The Wicked + The Divine

This blog entry is about a single lesson I taught. The lesson was part of the GCSE Religious Studies course, looking at punishment and attitudes towards prison. This was not a lesson where we are laughing at how everything went wrong (sorry). Nor was this a lesson that I think was perfect. This was not a lesson that took me a particularly long time to plan. At one point some people did pop into the lesson. This probably led me to reflect more on the lesson than I normally would. So I thought I would outline what happened in the lesson and then explore why I planned the lesson in the way I did. Here goes:

The lesson:

Mr Duckworth was stood at the door and welcomed students into the classroom with a simple good morning.

“Wait, are you really doing this in third person?”
“Yes. I decided it would be more interesting and avant-garde.”
“It is not. It is just odd.”
“Well I have started it like that now. I think the readers will appreciate the approach.”
“What readers?”

As the students entered they were asked to complete some retrieval practice on the 6 aims of punishment, definitions of these and religious attitudes towards them. After 5 minutes of this they were allowed to check their answers using their books.
Mr Duckworth then outlined where this lesson fit within the wider unit of study and introduced a question that would be answered later. After this two of the weekly tier 2 vocabulary words were shared and explained. Every student wrote down the two that they were aiming to use in this lesson – alternative and interact.

My classroom is neither like the first image or this one.

Mr Duckworth instructed the class to write Prison is effective in their books and then put pens down. A 3-2-1 countdown was used and all students were expected to face the front with no equipment in hands and ready to listen. Mr Duckworth explained some of the arguments people use to justify prison as an effective punishment. The explanation was brief, focused and included direct reference to three of the aims of punishment key terms. When he had finished Mr Duckworth instructed students to write down everything that they could remember under their heading. While writing the teacher moved around the classroom checking what students were writing and asking some questions. The activity was conducted in an almost silent room.
A 3-2-1 countdown was used by the teacher again and the second heading was shared, Prison is not effective. The process was repeated.

“I am starting to regret my choice of writing in the third person here”
“Well, you were warned”
“Probably too late to change it now, just have to carry on regardless”
“Stick to the plan, no matter what happens in front of you…”
“Yes, wait.. no. Is that some kind of dig at the way I used to teach!”

Mr Duckworth, after using a 3-2-1 countdown, then shared a key question ‘Does prison work’. Students were told that they needed to complete their notes (an A4 sheet of information had been placed on tables to support with this) and then consider their answer to the question. This could be done in writing or through discussion with the people next to them.
Mr Duckworth moved around the room listening to discussions and asking some questions.
After a 3-2-1 countdown was used Mr Duckworth proceeded to questions students. This was done with the teacher selecting students to answer. Some students put hands up and Mr Duckworth often picked them to add to an answer after selecting other students. Some students were asked to repeat answers using more specialist language . Some students, who did not have a clear idea of an answer, were asked to listen to a range of responses and then give their own thoughts. The questions asked were not ‘Does prison work?’ but were questions with a narrower focus that led towards this idea.

After the questioning had been completed students were given an evaluation question to answer. The had just under 20 minutes to do this. The room was mostly silent during this task. Mr Duckworth moved around supporting students with their work.

The lesson ended with students tidying away their books, any sheets of paper and their pencil cases. Mr Duckworth then dismissed them.

This is my actual classroom. It looks really colourful here…

The thinking and planning behind the lesson:

Starting with retrieval:

Lets start at the beginning. I usually have some form of retrieval practice at the start of my lessons. I find this really useful to support student’s long term memorisation, help deal with misconceptions and to highlight to the class where this lesson fits amongst previous knowledge. In this instance we had been studying the aims of punishment and prison for a few lessons so I did not feel the need to go through the answers. All students had correct information in their book to use when checking their answers. Regular retrieval of knowledge has been a focus of my teaching for the last couple of years now. Students’ ability to link concepts and fluidly use their knowledge has appeared to improve due to this. This has become a routine at the start of lessons and students know they will be expected to recall information. I have also tried to build more retrieval into the rest of my lesson as well.

Sharing the big picture:

Obviously this is connections, like those the students were making between old and new knowledge…

I have recently been following some interesting debates on Twitter and through blogs about the use of learning objectives and big questions. Some food for though there. Those debates did not influence this lesson. We have a standard format for lesson objectives which I write for myself rather than for the students to copy down. Learning about… in order to… to lead towards… I find this really helpful at the planning stage and do share with the class. The main reason for this is to help students see where this learning fits in with the ‘big picture’.

Explain, retrieve, record:

I have blogged previously about the impact that engaging with cognitive load theory has had on my teaching. Alongside this has been a realisation that it is fine for me, as a teacher, to explain things to my class. They do not have to discover it for themselves. This part of the lesson was about me ensuring students had understanding of some key concepts. To do this I have stripped back my explanations to the most salient information. Gone is the distracting text on the board. Gone are the barley related images to ‘keep them interested’. Gone is the extraneous information and asides that I would often find myself on. Instead is a clear and to the point explanation of the most important information, occasionally supported by relevant images or diagrams. Students are expected to give their full attention to me during this part of the lesson. All equipment is down. All are facing in my general direction. When I have finished explaining the point students have a chance to write down all the key information that they can remember. Sometimes this is through questions. This time is was through recording notes on the key information about why prison is seen as effective and not effective. I have also split my explanations up to avoid cognitive overload. There was explanation on why prison is seen as effective followed by time for notes. Then an explanation of why it is not seen as effective followed by time for notes. My reading around retrieval practice threw up the suggestion that any chance for retrieval is beneficial, even if just a few seconds. At the start of the year I was explaining, then getting students to read the information before making notes or answering questions. I have shifted this now to include an element of retrieval, to try and help that knowledge stick. I do still give them access to written information later, as a way of quality assuring their notes and checking for further detail. Perhaps this is unnecessary though…

Class questioning:

I wanted to give students the opportunity to share their views with the group on prison for a number of reasons. One was because I was genuinely interested to hear what they thought about it. I wanted to use the questioning to help students with the evaluative piece of writing by exposing them to different views. Questioning the class gave me an opportunity to check the understanding of a number of students. I also wanted to get students to practice using the more specialist language I had been exposing them to. This included both tier 2 and tier 3 terms. At the start of the questioning I had to ask a few students to repeat their answers using more academic language. After a couple of times students began to do this without me needing to ask. It does surprise me that I need to do this nearly every lesson, it is almost as if the students are hoping to get away with giving less demanding answers… I also took the larger question of ‘does prison work’ and, during planning, created some smaller questions that fed into this. This allowed me to both ask far more questions and include more students as well ask a range of follow up questions to individuals to really get them to explain their thinking. One student found it really difficult to answer one of the questions so I passed the question on to three other students to get their responses. I then asked the original student to choose one of these answers they agreed with the most and explain their thinking. I feel this is really important in making it clear to students that they are expected to answer questions while giving them the opportunity to genuinely not know something. I also see it as essential in demonstrating to students to need to listen to one another.

Evaluative exam question:

The class did significantly more writing than this…

The lesson finished with the chance to evaluate a statement about prison. In the GCSE exam there is are 15 mark evaluation questions. This was not one that would feature in the exam. The exam questions have a different focus. Instead this was chance to capture the thoughts and ideas that had been flying about and try to really formalise them in writing. A few lessons previous to this we had answered an exam style evaluative question (one that looked specifically at religious beliefs towards the aims of punishment). We had a lesson using a whole-class feedback approach, developing those evaluative answers. When we got to this task in the lesson students were totally focused on writing their answers. They were all clear about how to write the answer and what they wanted to include. I mostly moved around reading answers over shoulders and occasionally suggesting that points be clarified or expanded upon.

Some final thoughts:

I often give my class clear instructions on the way that they will work during a task. This includes volume, where to get resources etc. I did not do this during this lesson, an oversight on my part. Interestingly, perhaps due to my constant description of my expectations in previous lessons, the class worked in almost silence when writing. This was not an oppressive silence of fear, this was the silence of focus.

I also hope that this blog does not come across as trying to suggest that this is the only way to teach. I have previously blogged about failures of mine. I wrote this blog because I had been thinking about writing one, inspired by @MrARobbins, about mistakes made in my early teaching. This led me to thinking about what I do differently now. I will get back to writing one where we can laugh at my ineptitude soon. If that is what you are looking for then please read Mr Duckworth vs. The Universe

There is also an element of reminding myself of all the complex ideas and thinking that goes into a relatively simple lesson. Most of this is now automatic, through years of doing the job. I think it is important to remember that to improve our teaching we need to focus on small achievable steps and not try to change everything we do at once. What do you think? How would you have planned the lesson differently?

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