PowerPointless Pedagogy?

Two weeks ago, I blogged about the virtues of teaching simple lessons with a repetitive structure. One of the comments left beneath the piece was in agreement, but implored me to go further:

…abandon powerpoints all together. I have been freer since I embraced the idea that very little can be taught well using an image that cannot be better taught using words.

This is something I hear a lot, often from traditionalist teachers with whom I share common ground on many other issues. I listen to their arguments, I agree with much of what they say, but I simply cannot give up my attachment to PowerPoint. I use PowerPoint presentations in nearly all of my history lessons. Sometimes, I consider giving it up for a fortnight, just to see how it feels, but cannot even bring myself to do that.

I am well aware of the multiple crimes which can be laid at PowerPoint’s door, and fully accept that it often makes teaching much worse. Three of PowerPoint’s most serious crimes against teaching, from my experience, are:

  1. PowerPoint = the lesson: Have you ever noticed how ‘the PowerPoint presentation’ is often used as a synonym for ‘the lesson’? As in, ‘I have just put the lesson is on the shared drive’. Such a mindset has dire consequences. It tempts teachers to use PowerPoint as a crutch, and assume that they no longer need to give prior thought to their lesson sequencing, explanations, and questioning, because ‘it is all there on the PowerPoint’. One of the worst teaching habits that PowerPoint presentations encourage is allowing slides to become the replacement for a textbook. It is only a small step from that, to the cardinal sin of teaching-as-reading-off-the-PowerPoint (common amongst much CPD, incidentally).
  2. Engaging PowerPoints: Giffs, cartoon characters, pop culture references, clip art, comic sans, lurid colours, cluttered slides. Can’t bear it, hate it all. If you are engaging pupils with material unrelated to lesson content, their engagement is worthless.
  3. Time thievery: My biggest disappointment following my first ever day of teaching was that no pupil stayed behind to thank me for designing such a lovely PowerPoint presentation. I had spent hours on the bloody thing. It had animations, transitions, a colour scheme, little jokes, and not one pupil batted an eyelid. Of course, creating those types of PowerPoint presentation is a colossal waste of time.

All that being said, I do think that PowerPoint’s advantages can compensate for its deficiencies. The three most significant for my practice are as follows:

  1. Imagery: There is clear evidence from the field of cognitive psychology that combining images and words aids memory – a process known as ‘dual coding’. I sense this phenomenon at work all the time in my history lessons. Pupils at Key Stage 3 find it much easier to remember characters from the Tudor period, for whom we have wonderful portraits (Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn, Mary I, Thomas Wolsey and so on) than those from the medieval period, for whom we don’t (Thomas Becket, Henry II, Edward I, Edward III). Well-chosen historical images can illustrate a period in ways that words simply cannot. And they minimise the misconceptions that may occur if you tried to explain the appearance of, for example, an ornate Catholic alter or a Victorian back-to-back house, verbally. Just this week, I have used scenes from Lutrell’s Psalter and Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry to illustrate life in a medieval village to Year 7; Foxe’s Book of Martyrs to illustrate the reign of Mary I to Year 8; and a fantastic animated diagram of James Watt’s steam engine from the Museum of Scotland to illustrate the Industrial Revolution to Year 9. I would hate for my lessons not to have this visual aspect.

    The museum of Scotland’s excellent animated diagram of Watt’s steam engine. Could I explain that better verbally?
  2. Instructions and information: Though I try to keep text to a minimum, my PowerPoint presentations do contain some instructions and information. This may be keyword definitions, for pupils to copy into their books, or a mnemonic to remember how to analyse a historical source. Every other lesson I teach starts with a recap quiz, for which the questions are projected on the board. Of course, I could print all of this information, but I would weep for the trees. Or I could place it all in pre-prepared booklets, but I don’t think I would ever be sufficiently happy with a unit not to want to adapt it midway through teaching according to unforeseen issues and misconceptions.
  3. More teaching time: Whilst I do teach with my board pen in hand, I don’t like to spend time writing large chunks of text on the board. This is perhaps rooted in having begun my career in a school where turning your back on the class for one moment normally meant turning back to a scene resembling a medieval doom painting. But even in a school where behaviour is not a concern, I still like to maximise the time I spend facing the class, monitoring how well they are working. PowerPoint allows for this.

In sum, I think that PowerPoint can be tolerated, so long as it is seen as an aid for the lesson, and not the lesson itself. If a PowerPoint presentation never takes more than 15 minutes to prepare, consists mostly of well-chosen images that complement and do not distract from lesson content, and includes instructions and information but no large chunks of writing, then I think it is no bad thing.

Organising Historical Knowledge

I had planned to spend this weekend writing about teaching the Renaissance, but a wellspring of excellent blogs about Knowledge Organisers has tempted me to change tack.

Last week, I blogged about how teachers who support knowledge-based teaching are spending less time criticising methods they disapprove of, and more time promoting alternatives. Knowledge Organisers are a great example of this constructive turn. Joe Kirby first blogged about Knowledge Organisers in March 2015, and education-bloggers have gone wild for them. Just this past week, Summer Turner has written a great blog about teaching ‘facts not fads‘, and Jon Brunskill has started a series of posts about using Knowledge Organiser at Primary level.

When I began writing a knowledge-based Key Stage 3 history textbook for Collins last year, the publisher and I agreed that each unit should end with a Knowledge Organiser, outlining ~25 keywords, ~10 key dates, and ~8 key people. Here is an example from the unit on Norman England.



However, as I read more about Knowledge Organisers, I realised these double page spreads slightly miss the point. They remain an invaluable classroom resource, allowing pupils to remind themselves of key information independently when planning and writing their own work. But the knowledge is insufficiently organised. Many of the definitions are in the style of a glossary, and not specific to the unit in question. And a lot of important information has been left out, as it did not fall neatly into the categories of words, dates or people.

So, in September I set about designing new Knowledge Organisers. My understanding has always been that Knowledge Organisers are the base from which quizzes can be designed. However, in the spirit of not duplicating work, I decided that my quizzing questions and Knowledge Organiser should become one and the same.

For each unit of work, I have drafted 50 quizzing questions –10 per chapter. I have then organised these quizzing questions into an A4 Knowledge Organiser, along with key dates from the course. This has amounted to 18 Knowledge organisers across Key Stage 3, consisting of 900 separate quizzing questions – I will be posting them all on this page soon.

As has been written about at length, the exercise of creating a Knowledge Organiser was an extremely helpful mental exercise, which has paid great dividends in refining the clarity of my teaching. Facts have been included according to the following criteria:

  1. Important for the end of unit assessment.
  2. Important for building long-term historical knowledge (as Michael Fordham has blogged about here)
  3. Taken from the set reading we have completed.


Using the Knowledge Organiser

Knowledge Organisers now provide a backbone to our teaching across Key Stage 3 history at West London Free School. Joe Kirby has written before about ‘renewable resources’ – a concept I love – and these quizzing questions are a perfect example. They simplify our lesson planning, cut down on workload, and provide consistent retrieval practice for pupils. How do we use and reuse them?

  1. fullsizerenderPupils are given Knowledge Organisers at the start of the unit. One benefit of formatting the Knowledge Organiser onto a page of A4 is that it can be tucked into the plastic cover on the back of pupils’ exercise books for immediate access when self-quizzing (and ensuring no lost worksheets – the bane of homework setting!).
  2. According to our Key Stage 3 lesson cycle, every other history lesson starts with a quiz taken from the Knowledge Organiser. This may either be a low stakes recap quiz, or a high stakes test for which the pupils revise, and we take in the marks. Almost always, pupils’ marks increase thanks to self-quizzing homework – gratifying for the pupil and teacher alike.quiz-1quiz-2
  3. We return to the same quizzing questions at relevant points throughout the year. For example, the 10 questions here on the feudal system will reappear towards the end of Year 7 when we come to teach the Peasants’ Revolt, re-activating pupils’ prior knowledge about the structure of medieval society.

Aside from simplifying my planning, the enormous benefit of this is that pupils constantly revisit the same questions and answers, through verbal recapping, quizzes, self-quizzing homework, and tests. Facts such as ‘The Harrying of the North’ took place in 1069, following an Anglo-Saxon rebellion in Durham, become automatic.

The benefit for this was abundantly clear when I marked my Year 7’s essays at the end of the unit. We set pupils the essay ‘How did William the Conqueror establish Norman control over England?’, and spent a lesson planning an essay with three chapters looking at the role played by violence, leadership and luck, followed by a conclusion deciding which factor was most important.

The essay was written during a 55-minute lesson. Almost all pupils were able to thread their paragraphs with specific, detailed information from the Knowledge Organisers. Below is a paragraph from a top-ranking piece of work, with detail from the Knowledge Organiser highlighted in yellow:


And also two paragraphs from a middle-ranking piece of work:


I have often wondered why critics of knowledge-based teaching insist that facts committed to memory are axiomatically ‘disconnected’ or ‘meaningless’. Facts obviously can be these things. But when facts are extracted from key reading completed throughout the term, and applied to a piece of analytical history writing at the end of the term, they are steeped in meaning.

Historical meaning comes from webs of understanding, and these webs are created by linking together a knowledge of people, places, dates, events and concepts. I have encountered no better means of codifying that knowledge than in a Knowledge Organiser.

Keep it simple, stupid

Until recently, I thought I was a pretty traditional teacher. But nevertheless, I carried with me some watered down assumptions of child-centred teaching that had wheedled their way into my practice. It took a visit to Michaela Community School for me to appreciate how much I still had to shed.

Since that date, I have been become a devout worshipper at Jo Facer’s shrine of uncomplicated teaching. At ResearchEd 2016, Jo delivered her talk ‘We Have Overcomplicated Teaching’. Listening to Jo’s talk, I realised how much of my teaching was geared towards fallacious notions of pupil engagement. And I began to realise how little was geared towards teaching for memory.

I am not talking about group work, carousel activities, or discovery learning – things had not gotten that bad. But I am talking about multiple activities per lesson, intricate PowerPoint presentations*, lots of resources (particularly historical sources to annotate), video clips, and a notion that no two lessons should ever be the same.

So, in September 2016, I decided that I would no longer strive to avoid repetitive lessons, but instead embrace them. Today, across years 7, 8, and 9, my lessons are uncompromisingly repetitive. And it is going great.

At West London Free School, our Key Stage 3 history lessons focus on a small number of high-leverage practices, many taken from the cognitive psychologist Barak Rosenshine’s ‘Principles of Instruction’. The main practices are quizzing, whole-class instruction, whole-class reading, extended writing, and verbal feedback. To ensure that these practices are consistently applied, I have devised a ‘lesson cycle’, on which all of our Key Stage 3 schemes of work are based.

All of our schemes of work are divided into twelve lesson units ending with an assessment, each intended to last half a term. Most lessons alternate between ‘reading lessons’ (for acquiring knowledge) and ‘writing lessons’ (for applying knowledge from the previous lesson). Though variations on the theme inevitably occur, the essential structure remains the same:


Our lessons now feature reoccurring activities, which become automatic routines for pupils. For example, administering a 20 question quiz, which is then peer assessed, before the marks fed back to the teacher, is a challenging format for a class to master. But when that format is repeated every two lessons, pupils master the routine. Repetitive lessons save time, and provide reassurance for pupils.

The alternative to repetitive lessons is exemplified by a PowerPoint file I was given at the start of my teaching career, entitled ‘100 starter and plenary activities’. As I rapidly learnt, introducing a new activity every week requires giving a new explanation every week. This uses up precious lesson time for no appreciable gain.

For years I worried that repetitive lessons bored pupils, but I was wrong. For Key Stage 3 pupils at our school, history makes up 2 lessons per week out of a total of 30. Pupils’ school week is varied enough without history lessons having to be.

And when it comes to planning, teaching repetitive lessons removes an enormous cognitive strain. Instead of spending my free periods agonising over what the next lesson should include, that decision has already been made. I simply look to the cycle, see that it is ‘Lesson 5’, and know what the lesson will involve.

Lastly, though my lesson activities are repetitive, my lessons are varied in the most important regard: historical content. When planning, I now spend much more time thinking about how to teach the specific historical content. Instead of asking myself, ‘Should I set a reading or a revision homework?’, I can ask questions such as: ‘what content should I recap before introducing the Peasants’ Revolt?’, or ‘what concepts do pupils need to master to understand the Industrial Revolution?’

So, the shrine of uncomplicated lessons offers reassurance for pupils, more teaching time, and easier planning. I can’t believe it took me so long to realise that when it comes to planning, you just need to keep it simple, stupid.

* Unlike Jo, I have not entirely abandoned my PowerPoint presentations. But I now strive to conceptualise PowerPoint presentations as providing an image pack, not a lesson plan.

New Year, New Blog

I have been on an education blogging hiatus since July 2014. My new year’s resolution is to re-enter the fray.

When I first started blogging, it took only a few seconds to mentally add up the number of teacher bloggers writing in support of knowledge-based curriculum and teacher-led instruction. I would spend whole evenings reading through the archives of Old Andrew’s blog ‘Scenes from the Battleground’, desperately thinking that he cannot be the only voice out there speaking sense.

What a difference a  few years can make. Today, I have given up trying to keep track of all of the like-minded teacher bloggers out there. As Joe Kirby’s stirring round up of the education blogosphere in 2016 testifies, the landscape is looking pretty vibrant.

But increased volume is not the only heartening change taking place with regards to traditionalist teacher bloggers. Three years ago, blogs written by traditionalist teachers tended to be of the ‘everything is rubbish’ variety. Today, they are increasingly of the ‘this is how we can improve teaching’ variety.

My first blog – written under the pseudonym Matthew Hunter – was firmly situated in the ‘everything is rubbish’ camp. There remains significant value in teacher bloggers lifting the lid on the madness that goes on in many schools. But whilst exposing problems is a vital step, my intention for this blog is to focus on solutions.

It is not enough to say child-centred teaching doesn’t work: we need to explain how knowledge-based teaching does. For that reason, I will use this blog to share resources and teaching practices from my history classroom, as well as ideas about teaching and education policy more broadly. I hope you enjoy reading it.