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Style over Substance?
April 27, 2014

I have four children, aged 10 – 18. That means that I have had 54 opportunities to make birthday cakes. I’m ashamed to say that when my 12 year old asked for a smarties cake and they didn’t sell one in Sainsburys, Tesco Asda or online; I did, this year, make my first ever birthday cake! I was so proud of it. It was wowed over by everyone who saw it. I posted a picture on Facebook and was very proud! That was, until H cut one slice and the whole thing disintegrated.  It was held together by chocolate fingers, ribbon and loads of fudge icing! Definitely, style over substance.

So, what has this got to do with my teaching?

This post is about my failures. Times when I have focused more on the presentation (the icing and chocolate fingers) than the cake itself.  It covers my journey to making sure that students enjoy the lessons I teach AND learn what I want them to know.

I trained (as a mature entrant into the profession) only three years ago, though it seems like much longer. At the end of my training, I was sure footed in my understanding of engagement and what that meant for me as a teacher. I knew what outstanding lessons looked like.    My classroom has generally been a ‘fun’ place to be.  My first ever scheme of work on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict for Year 9 was introduced through the Film ‘Avatar’. It was a ‘constructivist’ masterpiece (more Grimmett than Errikker, for RE pedagogy geeks).  Students, in groups, created identity and meaning and space for themselves and then had to share that ‘space’ with another group, simulating the sharing of Jerusalem. We then went on to explore the conflict. Was it an outstanding Scheme of Work? It was graded as one. I showed it off at my first interview; they loved it. The kids loved it. I loved it.  HOWEVER, looking back now, what will the students remember? The conflict and problems of resolution, or the film and the societies that they created? It was definitely a case of style over substance.

Similarly, this year, whilst teaching Good and Evil to Year 9, I decided to up the level of challenge and introduce the Augustinian and Irenaean theodicies (usually taught at A level).  Fortunately for me, @LorraineAbbott7 was doing similar, so after pilfering resources from her, we set about creating play-doh interpretations of either of the theodicies.  There were some wonderful results (below) . My classroom was a hive of creativity and engagement, students given resources to create their own interpretation. The lesson was so much fun that when I walked down the corridor later, they were still talking about it. They tweeted me about it later. They still talk about the lesson over 6 weeks later.

Yet, the lesson was definitely style over substance. None of really them ‘got’ the differences between the Augustinian and Irenaean theodicies. We had lots of Adam and Eves and lots of apples – even the odd serpent, but nothing like what @LorraineAbbott7 managed with her group; a philosophically sound interpretation of the Irenaean theodicy.



So, did my lesson fail? Yes. The students didn’t learn what I wanted them to. They had fun, they enjoyed themselves. They had another memorable RE lesson, but they didn’t learn the difference between the two theodicies – I had to teach that again the next lesson.  Will I be doing the same lesson next year? Yes, of course. Will I adapt the lesson, and perhaps show them these two pictures before they start? Yes, of course I will. I will ensure that they know that there are differences before we start getting creative with play-doh.   And that is the journey I am on.  My aim is to make learning creative and engaging and at the same time, focused primarily on the learning. This term is full on revision for my exam classes – I’m planning revision activities like mad. I may even get around to blogging about their successes and failures! Fortunately, I have found the world of twitter and can pilfer more ideas from the likes of @lorraineabbott7 and @rlj1981 amongst many others! But my focus will definitely be substance WITH style.



A seasonal post? 10 revision strategies…
April 10, 2014

This blog post is all about revision and sharing some practical ideas both in and out of the classroom.

I’ve always strongly felt that high quality revision strategies are simply high quality teaching and learning strategies. Since I believe that revision is not something that should be left until the end of the course but it something that should go on continually throughout a programme of study any of these strategies can and should be useful in lessons throughout the year.

Here are 10 useful strategies that can hopefully be beneficial to your classroom.

1. Top Trumps

I love a good game of top trumps and they are a great revision strategy. The one above is one we created in the history department about the reign of King Henry VIII and is designed to revise key figures in the AS History course. It helps students evaluate significance, impact and recall key information about key individuals on the course. Even better to get students to make their own and consider the information from across the whole course in a different way.

Top Trumps

2. Only Connect

I love key words in grids to go through key concepts and ideas. This is something I use a lot in teaching Sixth Form Government and Politics where there are many new concepts and ideas for students to understand. Only Connect taps into this and is taken from the popular BBC4 quiz show Only Connect. It is great for revision because it helps students think and make connections between different words. Here is an example for GCSE History.

revision 1

3. Mind-mapping

A timeless classic. Everyone knows everything about mind-mapping these days. However, go a bit further and get them to write them on the table and take a picture for their revision with their smart phones. Fun, engaging and messy!

Table top minds maps 2

4. Revision table mats

These are great for revision. They help to focus students on key words, key events and in particular for chronological understanding. Our students tell us they find the chronology really hard on our GCSE Crime and Punishment course so we made up some A3 table mats focusing on chronology to support with this. This is an example of a table mat we have used to promote academic writing across the department.


5. Revision booklets

We used to give revision notes out at the end of the course before the exams. Why? Now, we always give them out when we start the unit. We use them as a kind of course booklet but students have everything in there they need for revision. It gets them used to the revision booklets. The booklets have activities in them and personal learning checklists so students can use them as a kind of learning diary too.

rev booklet

6. E-Learning

There are a number of great e-learning websites out there which can help you. There are websites which allow students to make mind-maps, quizzes and flash cards. Increasingly, students like to learn and revise interactively so this is going to be a key area for us to continue to develop.

7. Exam questions

This isn’t a new idea at all as when I was studying for my A Levels my teacher gave our class all the past questions and told us to complete revision plans around as many past questions as we could. It’s still a great idea for students to prepare for the exam and doing something active as part of their revision. Revision is a bit like training really and students need to be match-fit for the big day. Here are all the past papers put in a handy booklet for our A Level students.

Exam booklets

8. Revision bookmarks

Exam board criteria and style of questions really needs embedding. We’ve found that condensing this information down into a simple bookmark is a really useful way of helping students with this process. Plus they can use it to keep their page in their revision booklets.


9. Revision songs

We have a brilliant ability to remember words of songs and I like to tap into this by making up some fun songs about different events from the past. My favourite is a song about Thomas Wolsey set to the theme tune of Neighbours. ‘Wolsey, everybody needs a Wolsey’… and so on. The song helps students make sense of the Alter Rex debate and consider how far everyone did actually need a Wolsey.

10. Questioning

Quizzing, regular questioning and getting students to think are hugely important. We often use regular competitive quizzes between groups of students in class to help them revise. Anything along these lines however is useful. So activities like 20 questions, Bingo, Speed dating tasks are all beneficial as long as it gets students thinking.


So there are 10 activities that may help you as students prepare for the final few weeks before the exams. Try and embed this culture of revision throughout the year. Revision is a marathon not a sprint!

Grid(un)locked-inspiring creative poetry analysis

After 18 months in Special Measures and being constantly under scrutiny (a particularly devastating blow to our department – we’d just attained 81% A*-C against a target of 69% when it happened) we’re always looking for new and interesting ways to bring engaging ideas into our classrooms. This idea came about in February as we were bracing ourselves for another Ofsted visit and has been a massive success with Year 10 and Year 11.

Here’s how it works:

1. Students work in pairs/groups with a poetry grid and two dice (tip-use foam dice!)
2. Take it in turns to roll the dice and answer the question. Others can add to/ expand an answer to raise to overall level of response once they’ve exhausted their ideas
3. If a double is rolled, talk on the topic area for 30 secs without hesitation, deviation… (you get the gist)

It’s simple, effective and fun but there’s more to it than just being a grid with pretty colours. Firstly, the questions are all linked to the mark scheme descriptors for the exam. The one in the picture is designed for the AQA unseen question and I’ve also created an adapted version for the Anthology poetry. This allows students to respond to the poems in a way that is directly beneficial to the exam skills they have to demonstrate.

Secondly, The colours aren’t random. Each colour is linked to a different area: pink=structure, purple=feelings and attitudes/mood and tone, yellow=language, blue=themes and ideas, orange=talk for 30secs, green (without doubt the favourite with students)=creative connections and ideas (not directly linked to a specific mark scheme area but to access the poem in a different way and just maybe come up with something that unlocks the poem in a way they wouldn’t have considered).

Thirdly, the way they choose the question to answer is differentiated. Say they roll a two and a four. If they take the larger number horizontally across the grid and the smaller number vertically, the question will be more challenging than if they do it vice versa. All the questions require thinking about but I think that to access discussion and ideas at the highest levels students often need to ‘warm up’ and this is one way they can do it.

You’ll see in the picture I also made a vocabulary grid to use alongside the game. Eight of the boxes link to the question areas, one includes the tentative language (could, may, might, possibly) we’d encourage students to use when exploring Literature. Whilst the words on the vocabulary grid are pretty comprehensive, I also made sure they fully covered anything students might need for the ‘Relationships’ cluster in the AQA Anthology.

For Year 11 who have studied all the poems and are preparing from the exam, they have used the grid in a few ways. Sometimes we focus on two specific poems. This is particularly useful prior to writing a ‘powergraph’ (more on this another time but it’s transformed the approach for our more able students). I mentioned creativity earlier. Combining the questions with a pick-a-poem style (ie pick two poems randomly from a bag/spinner) has generated all sorts of links and connections that students might never have thought about otherwise.

In whole class feedback, there a couple of ways it can been taken further. I usually ask what the most perceptive point is that someone in a group has made so everyone can benefit from different ideas. I’ll also ask which question has promoted the best discussion in the group-it can vary for different poems. I’ll then give students extra time to continue discussions, possibly looking at questions mentioned in the feedback part but they can also look at questions of a certain colour if the dice have missed out any areas or even just choose a question they fancy.

One of the other benefits that my less confident students have found is that certain questions really help them unlock ideas. These are the questions they revise and when going into an exam they can consider them if they are stuck. Many of my Year 10s reported this was the technique that helped them the most in their recent Unseen Poetry mock.

It’s interactive, fun and relevant. The responses are genuinely worth it and encourage students to think in a way that isn’t gimmicky but genuinely higher level. That’s been my experience anyway!

I’m happy to email the resources via DM.


Educating for Character
April 3, 2014

What is Character?

There are many schools of thought on this but let’s not get too bogged down with stuff like Aristotelian Virtue Ethics!

For the sake of argument let’s say that character refers to our dispositions to think, feel, and act in ways which reflect our values, virtues, capabilities and strengths. Evidence suggests that while there are genetics at play, character is largely ‘caught’ through experience and role modelling. It also suggests that parents, family and teachers are the primary educators of character for children and young people.

Watch the Science of Character video on our homepage for more details – Character Scotland

Can we educate for character?

Yes, but it shouldn’t be taught in a top-down, didactic, ‘transmitting knowledge’ style of teaching, or in a way which simply tells children and young people who they should be. Character can be effectively taught using open and exploratory dialogue e.g. giving young people opportunities to focus on their own character and that of others and asking them ‘what do you think?’. Character Education as Critical Pedagogy perhaps?

In 1998, UNESCO offered a set of aims for schooling world-wide:

Learning to know – Learning to do – Learning to live together – Learning to be

Character is relevant in all of the areas above. Arguably we are getting quite good at teaching for knowledge, doing and living together (tongue firmly in cheek). But what about teaching how to be? This is where character can really come into its own.

How can character be taught?

Let’s focus on a maths lesson as an example.

  • Stop teaching maths for a moment and start teaching people. Instead of teaching pupils how to DO maths, teach them how to BE a mathematician. How would you do that? Perhaps you might start by exploring the relationship between maths and curiosity. A discussion starter could be something like the following:

Maths and science are manifestations of curiosity: a quest to figure things out. Discuss.

  • Discuss role models – Try focussing on Einstein. Show a clip about his life story and ask pupils which character qualities he demonstrated: his sense of curiosity, creativity, imagination, determination etc. Better yet – ask the pupils to choose their own mathematician, learn about his/her life and get a sense of the person’s character qualities.
  • Discuss quotations – for example:

“Most people say that it is the intellect which makes a great scientist. They are wrong: it is character.”

Albert Einstein

  •  Discuss self-awareness and perceptions – ask pupils in groups to discuss who is the most curious person in this group? Or the most creative? Or the least creative for that matter? What are our perceptions of ourselves and others and what do they tell us? What is the character of the group as a whole? Can a group have a character?
  • Bring the language of character into your professional practice  – one tool you can use is to complete the VIA Survey (www.character-scotland.org.uk/resources/via-survey) and learn the VIA Classification of Character Strengths. It takes 15 minutes and it’s free. Once you’ve done that you can become a “character strengths spotter”. When you spot a pupil demonstrating a particular strength, tell them about it. Name the character quality they have shown and ask them if they agree or if they see it differently. Ask them if they can see a link between the creative thing they just did and “that lesson on Einstein 6 months ago”.
  • Encourage your pupils to talk about character – they can do the VIA Survey too – there is a Youth version depending on what they prefer. Pepper your lessons with references to character using the common language you and your pupils now share. Encourage your pupils to become ‘strengths spotters’ for each other.

Other examples for different subjects might be teaching empathy during a history lesson, teaching scepticism in modern studies or politics (showing some liberal bias here…), teaching determination and focus during PE etc. The general point is that you can explicitly link disposition with learning by bringing the concept of character to the forefront of thinking and practice in your classroom.

Before you know it, you will realise that in fact you teach character all day and you always have.


What do you think about this post?

Let me know by leaving a comment or you can contact me directly by using the form below.

Thanks 🙂

Gary Walsh – Character Scotland


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