If there was a proverb that never quite won me over it was ‘a change is as good as a rest’. This is especially surprising given the frequency at which such aphorisms were pestled into my subconscious as a child: ‘little birds in their nest should agree’; ‘what’s good for the goose is good for the gander’ and – how could I forget – ‘a penny saved is a penny earned’. When Schott’s miscellany first came out and I saw the list of ‘contradictory proverbs’ it was a shock: one of those moments where, as an adolescent, the previously clear epistemological waters become suddenly much more murky.
My esteemed colleague Joe Kirby has blogged previously about variety for variety’s sake. He made the argument that ‘generic activities, fun, varied and engaging, are being given precedence over silent, focused subject-specific hard work.’ Here I want to make the case that if ‘what’ you teach is intrinsically captivating, the activity you employ – the ‘how’ – becomes much less important. It means that teachers in the humanities subjects can focus on the activities that have, rather than those which appear to have, the greatest impact.
This has two chief benefits:
- You can focus on a small number of activities that will have the greatest impact: recapping/retrieval, focused reading, comprehension questions, constructing paragraphs and essays.
- A limited number of activities reduces the time spent on instruction of the activity – the ‘how’ – so that more time can be spent on instruction of the content – the ‘what’.
As a consequence, change is not always as good as a rest.
Bodil Isaksen has written better than I can about what and how we can recap in our lessons. What she didn’t say, because she is too modest, is the sheer automaticity of this phase in her lessons. What strikes the observer is that it needs no, or very minimal, instruction.
We want our pupils to max out their cognitive load on the content being retrieved rather than the method of retrieval – the ‘what’ and not the ‘how’. Joe and I have tried to make the recapping episodes of our lessons consistent across English and the humanities. Most of the time we blank out one column of a knowledge organiser and get the pupils to complete it in the back of their books. Pupils come in. Pupils sit down. ‘Good morning, gang. You know the drill. 1-10. Go.’ In geography, we might be looking at South-East Asia, but I’ll be damned if they’ll forget about the British Isles.* The content changes but the activity doesn’t. It’s simple, predictable and effective.
If there’s one skill we should prize above all others it’s reading. To anyone who hasn’t taught in England’s comprehensive schools in the last decade this must come across as pretty trite. It’s like a surgeon saying that she tries to keep the patient alive, if she possibly can. But, actually, it’s remarkable how little reading practice pupils are given in the humanities. This is understandable: reading is best done slowly, intently and may involve no apparent engagement of any kind. It may even – dare I say it – be done in silence. It’s that moment in an Ofsted observation where, if you dare do it at all, you rush through quickly and hope the inspector isn’t looking.**
And this, clearly, is madness.
Whenever we introduce new material to pupils at Michaela we do it in exactly the same way: we read together as a class and each pupil has the text we’re reading from. No shared worksheets. Nothing stuck on the wall. There’s just the sheet of paper/booklet/textbook flat on each desk. All the lines are numbered. Pupils must track each line with their rulers. That way we can see if they’re following with the class or not. Pupils read out loud going around the class. If they’re too quiet, I ask them to project. If they mumble, I remind them to articulate. Because they do the same thing in every subject, every day, no instruction of the activity is necessary.
When I was doing my initial teacher training (God knows, I am still learning…) the idea of setting pupils comprehension questions at the end of a lesson was anathema. My tutor would have looked at me with the sort of pained expression that liberal metropolitans usually reserve for their recalcitrant relatives in the shire. I spent hours thinking of ways around this: unlike the duck I wanted it to look like a comprehension question, sound like a comprehension question but not actually be a comprehension question. In a moment of madness a colleague of mine suggested I go all ‘Winter Wonderland’, getting the pupils to write their answers on white paper, scrunch them up and then throw them to another corner of the room for ‘peer assessment’. You can imagine.
These days I keep it simple. If I want to know the pupils have read what they were meant to read, and correctly understood it, I give them comprehension questions. If I want the pupils to do some extended writing, I get them to write a paragraph. Sometimes we do summaries, tables or chronologies: a handful of effective activities that we practise again, and again, and again.
Schott’s miscellany does give the contradictory proverb for ‘change is as good as a rest’, and I’ve rather taken to it:
‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’
*My bit for British Values.
**The only good argument I’ve ever come across for pretty wall displays.