One for the festive season…

Why we can’t have a fun lesson today

This scene has played out at the door to my classroom day after day for years.

Surly youth: Are we having a fun lesson today?

Me: No. We are doing Geography. It isn’t meant to be fun. It is meant to be rigorous. It is meant to be hard. It is going to challenge you and blow your mind. It is going to make you think because memory is the residue of thought.

Surly youth (tutting): You always say that.

 I have been thinking a lot today about such exchanges after a discussion with @HeyMissSmith and @oldandrewuk on twitter.

Every so often I ask pupils what they think makes a fun lesson (often a tutor group after hearing them moan on for a while about school being “boring”) and they always say the same things. Projects, group work, role play, films. But you know what? I’ve tried it. I spent the first few years where a big piece of sugar paper would feature prominently. They would complete more diaramas than a whole season of Community. There would be role play news reports and more glue sticks than you can shake, well, a glue stick at. And you know what? Not only would they have learnt nothing (this isn’t the place to rehearse debates about progressive vs traditional methods) but after about 5 minutes they would be bored. Fun isn’t as much fun as you’d think.

Let us return instead to the relative calm of my classroom the surly youth has just entered. On the board there is an image of a what looks like a volcano erupting from under the ocean. The instruction says “Comment on this image” (A typical A level task but this is Year 10 and the new specification is tricky) and he ponders this while writing down the title and date. I ask some questions and they get some initial thoughts down on a wipe board.

Next I talk them through constructive plate margins and they answer some simple questions based on some resources and using previous knowledge from last week. We look at the the Mid-Atlantic Ridge and how exciting it is that the earth is being ripped asunder. We look at some images of shield volcanoes and clips of them erupting and I talk through some of the principles behind it with some cold calling (“If the lava has a high silica content what will happen? Let’s look at Mt St Helens and see!”). They use this to answer an exam question on the features of shield volcanoes before using a mark scheme to improve their answers.

At the end of the lesson they return to the first image showing the Island of Surtsey and write an explaination of how it was formed including the key words from this lesson. They leave knowing there will be a quiz next lesson to check what they have learnt.

Looking back this does not sound like a “fun lesson” and yet… fast forward to parents’ evening and the surly youth is there with his mum. “So this is your geography teacher! He talks about his lessons all the time.” So far so much hot air but then… “That volcano island, that dam in South Africa, fracking. The other day he came down and made us all watch some documentary on the Sudan”.

This conversation is very common but somehow still a lovely surprise. I never plan a lesson to be “fun” or for that matter particularly engaging. I plan to transfer knowledge, skills and understanding and the ability to transfer this to new situations (if you have a better definition of the purpose of education I’d love to hear it). So why do pupils leave the classroom buzzing? Why do they say “Thank you – that was great” on their way out (other than manners)? Why do they stop me in the corridor to discuss something relating to the lesson?

I would suggest it is because children don’t actually know what they will find “fun” in a lesson. What excites them is learning new things and feeling they are making progress. If you don’t think this is the case then I am not sure what gets you up in the morning. I also think that passion helps. I don’t set out to entertain my class. A glimpse through my twitter feed will show you just how dull and un-down-with-the-kids I am (I’m fairly sure a Dab is a sherbet sweet) but I love my subject and this passion comes through. I litter my lessons with examples and interesting tangents. It’s like an episode of QI in my room.

So no my young surly friend. You cannot have a fun lesson. It isn’t meant to be fun. It is meant to be rigorous. It is meant to be hard. It is going to challenge you and blow your mind. It is going to make you think because memory is the residue of thought.

But then I always say that.