No More Wonderland: Six Impossible Things – Part 1

“Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” – Alice, Alice in Wonderland – Lewis Carroll

Cast your mind back a few years. Back to those technicolour years of ‘outstanding’ lessons, where the whizz and pop of ‘engagement’ reigned. Back to those years of ten minute mini plenary hurdles, of carefully laminated pictures as hooks, of post-it notes fluttering around the room with neon abandon. Where the genuine good intention of ‘awe and wonder’ in the then Ofsted framework had somehow blurred into an oft-meaningless phrase for doing ‘engaging’ stuff. And lots of it. The engagement baton had been well and truly grasped and the race was on: get them up out of their seats, moving! Stations around the room! A carousel activity – that’s what you need! Cater for all your pupils’ needs – what about your auditory learners? Olfactory learners – what about them? Now I jest – but only to a point. This slippery, seductive pedagogy had become part of the accepted, unquestionable vernacular in many a school. I genuinely worried about my ‘olfactory learners’ – how on earth was I going to help them learn?? These were the years when knowledge was frequently a poorly-thought of, weedy little creature lurking at the bottom of Bloom’s Taxonomy, quickly bypassed in the quest for that holy grail of evaluation: an evaluation of little substance, as knowledge had been relegated to a no-man’s land “fact-free zone(s).” (Joe Kirby – Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers, p.17) and evaluation, well, had little to evaluate.

I’ve put forward my thoughts about knowledge in my first blog.  My intention here is to help by sharing my own past errors.  As teachers, our time is precious.  We all want to do what’s right by our kids, but what’s right by our kids is not burning the midnight oil by meticulously folding your thirtieth origami fortune teller complete with personalised Bloom’s style questions (that’s right – I did) so Year 9 are really ‘engaged’.  You don’t need to.  Really, you don’t.  Now I love a good hook, don’t get me wrong, but I also love a well-rested, knowledgeable, passionate teacher who hasn’t been laminating until the early hours.  So here are a few of my ‘wonderland’ mistakes over the years; my “six impossible things”, Part 1:

1.  Overly worrying about clambering up Bloom’s Taxonomy

I’m sure many of us will be familiar with this, and will have been advised/cajoled/told (delete as appropriate) over the years about moving up to the ‘higher order’ questions more quickly. Such was my belief in what I’d been told about Bloom’s, “that trusted framework of teaching referenced by just about every teacher on god’s green earth.” (Lemov – ‘Imagining a New Bloom’s’), I’m sure I advised colleagues to do this too. Bloom’s was trusted, unquestionable. But you have to get the foundations of knowledge right first. Teach the children information, knowledge, facts. Enable them to remember it (see my last blog ‘In Praise of Knowledge’ for some ideas). Then when the knowledge has been stored in long-term memory it can be used for those “critical thinking processes” as they are “intimately intertwined with factual knowledge that is stored in long-term memory.” (Daniel Willingham, Why Don’t Students Like School?, p.28). Don’t, whatever you do, do what I did circa 2007, which involved (I kid you not) inflating, and then filling with water, a mini paddling pool in a lesson, and floating a gaggle of plastic ducks, all with a Bloom’s question tied jauntily around their necks. Naturally, because I wanted to get to synthesise and evaluate quickly, there were more of those clever little evaluation and synthesise swans than the poor old knowledge ugly ducklings. This was my gold-plated, outstanding-guaranteed, kinaesthetic-a-rama ‘Hook-a-Duck Bloom’s Starter’. Which leads me neatly on to…

2.  Choosing the ‘best’ activities

Which is NOT ‘Hook -a-Duck Bloom’s Starter’. It is not. In my head I think I was hoping for some sort of olde-worlde fairground(e), dancing around the maypole lesson (I honestly considered a coconut shy), where learning was part of a kinaesthetic experiential adventure with me as some sort of teacher-cum-morris dancer. Consider the amount of work that had to go into that one activity:

– Sourcing, inflating and filling with water a small paddling pool (the inflation and filling all done before school, when I could have been planning another (non-fairground) lesson or spent another twenty or thirty minutes in bed)

– Sourcing some hook-a-ducks and some sticks, to which I fixed a hook on each after charming a DT teacher to help (and wasting his precious time, too)

– Tying fiddly little gift tags around each of their necks, all with hand-written questions about the specific topic, all at a different level of the taxonomy (but more on evaluate and synthesise, because, well, you get the gist)

– Somehow getting my form to avoid the temptation of splashing the paddling pool, or bobbing something in it (although this did make me consider ‘Bloom’s Apple Bobbing’. No. Just no.), prior to period 1 starting

All for what?  To engage them?  To make them love my lessons so much it would (ahem) ‘hook’ them and make them remember?  If only I’d known then that, for all my good intentions, “Emotion is not necessary for learning” (Willingham, Why Don’t Students Like School?, p.58).  Sure, they remembered my lesson.  But they remembered the ducks more than the Dickens.  I had wasted hours of my precious time and the outcome was poor.  I could have just planned, and then asked, some really good questions.  That’s it.  But no, I felt compelled to get out the ducks.

3.  ‘Facilitating’ not overtly teaching

This was when I was in my morris-dancer phase. I’d been convinced by the importance of ‘facilitating’ the conditions for learning, where the pupils ‘discovered’ it through some sort of VAK-soaked osmosis. Sometimes I found myself at the front of the class, telling my pupils stuff, and felt really guilty, as this wasn’t what we had been told in CPD was ‘good’ (and certainly not ‘outstanding’) practice. So I went back to carousel activities (which I secretly despised, but would never admit it), group work, project-based work (hence the CSI-themed persuasive writing lessons referenced in my last blog). And my ubiquitous ‘Poetry Pass the Parcel’, where each table in the class had an individual parcel with different layers and items that symbolised themes etc from the poems (but – oh! – the hours and hours of wrapping and wrapping – again, for what outcome?). I had, and I’m embarrassed to say it, tried to “‘trick’ kids into being interested in things” (Carl Hendrick, ‘Why Fads and Gimmicks Should be Resisted in the Classroom’). Yes, the kids liked it, I guess. Yes, they kind of liked me playing Junior Senior’s ‘Move Your Feet’ while they passed (lobbed) their parcels. They even quite liked Britney’s ‘Toxic’ as a starter for a lesson on ‘The Laboratory’ (What’s that noise, English teachers? That’s right: just Browning spinning in his grave.). It meant there was a lot of noise and chatter – and certainly not always about the topic. And it took my classes longer than was needed to learn things, and sometimes when they did, it was wrong. I could have just read texts with them carefully, told them stuff, asked really good questions, precisely modelled analysis or writing on the board or the OHP (this was 2007, people), and then got them to write independently. I’m simplifying I know, but I really, really didn’t need all the frippery. It was distracting, and wasted time. And was, for me, exhausting and unsustainable.

The moral of the story: your time is precious. Don’t waste it on ducks.

Part 2 to follow…

Blogs referenced:

Carl Hendrick:

Doug Lemov: