How Stories in the Classroom Can Lead to Meaningful Learning

Extract from The Exam Class Toolkit: How to Create Engaging Lesson That Ensure Progression and Results (Continuum). This section is a snapshot on using stories in the classroom.

The following story was emailed to us recently. At first it may seem just like a
funny story, but if you read between the lines, it raises several interesting
questions. Can you spot them?

An old Maori man lived alone at his family home out in Ruatoria.
He wanted to dig his kumara garden, but it was very hard work.
His only son, Hone, who used to help him, was in Paremoremo prison.
The man wrote a letter to his son and described his predicament.

Kia ora e Hone,
I am feeling pretty bad because it looks like I won’t be able to
plant my kumara garden this year.
I’m just getting too old to be digging up a garden plot.
If you were here, all my troubles would be over.
I know you would dig the plot for me.
Aroha nui

A few days later he received a letter from his son.

E Pa,
For God’s sake! Don’t dig up that garden, that’s where I buried the BODIES.

At 4am the next morning, Gisborne C.I.B and the local police showed up with a search warrant and dug up the entire area without finding any
bodies. They apologized to the old man and left. That same day the man received another letter from his son.

E Pa,
Go ahead and plant the Kumara.
That’s the best I could do under the circumstances.

Continue reading How Stories in the Classroom Can Lead to Meaningful Learning

Letting Go: Student Designed Project Based Learning

Listening to the stories of Holocaust survivors is always inspirational, but today (Tuseday 25th September) was more enlightening than usual.

Along with colleague Rosie Sheldrake, I took a group of Year 9 students to an oral history event at Essex University, in memory of the late Dora Love. The original plan was to give students access to quality material for a Holocaust project that we would define later, however, as the day unfolded, we decided to hand over the whole process of project design to the students – something we have not done before.

Below is a quick explanation of how we went about it… Continue reading Letting Go: Student Designed Project Based Learning

Teaching: The Unthinking Profession

I have been on the road again this week delivering training in a number of schools. I really enjoy the experience and always learn from the people I work with and it is tremendous fun. However, as a trainer I know that sessions packed full of practical strategies will go down really well and this is beginning to trouble me. I worry that theory and context are almost vilified in the profession and we can no longer see past the quick fix of a good practical tip.

Before going on I would like to say that I exclude the users of twitter from this description – they are keeping the art of theory alive (take a look at #edjournal for proof). They are, however, a minority and only in the most enlightened schools are they central to decision making.

This trend is worrying for three reasons:

1. Teachers, in general, are not interested in theory. The sessions where there is a substantial theory base will always get a weaker reception. Teachers want ‘stuff’ they can take away and use tomorrow. While I always show how the theory works in practice, it never seems to have the same impact as CPD with titles like ’10 engaging starters’ or ‘7 great discussion tools’. While there is a place for practical tips, but I know that this approach offers little impact. A good idea might be used once or twice, but understanding how it works and why it works will bring lasting and sustainable alterations to teaching methods. The ‘quick fix’ is just that and somewhere down the line a proper solution needs to be found. I see too many Senior Leaders promoting ‘Sharing Good Practice’ sessions as the way to improve teaching and learning in their schools. While it will allow for a dialogue to be a created about learning it needs to be followed up with a ‘Sharing Good Theory’ session where staff explain the philosophy behind the techniques that they use and why it leads to better learning.

2. If we can’t see the relevance of theory then how do we move forward? If only a small minority are reading about new approaches and trying them out, experimenting and refining, how can the profession raise itself up to better standards? Few people have heard of or seen Sir Ken Robinson, hardly anyone has read Geoff Petty or John Hattie, let alone slightly leftfield texts like those by Steven Johnson or Daniel Pink. I am concerned that standards will not improve in the majority of schools, because no one is looking into what is possible and exciting.

3. I think the attitude of the profession at large towards CPD and theory plays into the hands of our critics. Some politicians and large chunks of the population see teachers as lazy and stuck in their ways. They view teaching as being a simple set of skills, that as Michael Gove put it can be passed on from the master ‘to the apprentice’. I firmly believe that teaching is a highly creative discipline, providing tremendous scope and freedom to experiment. But it also consists of patterns and lines that can be follewed to create a more firm understanding of the students in front of you. Without theory to map a route we are either aimless or rigid, and neither is good enough in education. I find it hard to imagine a doctor being negative about new approaches in their specialism, or lawyers refusing to read the lasted case law. Why should teachers resent good CPD and theory?

I have talked to many teachers about this and most feel under pressure to perform well with exam groups and to meet expectations. They get observed occasionally, pull out a few tricks and set pieces, and then get back on the treadmill of reports, emails, marking and planning. They feel like they do not have the time to read theory and experiment, it intrudes on their daily business of survival. Also, the quality is not always there in CPD sessions and people get turned off. It is hard not to feel sympathy for this argument, but we need to break it down and move the agenda on. Leaders need to take bold decisions and teachers need to talk about theory, share it, just like we do on twitter, and help to breathe new life into our unthinking profession.

Five Reasons to Play PS3 in A Level Lessons

I have recently bought a PS3 for my classroom and, yes, it did raise a few eyebrows at first. In fact, several weeks on and it still seems to create the same reaction in some people. However, it was the response of the students that most interested me. The first game that I experimented with was Sid Meier’s Civilization Revolution.

I had wanted to use it for a while to help teach the Tudors unit at AS Level. One of the key teaching points of the unit is how Monarchs governed their states and I was fairly sure that it could help students get a feel for the mindset of the Early Modern Period.

The results were fascinating and made a real impact. However, I don’t want to go into the whole defence of game based learning, or even explain how it can be used to create a real enquiry (that has been done with much greater eloquence than I could muster by the likes of Dawn Hallybone). All I want to set out here is five simple reasons why we should be using games to teach through at post-16:

1. It is great for teaching concepts – so far we have used it to launch the Tudor unit in Year 12 (looking at the concept of kingship), the Crime and Punishment unit at Year 13 (using the CSI game to look at the concept of investigation) and with Year 7 to look at Chronology (using the History extension pack of Little Big Planet). The initial playing generated a lot of excitement, but the discussion that followed was the really amazing part. Students were able to provide concrete (allbeit digitally rendered) examples to back up and explain abstract concepts. It was brilliant to hear three Year 12 students discussing why it was virtually impossible to create a state noted for culture while engaged in a protracted war, or why it was futile to build a banking system when most spare cash was being spent on an invasion army. The game had managed to solidify thinking on a difficult concept in less than two hours – it would have taken weeks for me to feed them enough contextual knowledge to reach the same point. This approach is one that I want to hang on to. I can not see me using the PS3 as a straight tool for learning about a particular time period or skill – that seems to take out the excitement and the thinking. It was the connections that had to be made and the abstract nature of the thinking that made this work.

2. It doubles up as a blu-ray – the advantages of blu-ray are documented widely, but having that technology available in the room is superb. Buying a separate player would cost just as much and the PS3 has more to offer the class. It means that we can show clips that create much more atmosphere. For example, when looking at the changing landscape of crime drama we show two clips from Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Psycho’. Seeing this in high definition is fantastic, but it also shows the students that you care about the presentation of the sources of information you use. Carrying the box with reverance and carefully placing it in the player adds to the drama and makes them care more about the content. Honestly, design and presentation matter an awful lot in post-16 teaching.

3. If you have wifi, it is a cheap way to get internet access – the fact that it is almost a pc at a fraction of the cost is superb. For less than £200 you can get access to a host of web resources and use them in lessons. If you want a cheap way to play video clips or show striking images, then the PS3 has got to be a serious consideration. It is another access point to help students look up and clarify those small issues that arise when they are involved with completing an enquiry. The novelty of doing this additional research on the PS3 has proven engaging too.

4. It creates a buzz among students – the amount of comments I have received since the PS3 landed at school is incredible. The students think it is brilliant that the History department has one and the teachers actually know how to play the games. One student (Year 12) wrote on the VLE ‘History + PS3 = Cool’. I have to agree.

5. It is a technology that is constantly evolving – with the recent introduction was motion and visualising technology the PS3 has opened up a new avenue of use for the classroom. I don’t know how well it will work for what we need to teach, but it will be fun to explore this with the students. And the best part is that new games and hardware to connect to the PS3 will emerge every year so that we can keep offering a variety of approaches and remain fresh. We should not abandon the principles of play and exploration at KS3 – keeping the learning active, engaging and different is as vital at post-16 as it is with Year 6 or 7 and using a games console is just one way to bring this into the classroom.

These five points are not an advert for PS3 consoles, although I obviously do like mine, more an attempt explore games based learning and student engagement at KS5.

Hope it helps.

5 Steps to Creative Ideas

Beginning tomorrow morning every single one of us is going to sell Ideas! …What we are not clear about is just how to get ideas. So I said maybe you could tell us. – James Web Young (2003)

So, how do I get ideas?

In James Webb Young’s brilliant book, A Technique for Producing Ideas, he argues that coming up with an idea is actually a rather straight-forward process. In fact, the reason why ideas differ so enormously is because it is simply a new combination of old elements and the way we view relationships between them. So, in Young’s view, some will see each piece of fact as a separate bit of knowledge whilst others will see a link in a chain of knowledge with relationships and similarities. For the latter, facts are more like an illustration of a general law applying to a whole series of facts. Therefore, for someone who is quick at spotting patterns and relationships several ideas will be produced. When relationships are seen they in turn lead to the extraction of a more general principle which, when understood, suggests the way to a new combination – the new idea. This process can of course be cultivated as Young states:

The production of ideas is as definite a process as the production of Fords; that the production of ideas, too, runs on an assembly line; that in this production the mind follows an operative technique which can be learned and controlled; and that its effective use is just as much a matter of practice in the technique as is the effective use of any tool

5 Steps to Creative Ideas (influences from Young)

Step 1. Gather Material

As with all professions without understanding the key facts you have nothing. If you sit and wait for a revolutionary idea to strike you, think again! Johannes has worked as mentor and Associate Tutor for many years and have helped new teachers who sometimes would start planning their lessons without having done any research into the topic. His advice was always to ensure that subject knowledge was sound before planning begins. Teaching a lesson without understanding the subject content is impossible. Lack of understanding leads to poor teaching (see Musings on Creativity in Teaching Part 1: Knowing Your Knowledge). That said, outstanding teachers not only have specific knowledge of their topic but also a general understanding of their subject which enable them to understand the ‘bigger picture’. We also suggest a third element, namely to have a wider perspective in other subject areas. Outstanding teachers gather anecdotes, information and stories from a range of areas for example architecture, music, business, nature and film etc.  The latter is essential in the creation of ideas. It is the new combination of specific knowledge about a topic coupled with a general understanding and wider perspective about the subject and other areas that will make ideas occur. The task of gathering material is a life-long one , be it an interesting quote, enigmatic photo or recent news story, find ways of cataloguing/storing these snippets of data.

Step 2. Oblique Strategies

This part is less concrete  as it involves thinking more abstractly about the facts you have, looking at each one individually, bringing two facts together to see if they fit, as well as beginning to synthesize and spot relationships. For this process to work you should try not to think too directly at each element but do what Young refers to as ‘listening’ for their meaning without ‘looking’ for it (Young 2003, p30). What tends to happen here is that you will get initial, sometimes rather odd, ideas but don’t disregard these as they will help to shape your future ideas. Whilst engaged in this process you’ll also feel like you’ve ran into a wall, but don’t give up just yet. It’s the same feeling you have when you’re engaging in a long brainstorming-session with a team and it feels like you’re getting nowhere – but you are! It is crucial to continue just a little bit longer before stopping, not giving up, but stopping as you have exhausted you mind for the time being. Cue: Step 3.

Step 3. No Efforts – Stop Thinking

This is the time for your unconscious mind to do some work. Like you say to your students, remember not too cram everything the night before… Well, the reason you say that is also because the mind needs to rest to synthesize the information properly – to take it all in. However, sleeping will not be the only solution to your ideas. The best way of letting your mind rest whilst topping up the creative juices is to undertake another creative, yet relaxing, activity for example go for a nice run or long walk, watch a decent film, listen to music and so on. You are not only giving your mind time to reflect but also providing additional material which has nothing to do with the topic at hand but will serve to keep your mind working without you having to think about it.

Step 4. It Just Came to Me

Just like that, the idea popped into your head when you least expected it, in the middle of the night, early in the morning or sometimes annoyingly when you’re driving or in a situation where frantically writing down things may not be regarded as something positive. So, when you stop pushing for ideas and gone through a period of rest, they’ll show up.

Step 5. The Bleak Reality

When you take out your new idea to the harsh reality you might realise that it’s not as wonderful as you once thought. This is the hardest part; moulding your idea into the structures and conditions so it can work. It is during this period when most people give up and put their idea in the half-baked drawer together with hundreds of its counterparts. Solution: don’t protect your new idea, throw it to the Devil Advocates! You will then see that your idea carry self-generating qualities as it stimulate those who examine it and consequently will help develop into the final masterpiece.

If you find the topic about ideas interesting you might want to get your hands on a copy of these books, they have stimulated us to write some of the posts on Eat.Sleep.Teach.

Ten Faces of Innovation by Tom Kelley

Making Ideas Happen – Scott Belsky

The Back of the Napkin – Dan Roam

The Art Of Innovation – Tom Kelley

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