Keeping it simple

One question has been nagging away at me for a while now. How can we effectively reduce teacher workload? With teacher recruitment and retention at critically low levels, and workload being one of the factors driving people away from the profession, this is a question being asked by many of the great and good in education. The solutions are multi-faceted. Switching from marking to whole-class feedback. Reducing the amount of data teachers need to produce for their senior leadership teams. Fewer meetings being scheduled.

One area that interests me greatly, as it was the one thing that ate up most of my time when I was teaching, is lesson planning. The considerable time I spent preparing powerpoints and worksheets was surely not optimal nor sustainable over the long term. Part of the problem was the idea that lessons needed to have a range of activities that should be, if not entertaining, at least visibly keeping the students busy doing something.

This last point was brought home to me in a Tweet I saw posted on my timeline recently. A teacher had asked for lesson ideas on the Agrarian Revolution and one idea suggested in response was to cut up lots of paper in tiny pieces and throw them around the front of the classroom, then asking ten students to pick up the pieces while timing how long it takes. Then the process is repeated but this time with just one student picking up the pieces with a vaccum cleaner. And hey presto, the students will have learned about the transformative power of mechanisation on the agrarian economy.

I have a problem with this. First, when we are talking about teacher workload, this seems like a time-consuming activity to prepare and deliver. There is also another opportunity cost. Because the students are being taught the concept via an experiential, constructivist activity, they don’t get to read some meaty text which could enrich their vocabulary, their understanding of the period and their knowledge of how to construct good historical writing. By choosing the ‘kinaesthetic’ over the reading or over good story telling by the teacher, how often are we denying our students the gift of language?

This isn’t a one-off. Over the last two years that I have been active on Twitter, I have seen many lesson ideas posted online by teachers. Not once – I repeat not once – have I seen a teacher simply share a good quality text with some accompanying questions (that’s not to say it hasn’t happened). The only text-rich resources I have seen being shared are knowledge organisers, many of them full of busy diagrams and boxes all over the page – not really what I believe knowledge organisers should be (but that is the subject of another blog for another time).

What I would have liked to find, as a teacher desperately trying to create lessons from scratch, was two or three pages’ worth of narrative prose on a particular history topic. This dearth of good quality prose is one of the factors behind my setting up Learning For Memory. I wanted to create high quality, text rich resources for busy teachers. Instead of spending valuable planning time preparing powerpoint presentations or activities to keep the students busy, wouldn’t it be better for a teacher to just read through ready-made text and make notes on particular bits of vocabulary that might need explaining or questions that might need asking?

In this respect, I was heartened to read a recent blog by Warren Valentine, in which he described the structure of a typical lesson he teaches as follows:

1. The presentation of some text, including the key knowledge and events I would like students to know.

2. Some activity involving the processing of this text, by transforming it into a different format.

3. Some stretching and searching questions based upon the text to probe for understanding.

4. Applying the knowledge to answer a historical question.

This absolutely nails it! Such an approach should be the bread and butter of history teaching. Start with good quality text. Probe and analyse it, answer questions to deepen understanding and then work towards applying that knowledge to answer a historical question. Would that this were the norm in history classrooms around the country.

 

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