The follies of yoof: mistakes I made so you don’t have to.

During discussion with Bob Pritchard and Chris Baker about advice given to trainee teachers, I remembered a number of lesson ideas from way back that, through the lens of hindsight, now seem like a complete waste of time.

Currently, there is lots of variation in what trainee teachers get told about what to prioritise in their school placements. This is an area that both PGCE and SCITT providers will need to reflect on if the new 2-year early careers frame work is introduced.

My aim is to share a couple of my own experiences and encourage others to do the same. That way I hope that trainee teachers will learn from our mistakes and also realise that teaching is a continuous journey of personal development. Most teachers have had many highs and lows over the years. Edutwitter is often full of everyone’s best work and that can be intimidating when you are struggling, So if you are in a bit of a low point, reach out and let others help you.

As I think back I don’t think I ever realised I was doing things wrong. In 2003 I had been trained to place creativity above all else by two retired teachers who ran my PGCE course. I was bought Super Teaching by my parents on recommendation from a deputy head in charge of teaching and learning at their local school (Stuart Lock has an incredible thread on this amazingly terrible book) As an extrovert I really enjoyed the showmanship aspect of the job. I’d love to say that my whole career I had bucked the trend and been doing retrieval practice and SLOP etc.. but no. Interestingly if I had I wonder if I would have been considered a ‘good teacher’. I have seen many an experienced teacher leave the profession, especially early in my career, when they received criticism for their use of book work and teacher talk.

So here are three bad ideas I used in lessons. All of these events happened between the years of 2003-2010. Some happened more than once. At the very least I hope they put a smile on your face.

1. The ‘expert visit’

I was teaching a year 9 class the old variation topic. We had just covered cloning and genetic engineering. I wanted to do a ‘hot seat’ activity where the students plan questions to ask an expert. I told them I knew an expert geneticist who had studied genetics at university and they were coming in next week to answer their questions. I asked them to write some questions about the future of genetic engineering in the back of their books and also set it for homework.

The lesson arrived. The students were really excited. “Have we got a visitor today sir?” was the greeting I received at the door from almost every student. I got the students to sit in the front three rows and reminded them about the importance of manners to guests. My classroom door was in the far left corner and my lab had a large old fashioned teacher bench at the front. I remember calling out “Oh here he is!” As all the students turned to look at the door, they found it shut and the window empty. When they turned back they were presented with me and a shoe box. On the outside of the shoe box were the words ‘DNA LAB’ written in felt tip pen. As their brows furrowed in confusion out of the box popped a panda hand puppet!

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What followed was my best ‘Sootie and Sweep’ impression, with the panda (who I had named but can’t remember what) whispering answers in my ear to the questions the students had.

When they complained I reminded them that the puppet was not really giving the answers but that I was in fact an expert on genetics from my degree. I had a great time and thought the uniqueness of the event would help the students recall the various pros and cons of genetic engineering.

Why it’s a bad idea

It didn’t work for a number of reasons.

Firstly, the students did not know enough to write decent questions. I hadn’t devoted any lesson time to practise or recall or embed the concepts. I had just taught each lesson and moved on because they got the bingo right in the plenary.

Secondly, some of the students were really hacked off that I had tricked them. They just sulked in the corner.

Thirdly, most just remembered the panda and none of the actual discussion. It also had no structured follow-up to the discussion to provide structure to the students’ ideas and summarise what had been covered.

Hot seats often fall down because the amount of support the students need to craft the questions takes longer than just embedding the key ideas through standard ‘think, pair, share’ followed by discussion with teacher-designed questions to consolidate.

At the time I felt like the best teacher in the world, but now I see it differently.

2. Birthday parties

This was an idea I stole from another in my dept years ago. If you wanted to revise some keywords on genetics with a bottom set, what did you do?

You told the students it was Charles Darwin’s birthday of course!

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The students had a load of inflated balloons in the room. As they popped them keywords would fall out. They would have to say the words and then stick them to their ‘birthday cake’ worksheet as candles. Everyone wore party hats and music played in the background. When it was the forces topic, guess whose birthday it was….

That’s right: Isaac Newton’s!

Time for equation pass the parcel!

Why it’s a bad idea

I probably don’t really need to explain this one. Let’s start with noise, making it hard to hear the definition the students gave, which was always slightly wrong. It was also hard to correct because they weren’t listening, they were finding the next balloon. Cognitive overload much??

Then the students were spending too much time ‘having fun’ without needing to think. I reckon they did about 10 mins of actual work – such low expectations.

The time it took to ‘plan’ the lesson: blowing up all the balloons, wrapping the parcel.

Lastly, it really annoyed the other classes doing science and threw those teachers under the bus. Not good for department outcomes, relationships or teacher sanity.
3. The movie project

Back in 2008 I was asked to be part of an after-school project for the most able; the brief was for maths and science to run this twinned activity time in the evening that I would be paid to deliver. “It’s got to be different and really stretch their thinking!” I was told. So being the bright young thing I was I went to my Bloom’s Taxonomy pyramid and tried to design a fun and engaging programme that was aimed at allowing students to synthesise their own understanding of the Haber process and vaccination.

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The film ‘Be kind rewind’ had just been released. If you are unfamiliar with this, it’s the story of a loser (played by Jack Black obvs) who wipes all the videos in a video store (clerked by rapper/actor Mos Def); they decide to remake the films using anything they find and accidentally make a new genre of film. So I decided to get the students to make movies of the lives of Haber and Jenner and in turn their discoveries. I called it ‘Be kind remind’ which was a nice pun and so I assumed it was a great idea.

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6 weeks later, we had spent 20 mins on the science and 5hrs+ on the actual filming. I had spent about 3 hrs editing in my own time. Then more time designing the covers, burning the CDs etc., and then we sat down to watch the worst videos ever.

Why it was a bad idea.

I think this one is slightly obvious. Very little science, huge amounts of time wasted and no real thinking going on. The only benefit was a little bit of hinterland on Haber which I think made them remember it was important and revise it well before the exam. Recalling this now makes me feel so sorry for those students. One of them is now one of those Queen’s guards in the big hats, so clearly patience is a virtue of his. Maybe me wasting his time helped him develop that a little?

Needless to say that year the high achievers did not massively improve their outcomes.

So there are my three stories. When people ask why I’m so passionate about the use of evidence-informed approaches and simple tasks I often say because teaching the other way nearly killed me and didn’t help the students. It’s not because I hate fun or am lazy; I’ve walked that other side of the line and learnt from my mistakes.

How you can help

I’d like to collate more cautionary tales in future blogs. So if reading this has reminded you of a lesson or approach you really wish you had never done then please join in.

You could email me the story and I will include it in ‘Volume 2’

You could blog it yourself and tweet me a link.

You could add it to the comments.

Edit: Bob has submitted volume 2 here

Thanks for reading.

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