Fun games and generic activities are lauded as great teaching and learning
Have you ever read an education book that, in hindsight, you wish you hadn’t?
Before I started teaching, I read some books that led me up the garden path and into what I now see as a wrong-headed way of thinking about lesson planning.
‘A MUST-Have’: The Bible of Engaging Activities
How To Teach has 32 out of 36 5* reviews, a T.E.S. recommendation and a lot of love on Amazon:
- Finally a teaching book that cuts the crap
- the ulitmate bible for teachers
- A MUST have book for any educationalist!
- Like a romp in the hay with a lothario
- Where were you when I was training?
- If you’re a teacher and you only buy one book this Christmas, buy this!
It also has a lot of high-profile expert endorsement:
- Geoff Barton: “deeply wise: tells you everything teacher training courses don’t”
- Tim Brighouse: “delightful insights: a must-read for all new teachers”
- Dylan Wiliam: “useful advice: every teacher should read it”
- Francis Gilbert: “sensible, workable, useful: every teacher should read and act upon it”
The Teacher’s Toolkit has 28 5* reviews out of 37, is a Waterstone’s bestseller, and is on many department bookshelves in my school, and schools I have visited. Reviews say:
- I still use it for lesson ideas especially when trying to use kinaesthetic, visual and auditory activities.
- Excellent to make our lessons more fun.
- I would recommend this book to any student or qualified teachers. It starts by looking at how learners learn, learning styles.
- An excellent book, up to date, engaging and very appealing to my “visual” learning style.
- Every staff room should really have one.
- Every teacher should have a copy!
- I wish I had this when I started out
- AMAZING: the theory at the beginning was so well written
- If you only buy one book during ITT make it this! I cannot recommend this highly enough. It’s the single source for my inspiration, and can be returned to time and time again for practical, useful suggestions for lessons.
- Use with caution: you need to watch the sections on learning styles.
- This is nonsense on stilts wrapped up in spurious theory.
- This was my bible during my PGCE and, six years on, I still refer to it regularly for ideas and inspiration. No department should be without this book.
It also has high-profile expert endorsement:
- Sir Tim Brighouse: ‘one of those rare and precious books … it’s a must’
- Alistair Smith: ‘well researched, this is a book every teacher in the land should get their hands on’.
The Fun Crusade
Both books recommend a dizzying, dazzling array of jazzy, whizzy, flashy activities and games to pack into lessons. Here are ten examples from Phil Beadle’s book:
- Treasure Hunt
- Action Men
- Argument Tennis
- Young Inspectors
- Wandering Plenary
- Attitude Cards
For instance, attitude cards are given to learners to roleplay during groupwork: recommended examples are cards saying ‘you are: clinically depressed / fundamentalist Christian / David Cameron / Jesus / Adolf Hitler’.
Similarly, Paul Ginnis’ book recommends 50 activities to engage learners ‘of all learning styles’, such as:
- Hide n’ Seek
- Scrambled Groups
- Wheel of Fortune
- Verbal Tennis
- Circus Time
- Dicey Business
- Guess Who
A sister book, The Literacy Toolkit, recommends ’50 generic literacy strategies’, such as:
- Skimming & Scanning
- Finger Puppets
- Roll the Dice!
- Las Vegas: clap and roll the dice!
- Window Shopping!
- Weather Corners
- Crossword & Sudoku
- United Students!
The Cult of Variety
Extraordinary claims are made in these teacher bibles:
‘Having your desks set out in groups is the right way to organise your classroom. Period. No discussion. No arguing. Having the tables in groups allows you to set them the grouped speaking and listening activities that are the way in which they learn the most effectively.’ Though Mr Beadle calls learning styles an ‘utter crock of methane,’ his final word is that ‘they have made some contribution to our understanding of how a lesson should be run.’
Mr Ginnis claims that ‘there are some natural laws of learning, givens, universal principles … All students need to do is to learn how to learn. Check your students’ learning styles… The issue of learning styles is at root an equal opportunities issue’. He recommends ‘three well-used learning styles models’ at great length: seventeen pages (34-50) are dedicated to VAK, mind styles and multiple intelligences. Overall, he recommends we “design activities for independence, interdependence, fun, learning styles, multi-sensation & self-esteem” (p59):
Variety at all costs is the name of the game here. As is clear from sales, teacher reviews and expert endorsements of these books, this teaching approach is popular. One reviewer, for instance, said they achieved OFSTED outstanding with one activity, Marketplace, and used it 16 times in a matter of months. OFSTED best practice reports laud a variety of fun games in lessons, too: plasticine, Mr Men, balloons, fizzy drinks & baby mice as party guests.
Generic activities, fun, varied and engaging, are being given precedence over silent, focused subject-specific hard work.
Unfortunately, the whole elaborate house of cards is utterly precarious. Learning styles have been convincingly and thoroughly debunked by cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham, bloggers like Old Andrew and Tessa Matthews, and head of ResearchEd, Tom Bennett. The claim that ‘all that matters is learning to learn’ is completely undermined by decades of scientific research into the importance of subject-specific knowledge. Where is there a scrap of research evidence to show that grouped seating or groupwork activities are the way in which pupils learn most effectively? The deeper fallacy is that generic activities help students learn. But as E.D. Hirsch says, ‘The idea that reading skill is largely a set of general-purpose manoeuvres that can be applied to any and all texts is one of the main barriers to our students’ achievement in reading.’ The entire edifice is built on a weak and faulty rationale, and is awash with spurious, unevidenced claims. The theory is hogwash.
Not only that, but its effects are pernicious. Fun and variety are distracting from focusing our pupils on thinking about subject content so that they remember it. Teachers are spending huge amounts of time resourcing marketplaces and attitude cards when they’d be better off thinking up subject-specific tasks than fun, generic activities. As Willingham says, ‘teaching content IS teaching reading’. The opportunity cost of not doing so is huge.
But the soggy theory is still out there, influencing teachers. The cult of variety and its crusade of fun marches on.
Next post, I’ll explore the alternative: rigorous, subject-specific tasks rather than engaging, generic activities.