This article was written for SecEd magazine and first published in January 2016. You can read the original version on the SecEd website here or read the print version by clicking on the image below. This is the first of five articles exploring the ‘keys’ to teaching and learning.
You can read more of my monthly columns for SecEd here.
Forget Christmas – in my house, the first week of December was much more festive. My family and I awoke early each morning and crept downstairs – nimble on our feet – to see if our New Vacuum had arrived.
And one day, after a knock at the door and a signed chit, there it was, standing proud in the hall: shiny and new and beautifully designed, accompanied by its progeny of nozzles, one for every occasion.
My daughters regard cleaning as an unpleasant chore and their creativity knows no bounds as they invent new ways of shirking it. But, since the arrival of the New Vacuum, they have regularly volunteered – yes, volunteered – to hoover the carpets and are genuinely disappointed when I say no (which I only do when the New Vacuum – being cordless – is out of charge. Admittedly this is most of the time because it takes 30 hours to accumulate enough charge for just quarter of an hour’s use). Anyway, I digress…
On those rare occasions when the New Vacuum has sufficient charge to be deployed, it brings a new-found excitement to the simple act of hoovering. In fact, occasionally, when I’m at a loose end, I’ll glide around with the vacuum for wont of something to do. Because I really know how to live.
Although the New Vacuum is undeniably better than the old one when it comes to its raison d’être, it is not really its effectiveness that delights us; it is the novelty value, the fact it is different. The New Vacuum is proof that a change really is as good as a rest because its unfamiliarity has reinvigorated a hitherto familiar and loathed chore.
It was much the same with DIY a couple of years ago – I found that my sudden eagerness to tick off all those odds jobs around the house about which I had vacillated and my enjoyment of actually doing them increased immeasurably when I treated myself to a new toolbox. When I got a new car last summer, I wanted to drive it all the time and regularly volunteered to taxi my daughters to sleep-overs and parties.
And so it is with teaching and learning. Students are more likely to want to learn – and to actually learn – if their interest is piqued by newness, by the extraordinary, by the unfamiliar.
You see, students, like us old dogs, crave variety; they need lessons to surprise them, to excite them, to ignite new sparks and pose new questions. They need lessons to unsettle them, too; to discomfort and challenge them, not bore them with a Groundhog Day feeling of déjà vu.
In short, we all grow tired of repetition, of the predictable and prosaic, of the monotonous and mundane, and we all need a frequent frisson of freshness in our lives. And the lessons we teach should be no exception.
So I propose a teaching resolution: we should aim to surprise our students as often as possible. We should aim to create lasting memories by doing something unexpected and out of the ordinary, by keeping our students on their toes.
A sensory ‘hook’
You may be sceptical. Surely not all lessons can provide novelty value? We are teachers not circus performers, after all. We have a curriculum to get through. Most of the time we need to deliver functional lessons not bells and whistles.
You are probably right – but don’t forget that just about every worthy authority on pedagogy promotes the importance of using a variety of teaching methods in order to engage students. Even the most traditional voices do not claim teacher-led lectures are effective if that is the only teaching strategy deployed through the year.
Lectures, extended essays, and silent reading are all effective strategies in context but only when they form part of a varied sequence of learning that appeals to students’ different senses. I am not advocating the return of VAK (visual, auditory and kinesthetic) here, but I am saying that in order to make ideas “stick” we need to make them concrete by grounding them in sensory reality. In fact, the more sensory “hooks” we use, the better ideas will stick.
Moreover, in order to ensure that ideas “stick” we need to make them tangible, because students find it hard to care about or understand abstract concepts. If we ground an abstract concept in sensory reality and thus engage our students’ emotions, our students are made to care about something, they are made to feel something and this is an important part of the learning process.
When we are exposed to new information, we process it and then attempt to connect it to existing information (in other words, we try to assimilate new knowledge with prior knowledge). The richer – sensorily and emotionally – the new information is, and the deeper the existing information is ingrained, the stronger we will encode the new information in our long-term memories.
Ensuring our lessons provide variety and novelty, therefore, helps to appeal to students’ senses and engage their emotions – if nothing else, simply by piquing their interest in something out of the ordinary, we are waking them up, shaking them up and making them think – and therefore the information we teach them is more likely to be retained over the long-term.
So try something new. Bring learning to life with something exciting, something different, something surprising. A good starting point is to think back to your own school days – which lessons do you still remember and why? Now teach those lessons – or a variation of them – to your students. Pass it on.
But be assured that providing variety and novelty in this way does not mean your lessons cannot follow a regular, familiar structure. I am not suggesting you start each new lesson with a completely blank page, disregarding the need for learning outcomes and plenaries, say.
No, my plea to offer variety and novelty in your lessons relates only to your teaching methods not your lesson structure: in other words, in order to engage students and make lessons memorable, I am suggesting you aim to use varied and novel teaching approaches and strategies (activities or tasks, if you like), but that you continue to organise the learning in a logical – perhaps even predictable – way so that the basic skeleton remains the same but lessons are fleshed out with different flavoured meats – which is possibly the worst metaphor I’ve ever dreamt up, but I bet you won’t forget it so permit me to labour it…
The teaching skeleton
So what might the skeleton on which we hang our different flavoured meats actually look like? In other words, what are the underlying principles of all well-planned lessons? What is the familiar structure supporting all varied and novel teaching strategies?
I am confident that if you were to ask your students what makes a well-planned lesson, they would say it has a clear learning goal, and that goal – as well as students’ means of achieving it – provide for genuine challenge.
They would say that, in a well-planned lesson, the teacher articulates the “big picture” throughout, connecting the learning by providing regular and explicit “back-and-forth” flow between the various parts of the lesson and the learning goal.
They would also say that a well-planned lesson provides opportunities for active learning, for students to get their hands dirty, so to speak. This may mean that there is very little front-loaded teacher-talk and much more hands-on learning (in other words, less listening and more doing).
A well-planned lesson focuses on one interesting and important idea, or a big question, issue, or problem to solve; and that the learning has real-world application, and therefore genuine meaning and purpose for students. And they would probably say that the lesson involves on-going formative feedback as well as opportunities to respond to that feedback and therefore a chance for students to learn from their mistakes.
If you ask your students what makes a well-planned lesson, they would add, perhaps, that it allows for a personalised approach, with opportunities for students to make decisions about how they will learn and how they will demonstrate that learning, thereby adapting the learning goal and the learning process to suit their own style, interests, and needs.
Furthermore, a well-planned lesson includes exemplars of high-quality work, something for students to aim for; and that the lesson provides opportunities for the teacher and students to engage in the modelling process, perhaps by working together to produce an exemplar of their own, such as a piece of class writing created using a visualiser or an interactive whiteboard.
Students are also likely to say that a well-planned lesson affords them sufficient time to regularly reflect on their progress. A good lesson enables students to learn in a variety of ways and to work both independently and as part of a group, and provides a safe environment in which students feel able and willing to take risks.
Now if we were to convert all this good practice into a planning framework – the skeleton on which we will hang our different flavoured meats every lesson – it might look something like this five-point plan:
1 Connect the learning
Ensure that students understand the learning goal (where the lesson and scheme is heading) and why that goal is important (the purpose of learning what they’re learning). Ensure that students’ starting points (what they already know and can do, as well as their misconceptions) are identified through pre-tests and then acted upon.
2 Personalise the learning
Ensure that the lesson is tailored to meet individual needs and to match individual skills, interests, and styles. Ensure that the diagnostic data about students’ starting points – both from pre-tests and regular assessments – I mention above are used to inform the on-going lesson planning process.
3 Grab their attention
Ensure that the lesson grabs and maintains students’ attentions from the very beginning by using sensory “hooks” and by ensuring that the learning is appropriately paced and that activities are appropriately varied and challenging.
4 Teach less, learn more
Ensure that students are afforded sufficient time and space to acquire the necessary experiences, knowledge and skills that they need in order to meet the learning goal. Remember that less is more: aim to cover a smaller amount of curriculum content but in greater depth and detail – as well as from a range of different perspectives – rather than attempt to “get through” more content in a shallow, superficial manner.
5 Take time to reflect
Provide students with regular opportunities to reflect on their progress, to revise their thinking, and to redraft their work, acting on the formative feedback they receive from teacher, peer and self-assessments.
So that’s my advice – try to teach lessons that students will never forget. But hang your novelty on a familiar structure – follow the five-point plan in order to ensure that your exciting, surprising and challenging lessons are also effective in enabling all students to make good progress. Make sure the learning is connected, personalised, grabs students’ attentions, covers the curriculum content in sufficient depth, and affords students the time to reflect on their learning and to act on feedback.
Over the course of my next four articles, I will examine this five-point plan in more depth, starting with my next piece, when I will explore ways of connecting the learning.