Last week my class were totally absorbed in a set of lesson on synthesis. They spent hours carefully poring over several articles and meticulously sifting out quotations, information and inferences to create a precise and accurate summary of what they had read. The subject? Not Paper 2 skills as far as they were concerned but ‘Animal Attacks’. The most bizarre, gruesome and delightfully shocking accounts can be found in abundance thanks to the excellent Guardian Experience range here (I was swallowed by a hippo is a personal favourite). Here’s the thing though – I am totally convinced that my boy heavy, gore loving class would not have enjoyed working through the specimen papers provided by AQA nearly as much – in fact I would go as far as to say that I would have inevitably lost some of them along the way; however clearly I broke down the process of synthesis and summary, the extrinsic motivator of being able to perform in a GCSE exam would not be enough to hold their attention or help all of them really embed that skill. It’s not that they don’t care about their GCSEs, it’s more that summary and synthesis are not necessarily fun skills to master for most of us. Useful? Yes. Necessary? Well sort of. But fun? Not really. Animal attacks are intrinsically interesting to them and picking them as the source material would have made any subsequent activity a winner.
I read the debates on Twitter about engagement (or ‘investment’ as James Durran elegantly re-terms it in his post here) and I do agree that much of what we do is intrinsically interesting and that when we approach it with enthusiasm and passion, we shouldn’t need to rely on gimmicks and ‘empty activities’ that are more about entertaining classes than really bringing on their knowledge and skills. It is also true that there is nothing worse than observing ‘fun’ lessons that are full of activity with no real thought or value behind them.
However, it is worth reminding ourselves that it is right that in education we make room for different approaches and personalities; god knows I benefitted from those in my own education both as a student and as a teacher learning about pedagogy. It is when I am engaged, invested and excited by a topic that I am most likely to listen, focus and develop my understanding of it – in my experience students are generally the same. Curiosity is a powerful tool in the classroom and to some degree we don’t have to think about how to generate that level of interest and excitement to teach an effective lesson but I would argue that perhaps we should. Should engagement be at the expense of knowledge? No – but let’s not ignore its power.
In 2002 Schlechy, perhaps with an obvious agenda, identifies different types of classroom the ‘off-task classroom’, the ‘compliant classroom’ and the ‘engaged classroom.’ While we could debate whether the compliant or engaged classroom is any less effective in terms of outcomes, I also hope that we want our lessons to be about experiences as well. For the more academic exploration of engagement this isn’t a bad place to begin. Problem solving, curiosity, novelty and fun are experiences that children should have; not in every single lesson all day long but when the opportunity arises why wouldn’t we frame the learning in a way that is both effective, focused on clear progression and offering them the experience of excitement and engagement? Surely we want to get them thinking about a subject beyond the confines of the classroom or the current GCSE specification?
With that in mind, here are some approaches that place these principles at their heart. They are ways of framing learning at the start of a lesson that encourage playfulness and engagement alongside the introduction of knowledge and skills.
Odd one Out is a great activity because it’s open ended, quick to make and requires thorough reflection on a topic in order to complete it. Start a lesson with one of these grids and invite students to decide on the odd one out for each row, column and diagonal. You can even get the students making their own for each other (these are also an excellent homework task!)
Only Connect Wall
Make an ‘Only Connect’ wall here. It’s amazing – all year groups love it and you have to be able to make connections and solve the groups in order to solve the puzzle. The timer adds an element of jeopardy and you have students scrambling to recall information. There is something about being presented with a puzzle that makes even the most resistant student unable to not try and solve it.Anyone who has seen ’Only Connect’ will confirm that this is an intellectually demanding task that is a lot harder than it looks.
Find the Connection
The more abstract the better. Try this one which foxed my Year 11s for Macbeth. I refused to give them the answer and they were thinking about it all week…
Head to Heads
Randomly assign students the number 1 or 2 as they enter a room. They have to pair up with someone of the opposite number. 1s will agree with whatever statement they are given and 2s will take the opposite stance. They have one minute to argue out the statement before number 1 must get up and find a new partner. These were some of the statements we used before starting Act 3 of Macbeth:
If we show genuine regret for bad things we have done, we should be forgiven
To persuade someone to do something terrible means you are also culpable for what they do
If someone loses their mind they cannot be guilty of their crimes
Cut up a painting (or reveal the squares slowly on slides on the board) and invite students to make inferences and observe colour, mood, interactions as they slowly explore more.
A harrowing image like that of the Syrian child washed up on a beach was a powerful introduction for one group to discuss the morality of war photography before looking at the Duffy poem in the ‘Conflict’ collection.
Introduce a theme you’ll be exploring in the lesson and ask students to write as many questions as you can. This is the list one students came up with when our starter word was ‘guilt’
What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done?
How do you describe guilt?
Does guilt diminish over time?
Can you think of something you would never get over?
Why do some people act without guilt?
Students interview each other with their questions and then return to them at the end of the lesson thinking about which ones would be useful to use for the characters they’ve explored – in this case Dr Jekyll.
A classic version of the board game that has been around for ages. Take the key words from a topic, poem or text and get students to take it in turns to communicate it to the rest of the group without using the word on the card. You can add other rules like no letters, ‘rhymes with’, miming or drawing. It can be a good idea to add ‘no shouting at people that should guess it from your brilliant description bit haven’t’ as well. The set of key word cards you have can be followed up by grouping them, addressing any that students are unsure about or making inferences based on what students see. A great pre reading activity if you are going to go on to look at some poetry.
Give students deeds that appear in a literature text e.g. ordering the death of my best friend; hunting a pig and killing it in front of the sows that were suckling form her or beat a man to death for talking to me the wrong way and give them five minutes to come up with a speech that defends these actions. They should deliver it to their group (or the class if they are confident enough!) and take questions form the rest of the group. As they encounter these events, perhaps they will understand the nuances of reader response as they have already considered more alternative interpretations.
Graffiti Activity (from Barry Hymer)
Generate ideas for writing by organising students into groups and give each group a large sheet of sugar paper with a single word (could be a topic), statement or quotations on it. Students have one minute as a group to brainstorm all of their ideas on, they can also add comments, responses and additional ideas on what someone else has written. After a minute, the entire group moves on, pen in hand and does the same with the next sheet. After about 6 minutes, you’ve captured the entire class’ ideas on sheets, giving you an impression of their prior knowledge. Finish off by asking groups to look at all the ideas on their original sheet and select three key pieces of feedback to deliver to the rest of the class. If you’ve collected ideas for narratives, simply let students wander around and write down any ideas that grab them.
Give out domino templates and get students to write down characters on one side of their dominoes and a quotation on the other. The quotations doesn’t need to relate to the character they have written down. Get students to do about five (having to recall quotations as they do it) and then group them up to see if they can create a dominoes board with characters and quotations linked together. If you want to encourage students to make connections get each student within a group to take a different text.
There are so many engaging ways to start a lesson, these really are just a few tried and tested favourites that might be fun to try. Do add any ideas that are working in your classrooms to the comments below.