tinkercad but can produce more complex designs.
  • The most experienced learners (who have done the basic 'Fusion 360' course already) do the 'Advanced Fusion' course that involves designing real-world products such as an interchangeable-bit screwdriver that could be commercially produced by techniques like 'injection moulding'.

The tutors then assist the campers through all three learning paths, helping them solve problems and tackle their own project ideas throughout the week. Throughout the week they'll bring together the whole class or individual groups to share their successes discuss problems, and celebrate some of the amazing designs that the campers have been creating.

Students may move from one path to another. Although one path normally takes week to complete, we have some super-fast learners that may complete two paths in a week. However many campers really enjoy being able to go more slowly down one path and explore their own design ideas with the assistance of the tutors.

Some students may not have seen this style of teaching before, particularly if they are used to a teacher 'teaching from the front' all day at their school, but they can accomplish far more this way and explore their own interests as well as learning valuable technology and engineering skills.