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.
Each year a full-time teacher receives in the region of 250-300 students who they will deliver quality learning and teaching. As teaching professionals we don’t get to choose our students, of course not, our middle leaders and the Assistant Head in charge of time-tabling will organise what classes we teach. But, can we in fact have a say in what sort of students we eventually get to mould into independent thinkers?
I came across a brief post by Seth Godin who exclaimed that businesses and companies choose their customers:
Yes, you get to choose them, not the other way around. You choose them with your pricing, your content, your promotion, your outreach and your product line…
In many respects Seth Godin’s quote echoes many truths about education and how teachers must think carefully about what students they would like in their classrooms. If we breakdown Godin’s quote and rewrite it to fit schools it could sound something like this:
Choosing your students:
Yes, you get to choose them, not the other way around. You choose them with your lesson planning, your creative skills to engage, your offer of challenge and progress, your subject and professional expertise and your respect for them…
Thinking carefully about the outcome(s) of the lesson is crucial so that students learn and their skills develop. Creative and engaging lesson activities will help you and them to meet those outcomes. For example, how can you make a difficult concept easier to understand or in what ways can you help them find a topic more enjoyable? As teachers we know very well that if we plan good lessons with engaging and creative ideas students are more likely to enjoy it which means they stand a greater chance of learning and not behaving in such a way that would be detrimental to their and others’ learning. We have devoted a lot of time to developing creative and engaging lesson activities which will help you to plan effective lessons that are packed with learning, take a look at these posts: Educational Mashups Part four: creativity boosts from the wise, Simplicity at its best and Handheld Learning beyond the Classroom.
3. Challenge and Progress
I once heard a student talk about their options and they were to select them depending on how ‘easy’ they were. I later taught this student and in one conversation she explained that the easy subjects had become boring and that those that made her think were more enjoyable. Even if a student asks to watch a film it is unlikely they will enjoy that as much as having to work hard at solving a problem, collaborating on a project or receiving positive feedback on a piece of writing. This is why it is important to produce activities that not only challenge them to think but also moves their thinking forward. Purposeful feedback will help here. Take a look at these posts for further ideas about challenging students and motivating them through good feedback: Shred Their Work: or Reflections on Student Motivation and Using ‘The Ten Faces of Innovation ‘ in the classroom.
4. Subject and Professional Expertise
Terry Haydn, Senior Reader at the University of East Anglia and our old mentor (well, he’s not really old just very experienced!), always said that sound subject knowledge contributes to sound lesson content and that the power of good exposition should not be forgotten. Indeed, good story telling can enliven topics and give structure and a road-map to the ‘bigger picture’ that the class to follow. We also strongly believe that a broad understanding of our profession is key to becoming an excellent teacher and that this should never end. However, we urge you to read books that may not directly link with our profession, so not books about teaching but to cross-pollinate ideas from other fields like marketing, design, music, art and business. In return for reading, listening, watching and discussing with people from other industries other than education you will be rewarded with a myriad of stimulating and creative ideas. We have written a series of posts on cross-pollination called Educational Mashups which could be used as a starting point: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4 .
In my work as Advisor I often get the opportunity to talk to OFSTED inspectors or receive training on lesson observations. One thing that always crop up both during lesson debriefs and in whole school feedback is the relationships between students and their teachers. Those teachers that have strong relations with their classes rarely have many behavioural problems compared to those who do not. However, this type of relationship does not happen quickly and involves more than jokes and understanding students backgrounds. Strong relationships between the teacher and their class happen when there is a clear and continued dialogue as well as exchange of thoughts. This is where good feedback, Assessment for Learning, Student Voice and just plain politeness are needed in order for this dialogue and exchange to occur. This post deals with how relationships can be solidified via purposeful feedback and enhanced student involvement: Shred Their Work: or Reflections on Student Motivation.
The correct ingredients in making the perfect class is of course variable and the list provided above is by no means exhaustive, but will hopefully give some insight into what we as teachers try to do. In this respect, perhaps Seth Godin’s advice works in education as in business – we do get a say in choosing what sort of customers/students we get to work with or teach…eventually?
Make it Sticky! (Sticky = understandable, memorable and effective in changing thought or behaviour.)
How do we get students to care about being healthy; to understand the notion of a mathematical function? Why should your students care that Victor Frankl lost his manuscript on psychological well-being? The brothers Chip and Dan Heath have explored the idea why some messages stick and why some disappear (Made to Stick, Arrow Books Ltd, 2008 http://www.madetostick.com). They argue that the main reason why people, such as teachers, fail to create effective and memorable `sticky’ lessons is because of what they call `The Curse of Knowledge’. This refers to the notion that educators and presenters of information sometimes fail to see that abstractions, the wealth of knowledge which they have and which makes sense to them, may not make sense to the students. Continue reading Planning Lessons using the Principles of Sticky
In the first part of this post we greatly criticised advice on creatively for jumping in at the deep end and urging people to try something differently. While we wholeheartedly agree with the sentiment, this approach comes too early in the process. Before you can do anything else, you really need to know your subject – and you need to know it well.
However, good subject knowledge alone does not make you creative – it might, though, help you to win Mastermind. Most teachers have good subject knowledge, but we would argue that too few keep up with research in their area (I once reccommended Charles Leadbeater’s book ‘We Think’ to a Economics colleague I met on a course, he replied “Hmm, I don’t really read about Business and Economics, it doesn’t interest me.” How can you effectively teach a subject that doesn’t interest you?). Once you have a base of knowledge you can more effecvtively add to it and make use of quirky stuff.
It ain’t what you do it’s the way that you do it
And that’s what gets results
Teachers need to actively engage with research and writings about the process of teaching. They need to dive in and revel in the art of teaching. As deliverers of INSET, we often hear teachers talking about what they would like from a session, and invariably the majority say ‘Lots of practical tips and activities that we can use straight away.’ We can see the logic in this and it might have an impact on lessons for the rest of the week. This is want many teachers think that they want, but it is not what they need. As Geoff Petty puts it:
It is one thing to know what methods work, quite another to understand why. Without understanding why they work we are most unlikely to use them effectively. We will also be unable to criticise constructively our own and others’ practice.
His book and the now more widely known ‘Visible Learning’ by John Hattie make explicit what good teachers should be doing in the clasroom and back this up with the reasons why.
Understanding the mechanics of teaching is essential for being creative. Only when you understand what needs to be done and, more crucially why, will you be in a position to make a judgement about where a leftfield creative idea might fit in and be effective. Right now, teachers need to be reading and talking about Hattie and Petty – Neal has broken down part of Hattie’s research and included it in a teaching and learning newsletter that will go out to all staff (the section is called ‘Top Hattie’). In another publication (2002), Hattie lists the following top traits of expert teachers:
1. Expert teachers set challenging goals
2. Expert teachers had a deep understanding of teaching and learning
3. Expert teachers monitor learning and provide feedback
There are sixteen in total and they can be downloaded from Hattie’s website as a pdf. There is more research out there and we have made a list of some of our favourites on our innovative ict site.
Knowing about teching and being actively engaged with the way it fits together and why things work in the classroom is going to be more of an event than simply turning up. Think about the feeling you get when you decorate a room yourself. You could have ‘got someone in’ to do it, but when you have cleaned your brushes and step back to see the fruits of your labour it feels good – even if it did take the best part of two weekends. Why is this? Is it just a minor sense of achievement – as close to creating your own Sistene Chapel as you are going to get? In some ways it is, but is is also the fact that you did it yourself and you made it happen.It was you that laid out the dust sheets to protect the floor, you that cut in the walls at ceiling level, you that switched to gloss paint for the woodwork. You figured out what needed to be done and why and then you did it. Buying the right colour of paint does not get the job done.
The same applies to teaching. In a recent blog post Nick Dennis showed how subject knowledge and understanding the mechanics of teaching can be combined to form an effective lesson. He talks about the role of Technology in creating engagement and not just as another way for students to research.
What this illustrates is that teachers also need to be reading about their subject, and we really like the idea of using department meetings as reading groups. Give everyone the same book, read it and talk about how it can be used. It would cost very little – find something in the Waterstones 3 for 2 sale – and would have a massive impact on learning.
Okay, so all this would take up time and that is something we are all short on. What we will say is that teachers need strictly prioritise theb tasks they have to perform and reading both subject content and educational research needs to be near the top of the list. We appreciate this is hard and that teachers have a multitude of things to do, but research should be one of those things. David Allen is a respected Time Management Guru writing in Wired UK :
A vast majority of professionals are in “emergency scanning” mode. Their self-management consists of checking for and acting on the loudest immediacies – in email, in the hallways and on the phone. Everything else is shoved to the side of the desk, and to the back of their mind. Because they’re focused only on “priorities”, and are paying attention only to the most intheir- face stuff, everyone else has to raise the noise level to “emergency” mode to get any audience at all. Sensitivity and responsiveness to input are criteria for the evolution of a species; and many an organisation has a nervous system that keeps them low on the food chain…
I’m not voting for throwing strategy to the winds, nor giving equal weight to all the options of where you could put your focus. You’re always setting priorities by simply doing one thing instead of others. I’m recommending you strive to maintain a view of the whole picture, leaving nothing – little, big, personal or professional – uncaptured, unclarified and unorganised. Then constantly question what you think is the most important thing to be doing. Pay attention to the still, small voice that probably does know what needs your focus. Challenge the assumption that it always has to be the “most important thing”, which may be based on a preconceived strategy from a limited context.
It is not a simple task, but as Depeche Mode once said:
Is simplicity best, or simply the easiest?
If teachers want to be creative and teach outstanding lessons then they need to first become well read professionals, with a strong grasp of the ‘what’ and the ‘how’ of teaching.
As teachers we strive to perfect our practice by observing colleagues, reading good literature as well as communicating with other enthusiasts at conferences, workshops and online. We also seek out new resources whenever the opportunity arise or wherever we may be in the world. We generally know what to look for because it tends to be within the boundaries of education, however, have you ever considered exploring ideas from ‘big business’ with your classes to get them to remember more and for a longer period of time?
Make it stick: can marketing strategies help teachers?
A Sixth Form student once told me a story he’d read in the Guardian:
A guy in the midlands, Sam Jones, had a 1957 Harley Davidson in his garage which he took out for a spin every summer. The rest of the year he’d polish and maintain the bike until the next summer. Last year Sam decided to buy a side cart so he could take his wife for a drive as well so he phoned Harley Davidson USA to try to get hold of an authentic 1950s version of the cart. They said that there were no such cart available but they could build one at a cost. Money wasn’t really an issue for this guy so he gave them the model number which they required to match the side cart to his model. Three days later a sales rep from Harley phones and asks for the model number again as it was incorrect. A few hours after the conversation there’s another phone call, this time it’s a different person from the company. The man introduces himself as Stan Hendriksen, CEO for Harley Davidson Inc. USA. He asked if Sam could check that the model number was correct and if he could read it out to him over the phone? Sam did so whereby the CEO asked if he could lift up the saddle and see if there was any text there. Sam found this to be a rather odd request but so was the whole phone call but he did what the man asked him. Sam lifted the saddle and inscripted into the metal at the back of the saddle read the message:
‘Happy 40th Birthday Elvis, from you friend Johnny Cash’.
Sam sold his Harley Davidson after much media interest for $4.7 million.
The question is of course whether this story us true? Maybe, perhaps not. I searched online for the story but I never found it. Yet, I remember the story almost word for word. Why did I remember this story so vividly? Think about it: why do we remember some facts and information and why do we quickly forget others? As teachers we know our syllabus inside-out, we know our audience well and we are great communicators. So, the goal is clear, the audience is identified and the format of our lessons is clear. Yet, the design of the messages we are trying to put across is far from obvious as not all students remember the core message, the ‘Golden Nugget’, of our lessons all the time. There are infinite ways to teach a topic but which one will stick and what skills will they take with them?
The brothers Chip and Dan Heath have explored the idea why some things stick and why some disappear in their brilliant book Made to Stick. They believe that the main reason why people, such as teachers, fail to create effective, memorable – ‘sticky’ – messages or lessons is because what they call ‘The Curse of Knowledge‘. This refers to the notion that educators and presenters of information sometimes fail to see that abstractions, the wealth of knowledge which they have and which makes sense to them, may not make sense to the students. In order to ensure that their their lesson become memorable and therefore ‘sticky’, according to the authors, we need to consider six simple principles which the Heath brothers call SUCCESs:
Simple: Stripping off everything so that only the core remains. Think of this as a sentence so profound that someone could spend a lifetime learning from it. Well, you get what we mean,
Unexpectedness: Get interest using surprise and get students to see that there is a gap in their knowledge. Fill that gap by providing insight.
Concreteness: Make it clear so that everyone, no matter who they are, understand what you mean.
Credibility: This will ensure students believe in what you have to say.
Emotions: Make sure students care and feel something about your idea, message, topic and about learning new or improving current skills.
Stories: By telling stories or embedding your ‘golden nugget’ in a story, students learn to remember them easier as the internal simulator kicks-in. Stories can also inspire students to act which helps them understand complex issues better.
Ok let’s see how these six principles can work in the context of the classroom.
Why have Flip video cameras become so popular recently? Sure, they’re fairly cheap and pretty portable but that’s not the reason why they sell so well. Their popularity lay in the simplicity of the camcorder itself : point, click and flip. That’s all you have to do to film and transfer to you PC ready to upload to Youtube. How does ‘simple’ translate to education and, more importantly, to your lesson? In order for students to understand, learn and remember what you teach them you must strip away the abstractions and provide a clear explanation. For example, in Business Studies all students understand the basics of the concept ”recession’ thanks to the credit crunch’ without you having to explain global economics. It’s simple, the country is not doing well, people are getting laid off and (!) Wollies closed down, enough said. Whatever you’re about to teach them think about what the core message is and what’s in the way of that core. It is a matter of breaking down those barriers to learning and teachers are very good at doing just that. However, we can learn to utilise ‘simple’ more often and directly in a day-to-day basis with students.
This isperhaps one of the most powerful aspect of ensuring that your teaching stick with students over a longer period of time. Now you could of course dash into the classroom screaming like a banshee and that would probably be unexpected behaviour from you (if it isn’t then you’re under a lot of pressure…). The best way of making something unexpected is to grab students’ attention and show them that there’s a gap in their knowledge. You essentially ‘tease’ them into wanting to find out more, but of course surprise doesn’t last so we must hold their interest and then finally fill the gap in their knowledge by providing them with insight. Let us look at a couple of examples of how a seemingly low impact story can reveal something completely unexpected.
The Car Park
I played this clip and students came into the classroom. It took awhile before they realised what actually was taking place. The video clip of a seemingly uninteresting car park suddenly change and students begin to infer what they already think they know but also asked questions about the clip. I used this video to discuss what makes something ‘significant’ in history.
Thinking Skills mysteries are also ideal. The ‘Paul Tibbets’ mystery below begins by asking students what they think about the man they see in themovie and then provides them with suprise and later insight whilst constantly asking them to reason what they believe and if/why they have changed their opinions of Tibbet.
Teaching skills can sometimes be a difficult task, especially if you want students to understand the core of the skill itself as this can sometimes be be perplexing and too abstract for young adults. An excellent way to get students understanding skills is to provide them with examples and activities that are not only relevant but show them that the skills actually matter in reality and not only in their exams. Take a look at the clip below. This example makes ‘inferencing’ source material more concrete and encourages students to consider the way they view photographs beyond the classroom.
[This selection of images were provided by Terry Haydn, Senior Reader at the University of East Anglia].
The Cafe Test
Another example of making students see that skills will be useful later in life is to set them a challenge that could potentially happen any day. In a nutshell:
You’re sitting in a cafe sipping on a nice cup of tea when suddenly Paul Tibbets walks in and sit by the table opposite you. You know Tibbets to be the pilot in charge of the Enola Gay, the airplane that dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima in August 1945. You look over at Tibbets, he’s drinking an espresso so he’ll only stay in the cafe for a few minutes… here’s your chance to ask him a question! What will you ask him?
Of course, if you want to make it even more concrete then you do a brief role play where you get one student to be Tibbets, or even better get your Head Teacher to act wise and sophisticated 😉 It is always interesting to see how nervous they get when having to think on their feet!
A great example of getting students to believe in your message is to discuss the importance of developing skills and so that they can understand and gauge the accuracy of information and then use content on the Internet as an example. Take a look at this video clip from a lecture by Alan November where he discusses ‘Who owns the websites your kids look at’:
Although using statistics is one way of making, let’s say, an argument more credible they can sometimes become vague and lack that important ingredient for student to make them believe in them. One way to make certain they believe in what you tell them is to explain the statistics you use in a more ‘sticky’ way. For example telling students that the UK lost 1 million people at war over the last 100 years may seem staggering but if you instead say that if you divide that up across the century that would mean 1 person dying every 48 minutes.
This may seem like the most straight forward principle to do as it deals with how we feel. However, it is not simply empathy we need to tap into but something more powerful, that is, challenging students to want to feel and understand what you are telling them – like becoming part of a story.
The Loan Photograph
The Loan Execution
This is an intriguing mage as it does not provide evidence about ‘guilt’, and students are left wondering about the story behind the photograph. As the truth behind the photograph still remains unclear i.e. why the man on the left was executed, issues dealing with war crimes or rules of engagement, it is an ideal enquiry activity and we can provide them with current discussions about the nature of the image.
Prize-winning photograph in Sudan
This shocking image of a little Sudanese toddler and vulture brings up many reactions with students. Initially they ask questions about where this happened, and what happened next but eventually the crucial question arise: Why did the photographer take this image?
Discussions can become rather heated when students begin to explore the background of the photograph and about Kevin Carter, the photographer who took this photo. Carter won the Pulitzer Prize for Feature photography in May 1994 the same year the photo was taken. Two months later he committed suicide.
Stories are perhaps the most powerful tool we have as teachers as they bring together information and knowledge and makes sense of it all – if told well. Stories can open up complex and abstract ideas and concepts and provide students with something to hold on to which will help them remember and understand. Let’s look at an example of a story that does just that.
The Teszler Story
The following talk has been taken from Ted.com, one of our favorite websites. This story deals with several issues and can be used in many subjects and for different reasons and is truly remarkable. Perhaps the strength of the story lay with the notion of the powerful lone ‘individual’. Students love the story about Mr. Teszler.
The principles mentioned above are useful and they work to help students remember and understand. We are not saying that we must plan our lessons according to these ideas, not at all and in fact we are already using some of these naturally anyway. However, it’s worth exploring them further.