Sunday, 19 May 2013

Classics, Blue Peter and here’s one I made earlier

It seemed that the current battle in education was all about knowledge verses skill. Do we focus on knowledge? Or, do we focus on the skill? The tests this week for Year 6s highlighted that old battle again. Which is better: the knowledge of grammar; or the skill of using grammar correctly? Does the ability to spot an abstract noun help you to write effectively? Generally, we focus on both and somewhere in the middle it will stick. Like salt and pepper, you need them, but not too much at once and not always at the same time.

Then, Mr Soundbite, I mean, Mr Gove opened a Pandora’s Box in a speech and raised an interesting argument. For most people, it was the shock that Mr Men was being used in association with the Holocaust. For Gove, it was the sign of ‘dumbing down of education’. But, for me, I think it raised a more interesting point: engagement verses boredom. I don’t know much about the lesson in question but I think the furore has created more lessons than it intended to. It would make a great starter for most lessons: Should Mr Men be used to teach ‘Of Mice and Men’? Should Mr Men be used for Science lessons? Discuss. Anyway, I saw it for what it was: a teacher trying to engage a class and make them see things in a different light. I can also see why people feel the need to question the sensitivity of the topic and approach used. However, the real problem lies in the ‘how far will you go to engage students’. I expressed my opinion before about the ‘boredom factor’ here, but I think we need to raise the issue again. On the surface it could look like ‘dumbing down’ but underneath it might be one teacher trying to engage students and use Vygotsky’s ‘Zone of Proximal Distance’. Starting with the familiar and then introducing the unfamiliar in the learning journey.  

Engagement. Engagement. Engagement. This has always been a concept thrown around by Ofsted. Students have to show signs of engagement in the lesson, or you will die…sorry, I mean fail. I get a little confused; the general feeling of Ofsted is do or die at the moment. Lessons are being observed and observers are looking for signs of non-engagement. A child leaning back on a chair. A boy investigating chewing gum under a table. A girl doodling in her book. A lad colouring in the letters on a worksheet. A boy investigating a patch of dry skin on the back of his hand. All, supposedly, signs of a lack of engagement.  If there is evidence of any of these, the lesson can never be outstanding or good. I have always felt, at times, that I was being led to be a Blue Peter presenter in teaching, balancing between entertaining and informing mode. Listen to some of the phrases that a Blue Peter presenter might use:

Remember last week, when we had…                                     (placing learning in context)

On today’s show, John will be … and Peter will be…           (objectives)

First you need …                                                                               (task setting)

Here’s one I made earlier                                                              (modelling process)

Who knew that ….                                                                           (reinforced learning/ mini-plenary)

Well, that’s us for another show. We’ve had…                    (plenary)

Join us on Thursday, when we will be looking at…             (referring to the next stage in learning)


Add a piddling Elephant and few giggles and you have an average lesson, I mean episode of Blue Peter.  Look at lessons at the moment. Expectations seem to be of lots of mini-plenaries in a lesson. All designed to track and maintain progress in a lesson. It is the format of Blue Peter. First we have a section on a zoo where they are using poetry to help pandas to relax. Then, someone makes a cake in the shape of a TARDIS.  Finally, we have a section on the Henry VIII, including people wearing the costumes in a re-enactment of scene at court. Lots of short things designed to entertain and inform at the same time. Everything revolves around entertainment or engagement. Short sharp burst so the audience doesn’t move on to something else.  But, really the education in the episode is the history bit, yet it is hidden amongst cake making, cute animals and dressing up.

Teachers are magicians and tricksters. We use underhand techniques sometimes to teach something. With a sleight of the hand a student has learnt how a sonnet is structured or what an oxymoron is. However, these tricks of engagement are just that - tricks. We use them occasionally, but they are not the foundations of our teaching. They are used to engage. I do not think that that poor History teacher’s schemes of work are linked to different children’s story. I don’t think for a second that the teacher uses Winnie the Witch to discuss the suffragette movement. Or, Winnie the Pooh to explore the history of kings and queens in England. It was a sleight of hand. It was a way into some aspect of learning. I feel saddened that this secret from the ‘Magic Circle’ of teaching is being seen as what is the norm. In fact, I haven’t referred to any children’s books in any of my lessons this week. Simply, it was a teacher trying to engage with students. We get them hooked in and then the learning begins.

The key word is 'sometimes'. Sometimes I do some engaging stuff, but I don’t do it all the time, because the learning isn’t always about the ‘flash’ and the ‘bang’ moments. It happens in waves in lessons. Therefore, the current instance of lots of mini-plenaries doesn’t factor this in. It promotes this bang, test, bang, test, bang, test method. I am planning a lesson to be observed next week and I am wondering if I need to do a small dance in the middle to make sure they are engaged. I might use the question: How does this dance reflect the character’s inner turmoil in the poem? It would just be the sort of thing a Blue Peter presenter would do. A silly dance.

In truth, I think the ‘hook’ is the thing that needs to be engaging and the rest follows. I don’t have to be a Blue Peter presenter all lesson, just for the first few minutes. The happy, smiley face that greats the class and teases them with a trick and a sleight of hand that they are doing something exciting and fun, when really they are going to do something difficult, challenging and not always as exciting as an CGI explosion in the finale of a trilogy of a blockbuster. But, it will be much more valuable and beneficial to the rest of their life.

And, here’s one I made earlier.

This is a lesson I have done for several years with Year 8s and they have done some great stuff with it. In fact, it predates CSI. I taught it long before people used CSI in RE, Science and other lessons. It uses Robert Browning's 'Porphyria's Lover'.

 Starter:  Look at these pictures. A body has been found.

What has happened?

Why did it happen?

Students write down their hypothesis based on the pictures.

Main: I reveal the poem in sections as below.  The students, in pairs, try to develop the story of the body further. Each time a new section is revealed they revise their hypothesis. As they revise their hypothesis, they make reference to the poem and use quotes. .

Each time, a section is revealed the class share their hypothesises and we annotate a copy of the sections on a PowerPoint. The analysis becomes quite specific and highlights language choices from the start, due to the nature of the exploration. You tend to hear that the weather is described in a bad way to help set the tone for the possible murder.

One of the best things is when they think something saucy is about happen. It causes a lot of nervous coughs, but when he strangles her that dissipates.  


The rain set early in tonight,
The sullen wind was soon awake,
It tore the elm-tops down for spite,
And did its worst to vex the lake:
I listened with heart fit to break.

She shut the cold out and the storm,
And kneeled and made the cheerless grate
Blaze up, and all the cottage warm;
Which done, she rose, and from her form
Withdrew the dripping cloak and shawl,
And laid her soiled gloves by, untied
Her hat and let the damp hair fall,

Murmuring how she loved me — she
Too weak, for all her heart's endeavor,
To set its struggling passion free
From pride, and vainer ties dissever,
And give herself to me forever.
But passion sometimes would prevail,
Nor could tonight's gay feast restrain
A sudden thought of one so pale
For love of her, and all in vain:

So, she was come through wind and rain.
Be sure I looked up at her eyes
Happy and proud; at last I knew
Porphyria worshiped me: surprise
Made my heart swell, and still it grew
While I debated what to do.

That moment she was mine, mine, fair,
Perfectly pure and good: I found
A thing to do, and all her hair
In one long yellow string I wound
Three times her little throat around,
And strangled her. No pain felt she;
I am quite sure she felt no pain.
As a shut bud that holds a bee,

I warily oped her lids: again
Laughed the blue eyes without a stain.
And I untightened next the tress
About her neck; her cheek once more
Blushed bright beneath my burning kiss:
I propped her head up as before,

Only, this time my shoulder bore
Her head, which droops upon it still:
The smiling rosy little head,
So glad it has its utmost will,
That all it scorned at once is fled,
And I, its love, am gained instead!

Porphyria's love: she guessed not how
Her darling one wish would be heard.
And thus we sit together now,
And all night long we have not stirred,
And yet God has not said a word!

Plenary: At the end, we explore where our expectations changed and what caused those changes. And this will usually end up with some very subtle analysis of the language.
And finally...
I don't think the problem is about 'dumbing down'. Personally, I think the problem lies in the expectations of things being 'fun' by the students and notion of having to engage with everything in the room. Are we sending the wrong impression to students? That learning is fun, exciting and can be simply rounded to 15 minutes intervals. The idea of engagement as being one of the assessment criteria of observations is so subjective. If we want our students to be more academic, then they must be able to have an attention span longer than 5 minutes. They must be able to learn and work without changing tasks every 5 minutes.  A diet of lots of short, fast tasks and mini-plenaries are setting the tone for learning and it isn't very academic. I wish that Gove would understand that the texts aren't really the source of the problems or the odd lesson. I just wish he'd see that the structure of the system and the judgement of the system isn't truly designed to support academic learning.  It favours the quick results and not the deep learning that makes students successful learners.

I now need to spend some time thinking about the lesson observation next week, so I have bought super glue to stick the chair legs to the floor. I have laminated exercise books and worksheets to avoid doodling and I have even bought a vat of hand cream to stop that one student investigating a patch of dry skin. Hopefully, they will all be engaged. If not, I might just have to do some expressive dance to keep them entertained.
Thanks for reading,


1 comment:

  1. I really like your Blue Peter analogy! It begs the question, should we be referred to as teachers or as 'edutainers'? :-)


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