The death of teaching: The pen as anchor

Written by: Joel Wirth | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

In this six-part series, Joel Wirth takes a look at common elements of classroom practice that we might consider changing in order to achieve better lessons and better teaching. Next up is our reliance on the pen...

So. The Battle of Hastings. It has to be year 7. Every school I visit, it seems, does it then. Flicking through the books, I see they’ve also done a lesson or so on Alfred the Great, which you don’t always see, though I spot some colouring in of apparently Anglo-Saxon things which look worryingly Celtic.

The lesson unspools as so many do, following what one of my mentors called the “I do a bit, they do a bit” structure of learning. Today, the lesson objectives have been differentiated (Meeting, Above, Beyond) and GCSE equivalent grades have somehow been attached to these, revealing as much as we need to know about our profession’s on-going failure to grasp the seismic shift that 9-1 grading represented.

Today, the class would be “exploring the importance of the battle” and of the defeat of the Anglo-Saxon way of life. This was the “bit” that the teacher did. As it transpired, “exploring” meant listening to the teacher as he read the PowerPoint slides almost verbatim, stopping only to clarify a point where the whiteboard had not been clear enough, much like a biblical scholar might give clarification on a point of divine truth.

Fifteen minutes later, the “they do a bit” was a newspaper report. It was to be a 40-minute task plus homework. Rulers came out to make columns in exercise books. There was support for those who needed it in the form of some printed sentence starters but nothing more general on how to write a newspaper report nor an explanation of why this form had been chosen as a means of assessing their understanding.

Stencils were administered for headlines. Things were measured. One student politely nabbed six pristine-looking colours. I wondered whether anyone would bother to ask whether Anglo-Saxon society actually had an economically sustainable mass circulation press in an era of low literacy. Coloured pencils appear. There’s no talk of perspective or bias. Glue is requested.

History is not alone. Look and you’ll see it in English, geography, MFL. It’s there in RE and science and most subjects whose defining purpose is not overtly practical.

Students see through it because they always do. They spot the “busy work” and even while they might engage with the task of writing a letter from Lady Capulet to The Battle of Agincourt, they know what’s happening. Ask them what they’re doing and they may be fulsome in their enthusiasm. Ask them why they’re doing it and things get murky. This is the pen as anchor. The task administered to keep them in their seats looking like they’re working.

You spot these tasks because of the allowable levels of social talk which help turn Postcards from my Antarctic Adventure from a mildly engaging but ultimately facile 20-minute writing task into a lesson-filling, homework-busting, hour-long extravaganza. We excuse this as a “working hum”. It’s not. It’s the sound of children quietly and respectfully not working.

The teacher circulated. A tide of kids ebbed and flowed before the open tray of coloured pencils. Things got sharpened. One child’s incorporation of King Alfred’s jewel into the O in Anglo Saxon was publicly praised and extensively copied. No mention of anachronisms.

A good 20 minutes on average was spent ruling lines and lettering letters before the more enthusiastic writers began on the task itself. No planning. “No more colouring now, kids. It’s time to get writing.” No evidence that any transfer of knowledge from English about newspaper reports had made it back to the history of the mid 11th-century. But they looked lovely.

Go pens free

There are innumerable ways of engaging with the body of knowledge you need to explore that don’t involve a pen. Test yourself, your department, your whole school: go pens free for a day. Insist the kids leave them at home. Don’t get their books out either.

Use drama to assess their understanding of population growth through a series of tableaux, hot seat the characters from A Monster Calls, lead an extended class discussion of the slave trade allocating roles and attitudes to different learners, train students to properly peer teach forces, construct oral presentations (both individual and group). Get creative. Do all that before you ponder the potential benefits in terms of reduced marking.

Observe the sanctity of writing

If writing is worth doing, it must be done properly. If they need to undertake that lengthy analysis of the causes of the First World War (as they clearly do) then it must be done in silence. Not as a test but as a deep and meaningful pow-wow between a student’s brain and their writing hand. The research is clear in this area. However students might declare that their music, background chatter, right to talk about something someone posted last night helps them to focus, the weight of evidence is overwhelmingly to the contrary.

Certainly students who inhabit a world of notifications and multi-sensory distraction might not be used to silence but that is where we fit in. Writing is an affair of solitude and loneliness and should be celebrated as something all the more precious and beautiful for it.

Prepare your students, of course. Make sure they have planned and that they have access to all necessary support (information, a writing frame, a clear understanding of purpose, form and audience as well as key stylistic features of the genre) but, that done, welcome in the quietness and let them get on.

Review key stage 3

Systematically review the key stage 3 units of study, one at a time – and ask yourself really fundamental questions. Why are we learning this? And why are we asking the kids to do this?

Don’t allow yourself a cheap excuse. Don’t accept that it’s okay to ask students to write Caliban’s diary for 40 minutes because it “develops empathy”. Don’t forgive that bit where students copy-out-the-Powerpoint-because-they-need-this-for-their-test. Don’t allow your class to do the 30-minute letter from a Buddhist explaining The Four Noble Truths unless you can fully justify this as being the best way for students to deepen their fundamental intellectual grasp of the topic.

Once you declutter your schemes, purging them of all unnecessary busy work, watch the space that will open up for meaningful, deep, active learning.

Use the time well (or badly)

Follow a student for a day. It’s pretty meagre fare. In lesson, there aren’t many of the transformative experiences that get filmed and used in government adverts: such exploding rockets are quite understandably the exception and not the rule.

But you can find that time. And, once you’ve got it, rediscover what it was that made you love your subject in the first place.

Historians – use the 20 minutes to bring in and analyse through discussion an artefact (get the kids to find one in their own home).

Geographers and scientists – ask the students to identify things they want to know about and run a short lesson on that non-related topic (“Where does my mum’s morning cup of tea come from and how does it get here?” Or “Betelgeuse: Waiting for a Supernova”).

English teachers – you love words and the nuances of language. Research word games that can be played as a class and fire their enthusiasm for the English language through experimentation and play. Teach them how to do a cryptic crossword (once you’ve taught yourself).

Maths teachers – get the logic problems out and share with them the joys of solving Sudoku, Kakuro and the like. Those are experiences that have the potential to become life-long passions.

  • Joel Wirth is a former teacher and senior leader who now works as a consultant headteacher. To read the previous article in this series, focused on PowerPoint, visit http://bit.ly/2sovFQl


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