I have focused this year at developing patterns within English teacher that help and aid learning. I have mentioned before the problem with how we teach English. There are so many ways to attack a book, novel or poem. Each one makes a great starting point for teachers to start teaching a text, but they make a terrible starting point for students to analyse a text independently. Mr Smith always starts poetry by looking at pictures. Mrs Jones always starts poetry by picking out words. Miss Bloggs always starts poetry by looking at the poem’s title. Is it any wonder a large proportion of our students struggle to engage with texts when we have given them seventeen different ways to approach a poem? But, it gets even worse, because each time we give students a poem we teach it in a different way.
My daughters are in the primary school wilderness years. The Year 6 exams are on the horizon and their teachers are preparing them for the future exams. However, I find something quite surprising: my daughters are being taught several strategies to divide numbers. They are then taught several methods to multiply numbers, over the course of a year. Now, I am no mathematician, but I feel that a dominant methodology is preferable to several dominant strategies. Sophisticated mathematicians, I presume, start with one methodology to solve an equation, before moving on to another one, when the first one doesn’t work. However, I feel that a student must have a clear preferred one as a starting point. When perfecting mastery, is it better to have one approach rather than seven differing approaches?
I do feel for secondary Math’s teachers, when there are so many different methods out there to teach Maths. Inheriting thirty students with a different methodology for solving a sum must make teaching and differentiation difficult. The equivalent in English would be:
10 students who read books backwards
5 students who read books upside down
2 students who read books from start to finish
3 students who read books by skipping every other page
5 students who read books by using reading the titles and pictures
10 students who read books by letting someone else read it for them
I can see with my daughters the struggle with the shift between methodologies and selecting the appropriate one. They haven’t got a definitive methodology or dominant approach. Now, apply that to English teaching and you can see how students struggle. What is the dominant methodology to approaching texts in your lessons? In fact, for years, books have been peddling lots of different methodologies to engage with texts. As English teachers, we have been dazzled by an engaging approach. Creativity has been the driving force behind education. Look at this creative way to teach this poem. Isn’t it creative? When you have creativity as a driver in education, you have engagement and fun not far behind. This would be great because they will engage with the poem and it will be fun. I have taught creative lessons because they were fun and engaging, yet they did not develop a student. I think time has taught me that the right text is good enough on its own. That PowerPoint does nothing. That image does nothing. That card activity does nothing. That drama activity does nothing. That drawing activity on it does nothing. The text, however, does something. In fact, a lot of something; I just need to work on developing that something.
For all the reasons above, I have developed cognitive patterns in my teaching to aid and improve understanding and learning. A repeated pattern. A familiar series of steps. A routine. A clear methodology. As humans, we crave routine and predictability. Stress is often a result of unpredictable circumstances. Our school is due to have a visit from Ofsted. The visit might cause some stress, but that is nothing compared to the unpredictable nature of when that visit will take place. We could be paid a visit in a week’s time, a month, a term or next year. There is no routine. Ofsted creates panic because there is nothing concrete until it happens. You are constantly on edge because things are not secure. Ofsted might not intend to create fear and panic, but the secretive nature of when they drop in does.
Since becoming a Head of Department, patterning has been a key aspect. For years, we have repeated mock exams three times in a year, so students are familiar with the process of the exam. I am not that phased by the results. For me, it is about students getting used to the rhythm of the paper and the processes. We also have the 200 Word Challenge every week for students to build the pattern of regular independent writing. Now I might have to buy a shed load of new exercise books due to the amount of writing, but our students are used to the pattern of writing on a task without support or guidance, making sure they use a number of techniques in their work. It is a regular routine. I teach a lively Year 9 class last lesson on a Friday and they are silent that lesson. In fact, it is a great lesson.
Has our drive for creativity hindered the boys? Have we misread boys? Admittedly, we have tried various things to engage boys and we might have missed a key point. This natural desire for routine and predictability. Look at the computer games boys play. They are all about routine. You complete a level and at the end of the level is the baddie to beat. Each level is harder and the baddies get significantly tougher. Yes, there might be lots of flashing imagery, but the structure isn’t creative. There is a consistent routine. There is a pattern.
I teach a low set of predominantly boys for the new GCSEs and I don’t teach them in a creative way. We have a series of patterns in the lessons. It has taken me three terms to embed some of the routines, but we are making some good progress. They are used to the patterns and my teaching is about constantly using those patterns and repeating them. One such pattern is an approach for analysing texts. It follows the pattern of 2, 2 and 1. When they are looking at the language of a text, they are to pick out two words of interest, two techniques employed by the writer and one sentence of interest. We repeat this pattern again and again with any text. In effect, I am supporting them to answer questions on the literature and language papers. Paper 1: Question 2 and 4. Paper 2: Question 3 and 4. I will repeat this pattern continuously in lessons so that it is an automatic natural process for the final exams.
I suppose that this experience has taught me that maybe we need a mature discussion on how we teach aspects of English. Do we teach one methodology / approach first and then add more as a student masters things? Or, do we focus on one dominant approach? In the classroom, we model behaviour. I fear, however, at the moment we model behaviour on a scatty mad professor. Our behaviour is creative and unpredictable but so hard for students to emulate. We need students to be systematic and methodical and that simply boils down to us.
Is a regular routine really a bad thing? Not, in my opinion, if it supports and helps a student to develop a strategy for learning. We just need to fight the thought that systems and routines remove creativity in the classroom. A regular routine would also reduce planning and preparation and focus on the good stuff – the text.
Thanks for reading,