Traditionally secondary school pupils copied from the blackboard or from dictation to make a set of notes that they learned (by heart) for exams. However, copying things down is a completely passive task requiring little mental effort or involvement in the lesson. As comprehensive schools developed during the mid-1970s, classes became increasingly differentiated with some pupils for whom extended writing was a difficult and unpleasant experience and therefore a source of anxiety. The first step towards resolving this issue was to set small group work using worksheets needing only short answers to structured questions.
This seemed a feasible way to organise a mixed ability class. However, many of the first worksheets relied heavily on ‘recipe’ style instructions providing little opportunity for interaction with the text or making the pupils think (Sutton, 1992). Around this time, a case was made for ‘language for learning’, or ‘language across the curriculum’ (Bullock Report, 1975). There were concerns that the routines of secondary school would allow some pupils to become too passive in their learning, with insufficient demand on them to reformulate their ideas, in other words, construct their own meaning (Sutton, 1992).
There developed a need to resolve conflicting demands for busy science teachers – to manage practical work well, but also to organise a range of other language-centred activities (ibid. ). A project described in Lunzer and Gardner (1979) suggested that “passive reading occurred when reading tasks were vague and general, rather than specific, and where reading was solitary rather than shared”. This project developed activities and techniques that made pupils focus on important parts of text, and involved them in reflecting on the content – otherwise known as DARTs (Henderson and Wellington, 1998).
What were the consequences for the classroom? It was not just a matter of adding a text-based activity to each lesson, it also meant a change in attitude in how teachers engaged pupils in science lessons. Science teaching today is considered a process of facilitating learning new ways of seeing and talking. The means available are partly through experience (such as practical work) and partly linguistic (written work and discussion), and both develop “what the learner ‘sees’ in his or her mind’s eye” (Sutton, 1992). What are the strengths and limitations of DARTs?
Present-day DARTs offer a great deal of variety of tasks, and are designed to make pupils think more actively rather than following a set of instructions (see Appendix II) and therefore offer an invaluable tool to the teacher. Pupils can build up a collection of them into a record of their work. Few textbooks exactly cover the material as required by the teacher and, unless they have kept their own record, how will the pupils revise their work? Notes in the form of DARTs, from which the pupils make tables or label diagrams etc. rovide an accurate record. Any lesson time spent copying is ‘dead’ time (no good at making a class think). If we use this ‘dead’ time for a DART, pupils will have the text and will have begun to construct their own ideas of it. Their writing time is therefore more productively and creatively spent. DARTs can be used to test children’s understanding of how concepts are linked rather that the meaning of words. For example, the widely used Cloze technique aims to ensure that pupils read the sentence with enough understanding to supply the missing word.
To ensure the learning is active, the working words are omitted from the text (e. g. into, have, make, for) therefore requiring the pupil to understand the concept (active) rather than just filling in the words by their meaning (passive). During my school placement, I had the opportunity of creating and delivering DARTs to Year 9 pupils (see Appendix II for examples). In addition to the strengths of variety, recording and active learning, I encountered several other advantages of using DARTs.
For example, teaching National Curriculum science is by definition a crowded agenda. There is little spare time and therefore every lesson minute must be treated as precious, and needs to be carefully planned (whether it is for practical, written work, discussion, problem-solving etc). Copying large chunks of text or tables is time-consuming and leaves less time for active learning. Using DARTs enabled me to spend more time on the learning objectives. Using DARTs avoided too much ‘chalk and talk’ and ensured the class stayed engaged in the lesson.
In addition, a bonus advantage was that a DART exercise settled lively classes (particularly worth remembering as a trainee teacher). Finally, and significantly, a strength which can only be observed first-hand – the pupils enjoyed DARTs. Despite all the strengths of DARTs, there are limitations to the technique. For example, it is easy for worksheets of any kind to be discarded or lost after use and the pupil not to regard them as having value. For example, during my school placement, any worksheets should have been glued into pupil notebooks during the lesson.
However, in any class I observed there were inevitably at least 2 pupils who had ‘forgotten’ their notebooks and therefore their worksheets remained loose at the bottom of their school bags or in the class tray until the following week, or worse, left behind on the floor of the lab. Clearly there are organisational and management issues which need to be addressed. Effective use of DARTs requires a recognised (by pupil and teacher) system for keeping DART records. Cloze text can suffer from the problem that pupils tend to want to find the missing word without understanding the text which it is why it is wise to omit the working words.
Since each pupil needs a copy of their own, it may be better to convert cloze text into scrambled text, which requires more understanding and less guessing. There can be common difficulties with reading. For instance pupils often cannot relate to the type of science texts used in school in terms of language and style or the class could comprise of a wide range of reading ages. There are three problems with using extracts from textbooks. First the writing may be too difficult. The simplest formula that measures the readability of texts is the SMOG test (see Appendix III).
If the book has short sentences and few long words it is easier to read and therefore a low reading age score. Any DART needs to be tailored to the reading age of the pupil. A second problem is that the subject content may not fit your requirements exactly and schools are often limited in the range of text that they can offer pupils. The third problem is that DARTs may pose difficulties for ESL pupils. Therefore the individual literacy abilities in a class must be considered when selecting DARTs for use in a lesson.