A while ago I noticed that my daughter seemed to be talking lots about the geography she had learnt. I was pleased about that but any history teacher will appreciate my chagrin that, by comparison, she barely mentioned her history. Oddly when I asked her about her history lessons she was quite enthusiastic. She was having lots of fun in class but when pushed she mentioned the games she was playing not the history she was learning.
When I trained to teach 22 years ago I thought that fun activities were the top priority and I always planned creative and somewhat quirky activities for my students. Each series of lessons would culminate in a highly motivating activity to build deeper understanding. Why set some boring questions on 19thC factory conditions when your students can write a TV script by an investigative journalist uncovering the horrors? Why write an essay on the significance of Boulton and Watt when you can set a role play in which students take the part of each entrepreneur and debate with each other? I would roll out an ongoing feast of fun for my students. My first job was (I felt unfortunately) in an independent school where teaching was generally quite traditional. If I am honest I felt my KS3 teaching was superior to my colleagues due to my clever activities and was also more motivating for the students.
Despite being convinced at that time of the superiority of my focus, over the years I have actually gradually drifted away from lesson planning that focuses on imaginative tasks. You might think that this is because I have grown lazy but I’m unconvinced. It isn’t so hard to think up an imaginative tasks. Having taught for donkeys years I find that five minutes of ruminative pen nibbling is usually enough to come up with something and there are plenty of sites out there full of ideas if not. To misquote the White Queen, I feel like I could probably think of six imaginative tasks before breakfast. So why has my focus shifted?
In part I don’t do so many creative activities because they take lots of lesson time to complete. I’ve been teaching for the last fourteen years in a 13+ school and there isn’t time to fit in as many of these activities when teaching GCSE and A level. This should give pause for thought. At GCSE I instinctively didn’t seem to think these creative activities were the best use of valuable learning time – interesting.
In fact I’d say that the more focused I became on the quality of the historical knowledge and understanding of my students the less I used these activities. There was a one clear turning point for me which was the moment I realised that while such activities could be good consolidation tasks they were generally quite a poor means of building knowledge and understanding. I realised I had been buoyed along by the third of students in class that produced clever or amusing or insightful responses to my tasks and rather glazed over the more lacklustre responses by the majority. Those students who already had a decent grasp of the subject matter and the issues were able to demonstrate that grasp in the creative task set. It was a time consuming form of consolidation for them but often fun – fair enough. The rest either focused on perfecting the form of the activity (e.g. if I set a TV style investigation there was lots of doorstep interview conflict portrayed…) but failed to use the medium to explore the historical issues or, as happened too often, failed to grasp both the medium AND the necessary historical detail.
So the reason I was doing fewer of these tasks, even though I had not consciously articulated it in my mind, was because they bought motivation but at a price in terms of time and distraction from the historical learning intention. If my purpose as a history teacher was to build historical knowledge and understanding such tasks tended to only really showcase that grasp when it was already present. Whether I chose a radio interview or a diamond nine, a debate or even an essay as my consolidation task I was still no further towards my goal of building a really strong grasp of the history necessary to perform well in that task.
I realised that the final task itself is the easy bit. It is the teaching that goes before that makes it all possible (or means it will flop).
No matter how motivational the activity the challenge remains. How do I help my students gain a broad and deep understanding of the period we are covering? How do I ensure my students remember what they have learnt? When I teach Weimar Germany at GCSE my biggest effort is not put into devising a game of Weimar Monopoly because that is unlikely to help me do the really difficult bit of teaching this topic which is the careful sequencing of ideas and concepts that I have identified through my planning as crucial for understanding. I need to identify which concepts to explain and how to build on what the class already know. I must choose and find ways to emphasise specific content and causal connections. To really understand Germany at this time the story starts with the Kaiser and prewar Germany and with this come dictatorship, revolution, democracy and communism. Then onto proportional representation, left and right wing and constitutions as we learn about the problems of the fledgling republic. We discuss how a state has power and why our country doesn’t have the same problems. I am the brick layer carefully placing every new slab of understanding with deliberate intent and care. I also need to find time to read more myself so that my teaching is rich and insightful and includes fascinating details so my class are motivated by what is intrinsically interesting about the period not just, as with my daughter, the fact that they played a game in class.
As professionals we have to make teaching decisions everyday balancing motivation against efficacy and we all sometimes make pragmatic decisions to include activities even when they are not the most efficient method of grasping the necessary details. We know, however, that our goal as teachers isn’t just to show our classes a good time. By comparison with the challenge of building genuine understanding of the historical period, choosing the specific activity is the easy bit.