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23 Dec 2016

To buy Blue Bolt or not to buy Blue Bolt

During Period Two Maths with Year 11 on a Thursday, I noticed that Chris* was exhibiting some unusual behaviour. Normally a quiet and diligent student, Chris rarely caused any trouble and could be left alone to work at his own pace. However, on this November morning I spotted that Chris was shaking rather violently and finding it increasingly difficult to concentrate. Rather than listening to me, he seemed to have picked up a new hobby that consisted of throwing pencils repeatedly at Jack’s* head. Jack did not appreciate this new activity. Despite many warnings, Chris’s behaviour deteriorated at an alarming rate and he was quickly sent out of the classroom for knocking a table over.

I found out from the rest of the class that Chris had chosen to spend his breakfast money on two large bottles of boost energy drink rather than on something more nutritious. Having consumed large amounts of sugar and caffeine, he was sent out of every lesson that day, teased by many of his friends and grounded by his parents who were mortified to have discovered how he had behaved at school. He also spent the day with his heart beating at twice its resting rate.

Chris had not properly considered the consequences of his actions. He had simply thought; “if I spend my breakfast money at the shop this morning I can buy 2 litres of blue energy which I love, rather than getting some bland porridge from the canteen.” He had not weighed in the fact that consuming so much caffeine-infused liquid would lead to a terrible day at school and lasting consequences at home. He had not fully thought-through the underlying trade-offs when making that decision.

The trade-offs involved in politics and most aspects of adult life are frequently misunderstood by citizens in the UK. According to a polling study1, the number of people who regretted voting for Brexit, was greater than the margin of victory. This doesn’t immediately imply that the population did not in fact want the leave the EU, but it does suggest that citizens failed to fully contemplate the consequences before they voted.

The difficulty in understanding trade-offs in politics and wider society is not helped by a partisan and sometimes sensationalist mass media. Headlines like “Each illegal immigrant to cost us £1m2” or “Tax the rich, don’t rob the poor3”, hardly present a balanced view that educates people about the consequences of different policies.

Young people are rarely given the chance to understand how a collective choice can have drawbacks for the whole group. If one of my students were asked whether the government should spend more on education, the NHS and on the police force, they would instantly say yes. When asked such a question, they would devote no time to thinking about where that money might come from and what departments might lose out as a result. Neither would they think about how frequently buying energy drinks for breakfast would have a detrimental effect on their learning and grades in the long term.

But how does a tired teacher attempt to educate their students about the complicated costs and benefits of decision-making in British society? It is hardly a resource-abundant field with plenty of dedicated teaching time. I have a couple of practical suggestions which could make doing this more straightforward.

First up is the ‘hidden cost’ activity.  This simply comprises setting a question to a class with an unknown consequence. At the start of the lesson, ask your students if they would like to finish the lesson two minutes early or not (anything along these lines works, such as changing the seating plan or watching a video for five mins). The class will most likely vote for the seemingly-positive offer you have made them.

In the following lesson, reveal that because of their decision they now must finish the lesson three minutes late (or a similar weighted negative consequence). Following the expected negative reaction, you have the opportunity to teach students about questioning offers made to them and fully understanding the consequences of their decisions. Repeating this throughout a half-term with different offers is simple to do and will encourage a determination in your class to seek out the trade-offs behind offers made to them.

Second, allow students to take control of the way in which they learn about a specific subject. Inform students that the lesson is going to be conducted in two or three different ways in the next week. These types of teaching can be something like group learning, a straightforward lecture-style approach or an inverted learning style with students watching tuition videos at home and then completing tasks in the classroom. Once these different approaches have been carried out, bring the class together to discover which they thought was the most effective, focusing on the hidden drawbacks of each. If you have time, you could test students on the different topics to show quantitatively, which was the most effective teaching method for learning a subject across the class.

This introduction to trade-offs will not only permeate into daily decision-making for students, it will also likely improve their engagement in the classroom and learning. By asking students to question their decisions and their learning, you are demanding the type of higher-order thinking which will improve students’ evaluative skills4. These approaches are also a form of ‘dialogic teaching’ which has been proven to identify students’ needs and encourage effective learning. Through engaging students in discussions about trade-offs related to their learning you are encouraging interactions that help them to think in different ways5.

At VotesforSchools, we provide content that deals directly with the trade-offs that students will make when they reach adulthood. For example, in October we ran a VoteTopic on whether Donald Trump should be allowed to run for President. The materials focused on the trade-offs between protecting people from being offended and banning candidates from running in elections. Students were given the opportunity to discuss whether the desire for a more civil debate was strong enough to justify questioning the basic principles of a modern democracy. You can find out more here.

In 2017, UK politicians will be forced to make difficult decisions. Just this week, we have seen how leaders must show both strength and compassion, making extremely hard choices to balance the fears of their citizens against their responsibility for the safety of refugees. It is vital that our young people understand how hard these choices really are.

*Names have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals


  1. British Election Study, http://www.britishelectionstudy.com/bes-resources/brexit-britain-british-election-study-insights-from-the-post-eu-referendum-wave-of-the-bes-internet-panel/#.WFkLqBuLQ2x

  2. The Daily Express, http://www.express.co.uk/news/uk/98847/Each-illegal-immigrant-to-cost-us-1million

  3. The Morning Star, https://streetvisuals.wordpress.com/2010/04/19/tax-the-rich-dont-rob-the-poor-britain-home-morning-star/

  4. National College for School Leadership paper, https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/329746/what-makes-great-pedagogy-nine-claims-from-research.pdf]

  5. Robin Alexander on Dialogic Teaching, http://www.robinalexander.org.uk/dialogic-teaching/

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