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Valley of Death
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Andrew Carpenter (center) with Olympic & world champion windsurfer David Hackford (left) and educational advisor to the Academy Dave Strudwick
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Andrew Carpenter and the Valley of Death
Dartmouth Academy’s Director of Learning and Head of Science helped teach his students how to learn by putting himself on the line with a gruelling challenge through Death Valley.
Andrew Carpenter is an enthusiastic and fun teacher, popular with students and staff alike. He started at Dartmouth Academy in September 2011 and has been charged with helping students to take control of their own learning.
A former head of Science at Kingsbridge Community College, Andrew is an internationally renowned teacher and teacher of teachers, who has a reputation of innovation and inclusion in his lessons.
It’s not difficult to see why when you talk to him: his enthusiasm and boyish excitement at helping students to find their own way of learning, and improving standards wherever he goes shines through. He has brought this enthusiasm to Dartmouth and in one term he and his colleagues are showing what inspiring teaching can achieve in all subjects – results are up and student engagement on the rise.
A big part of the story of how Andrew became such a passionate leader of learners is a footballing leg-break and subsequent journey to fitness and one of the hardest challenges in ‘Extreme Cycling’.
‘I went in for a 50/50 challenge while playing for my local football team in 2004,’ he said, ‘I came out with a leg broken in three places. For the first time in my career as a chemistry teacher, I would not be able to go into school for at least three months. At last I had time to think clearly about my teaching in the classroom and reflect on my life.’
So not satisfied with trying to get better from a nasty leg break, Andrew got down to some serious career development.
He had realised that even very bright students had trouble when faced with problems which were outside their ‘comfort zone’.
‘I had noticed students found it difficult to make links with previous lessons and different modules of the syllabus to solve problems, and the more we ‘spoon fed’ them facts, worksheets and presentations, the fewer questions were asked during lessons. The students seemed happy just to be lectured, couldn’t identify where they had misunderstandings and subsequently were unable to ask questions which would move their learning forward,’ said Andrew.
During his recuperation he discovered the work of a man called Guy Claxton, who outlined what people needed to have to be ‘good lifelong learners’.
‘Claxton was a very inspiring man and said that learners needed resilience, to focus on learning when the going got tough, resourcefulness to use strategies to maximise learning, reflectiveness to help plan and organise their learning and reciprocity, an ability to work along or share ideas working in groups. These four key attributes provided a framework for my ideas and gave me the key to help my students become better learners.’
And Andrew had an interesting way of engaging his students.
‘My brother, who is an academic in America, was taking part in the 2005 Death Valley Double Century Ride in March 2005. This is a ride through one of the hottest places on earth: temperatures can soar about 50 °C in the summer, and the ride involves a 200 mile cycle through the day, climbing about 10,000 feet.
‘The Death Valley Ride would be a new learning experience for me, and I would have to use all the muscles of resilience, resourcefulness, reflectiveness and reciprocity to succeed. I decided that I would use this experience as a vehicle to promote these ideas to students and then to develop activities in the classroom to work their learning muscles.’
Andrew had eight months to prepare. He involved the students in every way possible in his preparations: he showed them how he asked himself questions about his challenge: When is it happening? How far is the ride? How hot will it be? How can I prepare for the ride in extreme heat in a cold Devon winter? When can I train when I have a job and a young family? How far will I have to ride in my training? In all these cases Andrew showed how he was applying the knowledge he already had and his readiness to find out new knowledge, his willingness to put in months of preparation for a goal he wanted to achieve.
The students began to feel involved in his story and began to apply those simple principles to their own learning: looking at the problem and questions they faced in class and in the homework they were set and applying the same criteria. They learnt to depend on their own learning and try and use the knowledge they had already acquired to solve these new problems.
The students used boards where they could post their questions about a particular subject. It was a simple system for them to highlight where they felt they had a lot of knowledge, where they weren’t sure and where they felt they were lacking in knowledge. This system allowed them to highlight areas on which they should concentrate to develop their knowledge.
Andrew continued his punishing training regime to get in shape for March 2005. Starting with a ride from 5am to 8am before going to work for 8.30am, he worked incredibly hard building his resilience and physical stamina. His work was mirrored by his students who were building their learning muscles at the same time.
Travelling to Death Valley Andrew was still unsure what the actual experience of the ride was going to be: just like any student heading into an exam after months of revision, he was unsure what lay ahead but confident he had done all he could to prepare.
Despite the extreme heat, massive climbs and punishing pace, Andrew completed the ride in 14 hours and 1 minute – spending twelve and a half hours in the saddle at an average of 16 miles an hour, consuming 16 litres of water in the process. He had achieved two goals – completing the ride and inspiring his students to become better learners.
‘I was asked if cycling in the early morning ever gets easier. In reply I quoted a famous cyclist: ‘It never gets easier, you just cycle faster.’ I believe this is like learning: if you are continually striving to be better, it is not easy, but the rewards are worth the striving.’
First published March/April 2012 By the Dart