4 ways to use a stimulus to develop thinking

Looking back over the lessons and sequences of lessons I have been most happy with in the past few years, they have almost always had one common factor. They have begun with a great stimulus.

The benefits of the perfectly designed or sourced stimulus are manifold: to generate curiosity and anticipation, to provoke or entertain, to shock or engage, to surreptitiously drip-feed the key learning of the lesson, to stimulate discussion and higher-order thought, to find out where the students are, to find out where they need to go… and the list goes on.

Some of my favourite strategies are as follows:

1) Use of a picture or video in some way linked – or even juxtaposed – to the learning of the lesson.
2) Use of music – great for setting the mood you desire.
3) A fictional – invented by the teacher – real-life scenario that the students can empathise with.
4) An object or objects that can be passed around, the stranger the better. I once worked with a teacher who, to introduce a poem, passed around a glass jar telling the class it contained her own pickled umbilical cord saved from birth. It was really a butcher’s off-cut, but the class were none the wiser.
5) A physical role-play task linked to an idea you wish the class to explore. I know a teacher who, when teaching the theme of class in the play Blood Brothers, asks half the class to make boxes and the other half to take part in a halls-of-residence shindig (minus the alcohol, of course). The animosity for the middle-class party-goers generated among the working-class box makers becomes a palpable entity in the classroom!
6) One of my favourites. Give students two minutes in pairs or small groups to form a freeze-frame in some way linked to the learning of the lesson. Once they have frozen, choose one pair and use this tableaux as our stimulus – a stimulus that we can easily reposition and manipulate.

And the list goes on… Yet, there is a danger.  My brilliantly thought-out stimulus can fall flat on its face. When this happens, it is like the home side conceding a goal in the first minute of a match; if the class do not respond in enough depth, the atmosphere goes stale… and will often remain so.

The truth is, it is not the stimulus itself that matters, it is how we use it. More specifically, the lion’s share of planning time needs to be devoted to the questions we will ask about the stimulus – or we expect students to ask each other – not the creation of the stimulus itself. The stimulus is not the point of the lesson; it is a useful resource which serves as a shared springboard for thinking. Take the role-play task from above: if the role-play becomes all about having fun, with insufficient deeper questioning, then even though the lesson may be memorable, the learning point might fizzle away. (David Didau has written very persuasively about the delicate balance between fun and learning). Moreover, careful consideration needs to be given to how we introduce the stimulus – if gravity and maturity are required in student responses, we must establish this tone ourselves before the stimulus is unveiled.

Here are some ideas that work for me:

1. The key is to scaffold the questioning through a carefully planned sequence, moving gradually from lower- to higher-order questions. Shaun Allison at my school has developed a ‘learning journey’ poster which is very useful for this. Bloom’s taxonomy is an excellent tool – you can find useful question stems here – but for me I usually fall back on the questioning tiers I was introduced to during some P4C (Philosophy for Children) training I had in my second year of teaching. P4C,  an educational movement based on the work of Professor Matthew Lipman, was designed to stimulate children to ask philosophical questions in a ‘community of inquiry’. In P4C thinking, questions are divided into four categories: ‘comprehension’, ‘knowledge and research’, ‘speculation’ and ‘enquiry’ (or philosophical). It is a really useful tool not only to teach students how to formulate a philisophical question, but also to help structure whole-class questioning and promote creative and conceptual thought. Below is a stimulus I use before starting a thematic unit on ghost stories, along with the questions I have designed using this format (to be shared verbally with the class).



The ‘link question’  enables students to apply their divergent thinking to the learning that will follow. Whichever method is chosen to help design the questions, it is the scaffolded sequencing that is most vital. Probing Socratic questioning throughout the feedback is also a must. ‘Can you clarify what you mean?’ ‘Give me an example?’ ‘How might somebody argue against what you just said?’ ‘But if that happened, what else would result?’ ‘Is that always the case?’ (Alex Quigley’s Hunting English blog on the subject of questioning is excellent.) We must bleed our stimulus dry, and if it takes a whole lesson to do so, then so be it.

2. A stimulus is particularly useful when introducing analytical exam skills. The trick is to set up the stimulus so that students have to respond to it by unknowingly deploying exactly the skill you want to them to develop later in the lesson. When teaching the analysis of close detail in Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, I use the famous Great Depression photographs of Dorothea Lange.
Students are asked to find the small details in the photo that give us clues about her plight: the expression in her eyes, her clothing etc. Once they have investigated these in some depth and made some inferences about life in 1930s America, they will transfer these same analytical skills to the text itself by closely analysing the words and phrases Steinbeck uses to describe a character or setting. A similar strategy is used by a colleague of mine who makes all the children in her class throw their books on the floor and asks them to imagine they are taking part in a piece of conceptual art: ‘If we were an installation at a conceptual art gallery, what would the artist have been suggesting modern education?’ She then moves on to teaching the class how to respond conceptually to poetry, and thus transferring the skill to a new context. Sheer genius.

3. Using a stimulus that is at first appearance disconnected from the learning of the lesson works particularly well. Take this example. My Y11 students had been studying an episode of The Jeremy Kyle Show for a spoken language project. In the sequence, Kyle is conducting a fierce verbal assault on his troubled teenage guest, Ryan. At the start of the next lesson, I showed them a video sequence of a giraffe fight from David Attenborough’s Africa. By finding the metaphorical connections between the two seemingly – at first – unrelated TV programmes, they could better understand Jeremy Kyle’s tactical use of linguistic features. On the back of this rather brutal stimulus, a few students quite brilliantly structured their controlled assessment essays like an analytical boxing commentary. Others referred to the manner in which Kyle viciously assaults Ryan’s use of local dialect, referring to it as his ‘vulnerable underbelly’.

4. Lastly,  introducing a series of stimuli, or using a single stimulus in more than one way, works particularly well at the start of an Ofsted-graded observation lesson. When introducing Y8 students to argumentative writing, I give them a series of questions. Depending on their beliefs, they have to move to one side or the other of the room, ready to feed back their ideas. I might start with ‘cats are better than dogs’, then move on to ‘friends are more important than family’, until I get on to ‘ambition is a stronger attribute than honesty’. The level of challenge is scaffolded in stages;  students rapidly gain in confidence and their responses become more sophisticated as they move through the statements.  Before each statement, I feed in a new argumentative skill or two, until by the final statement, students are using a range of argumentative language devices as well as taking part in a structured debate across the classroom. Even before the learning objective is set, students have gained verbal confidence in the skills and knowledge they will develop independently in writing later in the lesson.

So there you go. A stimulus, I believe, can genuinely make – or break – a lesson.

3 thoughts on “4 ways to use a stimulus to develop thinking

  1. This all sounds great! Which extract did you use on the Jeremy Kyle show? This would fit in brilliantly with the current AQA spec – linking language to power and authority. Could you let me know?

  2. Pingback: Responsive questioning | Reflecting English

  3. Pingback: Week Three Tutorial Reflection – Reflective Scrapbook

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