Teach what’s important


A year or so ago I wrote this blog post on “Ten Principles for Great Explicit Teaching”. It was a popular post, with Oliver Caviglioli kind enough to turn it into a poster which I’m vain enough to have printed out and pinned to a wall in my office.

Explaining things is something I’m always trying to improve at and while I think I’m steadily getting better, I’m even more certain there’s a great deal more for me to learn.

So I keep tinkering.

A big change for me moving schools was adapting to a context in which poor behaviour in lessons is genuinely rare. By this I do not mean ‘well behaved’ as in ‘quiet’, but wholehearted commitment to listening, completing tasks and answering questions.

This means that it is possible to talk to classes for long lengths of time and I, as will surprise nobody who knows me, have enjoyed this.

Perhaps a little too much.

I’ve noticed a lot of what I say is actually designed primarily to grab the attention of children, because I’m used to them switching off unless they are periodically jolted by something very obviously shocking, emotional or provocative. This might mean spending ages being the berserker on Stamford Bridge, or telling classes about Franz Ferdinand ‘s apparently cursed car, or relating a ghost story about a girl who died of the Plague in York. While I’ve always made sure what I talked about was linked to the subject of my lesson, it would be a stretch to claim these links were always strong enough to justify inclusion based on what I really wanted pupils to remember. I don’t completely blame myself for this. When I’ve worked in places without clear and functional behaviour systems in which there was little support for removing a child for poor behaviour, such strategies were necessary survival tactics.

Whereas in the past I felt I had no choice, delivering a gratuitously shocking explanation now leaves me feeling cheap and a bit ashamed of myself, and I’m now considering very carefully as to how I can make all my explanations useful and purposeful as well as entertaining.

Some of you are rolling your eyes now and – quite understandably – thinking “oh for goodness sake get that stick out of your arse.”

I get this but also think it wrong nonetheless.

Pupils often find stories fascinating because the events in them are decontextualised. For example, a child may love a story of two gladiators fighting to the death because this is so utterly alien to the society they live in that it feels like fantasy. Their response is an entirely emotional and not a historical one. This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t teach about gladiators but the sweat, blood and guts shouldn’t be obsessed over simply because children like gore, just as we shouldn’t explain the events of the Children’s Crusade as if those who took part in it were somehow stupid or mad in the modern sense.

It is these stories that have in the past made me feel most tawdry, almost as if I’d betrayed the people I was teaching about.

Another problem with telling stories purely to get attention is that many of the stories turn out to be at best of dubious provenance and at worse, plainly not true. The story of Franz Ferdinand’s car is a very good example of this; while initially the idea of the vehicle being somehow cursed is a compelling one, it doesn’t take much research or common sense to work out that many of the details are exaggerated or just far too coincidental to be significant There are a thousand stories like this, from the obscure but fascinating (Monkey Hangers of Hartlepool) to those that have come to be accepted as canonical truth by wider society (Elizabeth I and Walter Raleigh’s cloak) but almost certainly never happened.

But they are undoubtedly fascinating stories and surely they can’t do much harm?

I think they can.

We have so little time and so much to cover – I wouldn’t be surprised to be told there’d been a history book written on every single element of our extensive curriculum. There really is so much to get through there just isn’t time for superfluous elaboration. This is even more of an issue for those of us influenced by Nuthall’s “The Hidden Lives of Learners” which offers the hypothesis that we need to expose pupils to everything we want them to remember three times.

If we aren’t disciplined in giving explanations it can be all too easy to lose the thread and end up nowhere at all. While pupils may have been thrilled, entertained, disgusted or horrified by what we’ve told them, if it isn’t connected to what we want them to know it’s unlikely they’ll retain what, in a quieter calmer time, we know they need to remember.

None of this is to say that we shouldn’t tell entertaining stories or explain things passionately. But we do need to be sure what we are saying has deep purpose. I’m working hard at this at the moment, looking carefully through my booklets before lessons and deciding exactly what analogies I’ll draw and which stories I’ll tell, and being strict with myself to make sure I know why.

I’ve had to kill some of my babies, which is sad. But as I’ve done it I’ve reminded myself I’m not a clown, stand-up comedian or circus entertainer. My pupils have so little time and so much they have to learn, and I care about them too much to waste their time now there’s no reason to.


4 thoughts on “Teach what’s important

  1. Yes. Point well born taken and I think much of this happens bc teachers typically work in schools with poor behaviour; it becomes a useful technique.
    I was born in West Hartlepool so might quibble about one point. The story is legend and must be passed down through genetations.


  2. Chelsea says:

    Is it just about students remembering things, or about a passion for the subject? Inspiring a student to research and find the truths behind the story. Obviously there needs to be a balance, but stories can inspire and spark our creativity. Every subject requires creativity for students to reach their full potential.


  3. Pingback: How do teachers in Ghana feel about the Aptitude Tests? Plus, silent spaces and lesson observations! - Teacher Tapp

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