Why should I let the toad work
Squat on my life?
Can’t I use my wit as a pitchfork
And drive the brute off?

Philip Larkin – Toads

Many people (and many students) seem to expend considerable energy in attempting to use their wits to drive off the need to work. This provokes the ire of others (often teachers) who consider it character forming and good for them and I-had-to-do-it so-why-shouldn’t-you?

The ability to work hard and get on with difficult and onerous tasks is a terribly important life skill and I expend a fair bit of my energy in convincing children to pull their fingers out, wind their necks in and get on with it. But having said that, I am against working harder than I need or want to.

Recently I retweeted this by @TessaLMatthews:

Screen Shot 2013-07-15 at 10.34.31Various people were annoyed while others seemed pleased. Clearly this was insufficient explanation of the point I wanted to make.  Jim Smith refers to ‘fireworks teaching’; activities which may look spectacular but take far longer for the teacher to create than they do for students to complete. He uses the example of the card sort as a particular waste of time. Now, you may be a proponent of card sorts and they may produce excellent thinking with your students: that is fine. I certainly wouldn’t want anyone to feel as if they shouldn’t spend their time however they want. But for many it might come a relief to consider that if the time spent creating a resource outweighs the time students spend using it then there is probably a more efficient way of working.

Then I read this excellent blog post on the danger of packing lessons full of activities from Thomas Starkey. He says of his activity packed lessons, “it was just stuff. You can’t pack a suitcase that tight and it all be quality content. It was filler there to do one thing and one thing only: keep them occupied.” Instead, quality content is “too precious to be blown out there like a shotgun blast. It should be wielded like a scalpel.” It seems eminently sensible that we should pick and choose so that our students focus on what’s most important at the time. Clearly, teaching like a surgeon rather than an angry farmer takes considerably more skill but Starkey argues that this is effort worth investing because packing your lesson full of activities is “absolutely knackering. Fatigue soon sets in for both you and the poor shell-shocked kids. If you’re knackered you neither teach or learn well. And eventually you’ll be back to square one (but with the extra problem of zero energy to fight the good fight).”

Too many of us seem to work so much harder than the feckless kids we teach in order to drag them over those all-important grade boundaries.

But where does this need to work ourselves into an early grave come from?

Harry Webb writes about The Effort Hypothesis which basically states,

Teachers are lazy; just look at all the holidays that they have. Surely, we need to get them working. That would sort things out. Let’s get them working harder and we will see improvements in the quality of the education our children receive.

This is an obvious caricature. But the narrative in operation in many schools is underpinned by this idea that working harder will solve whatever problem it is we face:

We don’t really know what the solution is but it must require an increased effort on the part of the teachers. Therefore, strategies that require increased teacher effort must be good and strategies that do not require increased teacher effort must be bad.

This principle is also one which many of us apply to ourselves. A strong protestant work ethic must be a good thing, mustn’t it?

Well, this is tricky. On the one hand I do find myself nodding along to the proposition that effort is the new talent, and that if only everyone put in grittier, more deliberate practice then maybe everything would be OK. But is this just a horsehair shirt? Are we flagellating ourselves out of guilt at not getting round to marking those books, or writing that scheme of work? This is exactly what so many people found either shocking or refreshing about Jim’s concept of ‘lazy teaching’.

The answer is, I think, the difference between working hard for a clear and reasonable purpose, and being busy. For me a certain type of classroom resource typifies this ‘busy’ approach to teaching: if only our students have enough to do then they must be learning something. While many teachers take real joy in crafting resources designed to convey their content in interesting and meaningful ways, far too much time is wasted in preparing witless activities with the purpose of keeping kids busy.

And this is the point of Fireworks Teaching: it might look great, but what are students thinking about? If Dan Willingham is right when he says “memory is the residue of thought” students will remember that they thought about. Too often the fireworks distract students from thinking about the content.

So, if you want to spend hours producing beautifully crafted resources that’s fine; your personal life is your own. But before you do consider these points:

  1. Is it going to encourage students to think about the content of lesson, or will it be a distraction?
  2. Is there an easier way to get them to think about what’s important?

If you’re happy with the answers to these questions, go right ahead.

But for everyone else, less may well be more, so don’t waste time feeling guilty about it.

Related posts

Planning lesson: lessons I’ve learned from lessons I’ve taught
Are worksheets a waste of time?