Days of future past

Back in May Adam Robbins wrote an excellent blog post called The follies of yoof: Mistakes I made so you don’t have to. It was essentially about bad lessons he had taught a why. I highly recommend reading it because it is a great piece of writing and very amusing. Since then a few people have followed up by writing their own blogs about their own lesson mistakes. This is my attempt. I will share 3 lessons that I taught quite a long time ago and try to explain why they didn’t work. Read, enjoy, have a laugh at me. Also read Adam’s blog as it is really good.

The Battle of Hastings

Imagine a mound much, much smaller than this. I mean more like a little lump of ground.

Cast your mind back to 2008. I was fairly new to teaching (a couple of years in). I had a Year 7 History class. I needed to teach them about William the Conqueror. This particular lesson was about The Battle of Hastings and why William won it. I needed to plan a lesson about this. I was also struggling to get some students to work hard and make any progress in their learning. The wisdom of the day told me that his was probably because they were kinaesthetic learners! So, the master plan! Behind my classroom was a small mound of earth. I knew what to do. Half way through the lesson we left the classroom and went to the mound. Half the class were Anglo-Saxons and the other half were Normans. We had a Harold Godwinson and a William Duke of Normandy, both with paper crowns on. The Anglo-Saxons led by Harold stood at the top of the hill. Then the Normans charged up the hill. The Normans were going to then charge back down and the Anglo-Saxons would follow them. This was really important to teach the class about how William tricked the English by pretending to run away. Wow, what learning. All of the these students were clearly going to remember the key points about William’s victory. I mean, they ran up and down the mountain behind my classroom like a set of medieval re-enacters! I was very happy with myself, my lesson and my innovative approach to teaching. All of those dinosaurs in their classrooms, telling students things. Here we had found it out together, a true masterpiece of education!

Why it didn’t work

I mean, do you really need this part? Lets start at the planning phase. The lesson was designed to support those tricky kinaesthetic learners. My first mistake. If you are still unsure about the ridiculous nature of the learning style myth in education please allow me to direct you towards Blake Harvard on Twitter and his Effortful Educator blog. He does a much better job of explaining the issues with the ridiculous theory. Needless to say, this was the starting point for the problems with my lesson. What were the students actually learning? There was no rigorous attempt to focus students on the key historical information here. What they will remember is running up and down the 50cm high mound outside the classroom. This does not lead to a detailed understanding of the Battle of Hastings or any of the information around it. It was done purely to try and ‘engage’ some students I found difficult, it did not really work. Also it ended with kids running all over the place and pushing each other over. What was I thinking? There was no real structure to it. Take a bunch of 11 year olds who know very little about a topic, make them run around, watch that descend into silly behaviour and think your job is done? I am sorry, I really am! I could have far more effectively explained what happened, shown a few images/diagrams and then got them to think about this information with a piece of writing and discussion about the battle. Maybe I could have even started to get them to look at the accuracy of the information that lead us to this understanding of the battle.

The classroom as the mosque

This is exactly what my classroom looked like, honest…

Back in 2012 we had a really nice idea. We would take our 5 Year 7 classes to 5 different places of worship. Each class would go to one holy building. We would then get each class to teach the others about the place of worship they had visited. Perfect for our places of worship topic! My class visited a local mosque. A great opportunity for students to see a place of worship and speak to an expert. The few lessons after this were then spent preparing to teach the other Year 7s about the mosque. We had an afternoon where all Year 7 would be in the Humanities corridor experiencing different classrooms as holy buildings. We were turning G05 into a mosque, G01 was becoming a church, G04 a Synagogue etc. We had a lessons to get this ready. I split the students into groups and they each had responsibility for some part of the classroom. One group had to the job of copying some Islamic calligraphy to decorate the walls, another group were making some prayer mats from A3 paper. Some students needed to cover all of the pictures of people in the classroom. The students then gave a tour of our classroom mosque to the rest of Year 7 during the afternoon.

Why it didn’t work

I am so sorry to everyone! OK, first off the idea was to turn the classroom into a religious building, how is that even possible? There is neither the space or time to do this properly. What did the students gain from this? Were they thinking about the specific features of the building, how important they were or even their use? Not really. They were following some instructions to superficially think about a few obvious and visible signs of a religious building. I mean the group that had to find all images in the classroom may have remembered that mosques do not have pictures of people or animals but I doubt they would have recalled why. One group just copied Islamic calligraphy. They had seen some of these beautiful pieces of art in the actual mosque we visited. What did they learn by copying this? Very little of the lesson was spent on any actual learning or thinking about what was important. There was a real missed opportunity here. Following the actual visit to the mosque we could have used this experience to really explore what happens and why they are important. Instead I filled the lessons with some time-wasting activities and nobody got much from it.

The Martin Luther King Jr video

This is a computer!

Exciting news, I had booked an ICT classroom for my Year 9s. This gave me a fantastic opportunity to use the amazing power of computers and the internet to enhance the learning. We were looking at MLK as part of our Year 9 topic on…. errr, maybe something about social change or… I actually don’t know, maybe I just had a gap to fill in the Year 9 RS course. So anyway, that is not important, the important thing is that I had the ICT room booked. I now needed to plan a lesson to make the most of it. A brilliant idea from my training came to me! I distinctly remember my university tutor setting us the task of creating an audio-visual masterpiece. We took a key historical figure or event and created a movie of still photos that helped introduce this topic. We then added music to it. I made a passable effort of the Vietnam war to Welcome to the Jungle by Guns n’ Roses. A friend made a stunning presentation about Hitler to Queen’s Can’t Stop Me Now. It was really good. They only took about 4 – 6 hours to make. So I was going to do something similar with the Year 9s. Oh wait, they may struggle to find useful pictures. I know, I will spend 2 hours of my evening finding suitable images for them to use. Now to make this really useful they probably need some key facts they could include as subtitles on their movies. You thought I had forgotten to include factual information? Please, this was going to be one of the truly great lessons. So I started to create a key fact sheet for them. I was worried if I just let them free on the internet they may discover the wrong information. I could direct them towards some useful websites but they get bored wading through all that writing. So, a couple of hours making a key fact sheet for them, and in Comic Sans! I know, I am spoiling them. Actually, lets reformat that into key bullet points so they don’t really need to spend long reading it and can just copy and past onto a photo in their movie! What a quality lesson, what a quality teacher. Oh, I could also boast about how long it took to plan, everyone appreciates a bit of a martyr don’t they?

Why it didn’t work

I am so, so sorry everyone! What was the point? No depth of information. No tasks to get students thinking about MLK, his beliefs, his impact, his legacy. Instead lets fill some time with an activity. All that potential for learning and I give them some images to put into MovieMaker. I then get them to add some subtitles that I have written for them. Worst of all, the lesson took about 4 hours to prepare. This would be bad enough if the lesson had been worth teaching, but 4 hours for this? Just criminal!

Some thoughts:

In the frankly fantastic Why Don’t Students Like School by Daniel Willigham he describes memory as the residue of thought. What a beautifully simple way of explaining such a complex idea. Back to my three lessons. What was actually thought about? Certainly not what students needed to learn. These lessons all failed to give students the chance to think about the key ideas. What they did was replace the act of thinking or working with that key knowledge with what I thought were exciting and engaging activities. If I am being brutally honest they all had activities that were designed to fill up as much of the lesson as possible. The objectives, or learning intentions, were all written after I decided what I was going to do. I came up with something to fill some time and then tried to retro fit learning onto that. I am so, so, so sorry to all of those students who passed through my classroom in the past. Whatever success was gained, whatever was learnt seems to be in spite of my actions. Luckily for my students, and my own self-esteem, I have moved beyond planning ‘fun’ activities to real thought about the learning. Always the learning first and then planning whatever is most suitable to achieve that. Farewell running up and down a mound, farewell transforming the classroom into a place of worship, farewell putting some pictures and words in a sequence on a computer…

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