Letting the learning shine

Inspiration when the subject is allowed to dominate

I was thinking today about how same-y my lessons had become.

There was a time when pupils would have come in to find the tables arranged in groups for a carousel task, or ready for them to do a role play of a news report or they’d be creating a newspaper front page or doing a card sort or… just about anything really. The tasks were always changing.

I was thinking about this after reading Alex Ford’s blog post “Who shot JFK?” and other historical problems. Or: “is anything off the table in history teaching?”. In this post he discusses some of the problems with such eye-catching “historical” topics as solving the problem of who shot JFK.

I think this problem presents itself somewhat differently in geography where the issue tends not to be about the nature of the topic but to be a domination of task over learning. This is what I saw when I thought back to all those highly varied lessons I taught in the past and it made me feel a lot better about the seeming sameness to my lessons now. 

The problem of novelty

The problem with many of these tasks is that the nature of the task dominated the lesson. It became about the structure, not the geography. My old perennial favourite was the newspaper front page. “Imagine you are a journalist (there was often a lot of imaging of things) who has just heard about the Tsunami affecting Indonesia. Write a newspaper front page about this event.”

 The idea was that pupils would learn about this event by selecting information from the resources given. The reality though is very different.

  1. Pupils would spend very little time thinking about the Tsunami and a lot of time thinking about the layout of their newspaper, the newspaper title, how much to charge and the headline. They weren’t going to be learning if they weren’t thinking.
  2. The novelty of the task meant that pupils had to first learn how to complete the task. This may as well have been the objective of the lesson.
  3. As pupils were selecting what information to include, it was very difficult to know who had learnt what about the tsunami. Had they considered the causes? The immediate impacts? The responses? If they were going to be directed to include certain things, they may as well have been set some questions to answer.
  4. Writing about an event as soon as it has happened isn’t especially useful in terms of the geography. We don’t yet know the impacts, the responses and may not know the causes. If they in including these things, are they really writing a newspaper front page? Aren’t they now writing notes for a case study? If so, why not do that?
  5. Writing a newspaper front page about a disaster isn’t really geography. What geographical question are they seeking to answer? Writing a retrospective a year later on the lessons that should be learnt might include more geography but then that’s not a front page, is it?

You can do the same thing with many of those activities and find the same kinds of problems. Role playing news crews interviewing an expert sounds like a great idea, but only if they really are experts. Otherwise it might be better for them to question the person in the room who actually knows the most about it – you.

Carousel tasks where they gather different pieces of information from different parts of the room sounds like a Good Thing, if only because we were told that it was, but what does it achieve that simply giving them the information on the desk in front of them doesn’t?

Card sorts have their place when categorising information or shifting priorities according to new information but when I look again at some of the “mysteries” we did in those heady days I see very little geography there.
A favourite of mine was a decision making task in which pupils chose a house for a family. I think it was meant to help them see the importance of applying a criteria, which is great, but could be been applied to a geographical question.

A slow shift to learning

I didn’t wake up one morning in a cold sweat and scream “I’m wasting my life!” but have found that slowly, over time, these tasks fell by the wayside. They became adapted until the newspaper front page became answering some questions and writing your findings, the role play became answering some questions and writing your findings and the carousel task became answering some questions and writing your findings.

But you know what? There is still plenty of variety but it is provided by the subject itself. We are curious creatures and we love to learn. A topic exploring how portrayals of Africa have changed over time is not the same as one looking at different types of volcanic eruptions, even if the structure of the lessons are. A topic exploring why Russia invaded Crimea might involve the same sort of recap, input, application, feedback as a topic on underdevelopment in Haiti but it feels very different from the perspective of the pupil in the class.

And we shouldn’t forget the experience of those pupils. When I think about the lessons they have been most positive about it hasn’t involved elaborate tasks and complex instructions. One recent example was a year 12 lesson in which I talked them through the data on this info-graphic about carbon and climate change. We spent most of the lesson in discussion with me answering questions and posing ones of my own. At the end I left them with some questions to go away and answer. I have never seen a more “engaged” class or had more pupils refer back to a particular lesson.

Another example that springs to mind is one looking at the Wealden Anticline with Year 8. I talked the class through the formation of the anticline, they drew a diagram explaining the process, I talked them through what happened next and they adapted their diagram. Then I pointed to the view out of my window and the view from my classroom door so they could see what they had just drawn rolling out in front of them. The gasp of realisation was audible.

Our option numbers at GCSE and A level continue to soar and more and more of our pupils opt to continue with geography at university. Clearly they are very happy with stripped down and simple lesson. I am left wondering whether we plan complex lessons for them or for ourselves? They go from classroom to classroom, subject to subject and topic to topic and are excited to learn new things. We do not. Perhaps we need a change in perspective.

Letting the subject shine

The more lessons are simplified, the more they flow into a routine, the happier the pupils seem to be. It reduces the extraneous load and allows them to focus on the bit of the lesson they love. The geography. This to me is what a shifting focus from pedagogy to curriculum signifies. Not ignoring the importance of how pupils learn but allowing that to fade into the background and for the subject to rise up and take its place as the most important element in the lesson.

I was thinking today about how same-y my lessons had become… and I smiled.

For more on shifting from a culture of doing to one of learning, check out my next book Teach Like Nobody’s Watching

Available for pre-order now!

3 thoughts on “Letting the learning shine

  1. Much I agree with here, but we must not underestimate the quality of the Knowledge we work with. eg the infographic must have been super good to capture & hold Yr 12 as you describe. That planning is vital- for the students. Accept that & then what Mark describes can happen in your classroom too.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I agree. Without the complex activities to hide behind, you really have to know your stuff and be able to bring it to life. It’s not an easy way to teach – but it is effective and efficient.


  2. Thoroughly enjoyed reading this post. As an NQT I am at the beginning of my journey and value hearing from experienced professionals like you.
    I agree with your point about letting the subject shine through, sharing our love and passion for our subjects with our students.
    Keeping the subject center stage. 👍

    Liked by 1 person

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