Here is a Geography lesson that Ofsted praise (from Learning to make a world of difference, p.36).
Two pupils, in role, acted as newsreaders during an introductory simulation of a newscast. This used a PowerPoint backdrop and updated the rest of the class on the conflict. The teacher sat in the ‘hot seat’, acting as an expert to reflect on and clarify the issues. The pupils had a very good understanding of the differences between Hamas and Fatah and the tensions between Arabs and Israelis in the conflict. Having exemplified the role of an ‘expert witness’, three pupils who had prepared scripts sat in ‘hot seats’. Groups of pupils interviewed these experts – ‘Is this an Arab/Israeli child?’; ‘What are their concerns and worries?’ and so on. This enabled pupils to develop a fresh perspective on the conflict and use their speaking, listening and questioning skills. They were able to explain the conflict through the eyes of children living within it today. In the lesson described here, the pupils’ work was outstanding because the teacher had high expectations.
What will pupils be thinking about in this lesson? I would guess that they would spend a lot of time thinking about the best way to present the news, about being ‘in role’, about what a newsreader sounds like, about how to do the PowerPoint backdrop, about the best way to prepare their script, etc. That’s not to say that those things might not be important. But are they really the aim of a Geography lesson? If you asked those pupils in a week’s time what they remembered, would they have remembered anything to do with the Middle East?
The other thing to note about these types of lessons is that they very often have a huge opportunity cost. This isn’t apparent sometimes when you read quick summaries of them in these Ofsted reports. For example, here’s an activity Ofsted praise in English (from Moving English forward, p.33):
‘practical tasks such as making and using puppets as part of the Romeo and Juliet work.’
Making puppets? It’s a brief throwaway line, but it would probably take quite a few lessons to make the puppets. For most of that time, the pupils would be thinking about the mechanics of making puppets, not the plot, language or themes of Romeo and Juliet. Again, there is nothing wrong in and of itself with making puppets. But in an English lesson where the aim is to advance understanding of one of Shakespeare’s plays, then the activity is misplaced. The time spent making puppets is a huge opportunity cost – it’s time the pupils could have spent actually improving and deepening their understanding of Romeo and Juliet.
One irony to note is that these types of lessons are often presented as imaginative alternatives to dull rote-learning. In actual fact, I think that it is this kind of lesson plan and unit of work which does lead to dull rote-learning. In the Shakespeare puppet lesson, the pupils will have spent several lessons where they haven’t learnt any English knowledge or skills. The important knowledge and skills will be hurried and squeezed into just a few lessons, probably in quite a mechanistic way. If there is an assessment on this unit, then because there has not been enough time in the lessons to think about these facts in a meaningful way, the only solution for the pupil who wants to revise is to rote-learn them – that is, to learn the facts in a way that is stripped of meaning. If you waste class time on tangential and distracting activities, then pupils will end up rote-learning – and probably rote-mislearning – the important knowledge and skills that they should have been taught meaningfully.