Have you been told that your lessons need to be engaging? Do you think lessons should always be relevant to the students you teach? Does a fun lesson lead to learning? Some thoughts….
Engagement isn’t always visible
Engagement is often interpreted as being something an onlooker can see when they’re in the lesson. Students should be active or talking or working in silence to be engaged in the lesson. But engagement is not always physical or verbal or only taking part in something. It can be thinking. In RE I think that thinking is a huge part of being engaged. The issue is that I cannot ‘see’ that thinking, so how do I know if a student is engaging? Well I can set tasks that require them to think. These can range from quizzes which require them to process an answer to asking thought-provoking questions. I cannot assume that because a student does not offer an answer that they haven’t thought about it. Plenty of students would prefer to be silent in class.
How can we ‘see’ thinking? I do think there is a difference with getting a student to share an answer and getting a student to share their own thinking on their learning. One is impersonal and one is more personal. I think we need to be careful when asking students to publicly share their own thinking. In RE this is particularly important. However, carefully crafted questions can be asked to reveal student thinking. The skill of a teacher is asking students the best questions to elicit thinking that is useful for the teacher to know.
So I think/hope my lessons are engaging; engaging students to think carefully about what they are learning. This does not have to be visible to an onlooker.
Fun comes in different guises
This is at the heart of the debate. Sometimes I think that some people interpret ‘fun’ in lessons as playing games or using relevant resources to engage students.
We all have different ideas of what is ‘fun’. On Twitter I see people running many miles each day and people sitting drinking in pubs in a large group. Neither are my idea of fun. We should not be trying to guess what our students may think is fun and then planning our lessons around it. We will fail. If we think fun means all students want to be active, running around a room then we’re ignoring the students who want to sit quietly as their home life is full of activity and running around. If we plan every lesson to be sat still in silence, we don’t allow those that want to work with others or discuss as a group, as they have no-one to do this with at home. If we think that linking topics to football will be fun and will engage boys, we are isolating those that aren’t interested in football (boys & girls).
We cannot possibly come up with one size that fits all. However I do feel that at secondary school, variety comes from the range of subjects that students study. When a school’s curriculum is truly broad and balanced it will include times when students can sit quietly, when they can run around, when they can work with others and when they can play a game as it is probably the best way to help them to learn something.
Of course fun isn’t about being active. If I were to describe to you my lessons, they’re pretty much all the same; they follow the same simple structure. Students walking into my classroom know what they’re getting. I’d sometimes even say that the predictability is ‘boring’. Yet, every year at parent’s evening I have students and parents tell me how much they love it; they think they’re fun. There will be some students that agree it’s boring but I guess they’re telling the teachers of the lessons that they enjoy how much they love their lessons and how fun they are. We can’t always be everything, to all students, all the time.
What we cannot afford is to think that fun means more learning. This is a trap that we have probably all fallen in to at some point, especially if we’ve had a tricky class that we feel isn’t engaged. We choose something that we feel that might make them laugh or pay attention to, to teach a point but in reality the learning is overshadowed by the experience. Students remember the ‘fun’ but not the learning. An example in RE is using the Simpsons episodes as a scheme to teach some philosophy concepts or acting out a Christian wedding ceremony to teach the importance of marriage. Is the time used on the additional material that makes it fun or engaging worth it in terms of learning? Do the students remember the learning or the activity? Some have called this ‘edutainment’; entertaining students to try to get students to learn.
Fun can be:
- Working something out by yourself
- Working successfully with others
- Getting an answer correct
- Having a discussion where you get to say your opinion
- Completing a task
- Feeling ‘clever’
- Doing well/better on a test
- Telling someone else what you learnt today
So my lessons are fun. But this is a result of the learning itself, not planned to try to entertain students to make learning happen.
The relevance/fun may not be here and now
This is what I think is really important about what I teach. The content I teach in a lesson may not seem to be ‘relevant’ at the time for students so may not seem fun during the lesson. I think that is where teaching can go wrong when we think only about individual lessons; ‘a’ lesson should be relevant.
When might it be relevant? In future studies In future conversations. When thinking about life. When processing life experiences.
When I teach beyond the specification at GCSE I really hope that this means that my students are learning things that will be useful in future studies/life. The sense of satisfaction that they might know things that connect to new learning or even they know something that someone else doesn’t is ‘fun’. Feeling clever is fun. Knowing answers is fun. Students love to ‘feel’ they are learning. Once in a while there is a jaw dropping moment in my classes when students realise something they hadn’t before. The adrenaline of this is part of the fun.
Every week I play #universitychallengeklaxon. Once in a while I can answer a question or two. It’s fun. I’m not a huge fan of the quality of the secondary education that I had, however I’d like to think that some of things that I teach students might be useful for them in the future for things that may seem unimportant but are a bit of fun. A pub quiz or a crossword answer. It’s fun to get things right.
But learning isn’t about a pub quiz. It’s about knowing and understanding the world. It is about engaging with others and the world we live in. The engagement from learning in a class may come at a future moment that the teacher can’t ever predict where/when it will be but it may come.
I often use current relevant examples to help students to understand key concepts. This is especially important in RE with abstract and practices that may be very ‘other’ to students. At the moment when I teach ‘salah’ (prayer) in Islam I mention Mo Salah (Salah performing salah) This will help some students to remember the Arabic word salah but I don’t spend lesson time watching clips of Salah scoring goals etc The learning is about salah, an example is Salah, not the other way round.
Also, remembering that students have their own personal worldview (read a blog on this here) helps me to think about when things may not seem relevant to them (why would 6th century Makkah be relevant? or the 16th century Punjab?) and how I might overcome any issues there may be in them understanding. There are so many ways that events from the past and from religion link to their own lives we would be foolish not to make the links but the links are the process to learn, not the always the content itself.
So my lessons are relevant, sometimes for students at the time they’re there but also sometimes for their future life. The skill of a teacher is to balance this enough so the optimum amount of time is spent on making links and the subject itself.