Shining a spotlight on the best way to learn

Can making a poster be a good educational activity? Should children ever watch a film in class? asks Andrew Foster, Tougher Minds Head of Education.

This week has seen a great deal of debate, at times furious, after the DfE’s behaviour adviser Tom Bennett suggested that some activities regularly used by teachers rarely result in learning.

Purely based on my experience, Tom has a point. I can reflect on my own use of these activities in my first years of teaching and the work that was produced. I admit that while the children may have enjoyed the activity, it did not prove an efficient means of their securing knowledge and understanding.

The problem was that at this point of my career, I did not have a clear idea of how children learn. Through my work with Tougher Minds, I now do. Children learn when they pay sustained attention. And for this reason, posters and films can be helpful.

Our brains seek novelty, variety. Some (though not all) children really appreciate being given the opportunity to present their learning in a different format to the traditional essay. Variety of activity can help sustain the learner’s attention. However, if learning is to take place, then this is no easy cop-out for the teacher. They must work backwards from what they wish the children to learn and give very clear instruction and guidance that will focus the children’s attention.

Roughly how many words do we want to see on the page? What key concepts must be addressed? By working backwards from our desired outcome and designing parameters, we give the children a better chance of spending their time profitably and producing work that is attractive, memorable and also rich in content and so helpful to learning.

I think in some circumstances watching a film in its entirety can be justified. When I was Head of Colfe’s History Department, our teaching of the Holocaust was centred on a project: “How accurately have the arts depicted the Holocaust.” Every child was given a copy of Maus by Art Spiegelman and every child watched Roman Polanski’s The Pianist in class. We found just showing clips created frustration, a distraction in itself. It is a great film after all, who wouldn’t want to see it from start to end?

The project was then to analyse how well these and other depictions of the Holocaust were supported by the evidence the children drew from their textbooks and other resources. The results were outstanding. The projects produced were serious, balanced yet decisive analyses, in which the pupils invested serious time outside their lessons.
Once again, carefully designed parameters had actually given the children the freedom from uncertainty required to pay attention to the material at hand.

If you are a teacher, or even a parent helping a child with their homework, and you are unsure whether the task set will result in learning, the question to ask is “What do I want the child to pay attention to?”

Glitter pens and bubble-writing need not be banished, but they must not take centre stage. Keep the spotlight on that which is to be learned.

  • Tougher Minds is staging a bite-size training event on Thursday 21st April at the UCL Institute of Education. During the session we will show techniques which help school pupils, and parents, pay sustained attention to subjects they need to learn and master. To find out more click here.

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