10 prevalent myths about English teaching – part 2

myths-intro

This is the second part of a double-bill based on common myths in English teaching. Part 1 and myths 1 – 5 can be found here.

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Myth 6: Young people find quiet hard work boring.

quiet

In the first place a third to a half of your class are likely to be introverts who probably prefer a quieter environment and time to think. Not only that, but reading and writing are silent pursuits – in the same way that music involves noise and PE involves movement. That’s not to say there should be no noise in an English classroom, just that reading and writing are complex cognitive processes that require huge levels of concentration and attention and as few distractions as possible. Many students are happy to tell me how quick and enjoyable lessons of quiet hard work are. If anything, they feel like they go faster!

Myth 7: Because young people learn new vocabulary implicitly, there’s no need to teach words explicitly.

vocab

The human mind has evolved to acquire new vocabulary naturally; however, we need multiple exposures to these words in multiple contexts for this to happen. This is why we need to design these contexts and exposures ourselves – the opportunity for practice and repetition will not be available outside school for many children. It’s useful to choose the vocabulary you will teach and think of ways to make it stick: by teaching it in context; by giving students lots of ways to use the word; by sharing its etymology; and by testing their understanding and knowledge regularly.

Myth 8: Closed questions do not challenge students to think critically about a text. 

blocks-stairs

If students can answer lots of closed questions about a literary text then they know it very well; this wide-ranging, connected knowledge is the stuff that deep analysis is made of. Closed questions and tasks also range in difficulty. Consider the difference between these two closed questions about An Inspector Calls: ‘What is the Inspector’s surname’ and ‘Explain three critical interpretations of the  Inspector’s  role in the play’. The second is clearly a more challenging task.

Myth 9: You can elicit anything about a text through good questioning.

magic-questions

Questioning can elicit some pretty fine stuff, especially if your class are knowledgeable and interested. But good questioning is not alchemy. Sometimes you will have to explain ideas, concepts and interpretations of texts yourself. Never be afraid to do this. Often, there is no other way your students can learn new and challenging ideas.

Myth 10: There is no such thing as a wrong answer in English.

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This myth has a twin sister: Any answer is is valid – as long as you can back it up with evidence. Ultimately, right-versus-wrong is the wrong frame of reference. Instead, our students need to be able to discriminate  between good and bad. In other words, the difference between a strong interpretation and a weak interpretation – and all the shades of quality in between. To develop a sensitivity for this, our students need to be exposed to a wealth of sophisticated and critical  insights over a sustained period of time.

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Thanks for reading. If you can think of any I have overlooked, please add them in the comments.

10 prevalent myths about English teaching – part 1

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Images: @jasonramasami

I have recently been putting the finishing touches to the first draft of my forthcoming book, Making Every English Lesson Count. The book will look at how the six principles that Shaun Allison and I explored in Making Every Lesson Count – challenge, explanation, modelling, practice, feedback and questioning – can improve the teaching of English. It will also challenge some of the myths I have heard (and have believed) about English teaching. Most of these are not myths in the purest sense; they are partial-truths that can limit our practice if we are not mindful of them.

I am also aware that these might seem like a series of straw man arguments.  I do not think for one moment that experienced and skilled English teachers seriously believe in them. Nevertheless, I have heard each of them referred to –  implicitly or explicitly – at some time or other. Think of the myths as a set of provocations as much as anything.

A special thank you to Jason Ramasami who has illustrated each myth with his customary precision and humour. The first five myths are published below. The next five will be available tomorrow morning. Watch this space …

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Myth 1: English is a skills-based subject.

knowledge-skilla

Next time your class have completed a timed reading response, identify the best essay and then identify the best paragraph in this piece. Now work backwards. What types of knowledge does the student utilise? Knowledge of plot? Knowledge of historical context? Knowledge of important quotations? Knowledge of vocabulary? Knowledge about the writer’s themes and ideas? I imagine there will be a huge depth of interconnected knowledge – even if the assessment rubric demands that you assess skills.

In fact, good general knowledge is fundamental to reading new texts too – we cannot make strong inferences without it.

Yes, there are generic skills in English, but they need to be applied to something. This is where knowledge comes in.

Myth 2: A polished piece of writing in a student’s book is always a sign of a good writer.

puppetry

Polished writing is often a sign of a good writer, but not always. The level of scaffolding and support a teacher has given can mask huge gaps. This was always the problem in the days of coursework: teachers felt pressurised to do most of the thinking and hard-work for the students. Unless all students do exactly the same task in exactly the same conditions, comparisons are hard to make within or across classes and schools.

Similarly, if you are going to collect data on progress, then you must ensure that all assessments are carried out in the same way. If not, the data, like the polished work, does not tell the full story.

Myth 3: Redrafting/DIRT fills learning gaps.

dirt-etc

Again, it can fill them, but not always. It is wise to give students time to work on their mistakes and misconceptions, but the re-drafted or improved work should not be confused with closing the gap. If you want to test whether the gap has been filled, then test them again a few months later to see if you can find substantial improvements. Improved work in the short-term is not evidence of long-term learning.

Myth 4: Sharing grade/level descriptors with students is a useful strategy. 

torch

It is useful to provide reminders of key assessment obectives – i.e. remember to embed quotations; to evaluate the effect on the reader; and to consider contextual factors. However, writing is a complex skill that cannot be bottled down into neat descriptors. We know that ‘sophisticated’ is better than ‘competent’ but knowing this is about as helpful as being trapped in a cave with a torch without batteries. If you want students to be able to descriminate between levels of quality, then your best bet is to talk through and discuss some examples.

Myth 5: Texts that relate to students’ lives should always be chosen for study.

open-doors

Surely the idea of school is to introduce young people to ideas, experiences and knowledge beyond the confines of their day-to-day lives? Texts should open doors to new worlds; otherwise, we lock and bolt young people in the rooms they already occupy.

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Thanks for reading. As always your comments would be much appreciated. Here’s the link to Part 2

What happens when we teach interpretations of literature as facts?

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Image: @jasonramasami

Your class have been reading a literary work for some time. You feel that it is now time to evaluate  a particular aspect of the text – let’s say, how an important character has been drawn. You ask for the class’s ideas – perhaps you first give them a chance to think alone or discuss in pairs. As the ideas come in thick and fast, you create a list or a mind-map on the board. You probe your students’ responses to improve the depth of thought. Soon you have a board covered with ideas. These include defining adjectives, references to pivotal events, vital quotations and links to the text’s social and historical context.

The mind-map is not bad, it’s just that … it would have been far better if you had just told them in the first place.

Recently, I have been thinking about whether literary interpretations should be taught as explicit knowledge – in the same way as theories and concepts are in science lessons. This, of course, throws up a plethora of thorny problems. Aren’t we each entitled to our own opinion? Aren’t all opinions valid as long as we can back them up? Shouldn’t literature encourage free-thinking in our youngsters, rather than straightjacket them with the pedantry of their elders?

Putting these complications to one side, I decided I would put it to the test. Before my lesson on J.B. Priestley’s Inspector Goole, I picked four of the most interesting interpretations of the play’s enigmatic visitor I could find and created a mind-map.

At the start of the lesson – as normal – I asked my mixed-ability year 10 class for their thoughts on Goole. They touched tangentially on the ideas of moral conscience and the voice of socialism, as well as the predictable he must be a ghost, like ‘ghoul’. Their ideas were interesting and on the right track, but not yet fully-formed.

At this point, I told them that my role was to take their ideas further by introducing them to some of the most interesting interpretations of Goole I had encountered. I revealed the diagram below point-by-point, and we discussed each theory as we went. I gave them time to draw a visual representation of each theory – so as to harness the power of dual-coding. At the end of the lesson, the class divided into pairs and took it in turns to explain each point on the diagram to each other.

goole-slide

By the end of the lesson, every member of this mixed-ability group appeared to understand these theories. I tested them on their knowledge two days later. They had retained the meaning of terms like moral epiphany and quasi-religious.

Perhaps the most interesting moment of the lesson, however, came at the end. A pair had extended upon the idea of Goole as Priestley’s mouthpiece. They had decided that the Inspector should be renamed Priestley’s Parrot. His role is to repeat Priestley’s message of social responsibility and compassion into eternity: on stages, in classrooms, yesterday, today and tomorrow.

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Who says didactic teaching cannot lead to creativity and originality?

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A couple of days later this principle repeated itself. I was working with a year 11 student whose teacher had recently given the class a crash course in Freudian theory. We were looking at an episode  from The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde when Hyde savagely murders Sir Danvers Carew and is said to erupt into ‘a great flame of anger’. “Perhaps the ‘flame’ is a metaphor for the way the unconscious mind can suddenly burst through,” she suggested.

In my opinion, if we want to encourage critical and divergent thinking – which we surely do – then we must provide our classes with the tools to do so. If not, then we rely on young people plucking ideas out of the ether, the educational equivalent of alchemy.

Implemented carefully, the explicit teaching of ideas and interpretations need not be restrictive. Instead, it can induct students in the discipline of the subject and spark genuine insight.

Related posts:

Knowledge-first English teaching – a video

The poetry dilemma:to teach or to elicit?

 

Knowledge-first English teaching

Tod Brennan, @TodBrennanEng, is putting together a series of interviews with English teachers. This morning we chatted about the benefits of a knowledge-first approach to English teaching. The video link is below:

Do follow this series of interviews. They are bound to be fascinating.

Last week’s guest was Caroline Spalding on career progression:

Related posts:

Can we teach children how to make inferences?

English teaching and the problem with knowledge?

General knowledge, the new English GCSE and the ‘as-the-crow-flies error’

 

Question templates – an approach to improving analysis

A lot of the advice teachers receive about formulating good questions is based on Bloom’s Taxonomy. According to Bloom’s, ‘creation’, ‘evaluation’ and ‘analysis’ questions – the higher-order questions – sit at the top of the pile. At the bottom sit their lower-order brethren, the ‘remember’ and ‘understand’ questions. The theory goes that if teachers ask more high-order questions and fewer lower-order questions, then their students will be encouraged to think more critically and deeply. And woe betide any teacher who expects his students to answer a knowledge recall question. He is merely encouraging flimsy rote learning.

Even though Bloom’s and similar questioning hierarchies are not without merit, they suffer from two obvious flaws. First, they are based on the assumption that knowledge and critical analysis are separate entities. In fact, they are completely enmeshed and often impossible to disentangle. Analysis always needs something to analyse. Second, they are too generic. Different subjects require different types of question. Indeed, a skilled questioner adapts the style and form of the questions she asks according to the topic she is teaching and the children she is teaching it to. Questioning in maths lessons remains fundamentally different from questioning in English lessons.

Over the past few months I have been putting together an exhaustive list of what I call ‘analytical question templates’. These are generic question structures that provoke analytical and critical responses to texts. They are useful to English teachers but probably not to anyone else. Analysis and evaluation questions are difficult to design because they can easily become too vague or require too much guesswork on the student’s part. Often questions like ‘Why do you think the writer did this?’ or ‘Why do you think this might be significant?’ are too loose and not specific enough for a strong answer.

Therefore, I have tried to choose questions that usually lead to focused, accurate and interesting responses. These have been partly inspired by the ‘text-dependent questions’ explained by Doug Lemov, Colleen Drigg and Erica Woolway in  Reading Reconsidered. Because text-dependent questions are so tightly worded, students are compelled to read the text closely and to use textual evidence in their responses. The student cannot respond with a tangential comment – they must speak about the text. Nevertheless, I have also included some questions that might be less text-dependent, yet encourage the child to enter into the emotional context of the text.

The questions cover five foundational literary concepts: language and literary devices; characterisation; form and structure; contextual features; authorial intention. They can be used to provoke class discussions or as writing prompts. As students become accustomed to them, they could also design their own questions using the structures as prompts. Ultimately, however, the question list that follows is most useful as a planning tool.

Finally, please remember that the structures need to be reworded depending on the text.

So … ‘The writer uses the word/phrase/sentence/ technique ________. What does this suggest about ______________?’ 

Becomes … ‘Priestley uses the adverb ‘coldly’ to describe Mrs Birling. What does this suggest about her relationship with the rest of her family?’

Or … ‘How does _______ connect to your prior knowledge of the text’s context? ‘

Becomes … ‘How does Stevenson’s description of the night-time streets connect to your prior knowledge of Victorian London?’

And: ‘The writer uses the word/phrase/sentence/technique ___________ to _____________. Why do you think he uses _____ rather than ______________?’

Becomes: ‘Dickens use the simile ‘as solitary as an oyster’ to describe Scrooge. Why do you think he chose the adjective ‘solitary’ rather than, say, ‘cosy’?

You get the picture.

Finally, this is a work in progress. Please share any suggestions or alert me to any obvious omissions. The questions are below but you can download a Word copy from here. Oh, and do make sure you read Reading Reconsidered.

Language and linguistic devices

  1. Which words/phrases/sentences/techniques does the writer use to imply that _______________?
  2. The writer uses the word/phrase/sentence/ technique ________. What does this suggest about ______________?
  3. Can you find two examples of __________? Which is the most interesting? Why?
  4. How does the word/phrase/sentence/technique___________ suggest that ___________________?
  5. The writer uses the word/phrase/sentence/technique ___________ to _____________. Why do you think he uses _____ rather than ______________?
  6. What do we usually associate with __________? What might the writer have be been implying about _____________ by using this description?
  7. What feelings are usually connoted by _____________. How do you think these images help the reader to   ___________?
  8. Where have we seen the writer use _______ before? Why do you think the writer has chosen to use it again?
  9. The writer uses ___________. Why do you think he chose to use this technique at this point in the text?
  10. What kind of imagery do we see in the text? How does this help the reader to understand ____?

Characterisation

  1. What would you do if you were in the same situation as the character? Would you have behaved similarly or differently? Why?
  2. What attributes and qualities best describe the character? Where have we seen evidence to support this?
  3. What changes has the character undergone? Why have these changes happened? How do these changes transform the reader’s opinion of that character?
  4. What is the character’s hierarchical position in relation to the other characters in the book? Does this change depending on how we measure it?
  5. Is the reader positioned for or against the character? How does this reinforce the writer’s view about __________?
  6. Does the character conform to – or break – the social conventions of the time/place being written about? What evidence from the text supports this?
  7. Does the writer use the character to embody or symbolise any attitudes/ideas/central conflicts?
  8. How might two readers respond differently to the character and their actions? On what aspects might they agree and disagree?
  9. What do we learn about ________ from reading about this character?
  10. How would the story function without that character? What would be lost from the story?

Form and structure

  1. Can you summarise the sequence of events/ideas in the text?
  2. What does __________ at the start of the text make the reader think/feel/believe about ___________?
  3. What does ____________ at the end of the text leave the reader feeling about ________________?
  4. Why do you think that the writer chose to place ____________ before ___________?
  5. What are the major differences between the start and the end of the text? What do these imply about _________?
  6. What kind of narrative device is employed? How could you describe the ‘voice’ of the narrator? Why do you think the writer chose to use this device? How does it differ from other texts you have read?
  7. How are the internal structures of the book – chapters and paragraphs – organised? Why do you think that the writer made these decisions?
  8. Where does ____________change? How does this affect the reader’s attitude towards ______________________________?

Contextual features

  1. What does ___________ tell us about what it would have been like to have lived in the time and place the text is set?
  2. How does _______ connect to your prior knowledge of the text’s context?
  3. Which factors from the writer’s biography may have influenced aspects of the story?
  4. Which aspects of the writer’s contemporary society did he/she support/criticise?
  5. Do you believe that the writer created an accurate portrayal of the time in question? Were any aspects exaggerated or underplayed? Why do you think the writer chose to do this?
  6. What are the differences between how __________ would have been received in the writer’s time and how we receive it today?
  7. How does the text compare to other works from that period/by the same writer? How does it compare to works that came before and after?

Authorial intention

  1. Who were/are the writer’s target audience? How do you know this?
  2. What was the writer’s main purpose in writing the text?
  3. What is the writer’s attitude towards _____________?
  4. What do you believe that the writer wanted the reader to feel about _____________?
  5. How far do you agree with the writer’s attitude towards _______________?
  6. What do you think that the writer wanted to teach the reader about the human condition?
  7. If the writer could be with us today, what do you think she would have thought about ______________?
  8. If ___________ had been different, how might it change the reader’s attitude to ______________?
  9. What are the strengths and weaknesses of the writer’s argument about _____________?

See also:

Closed question quizzing: unfashionable yet effective

The poetry dilemma: to teach or to elicit?

 

 

 

The holy trinity of English teaching: direction, immersion and habit

Over the past couple of years it has become clear to me that the individual lesson is too simple a vehicle to be relied upon as the main driver of learning. That is not to say that lessons are unimportant in themselves, but that learning itself is too tricky and elusive to be calculated from the cumulative sum of a series of hour-long, bite-sized chunks of teaching. To me, this vision of learning presents a child with a situation not unlike being asked to clamber up a set of stairs with a raging inferno hot on his tail. Even if he gets to the top without being sizzled to a cinder, his chances of ever making it down again are very slim. Each stair – each unit of learning – burns away just as his foot leaves it.

Instead, our students need repetition, consolidation and extension; if not, their seeming progress can be little more than a Pyrrhic victory.

This problem is especially true of English teaching. Language learning is not speedy or linear or logical; in fact, it is slow and erratic and associative. It is the result of mastering and practising some fundamental concepts, but it also benefits from a virtuous cycle of discovery: the deeper we submerge ourselves, the more we learn, and the more we learn, the more likely we are to dive deep again. Vocabulary research, for instance, suggests that young people absorb new words through multiple exposures in slightly different contexts. The lesson-by-lesson, unit-by-unit, year-by-year model can be too crude to manage this successfully.

We need a mature vision of English planning and teaching that appreciates the interplay between the short-term and the long-term, that recognises the conceptual and iterative nature of learning, and accepts the supporting roles that reading, writing, speaking, listening and thinking all play in this process.

I like to think of English teaching in terms of three principles: direction, immersion and habit. A holy trinity, if you like.

Direction

‘Direction’ covers all the concepts, information and chunks of knowledge that we want students to learn and will direct them to learn. This might range from how to spell ‘onomatopeoia’ to knowing the events in Chapter 1 of Animal Farm to understanding how and why writers use imagery to represent their main ideas. This learning will, at times, be specific to one context; at other times, students will apply what they have learnt to a range of new reading, writing and speaking situations. This material can and should be planned for lesson-by-lesson, but it is even better to plan to revisit it so that students are less likely to forget. It is the stuff of ‘learning objectives’, ‘lesson plans’ and ‘curriculum maps’.

Image: @jasonramasami

Immersion

If direction is about the depth and strength of learning, immersion is about breadth and diversity. We cannot expect students to remember everything they have been taught, and teachers cannot repeat everything students have been exposed to ad infinitum.  English classrooms should immerse students in language and ideas so that they also have the best chance of learning indirectly and through osmosis. Text choice and task choice are important here: in my view, children need to be constantly challenged to read and think beyond the confines of their world. Engagement and enjoyment are important to immersion but perhaps we should be making things ‘interesting’ rather than fun.

Image: @jasonramasami

Habit

Students consolidate and improve their reading and writing skills because they maintain good habits over time. Helping students to do this has to be one of the main priorities of the English teacher, and it is an area of planning that calls for a coherent long-term strategy because it is devilishly difficult to do (see this post). First, we must decide on the behavioural habits we need to inculcate in students: these might be to rigorously edit and improve their work independently, or to read every day for pleasure, or to give full and well-reasoned verbal explanations in response to teacher questioning, or to always consider alternative viewpoints when analysing a text. All of these are worthy aims. Whichever we choose, we have to work backwards from the habit, work out the best way to teach students how to get there and then maintain an unrelenting focus on it over an extended period of time. From my experience, the more habits I try to promote, the fewer my students take on board. Less is more in this case. Of course, once the habit is in place, new habits can be introduced slowly.

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Image: @jasonramasami

So there you go: teach some material clearly and directly, and expect it to be learnt; create an environment where indirect learning becomes more likely; insist on those habits that are most conducive to long-term skill development. These can only be brought about through intelligent planning and a more subtle definition of what constitutes a good lesson.

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The ideas in this post have been a precursor for a new and exciting long-term writing project that I am about to embark upon. I am looking to refine these thoughts so please share your opinion and let me know if there is anything blazingly obvious I have left out!

Thank you for reading.

Andy

In trying to do so much we do too little

in doing too much

Image: @jasonramasami

Recently, I asked a class of top-set year 11s to identify the verbs in a piece of writing. It was a seemingly simple activity that I had given them a few minutes to complete, yet it quickly became clear from the blank faces I was met with that my request had posed something of a problem: after five years of secondary school, a sizeable proportion of the group did not know what a verb was.

How many times in 11 years of schooling must they have encountered the term before? How many times must they have heard the word uttered from a teacher’s lips or seen it written up on a board? Yet despite numerous exposures, this relatively simple concept, one probably within the capacity of a bright 5 year-old, had slipped away and had hardly been grasped at all.  Of course, the humble verb is but the tip of the iceberg; the number of completely learnable terms and concepts which I have exposed my students to and they have have not learnt is too numerous to list.

This realisation, that so much of what I have taught has not been learnt, has been steadily dawning on me over the past year or so. It has set in motion a strange and vertiginous feeling, akin perhaps to trudging for many miles across a plateau in the hope of finding a place to spend the night, only to find oneself standing at the edge of a plunging, bottomless abyss.

Much has gone before, in my classroom and in others. Curricular have been jammed with sparkling ideas and concepts; lessons have overflowed with activities and ingenious new strategies; every inch of white board has been crammed with text and pictures and diagrams. Exercise books have been filled with words; hours of discussion have ricocheted between the classroom walls; synapses have sparked and connected in their billions. But still it is the same. So many children leave school knowing far less than we would hope them to.

The reasons for this are complex. Anybody who tries to tell you that there is one cause is wrong. Anybody who finds solace in an ideological or scientific explanation is probably only telling you half the story. Society, motivation and development all play a part, but I still think one of the causes has its roots in both curriculum and pedagogy. There is a paradox here: in trying to do so much we do too little.

My theory is that we try to throw too much at children, and that this is why so little of it sticks. A basic understanding of cognitive load theory can help us to conceptualise why over-stuffing lessons and curricular does not work. The human working memory – the part of the brain that processes new information – can only cope with a limited number amount of new information at one time. When it becomes ‘overloaded’, there is no room left to think, which can then prevent new information from reaching the destination it needs to get to: the long-term memory, where it can be stored indefinitely. (Alex Quigley usefully sums up how this works in this post on thinking hard.)

There are other reasons, too. One, which I have dubbed the as-the-crow-flies-error, lies in asking students to perform complex skills, like analysing a writer’s style, before being secure in the knowledge needed to be able to do this, such as understanding the text’s plot or comprehension of the writer’s language.

The recent drive to increase the level of ‘challenge’ in lessons is an important one, but only if this challenge is focused and achievable. I would argue that we should always aim for more depth and less breadth. Drawing on international comparisons, Tim Oates argues – here – that teachers should look to expand upon the current idea before progressing to the next ones. Take one idea and examine it in depth, rather than let five or six ideas be touched upon superficially. A concern with this approach, some might argue, is that it does not benefit our more-able students who will be forced to remain with topics that they are ready to move on from. However, with good planning and more imaginative and stretching questions, our more-able students might well benefit more from this approach than any other.

The beauty of this way of thinking is that we might achieve more success by doing less work than we already do. By stepping back, by deciding on what is most important (and then going home a little earlier) could we go some way towards helping students to learn things more securely?

What follows are the things I am currently working on in my role as English teacher; the principle behind them all, however, could extend into all aspects of school life:

  • Plan to teach only 1 or 2 new vocabulary words or concepts per lesson.
  • Give less feedback – i.e. set one target, not two, but give time and space over a number of lessons to work on it.
  • Limit the number of success criteria, or procedural processes, that students work on in one go. (I have a habit of asking students to do 5 or 6 new things in their work; it works better to use fewer so that they can really think about them.)
  • If a slide show is to be used, cut down the number of words per slide, and cut down the number of total slides . If they have to read something from the slide, allow time for that.
  • Plan for two or three tasks per lesson, no more. Revisit the same material but in slightly different ways.
  • Decide on the key, essential knowledge that must not be forgotten. Teach it, revisit it, test it … and repeat. Joe Kirby’s knowledge organisers provide a useful model of how this could be organised.
  • Teach a bit, let the students write a bit. Teach a bit, write a bit. Teach a bit, write a bit. Lesson over.

Ultimately, all this is about prioritisation, about separating the wheat from the chaff – and then ensuring that the wheat is learnt well.

And if you are prepared to take this jump, perhaps you will have the spare time to start visiting friends, reading books, doing the things you enjoy and, dare I say it, forgetting about work.

(If you enjoyed this post, you might also enjoy this video on the art of subtraction from Jason Ramasami, who illustrates this blog.)