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.