Genuine fascination trumps gimmickry – your subject is enough

Don’t compel your class to create a dramatic tableau representing the functions of the heart and circulatory system. Don’t ask your students to write a narrative poem from the perspective of a single raindrop moving through the water cycle. Don’t require your students to craft plasticine models of all of the characters in Macbeth and record a stop motion animation of each scene. And for god’s sake don’t force them to write a rap about Henry VIII, or anything else for that matter. Nobody should be subjected to schoolchildren trying to rap. You might think I’m a killjoy. You might think my views are traditional and I’m against anything creative or progressive. Not true. I love to see children drawing, painting, modelling, writing creatively, singing, playing computer games, attending dance lessons, learning to play the guitar – and engaging with all the other wonderful and creative outlets that they might enjoy alone or with friends. Rather, I take issue with the strange proclivity of some teachers to breed a learning opportunity with a seemingly random ‘creative’ method, resulting in a monstrous hybrid offspring that is neither educational nor entertaining. Perhaps that’s a little harsh, and it’s a little hypocritical too. At the start of my teaching career, I was as guilty of gimmickry as anyone else.

Photo by Max Fischer on Pexels.com

In my teacher training year, I was teaching a low ability group of Year 8 students the plot of Much Ado About Nothing. I knew nothing about how to teach. Frankly and with retrospect, my teacher training was making this situation worse. Creative approaches to teaching were actively encouraged, regardless of their efficacy in actually helping the students master the content. At the time, the whole teaching profession was naively buying into a pseudo-scientific pedagogy called ‘learning styles’ (more on this later in the book). One aspect of this well-marketed nonsense required teachers to design activities that appealed to ‘kinaesthetic learners’ simply put, learning by engaging in physical activity. So, in a cramped and run-down classroom, I split my class into groups of about four or five. Next, I gave each group a key moment from the plot, described simply on a slip of paper. Their task was to create a simple tableau or ‘freeze frame’ that effectively communicated the action of their key scene. Simple, right? The students had not finished planning their simple freeze frame by the end of the lesson. I had spent my time running from group to group, frenetically explaining what was supposed to be happening in each scene and giving my suggestions about how the group might represent this dramatically in a freeze frame. By the end of the second one-hour lesson, we had our tableaux. I even took pictures of them with the school camera and spent a couple of hours putting up a wonderful display outside my classroom. My teaching mentors were pleased. I was pleased. I had persevered. I had been creative in my teaching. I had designed a lesson that appealed to kinaesthetic learners. The kids had had fun whilst learning!

“Of course, no one could remember anything about the plot of the play. I had wasted my time. Worse than that, I had wasted the students’ time, and they had learnt nothing.”

Of course, no one could remember anything about the plot of the play. I had wasted my time. Worse than that, I had wasted the students’ time, and they had learnt nothing. Daniel Willingham wrote that “memory is the residue of thought”. In other words, we remember what we spend the most time thinking about. My students weren’t thinking about the plot of a Shakespearean play; they were thinking about how they could make their friends laugh by adopting the stupidest or most dangerous pose in the tableaux. Even if they were diligently focused on the task, my activity was so badly designed that they only had the briefest of summaries of a single key scene, so they couldn’t possibly think about the overall plot. I had sent the students off to engage in a creative task, and I had little to no control over where they directed their intellectual energies. There was absolutely no chance that this one-off gimmick of a lesson was going to help any of my students retain the target learning. It makes me cringe to recall it, even now.

Much Ado About Nothing is a brilliant play. Shakespeare explores timeless human experiences including courtship, love, mistaken identity, shame and malevolence. It is a funny, gripping and highly memorable play. It is fun to watch, fun to read and fun to study, just as it is. Why the hell did I think I needed to jazz it up with my stupid freeze frames?

The structure of animal cells is beautifully complex and intriguing, and students can study this wonder of biology most efficiently through diagrams and expert explanations, not by spending hours making play-doh models. And the sublime and awesome power of tectonic activity is undeniably fascinating: earthquakes and volcanoes, people! The students do not need to create a Facebook profile for Mount Etna or write a tweet from the perspective of San Andreas Fault. You do not need to spend hours creating card sort activities to make a lesson more engaging. You should not spend hours adding images and animations to PowerPoint presentations. You are wasting your time if you shoe-horn an ICT or web-based activity into every lesson, just to make it more engaging. You do not need to build a competition into your lesson to engage the boys in the class. You should not try to make a tenuous link between your subject and the latest TikTok sensation, in the hopes that the class will be tricked into learning.

“All this gimmickry cheapens your lessons and degrades your academic discipline, latching a distracting side show onto your lesson. Worse than that, it communicates your low expectations to the children in your care.”

All this gimmickry cheapens your lessons and degrades your academic discipline, latching a distracting side show onto your lesson. Worse than that, it communicates your low expectations to the children in your care. In effect, you are saying “I don’t expect you to be able to engage with this academic material as it is, because you are too unsophisticated and you lack the willpower to do so; therefore, I will try to make this demanding work easier, more fun and relatable for you”. This is not the way to prepare students for the academic rigour of public examinations. In fact, this is not the way to prepare students for life.

Instead, you must honestly model genuine fascination with your academic discipline; and you must strive to engender the same in the students that you teach. This cannot be faked. Children can detect your insincerity, and even if you could manage something approximating a convincing performance of fascination, you would not be able to sustain this for long. So, I must ask you again: you love your subject, don’t you?

Did you hesitate for a moment? It’s understandable if you did. If you are a few years into your career, you might have taught the same topics over and over again. You might be sick of them. I know a lot of personal trainers who bemoan the fact that they only ever cover the most basic exercises with beginners and novices. They are tired of the tedious repetition of the fundamentals and want to train athletes. You may be a very tired teacher, overworked through lesson planning, behaviour management and laborious (but ineffective) marking of student work. You might be pretty miserable about all this and you might associate that misery with the subject you now have to teach every day. Did you notice that? The subject you HAVE to teach, not the subject you LOVE to teach. It’s not a choice anymore. Maybe, on top of all that, you have difficult problems to face in your home life. At the time of writing, I know teachers who are also carers for their severely disabled child or spouse, teachers who are living with life-limiting illnesses, teachers whose relationships are breaking down and teachers who are struggling with severe depression. Real life, outside the microcosmic world of the school, comes with us into work. You are human, and you have more important things to contend with. You may, therefore, think I am being ridiculous and unreasonable when I say that teachers need to love their subject.

For a moment, consider the opposite. Teachers who hate their subject, and can’t stand teaching it. This might seem like a reductio ad absurdum argument, but I’ve seen it often enough in my career, and it is terrible to see. I have every sympathy for the teacher who has ended up in this position, but it is unforgivable for them to go on in this way. I have in mind a teacher whose classroom environment is nothing more than a shouting competition between the teacher and the class. Worse still, the teacher usually unknowingly instigates this battle of volume by pre-emptively raising their voice every single lesson. Every lesson a senior leader will need to come into the room to settle the class. Every lesson the noise will abate temporarily, and then rise to drown out the angry shouts of the disillusioned and resentful teacher. The students are frustrated because, beneath it all, they want a competent teacher to give them a secure and structured opportunity to learn, but they don’t respect the person at the front of the room. Collectively, they have decided that this person is not worth listening to. Not worth paying attention to. The teacher hates being there; the kids hate the lesson. It shouldn’t be happening in our schools, but it is.

“Lessons are transactional, and students buy into learning by paying attention.”

The sad irony is the teacher invariable does have something worth listening to. They are an adult, educated to graduate level. In fact, I’ve seen my fair share of PhD holders try their hand at secondary school teaching. Believe me when I say that all this subject knowledge counts for nothing when your class will not listen to you. The trouble is the audience aren’t convinced. They don’t buy it. Lessons are transactional, and students buy into learning by paying attention. You are selling your subject from the first time you speak about it with your students. If you have failed to communicate the value of your academic discipline, and of the wisdom you have to offer, why on earth should they listen to you?

So, what is the value of your subject? I can’t tell you. There are too many secondary school subjects for me to work through in detail here. I can tell you that I do love English language and English literature. I probably couldn’t have said that in the early years of my career. I had heard the phrase bandied around and I thought it sounded like ridiculous gushy nonsense. But I think my definition of ‘loving my subject’ has changed over my time as a teacher. To begin with, when someone said, ‘you have to love your subject’, my mind conjured images a bookish, introverted and obsessive reader, whose sole source of pleasure was to be found ‘curling up with a good book’ and forgetting the outside world. This was never going to be me. I enjoyed reading, but the truth is I preferred martial arts. I hold blackbelts in kickboxing, Jeet Kune Do and Brazillian Jiu Jitsu and I definitely love training in and teaching these martial arts. Whatever I’m doing, whenever I’m doing it, I’d probably rather be training. I’ve never been able to say the same thing about reading and writing. For me, the physical training of martial arts supplies an immersive escape in the short term, and the sense of honing my skills across a lifetime in the long term. I get to train with like-minded people who all enjoy being there and are striving for similar goals. That’s not how I felt about English language and literature. For a start, I was spending most of my working life with students who had not chosen to be there. I even felt a little guilty when I heard others, including my teaching mentors, declare that you had to love your subject. Thankfully, I can say that I love my subject now, but in a more mature and reasoned way than I was capable of in the past – and I love it because I am certain of its value. The skills and knowledge that my subject supply are utterly crucial – for me, the children I teach and for everyone. I think the wonderfully precocious Scout Finch put it best when she said:

“Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing.”

Like Scout, I think I took the English language for granted. It came so naturally to me (I was a fortunate child in that regard) that I had moved my appreciation of the worth of English to a subconscious level. I felt awkward saying that I loved it because that seemed silly. However, when I consider my subject explicitly, it is clear to me that English language and literature deserve to be loved. To state the obvious, words are wonderful. They allow communication: the transmission of ideas and concepts between people. They allow us to express our emotions, our fears, our desires, our needs. They allow us to prove the quality of our understanding and the depth of our empathy. And the more words we know, the greater the precision with which we can realise and articulate the limitless potential of our minds and souls. That’s enough, really, for me to understand why I have an axiomatic belief in the power and value of my subject, but there’s obviously more. Every single academic subject taught in our schools requires reading, writing, speaking and listening – in English. There may be less of this in maths, art and in foreign languages, but the explanations of content and the phrasing of questions require comprehension of language. You can’t do any of the other subjects without the bedrock of English.

I have a confession to make: I didn’t really work very hard at school, but I was successful. It’s not modest for me to say so, but I achieved the highest grades at GCSE and A level in my school. I attribute my exam success, mostly, to one thing: I was good with words. My parents read to me, my father made up silly imaginary stories, and I was encouraged to read from a young age. My mother, who had ridden horses in her childhood, gave me a beautifully illustrated copy of Black Beauty to read. I wish I could find that book now. My father gave me a stream of James Herbert and Stephen King novels to read, entirely unconcerned, it would seem, by the utterly inappropriate content: I did have nightmares. I love my subject because I know that words and sentences are the essential building blocks of learning. They are the necessary foundation of academic and interpersonal success. There are, of course, many other reasons why I love my subject, it provides an insight into different times in history and diverse cultures. It allows readers to develop empathy for people with whom they might not, on the surface, have clear commonalities. I could go on, but I think I’ve made my point.

Frankly, I think English is the most important subject that we teach in schools.

You don’t need gimmicks. Your subject is fascinating and essential. Your subject is enough.

Did I poke a nerve there? I hope I did. I hope you think that YOUR subject is the most important one taught in schools. I hope you can construct a powerful argument that supports that conviction. This sense of the axiomatic value of your subject needs made explicit, in the same way as I have done for English above. Then it needs to become implicit again – absorbed into the teacher’s psyche so it manifests subconsciously in the teacher’s lessons. It will look and feel a bit like religious faith: a sense of certainty that what you are doing for your congregation of students is essential and good for them. And when you have internalised and genuinely believe the above, you will, at the right moments, be able to remind your students of the inherent value of your subject, explicitly. Not with a rant or a tirade, but with a calm, assured and gentle word. You don’t need gimmicks. Your subject is fascinating and essential. Your subject is enough.

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