Getting back to basics

I have been giving quite a lot of thought lately to how I can work with teachers in Geography (and History) to improve the quality of teaching and learning without adding to their workload. In fact, if I can improve teaching and learning and cut down on their workload, even better! You see I don’t spend hours planning lessons. I have a strict rule that if it takes me longer to plan and make than a quarter of the time the students will be using it then it’s not a useful use of my time – the only exception to this is writing model A level essays as I haven’t yet found a way to type that fast! So I’ve been thinking about what it is I do compared to other teachers that means I don’t spend hours planning but still deliver the goods in a classroom (I hope!).

The first thing I’ve been pondering is the effectiveness of the resources we use in lessons. The most time consuming aspect of lesson planning is the resources. Finding them, making them fit your purpose, adding differentiation. Yet this time is all wasted if they do not have an impact on learning. The most beautiful card sort adds little learning value if the objectives and outcomes of the activity aren’t clear to the students. Too many times I’ve heard the phrase I’ve got ‘a nice little activity’ that the teacher has spent hours creating but when delivered in the classroom it has led to little learning by the students. As I’ve said above, if the resource takes longer to make than a quarter of the time the students will use it for, don’t make it. Find something quicker to plan instead and make sure it teaches the students what you need them to learn and not just fill time.

The same goes for photocopying – is the time taken to make the resource and copy it worth it in terms of adding learning value? When thinking about resources for your lesson, think about what you don’t need to spend time creating. Do you need that table for students to fill in or could they just create lists straight into their books (I’d say draw a table but my students never have rulers!)? Does that writing frame have to be on paper or can you show it on the interactive whiteboard? In Geography I will print graphs, maps and photos for annotation and in History I always say print the sources as there’s nothing worse than reading an interpretation of the source/photograph/map and having no idea what the thing looked like – thinking here as a different teacher or parent looking at a book and as the student trying to revise – but most other ‘handouts’ I see don’t have a greater impact on learning than displaying them on the whiteboard – and that way you avoid the inevitable learning time lost in lessons gluing in too.

The second thing I’ve been contemplating is how to get the most out of the resources and activities you do choose to include in your lesson to have maximum impact on learning. Over the years we’ve had three parts (starter, main, plenary), seven parts (accelerated learning version 1) and four parts (accelerated learning version 2) advocated as the most effective way to structure lessons but whichever you use, or your school asks you to use, I firmly believe that it’s how you deliver instructions and expectations to students for every activity that really makes the difference to their learning. Starting from showing students a model response sets the expectation for what they need to do and provides much clearer instructions for students than just ‘do x, y and z’. If the expectations of what you expect your students to achieve are modelled as high and challenging then not only will students know what success looks like but will also get more learning out of your lesson and the resources you’ve chosen for them. Whatever the activity I want students to do as part of their learning, I always follow the same pattern, starting from modelling expectations, to help me ensure that my students get the maximum learning possible from it. In other words, I teach to make my students STARs.

S – show them what they need to do and what it needs to look like. Annotating a photograph? Show an example of a good annotation on the board for students to add to their photograph. Answering an examination question? Show them a model answer.

T – do the next couple together. Add another annotation from suggestions from the students (again modelling how their suggestions should be written as a high level response) or give them another examination question to answer together.

A – students apply this by doing the next few on their own. Adding high quality annotations or answering an examination question.

R – review their work and understanding. This could be self or peer assessment. It could be a hinge question to check for misconceptions. It could be a quick fire quiz on key facts. 

There are many other examples I could give of how I use this but I hope these illustrate my point enough. I choose my resources for my lesson but it’s how I deliver my lesson that maximises the learning from my planning, not how fancy my resources are. Another example of this is Dominic Salles’ suggestion of planning lessons based around see (looking at a model), try (have a go), apply (have a go using this learning to tackle something more challenging) and secure (test students’ understanding).

I strongly believe by focusing on fewer quality resources based purely on the content or skills that need to be learnt, getting students to write in their books rather than on fancy resources you’ve had to spend time creating/photocopying and carefully planning how you will model the standard of response students need to make to any activity, not only will the quality of teaching and learning improve but you’ll also gain back precious hours from planning. And if you want to be more all-singing-all-dancing then add in a debate! (I’ll come back to debating in a future post.)

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