Can teachers be creative, particularly at GCSE level, without losing integrity? This is the question that often faces teachers. That dilemma between being innovative, engaging, active and enjoyable, balanced against standards, academic rigour, making progress and ensuring excellent student outcomes. I write from the point of view of a secondary teacher and Head of Geography, in a school of a challenging context and where accountability, the ‘O’ word, and teaching quality are phrases banded around every day. Our students come from a wide variety of backgrounds, and with hugely varied needs. Many find learning difficult, many lack social and life skills, many find themselves unmotivated and lacking ambition to engage with either their education or their future, whilst others are pushing themselves and their ability in a relentless drive for success. Catering for all this is the challenge and also the fun part of the job!
[pullquote]It is our role to take ‘required information’ for exams and to empower students to make connections that are useful.[/pullquote]I sometimes think that teaching GCSE becomes too focused on core knowledge and rote memory, at the expense of deep learning and experience. Whether this is due to a lack of curriculum time, the demands of the exam syllabus, the government or school management, there can sometimes be a tendency to ‘teach them what they need to know to pass the exam’. But I would rather children had deeper learning, that they figured things out for themselves, and that we created a culture of lifelong curiosity and love of learning. It is our role to take ‘required information’ for exams and to empower students to make connections that are useful. So I like to think that my teaching, and my department, has a healthy mix of creative and innovative teaching balanced with more traditional styles. Keep it varied, like a diet. I’m not saying we always do something ‘all singing all dancing’, and there is a time and place for every kind of teaching and learning.
So I’d like to share some of my favourite activities. This is mostly from the point of view of GCSE Geography, but can easily be used at other key stages and adapted for other subjects.
The idea is based on enquiry. Many of my students found it hard to visualise the stages of a river moving from upper to lower course, and how the relief, river profile and sediment changed along the way.
So I collected a variety of sediment of different sizes to simulate this. Students worked in groups and were presented with an A2 piece of paper and felt pens, some laminated keywords (e.g. processes such as attrition, landforms such as waterfalls, etc.), and a bag of sediment (including sand, silt, shingle, larger pebbles, sticks, and a laminated picture of some boulders and larger material – I wasn’t going to give this!). Then I simply asked them to use their knowledge and produce a sketched and annotated river profile with keywords and sediment lined up in the correct places. It worked very well and the students really gained a good grasp of how the river system changes. It became clearer and more logical that, of course, the smaller material would travel further since it was lighter. Click! Lightbulb moment. Providing real world (or classroom-based pseudo-real) examples often makes otherwise abstract ideas much easier to explain and understand.
Let them eat cake:
This is an idea lots of Geographers will know from Tony Cassidy. The classic model is for a teacher to use walnut or angel cake or some other layered cake. You break it apart in stages to demonstrate the formation of a wave cut platform. What I do in my activity is a little bit of background work on processes, then give the students a kit to work with: Poster paper, mini whiteboards and some pens, miniature layer cakes, a variety of sweets such as skittles and jelly tots, anything really. In groups the students have to produce a step by step explanation model or video of the formation of a wave cut platform. Some kids went as far as to collect cups of water and simulate throwing water and jelly tots at the cake base and they found this made it really clear about how corrosion could weaken the base of headlands, just like water makes a cake soggy. It does become messy, and naturally I give them fresh, clean sweets to eat as a treat after. Building models, whether edible or not, is a great way to gasp difficult ideas. Then they write a timed exam question along the lines of ‘with the aid of a diagram explain….’. All my activities usually end in some kind or formal exam skill. Rigour and academic progress still lies at the heart of what we are doing.
There are a myriad of different uses for balloons. One idea I have used is to blow up the balloon and ask the students to write a question on it with felt pens and then throw it to someone else in the room who then has to write the answer. This person then has to write another question and throw to someone else. The challenge is to keep going and keep the balloon off the floor the whole time. The competitive element is very motivating. You can also use balloons to demonstrate many features and ideas about the Earth. I have used it to show the curvature of the Earth by asking students to try to draw a world map around the balloon and discussing how this distorts from what they would normally draw. I have also used them for making complex interlinked mind maps on a topic or for revision – students have to make links that go right the way round the balloon. And you can use them for prompting role play or empathy by drawing different faces (happy, sad, etc) on the balloons during a discussion or debate. Then when a student is given the balloon they have to take on that role, or empathise – like playing devil’s advocate and trying to challenge other’s viewpoints.
Revision doesn’t have to be boring! Get active.
I thought this might only appeal to the more creative and artistic students, or to girls perhaps more than boys – but I’ve found all students have enjoyed this. I place a series of topics into a hat on pieces of paper. Students pull them out at random and that is now their topic to produce a piece of revision bunting about it, e.g. meanders, earthquakes, Hurricane Katrina, etc. They can then produce any style or shape of bunting they wish, but I emphasise the fact that what they produce is for others to foster a sense of corporate responsibility. The bunting is then strung across the room and displayed as a revision aid, plus I take photos and upload to the GCSE blog (geogdebens.wordpress.com) or Facebook account so students can access at home.
You can get blank jigsaws online very cheaply and then students can produce their own. I’ve had them produce two different styles. Firstly, a traditional jigsaw where the pattern is perhaps the structure of the earth and convection cells, or a case study mindmap on the Iceland eruption. The second is like Jigsaw Jeopardy. Students produce a jigsaw where each jig has an answer on it and on the underneath there is the question. Players of the game have to guess the question based on the answer (e.g. 2010) they have seen (e.g. In what year did Eyjafjallajokull erupt?) and then complete the jigsaw as normal. The idea behind both jigsaw activities is that students can learn by producing the jigsaw in the first place and secondly by then swapping and playing the game with someone else and assessing each other.