Engagement Without Gimmicks: stripping out the superficial.

This week we started the new term’s cycle of T+L workshops. One of the workshops on offer was entitled “Engagement Without Gimmicks”. This was delivered by a very experienced colleague in the English Department who has a track record of great results and who, like me, endured the years of mind-boggling obsession with child-centred, experiential, discovery-based teaching that had such a negative impact on behaviour and results in schools across the UK.

My colleague opened the workshop by sharing a Guardian “Secret Teacher” column that she said had really angered her (I had to stop reading the column years ago as I find the needy, whiny, navel-gazing tone nauseating). In the column a science teacher wrote about how as a young teacher she spent hours creating resources to help her students learn in fun and “hands-on” ways and that she loved doing this, despite her husband’s pleas for her to spend some time with him. Later, when she had children, she found that she couldn’t maintain this pace and began to feel like a failure because her students had come to expect these kinds of activities and she just couldn’t keep pace anymore. Even though she realised that it was far more efficient and expedient to just show a diagram of a brain and explain its workings to the class, she felt like she should be providing the resources that would allow her students to build their own brains from jelly and moulds.

The teacher running the workshop then told an anecdote about how a colleague, when Ofsted were visiting, brought in a sandpit, some sand, shells and containers of water to help her teach descriptive writing based around a visit to the beach. The inspector deemed the lesson to be outstanding. But was it really any better than just discussing the experience, maybe with the aid of an image and an excellent example from a great writer? And could anyone realistically provide these kinds of props for every lesson? And how much time was wasted by students taking the opportunity to mess around in this novel environment rather than doing something useful?

She also gave us another example of how things had changed for the better. We have just begun a unit on Gothic Horror with Year 9. In the first lesson we teach them about the conventions of the genre and give a brief historical overview. She said how a few years ago she’d printed four or six examples from the genre and laid them around the room, expecting groups of students to work together to read these (incredibly challenging 18th and 19th Century) extracts and “discover” for themselves what the conventions were, whilst she hung back with all the knowledge they needed in her head, afraid to just tell them what they needed to know. (Add to this the fact that many teachers would have felt compelled to deck their rooms out with spooky garb – imagine the time cost! – turn off the lights, and play some spooky music as the students walked in). By the end the ones that were better at the subject might have identified a few conventions but they would have no contextual knowledge and she’d end up having to put all this right next time. Instead, by talking through what they needed to know and getting them to write a response to the question “What is Gothic and why is it still important today?” students have learnt lots and consolidated that in their own written response, which they can return to and read at any point.

Another issue identified by the workshop leader was that teachers have been expected to compete with attention-grabbing media platforms (mobiles, Xboxes etc.)  to engage and maintain their students’ attention. Surely this is just insane? Shouldn’t we be finding ways to improve and lengthen students’ concentration spans rather than accepting that they need everything to be dumbed down into fun, short doses? Surely the point of education is to improve students’ minds, not to accept that the damage is done and so pander to and exacerbate dwindling attention spans and the need for immediate gratification?

After this the discussion was opened up to allow everyone to share their own ideas and experiences of things that work in the classroom. A maths teacher talked about the importance of making thought processes visible through careful, methodical modelling and at the same time highlighting where mistakes might be made, whilst also emphasising how difficult what the students are being asked to do actually is, thereby building the students’ confidence and self-esteem when they understand the process.

Another Maths teacher spoke about opening lessons with low-stakes, closed question quizzing to recap learning from the previous lesson. This is something we’ve been using in English to help embed the knowledge needed for the new Literature exams, and we’ve found it to be very effective.

I suggested that structuring learning into a repetitive cycle is something that can improve behaviour, memory, and performance. For example, in English, every section of learning is set up with a big question and some kind of hook or link to another topic. One of my big questions this week was “How does the Inspector assert his authority when he arrives?” (in An Inspector Calls). We began with an image of the Inspector and recapped with a series of closed and then open questions about his character and role in the play. We then read the relevant piece of text and discussed and mind-mapped possible points to include in the piece of writing that would follow. Next, we revised the criteria required for an excellent response to a literature question through discussion and interpretation of the mark scheme (which we’ve done many times over the last two years), and students were given 45 minutes to write a response (whilst I circulated to give advice and support). Afterwards the piece was peer-assessed three times and then students extended and/or improved their original piece in response to the comments. At this point (about halfway through the second lesson) we wrapped that episode up and moved onto our new learning question. This took minimal planning on my part and everybody in this mixed ability group produced something worthy of a Grade C or above in old money (Grade 4-9 currently).

The idea here is that we move away from  planning for lessons but rather plan for “episodes”, however long these episodes need to take (which is often quite unpredictable), and in doing that the planning is massively reduced because we just start the process again when we get to the end each time. Not only that, but students always know what’s coming and so time isn’t wasted teaching them how to do an activity: the engagement comes in the fascinating topics being studied and the teacher’s passion, expertise and relationships with the class.

Relationships and subject knowledge were also discussed at length: it was generally agreed that all students respect a teacher that they know works hard for them, knows their stuff, but is also unafraid to appear fallible and human. We also agreed that the time wasted on gimmicky teaching was far better spent reading up on our subjects to improve and deepen our own subject knowledge, rather than creating shallow, superficial, fun activities that benefited no-one and burnt teachers out as they tried to think up even more original ideas and struggled to manage volatile, unpredictable classroom environments.

It was a fascinating hour and one that suggested that by avoiding creating pointless, gimmicky activities and just discussing topics, working through problems together, revisiting content and employing an effective lesson structure, workload could be made manageable, learning more effective, and teachers kept sane (and in the profession).  All this ensures that students make great progress because they know they are getting a good deal from somebody who cares about them and the subject being studied, thereby allowing them to maximise their potential so that more opportunities are open to them at the next stage of their lives.

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About Andrew Warner

Mostly English teacher, AHT (T&L/literacy/CPD) & bibliophile. Irregular examiner, MTBer, armchair anthropologist & bassist. Fascinated by language & behaviour.

One response to “Engagement Without Gimmicks: stripping out the superficial.”

  1. suecowley says :

    Last week I was talking to some teachers about using concrete examples to understand abstract concepts. Ever since I was first taught about negative numbers in school, I have never been able to conceptualise adding or subtracting them. I have tried and tried, but I just never seemed to be able to get it to work in my head. I just couldn’t ‘see’ it.

    Then, one of the maths teachers last week told me how she uses a baby bath, some water and some ice cubes to demonstrate the concept, and she explained to me how she did it with her class. All of a sudden I was able to conceptualise the method in my head! I’m not sure if this is what you would count as a ‘gimmick’, but it was like a light bulb going on in my head, in terms of understanding. It was the most wonderful thing to experience, especially after so many years of not being able to ‘get’ it. I’m not suggesting that you would need to do this all or even every lesson, but I don’t think I would discount the power of hands on demonstrations for conceptualising learning.

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