Michaela v School 21

In the past few months I’ve visited both School 21 and Michaela Community School: the former as part of a sort of organised show and tell, the latter on my own.  I’ve been thinking hard about what might constitute my own beliefs about teaching so I wanted to sample two, apparently very much opposed, approaches: Michaela’s strict adherence to direct instruction, or School 21’s advocacy of project based learning (PBL).  Setting up some kind of thesis and antithesis will surely bring me synthesis, won’t it?  Good plan.

Well, maybe so.  But no plan survives contact with the enemy nor even, in this case, a couple of schools.  So rather than come back with clarity I find the way forward even less apparent than it was.  I thought I’d try to explain why, as much for own benefit as for anyone else’s. I have focused largely, though not exclusively, on pedagogy.  I should day that I have only spent one afternoon at Michaela and one day at School 21, mainly in a meeting room, so please excuse any errors of understanding on my part: I’ll be happy to correct them.

There are some very clear differences

I can’t imagine many teachers moving from one school to the other.  It doesn’t take much time on edutwitter to see how passionate Michaela teachers are about their methods.  Teacher talk and no group work are where it’s at.  There is little lesson planning: this advertisement for a History teacher explains that “resources are provided for you”, and the aim is to be able to reuse lessons time and again.  There is a clear preference for low- or no-tech lessons: I know from conversations with Deputy Head Joe Kirby that use of, say, a video clip to introduce a lesson is frowned upon.  Every homework is a learning homework and every day has a quiz based on it.

Meanwhile, over at School 21, they are equally passionate about PBL, which often if not always involves two or more departments working together.  An example we were given was of a combined English and Maths project to campaign against the building of a concrete factory on local land (they won). Through this the students learned the skills to produce a written report which included data from mathematical modelling of the likely pollution.  This involved a huge amount of planning on behalf of the teachers – not that they seemed to mind, and pointed out that once up and running the lessons require little prep – and is very much not replicable; each project undertaken tends to be a brand new one.

Some other contrasts:

  • One of S21’s stated aims is to promote oracy. One teacher we heard from reckoned to speak for about 30% of the time in lessons.  That’s probably about the reverse of many of the Michaela lessons I saw, apart perhaps from in MFL.  Oracy is manifest in many ways, but group work and presentations form quite a large part of lessons.  This is not the case at Michaela.  
  • One of the S21 teachers told us that “coaching [their word for tutoring] is the single most important role of each member of staff” – which would put teaching second at best.  Michaela is certainly a caring school, but I think teachers see themselves as teachers first and foremost.  Certainly they seem to love being in a school where, as they might put it, you can actually teach.
  • “School is not a holding pen for the future,” we were told at S21.  That’s partly why they go out of their way to try to use PBL to solve real world problems.  At Michaela they also prepare their students for the future, but by very overtly drilling them in the knowledge they think they will need.  No solving of real world problems there, at least not until students have the domain knowledge to really attack them.
  • We heard at S21 that PBL is required at KS3 because students need to be given a purpose to their learning.  At KS4 and 5 the purpose is (or will be) provided by looming public exams, but without this carrot in yy7-9 it’s up to teachers to provide sufficient stimulus.  Michaela, I think, would roundly disagree.  Creating purpose through PBL is unnecessary, because what greater purpose than to learn, and unhelpful, because it distracts from the serious business of knowledge acquisition.

But also some similarities

First, some non-teaching ones.  One: both schools are in difficult London boroughs.  According to this 2016 survey Newham (home to S21) is the third unhappiest place in the country to live and Brent (Michaela) is fourth.  Two: both serve multicultural communities.  According to the 2011 census, Newham’s population is 71% BAME; Brent’s is 64%. Three: both are newish free schools. S21’s first cohort sat their GCSEs this year, Michaela’s will do so in 2019.  Four: both have very clear aims which are espoused by strong, charismatic leaders and borne out by enthusiastic, committed staff.

More interestingly, in some aspects S21’s pedagogical approach seems more akin to Michaela’s then I had imagined.  We heard that at S21 PBL does not continue into KS3 because, as mentioned above, the requisite purpose is provided by GCSEs and A-Levels.  That suggests quite a focus on exams, which is certainly similar to Michaela: in one Y9 lesson I saw while there, GCSE exam technique was already being explicitly taught.  (That said, in the 20 mins or so of a Y11 English class I saw at S21, there was some teacher talk, some group chat, some feedback.  Not the Michaela way at all.)

Next, their school mottos.  One has “Head, Hand and Heart”, the other “Work Hard, Be Kind.”  Pretty similar really, and although the former (S21) explicity mentions “hand” – which its website describes as “generating ideas, problem solving and making” – Michaela too prides itself on the creativity of its students.

Also, both schools are clearly unafraid to do things differently.  Oracy and regular PBL are not so explicit in most schools, and neither is such a strong emphasis on direct instruction.  But both schools, and critically both leadership teams, believe passionately in what they are doing and the way they are doing it, despite the brickbats that come their way.  

Perhaps, then, they aren’t quite the thesis and antithesis after all.  If Michaela isn’t the joyless info-factory of legend, then S21 isn’t the frothy free-for-all that some would suspect in a school wedded to PBL – not least because those wedding vows are broken at KS4 (and some teachers don’t abide by them anyway, we were told).

So what does all that mean?

Both schools want to produce the same thing: well rounded, well adjusted students, well prepared for life beyond the classroom.  S21’s excellent GCSE results suggest they are doing something right, but I have no doubt whatever that Michaela’s first cohort will also do stunningly well.  Both schools have been rated Outstanding by OFSTED.  At KS3 they go about things in very different ways, and while there are variances at KS4 too they may be less marked. All of which means, well, that neither appears obviously better than the other.  Oh well.

 

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Teaching, managing and radical thinking

Like many of us engaged in edutwitter I’ve been on the end of the odd rasping comment from Andrew Old.  However, that doesn’t mean he’s always wrong.  Indeed, I might even go so far as to say that I sometimes agree with him and that, therefore, he is sometimes right.

Most recently, I found myself agreeing with much of what Andrew wrote in this blog about what he terms “managerialism.”  I hope I summarise it correctly if I say that in his view there are too many managers doing too much management, which itself is too often seen as the only career path for teachers – none of which furthers the cause of education.  

I was particularly taken by this phrase: “Good management is management that enables teachers to do their job. It is about creating a culture in which the most important work, the teaching, can be done.”

That’s dead on.  And it made me want to try to take things one step further, and outline what might happen if we thought more about what makes a manager.

Being good at something does not make you a good manager of that thing. We’ve probably all seen or experienced that, if not in teaching then elsewhere: football’s a clear example where good players can make terrible managers.

This isn’t really surprising when you think about the different things the roles require.  Here’s a table, related to schools rather than football.

A good teacher may well: A good HoD may well:
  • Teach outstanding lessons
  • Model good practice for colleagues
  • Think about developing his/her own practice: be the departmental pedagogical powerhouse
  • Provide leadership and oversight of the department
  • Assist with colleagues’ professional development
  • Deal with departmental administration

 The lists could go on.  The point though is that most of the items in the teacher list do not make good preparation for the items in the second.  A teacher who is brilliant at conveying theoretical physics to Y12 will not necessarily be  good at keeping colleagues up to date with the latest changes to the exam spec.  Similarly, the reflective practitioner who always seeks to hone her own lessons will not always be the one who can take the holistic, strategic view required of more senior colleagues.

So far, so unsurprising.  It’s odd, then, that the most usual path to HoD-ship is being recognised as a good teacher.  Odd because the skills aren’t the same, and also because by becoming a HoD there is less time for actually teaching.  And should that HoD be further promoted, say to the dizzy heights of SLT, time in the classroom drops even more and the skills required for success become even further removed from those which first caused the teacher to stand out.  

We all know all of this.  So why is it still the case?  I think because changing it requires a culture shift (hard) on several fronts (even harder):

  • Schools need to find ways to persuade the best teachers (once they have found a reliable way to identify them, which is another matter altogether) to stay in the classroom.  
  • These expert teachers need to feel that they are as important to the success of the school as their more “senior” colleagues (the word “senior” starts to be difficult here as well).  This might mean SLT-level roles.
  • All teachers will eed to accept that other colleagues, who may not be as good with Y9 on a Friday afternoon, are nonetheless exactly right for the job of, for example, writing the strategic development plan – and that for now they will end up higher on the greasy pole.

That last one refers to an even broader point.  As Andrew says, the most important work in a school is the teaching.  Yet the most senior, and probably best remunerated, members of staff don’t do much of it and probably don’t even need to be all that good at it.  

I’m sure there’s a radical solution to that.  I’m just not sure I’ve thought it through enough to put pen to paper.  Someone braver than me might want to dive in though.  Someone not frightened to deploy the heavy artillery.  Someone who doesn’t mind rubbing people up the wrong way. Any ideas who that might be?

He’s a model and he’s looking – not great

Model scholarship.  Model good behaviour.  Model the school’s ethos.  Model teamwork.  Model leadership.  There’s an awful lot of modelling to do as teacher.

There’s perhaps even more to do as a member of SLT.  SLT should set the tone for their colleagues.  They must be scrupulous in their adherence to school rules and policies; how else to expect students and staff to do the same?  They must take the lead in tackling poor behaviour, whatever the risk to their relationship with students. (As one of my perennially untucked Y11s told me last year, “Sir, you’ve become a real uniform guy.”)  And they must help ensure a decent work/life balance.

They (OK, we) must do other things too, but in this blog I want to focus on the last one: modelling work/life balance.  At the risk of being accused of virtue signalling or martyrdom or some other sin that I’m not even aware of yet, I work very hard.  In at 0700, rarely leave before 1830, lunch at my desk, another 4-5 hours on Sunday.  I also prefer to think of holidays as “time when the students aren’t in school”, in effect taking “leave” when I want some time off.  That may be a hangover from a previous, quite long, career outside teaching.

I’m not writing this for sympathy for my plight or advice on how to manage my workload.  That’s just how I choose to do things.  What I do worry about though is the message it sends to others.

I look after our newly or unqualified teachers.  I remember well how difficult that first year in particular was and I recognise the need for downtime.  The idea that they may see my car when they arrive and again when they leave, and infer that long hours in school is the only way to get on, horrifies me.

But what to do?  If I don’t get into work early, my journey will be unworkably long and I won’t get a parking space, meaning leaving the car up to a mile away (honestly, I’ve tried it).  If I don’t leave late I’ll end up doing more at home, after the kids have gone to bed, when I am much less good.

I can’t go round explaining to everyone about my particular circumstances, and even if I did there are other SLT who keep similar hours, probably for similar reasons.  We already have colleagues who spend just as long in school and doubtless others who do similar hours while at home.  It’s not healthy and I’d like to model something different.  Yet I can’t without seriously jeopardising my ability to do my job to the standard to which I aspire.

I can’t be the only one in this position.  Advice, please.  If not for my sake, then for those who may see me and think I am a model.

But I like having comments to look back at…

I’ve been thinking and reading about whole class feedback (WCF) recently.  There’s a lot out there but the general consensus – from my personal echo chamber, anyway – is that it’s a really good thing because it:

  • saves teachers time;
  • makes students think about their work;
  • acknowledges that carefully crafted comments receive nothing more than a cursory glance;
  • adheres to the Wiliam principle that feedback should be more work for the feedback-ee than the feedback-er.

Thing is, there’s a use for written feedback beyond telling students how they’ve done and how to improve: tracking student progress.  As I understand it, whole class feedback is aimed at, well, the whole class.  That presumably means that when I come to look at the feedback later, perhaps when writing reports or UCAS references, or before parents’ evening, I can get a sense of what everyone has been up to, but very little on how individuals are doing.  Which is not ideal.

However, if I’ve WWW’d and EBI’d or similar, and kept a record of those comments, I have a nice bank of individually tailored remarks to which I can refer if ever I’m asked or want to know how someone is doing.  If I really don’t think the students will benefit I guess I needn’t pass them on, but they are nonetheless helpful to me and to be honest if I’ve written them I presumably think they are worth sharing.

So there’s the conundrum.  There seems to be a gathering view that WCF is better for students than WWW/EBI.  But for recording student progress, the reverse is true (even if it takes longer).   Perhaps they aren’t mutually exclusive and I should do WCF sometimes and WWW/EBI at others.  But if – as my reading suggests – WCF is increasingly seen as The Way Forward, how can I record what I actually want to know without adding individualised comments and thus doubling my workload?

 

New Year’s Resolutions

In a recent post I wondered why I’m not a better teacher and tantalisingly promised a follow-up on what I plan to do about it.  So here it is.

  1. Remember that I don’t sit the exams.  So however good I might get in the classroom, there will still be some who don’t fulfil what I think to be their potential, for all sorts of reasons.  (Thanks @EG_carr for that one.)
  2. Be more willing to revisit existing lessons.  It’s easy just to produce last year’s lesson plan and use it again.  After all, it was probably OK.  Sometimes, though, lessons or series of lessons need looking at again, even if the syllabus hasn’t changed. That can be hard – you have something that works on the stocks and there is always so much else to do – but occasionally it’s necessary.
  3. Listen to advice and then do what’s right.  This year I have read books, blogs and tweets which challenge a lot of what I believe about teaching.  Undeterred, I will continue to spend time making displays; I shall use powerpoint where it’s helpful; I will talk when I think it’s right, and encourage group work where that is appropriate; and so on.
  4. Tell fewer jokes at the wrong time.  This blog from @Rosalindphys really resonated.  Not because, unlike her, I am “labouring under the crippling delusion that I [am] funny” – I actually am hilarious, I mean have you even seen my tweets? – but because sometimes the temptation to interrupt thinking and working with a wisecrack must be resisted.
  5. Be less accepting of substandard work because “s/he’s too shrewd not to knuckle down when it matters.”  That is a) an easy out for me, b) true far less often than I would like it to be and c) a way to waste opportunities to improve during the year.

So there you have it.  Don’t beat myself up, freshen up some lessons, stick to my guns (while being willing to change firearms if I find better ones), be less funny and expect and enforce higher standards.  Job (should be) done.

Why aren’t I a better teacher?

Results are out soon. They will bring with them the usual mix of joy, disappointment and indifference – among students, that is. For me, they will bring the usual question:    why hasn’t my obvious teaching genius been reflected in uniformly jaw-dropping results – particularly when compared to those of colleagues?

It is entirely possible that this is a window into my character that I don’t really want to open. It lays bare an innate competitiveness which I don’t like and don’t recognise in my day to day approach. I am a prolific producer of resources which I think are great – natch – and which I always share with colleagues at my current school (sometimes they humour me by using them) and, where I think they might be useful, at my previous one. Part of my role is to mentor staff brand new to the profession (we don’t insist on a teaching qualification) and I do this assiduously.   I engage in departmental and school wide debates about how to improve our teaching. To put it shortly, most of the time I’m not in it to win it, just to improve the education my school offers.

That changes at this time of year. I really, really want my students to do well, but not just for them: for me, too.  Raw, value added, whatever measure you care to mention, I’m not fussed. I just want to top the podium. Every time.  To prove that I am the teaching genius I think – I know – I am, you see.

So, that fact that my results might not show this is a source of some disquiet. Of course there are lots of variables in play and I can’t control them all. My colleagues are brilliant.  Exam results are only one measure, etc etc.  But that won’t stop me thinking, what did I do wrong? What can I do better?

That might sound admirable, except that it has questionable roots and usually leads to a state of near despair. I work really hard. I am – and forgive the arrogance but I can’t make the point without it – pretty highly rated by students and colleagues alike. I read and think about education.  I prize knowledge. I question, I challenge, I stretch. I do all those good things. And still, I don’t blow my peers out of the water at exam time.

I doubt I’m alone in feeling this way, nor in disliking the fact that I do. Fortunately, experience shows that the feeling will soon give way to a set of new year resolutions which, if I stick to them, will help me improve. This year though I’ve read more books, tweets and blogs than ever before, so my NYRs will be more closely targeted. I’ll also publish them on this blog. I mean, there’s no better incentive to reach a goal than to tell people about it, right?

 

 

 

 

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Lessons from Uganda

My school has links to one in the remote South West of Uganda. It’s good and places are highly coveted. We do a lot of fundraising for it, most recently paying for new dormitories. Every year we take around 20 Y11/12s over there to see the school, meet some students, observe and teach some lessons and where possible make ourselves generally useful.

No doubt there are lots of firmly held opinions on this sort of trip. Feel free to share. But what I want to focus on is what I saw in the classroom and what conclusions I drew.

Class sizes there range from about eight in the Sixth Form to 60 in Y9-11 (there is no Y7 or 8). Students sit at wooden desks in groups of three. Classrooms have no IT whatever, just a blackboard and white (only white) chalk. Walls are overwhelmingly bare. The teacher is the undoubted expert in the room. There is lots of call and response and repeat after me. There is no group work. There are very few resources. There is lots of writing, some of it for homework, and not much marking. Discipline is good. The relationships with teachers are respectful.

What struck me about much of this was its familiarity from a range of recent books and blogs. There are probably many teachers, perhaps particularly those of a “traditional” bent, who might practise or aspire to something a little similar. No gimmicky IT which takes ages to master, serves only to distract and will be superseded next year; no worksheets to slave over and jam the photocopier; no displays of work which no-one reads; no lazy group activities which benefit no-one; no personalised but ultimately pointless feedback.

Foolishly I didn’t ask whether the school has adopted this ethos of necessity or by design, but I suspect the former. The structural limitations make anything else impractical. Indeed I’m not sure how much of a trad v prog debate there would be in Uganda.

It’s different over here, though. We have better facilities, smaller class sizes and more resources. We shouldn’t beat ourselves up about that and neither should we use or do things just because we can. But we should be absolutely sure that if we eschew, say, group work in favour of teacher talk, we do it for the right reasons.

If you are attracted by “traditional” teaching, great. But don’t just read Battle Hymn and swallow it whole. Question it, and then read and question some other trads. Do the same for progs, and perhaps even those who claim “no best way”. Then decide on your approach, based on what you believe is best for your students.  You have the luxury of choice, so choose wisely. We owe our Ugandan colleagues that professional courtesy.

 

Keep squeezing those testicles: why knowledge isn’t everything

We used to have a joke, my previous HoD and me: she did scholarship and I did presentation.  Of course it did both of us something of a disservice: she – the mighty @EG_Carr – was perfectly good at presenting material in interesting and accessible ways, and I’ve got an MA in History.  A real one too, not one of those Oxon or Cantab jobs.  But at its heart the joke, at least it applied to me, has an uncomfortable kernel of truth.

I’m a pretty good teacher, I reckon.  Not as good as some, better than others.  That’s fine; I’ll keep trying.  If asked, I’d say that my main skill is an ability to think of good ways to get information across with verve, a sense of excitement, and in a way that makes sense.  And therein lies my problem.

You don’t have to have followed edu-twitter very closely, or read very many blogs, to know that there is increasing support for the primacy of knowledge as the bedrock of teaching.  Within reason, I think this is excellent.  It means that teachers need to know their discipline inside out; to keep up with the latest subject-specific developments; to devise deep, challenging, knowledge-rich curricula and/or schemes of work; in other words, to use their expertise to foster and inspire a love of their subjects for what is unique about them.

This is bad news for teachers like me.  My subject is History (and Politics at A-Level) but I don’t class myself as a proper historian.  My undergraduate degree is factually irrelevant and all my MA means is that for a time I knew an awful lot about Polish demands for reparations after WW2.  That’s pretty niche and it was sufficiently long ago for me to have forgotten pretty much all of it.  Further, I’ve spent most of my career in the Civil Service, where knowledge of history was not especially relevant.

What I can do though is make difficult stuff accessible.  Often this has gone hand in hand with deliberately seeking to make things interesting (though not so much in the Civil Service, if I’m honest).  This is not the same as being a “fun teacher” – regular readers (ha!) will recall my views on that –  but it does entail a belief, which seems to be ever more unfashionable,  that imaginative presentation of material is important.

Here’s an example.  During the Cold War, Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev reportedly said, “Berlin is the testicle of the West.  When I want the West to scream, I squeeze on Berlin.”  For a teacher like me this is too good to miss.  It inspired a worksheet giving details of key Berlin-related events and inviting students to rate how hard Khrushchev was squeezing at any given moment.  That seems (is) lighthearted but is also quite intellectually taxing: how was Khrushchev applying pressure to the West?  What would be the impact of his actions?  How much would the West have cared?  All good questions that require students to think hard about the information before them, which will increase their knowledge (memory being the residue of thought, and all that) and promote scholarship.  Yet it’s also a fun exercise.  Win win.

It seems though that my methods and I are in danger of going out of style.  There is much twitter-love for Michaela’s knowledge organisers; for teacher talk; for teaching that is more overtly intellectual.  I’m not against intellect:  I’m proud of my (very good) undergraduate degree and, partly because I recognise the centrality of knowledge to teaching, I read a lot of historical and political books.  One of my favourite Politics lessons is when we get to grips with the language and contradictions of the Federalist Papers.  But I also love the lesson outlined above.  Through it and others like it I can show a different kind of energy, enthusiasm and joy.  From what I have seen and experienced it’s hard to generate excitement through a knowledge organiser; certainly some of my most tedious lessons are the ones where we read over notes, even those prepared with love by yours truly.

So I’ll keep using Rick Perry’s “Oops” moment as a precursor to a highbrow Atlantic article on the invisible primary, and playing George Jones’ White Lightning as a way into a study of prohibition.  I’ll also keep reading and researching so that my own knowledge grows.  If I’m out of step with the purists, so be it.  And if it seems to you that this whole blog has been an exercise in self-justification, I agree.  I thought it was going to be a lament but it’s turned into a celebration.  Thank goodness for that.

Fun in lessons: like chilli in food.

“Sir, are you a fun teacher?”  So asked one of my Y13s a few weeks ago.

She’d been in my class for the best part of two years and knew very well what my lessons were like.  She also knew pretty well what I am like, at least in the classroom.  So she also knew that this question would wind me up.

It did.  “NO! I am not a FUN teacher!”  She looked a little taken aback, and in retrospect the ear-splitting volume of my reply, the frenzied pounding of the table and the anguished cry as I crumpled, Wicked Witch of the West-like, to the floor may have been a bit OTT.  But goodness me did that question push my buttons.

In my mind a “fun teacher”, a male one anyway, probably wears a spinning bow tie at least once a year.  Homer Simpson socks will feature regularly.  “You don’t have to be crazy to work here, but it helps!!!” will be a guiding philosophy.  Exclamation marks will proliferate.  Students may well be given amusing nicknames: one of my near contemporaries at school was called Elteeb by our form tutor, because his initials were WV, which is VW backwards.  That tutor also used a pair of scissors called Miranda as a doorstop.  He was definitely fun.

By that definition I, who wear sensible suits, sober ties, rarely use exclamation marks, eschew nicknames and certainly do not personify my stationery am not a fun teacher.  But my lessons are fun.  At least, the students seem to enjoy them and so do I.  So what’s the difference?  How can I possibly have fun lessons without being a fun teacher, beyond wearing my serious teacher disguise? And should I care about fun anyway?

Tom Bennett has recently written a proper article on similar matters for The Guardian.  To my mind one of the key lines is this:

“Play might be fun, but learning often isn’t. You just can’t avoid it: learning is often hard work.”

I agree.  There’s no point pretending that you can make every minute of every lesson, or even every lesson, thrillingly exciting and nor should you try.  It’s not so much the content, though no doubt we all have our less favourite bits.  It’s more that some things need practice, which usually isn’t the most popular thing ever.  Others need careful and meticulous explanation, which is unlikely to have ’em rolling in the aisles.  You get the picture.

That probably means these lessons, or these parts of lessons, aren’t fun.  They can though offer other, more helpful, positive feelings: satisfaction from working hard to reach the right answer; pride at completing today what seemed impossible yesterday; excitement at uncovering an additional layer of complexity.  This is, perhaps, what some people refer to as “the joy of learning.”

A fun teacher probably wouldn’t see things like that.  Where are the opportunities for YouTube clips, felt tip pens, scissors or ipads?  Too much struggling, not enough smiling.  More confusion than “progress”.  Much better and more accessible, therefore, to ask students to make a board game or build a castle than to analyse the views of an historian.

And yet we should not banish fun.  To some extent I think we are making life too easy for ourselves if we just rely on “the joy of learning” to provide the excitement.   I certainly want my Politics students to engage fully with the question of whether Congress is the “broken branch” of US government, including by reading academic articles and other learned tomes.  There’ll be struggle before satisfaction there.  But I’m missing a trick if I don’t start the topic with, say, this Huffington Post video: “Congress Approval Rating Lower Than Cockroaches, Genghis Khan And Nickelback.”  Augmented with a couple of articles about, say, the 2013 federal government shutdown, the students have around 20 minutes of stimulating and (in part) cerebral material which will fire their enthusiasm, start the process of acquiring knowledge and provide a reference point for future lessons.  It will probably be fun, too.

Where I’m getting to is this:

  1. a fun teacher will use all sorts of techniques to ensure the students have a good time; if they’re enjoying their French lessons, they’re enjoying French, right?  Wrong; and besides they may well not be learning very much French at all.
  1. a good teacher will use all sorts of techniques to ensure students have an exciting, satisfying and challenging education which fills them full of knowledge and the ability to use it;
  1. a really good teacher will recognize that in aiming for (ii), there will be times when a little bit of (i) is required, for atmospheric and/or pedagogical reasons.

True to the name of my blog, I know that many will disagree.  Traditional teachers are legion in the  twitterverse and committed to their views; I’d be really interested to hear them; although I don’t know the answers, instinctively I feel the above is right.  Because to me fun is like chili powder.  Too much and it obliterates the meal it’s supposed to enhance.  Too little and the meal will be functional but bland.  But in just the right amount it can make a dish sing.  Provided the chef isn’t wearing a spinning bow tie.

“Why not make a pillory?” Pointless homework and how to avoid it.

You know that bit where I say “I don’t know the answers”?  You might want to ignore that for this post.

This is a picture of a History homework done by a Y7 of my acquaintance.  She’s had this entire half term to do it.  It’s a snakes and ladders style board game about being a successful medieval king.

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Beautiful, isn’t it?  It took hours.  Finding and shaping the board, measuring and drawing the lines, drawing and cutting out the swords and the rats, making the counters, writing the rules.  And – oh yes – about 30 minutes deciding what information to write in the squares.

This, then, is the epitome of a Pointless Homework.  Ostensibly it’s a History task, but the amount of history that has been learned or used is minimal.  It’s good to uphold the law, it’s bad to raise taxes too high, it’s good to have an heir, it’s bad to be invaded.  Incisive!  The rest of the time has been spent making a game, which hasn’t furthered her knowledge or understanding of history, or honed her historical skills, in the slightest.

(As an aside, this is far from the most egregious example of a pointless homework I’ve come across.  That accolade goes to a worksheet I found at my previous school when I began teaching in 1997.  It was on medieval punishments.  The homework task was this: “Make your own stocks or pillory.  Use cardboard or even wood!”  Imagine my delight when, returning to the school after a thirteen year absence, I found the self-same worksheet still sitting in the filing cabinet.  Like seeing an old, if slightly eccentric, friend.)

Nevertheless, the board game is still pointless and, sadly, far from unique.  We’ve all heard of – may even have been party to – homeworks such as “make a model of a castle” (you can insert your own subject’s version here).  The occasional twitter threads about this bear witness to the prevalence of such tasks across the curriculum.

History, though, does seem to be a serial offender.  Why?  Here are some of the justifications I’ve heard for castle-building and the like, with my comments underneath.

  1. We’ve done it for a long time.

Longevity does not of itself automatically confer benefits.

2. The children really like it.

a) My child didn’t.  If only by the law of averages she cannot have been the only one.  

b) Even if they do all like it, that’s no justification. My children really like sweets…

3. It’s important that every child gets to do something they are good at, and this helps the ones less good at reading and writing to shine in History.

Yes, children should be allowed to succeed.  But:

a) Children who are not good at reading and writing really need to get better at it, and that will not happen by making models in a subject that requires good literacy.

b) I would be very surprised to find my daughter spending a whole term of, say, DTE homework researching and writing an essay because “it’s good for children who aren’t good at the practical elements of DTE to be able to shine in this subject.” (NB this is not meant to be a dig at DTE, I’m just inventing an example to make a point.)

4. It helps them with their time management.

At KS3 at least, expecting them sensibly to spread a single task over half a term learn how to spread a task over several weeks is, how shall I put it, ambitious. 

What, then, makes a Pointful Homework?  To my mind, in my subjects (History and Politics; but more widely too I reckon) it boils down to this: a task which either cements, acquires or applies knowledge.  For example:

  • Cementing.  This is basically learning.  There are lots of ways to do it and lots of blogs about it: try this from @MissDCox or this from @joe_kirby.  Sometimes some time (or all the time, at Michaela and probably elsewhere too) does need to be given over to just getting stuff into brains.
  • Acquiring. This could happen in lots of ways.  At my school we are big on what we call pre-paration and others might term flipped learning: that is, reading, writing or researching something as the basis for the following lesson.  And of course there are many other methods of getting hold of new knowledge.
  • Applying.   It’s not enough to acquire and cement: what’s the point of massive knowledge if you don’t develop the skills to use it effectively?  Homework is a good time to practise applying what has been learned, to familiar questions where more cement needs to be applied, or to new ones where the aim is to challenge.

These three types of homework – cementing, acquiring and applying – allow a huge range of interesting, accessible, challenging and, well, pointful activities.  From self-quizzing to reading via mind-mapping and MyMaths there are endless possibilities.  They also provide a neat sanity check: if your task is doing none of the three things, it could be a Pointless Homework.  However, to work well the three types require adherence to the spirit rather than the letter of their law.  For example, some knowledge was applied to the making of the board game. Not much though, and only to the extent of “What are the biggest generalisations I can think of that will look good in a game?”  Similarly, copying a chunk of text from a book is, strictly speaking, acquiring knowledge.  It won’t sink in though.

In the end, what you set for homework will depend hugely on your pedagogical preferences.  But if those preferences involve the equivalent of sewing and stuffing a model of a cell, I urge you to reconsider.  Cement, acquire, apply.