I am in the privileged position of having been able to observe a lot of lessons taught across a range of subjects in different contexts. I’ve also taught thousands of lessons myself – and I know how it feels for things to work well and not so well. Where lessons could be improved there are usually some common reasons – as I explore in this post about feedback to teachers. One thing that strikes me is that teachers – who could well be excellent in general – can sometimes make inappropriate choices about the activities they deploy in relation to the curriculum; where the learning intentions are not supported by the tasks. This can be because they’re trying something out and it doesn’t work or they simply need more practice to make it work; that’s a natural part of being prepared to take some risks. However, it can be because their model for how learning works is flawed – and that’s more of a concern.
It’s these ‘bad theory’ lessons that I want to highlight here. What they have in common is that they fail to deliver one or more fundamental requirements for learning. I’d suggest this includes the following list – that students are given opportunities to think and act such that knowledge is processed in ways that allow them to:
- think predominantly about the content embedded in the learning intentions at the level of meaning.
- make sense of new knowledge within their existing schema (eg categorise, compare, contrast, saying things in your own words)
- generate information from memory in order to consolidate their learning – (think it, say it, teach it)
- rehearse procedures and forms of retrieval to gain additional fluency with remembering and applying existing knowledge (Great Teaching. The Power of Practice)
- make connections between different sets of ideas in order to deepen their understanding.
Lessons that misfire don’t satisfy these requirements for all or some of the students – even though the students might appear to be motivated, engaged and busy. Let me illustrate this through some examples, each of which I’ve seen multiple times in different contexts:
Grid Fill: – task completion illusions: Lots of lessons involve grids designed to organise ideas. Students fill them in based on various sorting activities, extract-information activities or are required to make notes based on discussions or reading. However, if not designed well, it can be possible to complete a grid-fill task without learning anything. Moving info from place A to place B doesn’t require much thought and in poorly designed tasks students are really just moving around items of information that they don’t understand, cannot explain and don’t remember later.
Making notes can help with studying but often students are left to record random ideas – their own personal selection – that do not end up constituting a sensible record of the key learning intentions because they don’t understand the material enough; their grids are full of quite weird bits of information. There is a double-whammy if this is then meant to be the basis of their revision for tests.
The ‘Write it down=Learning” Illusion. Fairly often students are required to record information: learning intentions, definitions, quotations, statements… but this does not result in learning because they do not have to think and, later, cannot explain or even recall the information.
Mobile Knowledge Gathering: A pretty weird idea I see from time to time is that, if students have to roam to collect facts in some kind of treasure hunt, simply selecting and copying information from stations around the class, they will somehow learn it better than if they were just given a sheet of information or a textbook and asked to learn it. I’d say this is never true. The emphasis is wrong. Instead of checking for understanding of information, all the time is given to assembling it. Inevitably the sub-set of info that is gathered is left to the students and the weakest students have the worst record. It just doesn’t work. Even if there’s a significant element of problem-solving woven in, I always feel the movement element distracts everyone rather than facilitates learning in any way.
Making Activities: (most things involving scissors): There are some lessons where the idea of improving memory or engagement through making objects, games or posters misfires significantly. If people are spending very precious time cutting out parts of a game, drawing elaborate mazes or board games, cutting up sentences from a sheet to stick in their books or making objects in papier–mâché – nearly always they are not thinking about the meaning of the related content, not practising a procedure linked to the content or generating information from memory that deepens their understanding and recall of the material. Does any student really have time to colour in a fancy drawing of the parts of a cell when they haven’t yet learnt the names of the parts and what their function is? Answer: No.
Students may make neat and impressive objects, posters and games but they rarely know any more about the subject as a result. They just know more about how to make the objects, posters and games.
Time-sapping tables and timelines: Of course you want students to learn to make tables, timelines and charts but for some students this is slow and painful – a learning process in itself – and it is hard to do when there are time constraints and other aspects of learning at hand. It’s common to find weaker, slower students have barely finished faffing about with pencil and ruler – by the time others have dealt with them swiftly and have used their table to store the experimental data or their timeline to record the historical information. Good scaffolding involves giving students these things ready-made so that they can focus on the content – not their drawing skills, at least some of the time. Having ready-made charts and tables of various kinds should be a staple in many classrooms.
No practice. Quite often I see lessons where teachers have put all the effort into explaining things or gathering information and students are left short in terms of practice. For example, students never being asked to say new words aloud; MFL lessons where there’s not nearly remotely enough repetition of new vocab leaving everyone feeling unsure about how to say things correctly; lessons where students hear explanations but are not given time to rehearse the explanations in their own words in order to organise their thoughts, check their own understanding and form more secure recall.
Whole Dance, No Steps: Sometimes a lesson misfires where the task is too multi-faceted and the students are insecure about too many elements so they seem not to be making progress. Extended writing tasks can feel like teaching students a dance by making them run through it from start to finish without learning them section by section, step by step. Students need to practise smaller elements to build fluency and quite often they don’t get the chance; they string along various components where none of them is truly excellent.
Ramp Too Steep. Another misfire is that question sets ramp up in difficulty too rapidly. Instead of consolidating and building fluency, students jump from a secure practice mode to being out of their depth and floundering. It’s a tough thing to judge but it’s important to detect if students need more practice at a lower level or whether they are ready for much more challenge.
Full Sat Nav: no independence. Here. the issue is that students are able to give themselves and their teacher the illusion of learning by assembling tasks using multiple supports and not having to think very much for themselves. Some times a whole paragraph in French can be assembled from a crib sheet, a dictionary and the words displayed on the wall – the students literally don’t need to know any of the words. The point of scaffolds and supports is that we use them to build confidence, not reliance. The supports have to be withdrawn. There needs to be a lot more of – ‘ok, now close the book and do it on your own‘. If students absolutely have to remember things, they can; if they really don’t ever have to, they don’t go through the learning processes needed and they never develop any level of fluency.
I think it’s all too easy to fall into these traps so it’s important for teachers to spend time thinking hard about how the activities they plan support the learning intentions. Often this is helped significantly by thinking about curriculum rather than pedagogy: what do we want students to know and understand? If you focus hard on this, then the tasks needed are more obvious. If we then throw in the idea of practice for fluency, we can quickly ditch all the filler, all the faffing, all the lameness, all the false-promise engagement stuff…
It’s definitely worth having a review to see what changes you can make, re-directing your aim at better bets for learning success and cutting out the misfires.