No More Wonderland: Six Impossible Things – Part 2

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

It’s been a few weeks since I last ventured down the rabbit hole of ‘pedagogy’, but Stuart Lock’s speech at the Festival of Education last month dragged me back down it kicking and screaming. If you’d said to me ‘Pedagogy is overrated’ ten years ago, whilst carting my AST bag of tricks from school to school, I would have thrust a yellow Thinking Hat on your bonce and made you re-think your position, positively of course. And maybe checked your progress on that position ten minutes later in an unnecessary, hurdle-jumping mini plenary. And probably stamped you with a ‘verbal feedback’ stamp to prove I had, really, given you feedback – cos look, there, a stamp proves it. And then given you an exit ticket and maybe a card sort to boot, as I hoicked all my literal (and highly coveted) de Bono hats into a mahoosive Bag For Life, plodding home for another night of interminable laminating with my double laminator combo set.

But here and now, in 2017, I agree with Stuart Lock. I always did have a slight irksome feeling as I made my weekly trudging visit to Poundland on a Saturday for yet another ‘engaging’ starter purchase, but pushed it to the back of my mind, along with worrying about moving up Bloom’s Taxonomy too quickly.   Now don’t get me wrong. There are some of these strategies and techniques that work. I’m not saying that these strategies are ‘bad’ as such, and you will have your own ideas and experiences about them. My intention here is to revisit my ‘No More Wonderland’, adding Part 2, to share with you three more of the things, in my own experience, to avoid or to approach with caution. I would heartily recommend us re-focusing, as Stuart Lock says, on the ‘matter’ – the curriculum – far more than the ‘manner’ – how we teach. But that’s a focus for another blog. In the meantime, join me for a quick hurtle down the pedagogical rabbit hole. You’ll probably wince as we go. Sorry (not sorry).

4.  Unnecessary, hurdle-jumping mini plenaries

I am grateful to Dawn Cox for bringing me back to this. In her recent blog, ‘Are we wasting our time on lesson plenaries?’, Cox gives us a salutary reminder of why mini plenaries were so ‘useful’ in the days of progress every twenty minutes, “You could start the lesson with an activity that showed they knew nothing about the topic, teach them and then at the end get them to do the same activity.”  I taught many a lesson that was peppered with these unnecessary and often pointless plenaries – they frequently jarred and jolted the learning, and the teaching (when I wasn’t trying to ‘facilitate’ – gah) – but because these mini plenaries were seen as, you know, outstanding, I felt compelled to include them.  And this was even if the kids were writing an extended piece of work – stop!  Grab your progress checkpoint sheet!  What have you learnt now, hmm?  Write it down!  Well, Miss, I’ve learnt that you’ve now interrupted my thinking and I’ve completely lost my train of thought.

You get my drift.

Cox’s stance is clear, and I agree, “The days of using plenaries to ‘prove’ progress in lessons needs to be scrapped.”  A far better way to ensure pupils are retaining knowledge is by revisiting the information regularly, probably at the start of lessons, in a quick knowledge-based retention quiz – something like Rebecca Foster’s simple yet magically brilliant ‘Five-a-days’.  Map these in regularly, strategically.  Some lessons you could include a plenary, others maybe not.  But if you do, make sure it does something to aid the kids’ learning, not because you feel you ought to include it.  I’ll be honest: many of my lessons don’t end with a plenary per se.  There are no exit tickets, no draw around your hand and fill the fingers in with what you’ve learned, no confetti of post-its.  There is, though, often an extended piece of writing that they’ve been working on, that we’ll look at again next lesson and develop further.

Some plenaries have their place.  But the mini ones can, well, do one.

5.  Busting a gut over an ‘engaging’ hook, every lesson

This was my speciality, my pièce de résistance.  I was a dab hand at whiling away hours on clipart (hello, 2007), searching for that Holy Grail image that would, unquestionably, make my PPT hook slide AWESOME.  It rarely did.  But I had convinced myself that, due to the high number of visual learners in my groups (VAK was all-pervasive then, and unbelievably still lingers in 2017 in many schools and ITT providers), it would have been pretty much criminal of me not to include them.  So I wasted many an evening scouring the internet for just the right picture of something that could link to a theme in Macbeth, then faffing around trying to set up a scrolling PPT of images with all its whizzes and pops, and embedding a sound file of Verdi’s ‘Dies Irae’ from his Requiem (timed meticulously precisely to coincide with the PPT animations) as it was suitably scary.  And then I deliberated over whether Carmina Burana was scarier.  Tried to embed the sound file.  Failed.  Faffed around some more and dumped Orff for Verdi.  Checked my timings.  Checked my animations.  Changed an image (that dagger just won’t do – I saw a far better one with gouts of blood on its dudgeon, too, three hours ago.  Somewhere…).  Finally crawled into bed at 12.30am.  And boy was it, often, a day of wrath.  I was frequently so exhausted from the scouring, the hunting, the oh-so-precise PPT timing, that I was a grumpy, blinking, rattled mess the next morning, cursing my inability to be without pictures in hooks, but equally really, really pleased at my two minute engaging hook that would have Year 9 on the edge of their seats.

And therein lies the rub.  All that effort, all that time, for a two minute ‘engaging’ hook.  Admittedly, at one school I was working with in the mid-late noughties, that hook was often played loudly enough to Verdi the kids into submission, they were so poorly behaved.  But that was a systemic, dysfunctional problem with the way behaviour was managed at the school.  I did well to keep the kids in the room.  All things being well, if the behaviour and lesson routines had been strong at the school, that particular hook wouldn’t have been needed.  I’m not saying I don’t like a good visual hook.  I do.  And I love Verdi.  But I’d spent far too long on something that was not going to elicit much learning and had completely exhausted me, the best resource in the room.  Far better to plan a quick recall quiz the night before, having reviewed their books and checked what the children were forgetting or getting wrong.  I could have even used a picture in that as stimulus – goodness!  But as I blinked and rubbed my eyes, marvelling at the wonder of my PPT creation, I knew, deep down, this probably wasn’t the best use of my time.

6.  Worrying about too much ‘teacher talk’

This was a particularly pernicious one. I’m not entirely sure where it came from, or where it started, but it was the monkey on my back for a number of years, hand in mute hand with the ‘facilitate don’t teach’ stance. I wrestled with this maddening beast for a number of years, trying to work out how I would explain Blake’s poetry, or the opening to The Turn of the Screw, or Carter’s wonderment in The Bloody Chamber, without, somehow, talking much. It was a conundrum to me. I did, on occasion, go against my gut and offer the children discovery-learning type lessons, where they would ‘find out for themselves’ about the social context around ‘London’, or the Governess’s obsession, or Carter’s lustrous imagery. I frantically, exhaustingly circulated, trying to point them in the right direction like a teachery Marcel Marceau. It never worked well. The outcomes were never very good. It needed me to explicitly teach the children, not guide, not facilitate. Thomas James reminds us of the crucial importance of teacher talk in his recent blog:

“To illustrate, let’s compare a teacher explanation and a treasure-hunt activity. Say the treasure hunt takes ten minutes to complete, as children find the information that’s been hidden (hidden!) from them. Inside an envelope they will discover a short piece of information written in dumbed-down language, because each pupil has to read it independently and it is highly unrealistic for the teacher to individually check everyone’s comprehension. Now, think of all that could have been achieved in ten minutes of teacher-talk. A clear explanation, using rich language, with complex vocabulary defined and clarifying examples provided, all before some quick whole-class AFL is used to check for understanding and clear up any misconceptions. Just consider the difference in total word-exposure that the children in each example have been exposed to and multiply that over an entire school career. Tens of millions of words, I would guess.”

To deny our children of our own treasure chest of language is a disgrace, and keeps many of them in poverty. So, please, don’t don the white gloves of teachery muteness as I did, circa 2007. Free yourself from the shackles of teacher talk anxiety. Prise that monkey off your back. Talk.


Blogs referenced:

Stuart Lock’s speech from the Festival of Education can be found here:

Dawn Cox:

Thomas James:

Rebecca Foster: