Style over Substance?

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.



2 thoughts on “Style over Substance?

  1. DiKadic

    Your lesson definitely didn’t fail.
    You said that students did have fun, maybe didn’t exactly learn what you have planned but surely got the message and whoever wanted could find the data they missed at the lesson. Maybe you provoked curiosity and they went on-line and …….. Teaching is not “open the skull and fill in with “dry” facts , it’s making a collaborative atmosphere, throwing seed and something might come out.
    Believe the words of someone who is teaching for more than 30 years 🙂 An extremely well planned lesson doesn’t necessarily mean a lesson with extremely good outcome.
    Creativity on spot is the mother of teaching, but it comes after years and years of practice.
    Just do it your way and stand behind it ….adapt and do it again …. just the wish to teach is exceptional at these times 🙂

  2. Louise Post author

    Thank you. I really appreciate your comment. The fact that someone read something I’ve written and thought it worthy of a response blows my mind! I do love teaching more than anything – and will keep trying new things. I think I’ll stand behind the word failure – if we look at failure in a positive sense. I think I learn most – and the kids learn most, when we fail? I think the acronym – first attempt in learning is a good one here. I’m learning the craft every day 🙂 and value the experience and advice of those older and wiser!

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