On fads and fashions

Close up of dirt with small sprouting green buds

Plant seeds of good ideas and leave teachers to tend them

I really enjoyed this recent post by the great Tom Sherrington on Lessons That Misfire. In this post Tom carefully explains the conditions that make a great lesson before giving examples of the terrible activities he has seen that fail to deliver them. Most of these activities are ones I was encouraged to use when I first started teaching. They were the kind of thing you were expected to wheel out when being observed. They include things like treasure hunt activities, making things (where the objective isn’t how to make them) and grid fills. I found myself reading them and sniggering along at the idiocy of it all. These are clearly fads that have no place in the classroom.

Then I had a scroll through Twitter. One of the things being chewed over at the moment is the role of Whole Class Feedback (WCF) and it would seem that not everyone is taken with it. There are concerns that it is a fad. When you drill down into people’s concerns it seems that few people object to the principle of WCF, that a teacher looks at the work done by a class, thinks about common errors, shares them with the class along with examples of great work and plans to address the problems, but rather with its implementation. The use of WCF sheets that teachers are expected to fill in to show the comments they are giving to the class, that can be saved, stuck in books and used as evidence of feedback. The idea of WCF is becoming a fad.

Personally, I really like WCF. I find that identifying common errors is far more effective at improving the future work of students than writing individual comments which tend to seek to improve a particular piece of work. WCF puts the emphasis on responding to the work rather than correcting the work. I can see huge advantages, so how can it be catagorised as a fad alongside nonsense like treasure hunts and making model volcanoes?

When good ideas go bad

I think the root of the problem is the same in both cases. Fads arise when we lose sight of the principle and focus instead on its manifestation. The idea becomes an activity. Perhaps there was once a really sound principle behind asking pupils to go around the room and collect information from different tables rather than giving them this same information in a structured way. Perhaps there was a reason why teachers had their classes make Plasticine volcanoes, although I’ll be blown if I can see it now.

Sadly, we can see too many good ideas quickly becoming fads.

Knowledge organisers could be a powerful tool for departmental planning and for self-quizzing, or they could be a task given to already over burdened teachers to create and forget about.

Retrieval quizzes could be a useful way to start the lesson and help pupils to make links between different parts of the subject. Or they could be a random selection of questions chosen because someone has been told they are how a lesson should begin.

Growth mindset sounds like a sensible principle. We want pupils to believe they can achieve. This could involve carefully scaffolding tasks so that they taste success and know what they are aiming for, or it could be an assembly and a poster.

A knowledge-rich curriculum could involve a deep understanding of what our subjects entail with a thoughtful approach to the substantive and disciplinary thinking behind it, or it could involve making a list of what you think pupils should know for the exam.

Chalk and talk could once again be seen as the bedrock of the lesson where an expert carefully unpicks the subject with the use of analogies, diagrams, modelling and questioning, or it could involve someone talking badly for 20 minutes and then saying “now answer the question”.

We need to be able to distinguish between the fad with nothing at its core and the fad surrounding a good idea left to rot.

The solution

There is no great mystery to solving this problem.

The issue arises when a good idea is turned into a strategy and then this strategy becomes policy. Stop making strategies policy and instead focus on the idea. Make sure your staff understand the principles of what makes a great lesson, discuss a range of possible strategies and then leave them to come up with how they want to embed the idea in their subject and in their classrooms. This should lead to the idea being implemented with care and thought and not as a sop to whatever has been imposed on teachers this term.

Fads happen when we ignore the Why and focus instead on the What. Good ideas are killed off in this way before they ever had the chance to take root and flourish. Plant seeds and let teachers tend them as they see fit.

Just a reminder that my first book, Making Every Geography Lesson Count is available for pre-order. It picks up on many of the ideas discussed in this presentation. The perfect present for the geography teacher in your life. If you don’t have a geography teacher in your life, this book would be a great way to get one 🙂

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