Three things recently frustrated me somewhat, and after a little reflection I realised that they all had something in common: they all reminded me of the scene in The Matrix where Morpheus says, “Stop trying to hit me, and hit me!” Instead of fighting, however, the task at hand was teaching.
The first thing that I found frustrating (in quite a literal way – I mean I was sitting there feeling like I was being hemmed in) was one part of the September INSED. For the sake of retaining my anonymity, and because I genuinely wouldn’t want to publicly criticise my school, which I actually love, I don’t want to explain the activity; but essentially, it seemed to me as though the group organising the morning had thought, “What activity can we do that will look good, and look like it’s really engaging?” when they should have been thinking, “We would like to achieve X. How can we do this most effectively?” The task they came up with reflected their approach wholly. The stated aim of the task was ABC (when it should have been X anyway), but you explicitly weren’t allowed to just do ABC. You had to ‘play the game’ and (fail to) achieve ABC in a ridiculously roundabout way, for the sake of appearances as far as I could tell – and X was in no way even touched upon! So, that was event No.1 where I was left thinking, “Stop trying to do this thing, and just do this thing!” Highly frustrating, unproductive, and really quite a waste of time.
Event No.2 was being asked to teach lessons from someone else’s resources. As I looked through the lesson plans and resources, I had the same feeling as I’d had with the INSED: that we just weren’t getting to the point, and instead were faffing about with fruitless activities that somehow ‘looked good.’ Basically, in each case, the aim of the lesson was for students to learn XYZ, but instead of just teaching XYZ in any kind of direct way, the lesson involved activities to engage the students, to make the material relevant, and that kind of thing. This might sound like a really good idea to many people, but I find it just hinders learning, more often than not. I really can’t phrase it any other way: I just felt myself overwhelmingly thinking, “No! Stop trying to teach them, and just teach them!”
Event No.3 was very good for me I think, as it made me eat a slice of Humble Pie. I was looking back over some resources I made years ago, as I was planning a lesson on something I’d not taught in a long time, and I was looking for ideas. I realised, as I did this, that my own resources for years had consisted in just the kinds of activities that had recently been irritating me – things that kept the students busy, and on some level thinking about the relevant material, and often in a way that was ‘relatable’ for them – but that were really just dithering about and/or wasting precious time. Cut and sticks, for example, or mix n’match cards – I used to use these relatively often (every few weeks with each set, perhaps). But why? What’s the point in spending lesson time cutting things out or gluing things down, in a subject such as mine? Students are too busy thinking about what they’re doing to think about the philosophical or theological ideas written on the cards! I cringe now to think of how much teaching time I effectively wasted by not just teaching the material more directly somehow.
These three events also brought back memories from my own school career. As I mentioned in my post on grammar schools, I loved the school I attended, and was very lucky indeed to have gone there. Even so, I did spend a good chunk of time a bit bored; and now that I think about it, I think it’s possible that this kind of activity is why I was bored. Take a card sort: within about one minute of reading the boxes, I (or any other student) may have worked out what goes with what. The worthwhile thinking is done. Nevertheless, you spend the next few minutes lining cards up, and then another five to ten minutes talking through the answers as a class. I remember this kind of thing being so irritating.
I realise I’m saying nothing new. I happen just this week to have read two blogposts in a similar vein to this one – Martin Robinson’s on Pokemon Go, and Carl Hendrik’s on gimmicks – but this has been on my mind since the beginning of term and I just wanted to write about it.
Essentially, for the sake of students and staff alike, I just want to say: stop dithering about with activities and engagement, and just teach the stuff! If this means telling it to students directly, great. If it means reading a primary text with them, great. If the best, most effective way to get across some information or to practise a skill like structuring an essay is to do a particular activity then of course, do this, great (though often I imagine that this effective activity will in fact be structuring an essay together) – but please, please, please, just stop faffing about! It is painfully frustrating and a waste of precious time and life. Stop trying to teach, and teach!
P.S. I’m not sure the motivations for posting this blog are very commendable, and for that I apologise. I feel like I’m (ugh, I hate this phrase but I’ll use it anyway) virtue-signalling (“Look at me! I don’t use pointless activities in my lessons!”) and/or I’m simply ranting, which is bad. At the same time though, it really is something that followed me at school, and throughout my PGCE and NQT training, and that I experience on the vast majority of training days even now, and it’s something I see in lessons; and I just don’t want any more students (or teachers) to be sitting there frustrated, when they could instead be thinking and learning and growing as people…so if it makes anyone else out there think about it as an issue, then I think (or at least hope) that it’s worth having written it.
P.P.S. [Edit] Having posted this earlier, I do now feel bad for criticising both the INSED activity and the lesson resources I mentioned. Each of these things was the result of someone’s time and effort, and I know I’d be really upset if someone criticised the things I created in the same way; so I apologise for this, too. I don’t mean to be nasty to anyone, or upset anyone, and I appreciate the efforts they went to, to create these things. I guess I just think I’d have done them differently.