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How can I engage learners?  What can I do to make my lessons more interesting?  What resources can I use to challenge my classes?  How will this lesson link with what they already know and what I’m going to teach them next time?  I’m sure questions similar to these (and more!) pop into your minds when planning lessons and searching for inspiration.  How can we answer these questions quickly when planning?  There has to be an easy way.

I’ve had the opportunity to work in a number of schools over the past few years and have found that their Schemes Of Work (SOW) have affected my approach to planning.  It has affected how I plan lessons at my home school and it can affect the advice that I give to NQT’s and other members of staff when they are planning their lessons (this is in my capacity as a Specialist Leader of Education – SLE).

Teachers can be constrained by SOW and as a result the quality of lessons and the level of engagement can drop.  So how can we resolve this problem of lacking creativity, needing inspiration, engaging our students?


“You’re creative, how would you teach the topic of…”
This is a question that I am asked on a regular basis. I am an SLE with a local teaching school and a Lead Practitioner for Mathematics in my home school but my creativity sometimes stems from others (teachers at schools that I support and my relatively new twitter network of educationalists) – I mean, why reinvent the wheel.

image from 'azilen'

image from ‘azilen’

Like others, I am sometimes limited by the ‘topics’ I teach and really have to root around to find a hook or a story to interest my young audience.  Imagine you are a student and you are told “this week we will be learning how to find the area of basic and compound/composite shapes”.  I don’t know about you but it wouldn’t fill me with joy and I enjoy Mathematics! There are ways to make this interesting but if you were an NQT faced with teaching this topic, a SOW stating Area & Perimeter is not all that inspiring.

On the flip side, imagine being given a question (or a problem) and being told “you will learn some techniques to help you answer this question by the end of the lesson or the end of the week”. This, would get me interested in pretty much any subject. “What am I going to learn?”, “What is this about?”, “How can that be right?”


Just teach them what they need to know.
Don’t get me wrong, there are times when we need to just teach the required content  instead of getting students to ‘derive Mathematical formula’, make ‘scientific discoveries’ or ‘search for historical facts’ on their own.  These are the times when you, as a teacher, need to find that hook, find that something to draw them in so that they really remember your lesson.   I mean, if they can remember psychological case studies, functions of an operating system for computing exams or any aspect of a topic that you have taught them, ready for recall, you my friend, have done an amazing job.

Carmine Gallo talks of having ‘jaw dropping moments’ when giving presentations; teaching a lesson is just the same, you are the presenter.  These moments can consist of pictures, unusual objects, short video clips or even personal stories.  Read An Ethic of Excellence; Building a Culture of Craftmanship with Students by Ron Berger for inspiration.

Now some of you will be saying that this all sounds very nice but should we really be changing our lessons with each teaching of the topic to make them more ‘jaw-dropping’?  Hold that thought for a moment…

When attending a Maths Hub meeting just this month, I got into a discussion with a Head of Teaching and Learning and a representative from the NCETM and we spoke of teachers who change what they are teaching from one year to the next.  The point being made was that…

…we shouldn’t change things too much as we are not teaching the same students each year. It’s always going to be new to that class.

Agreed…but we do need to tweak these lessons to make them even more engaging and jaw-dropping (if that’s at all possible!)

This idea of teaching students only what they need to know may seem, dare I say, tedious.  However, we need these ‘standard‘ lessons intertwined with the ‘all singing and all dancing‘ ones.  Why?

  • Because the out and out information giving lessons, allow students to grasp the fundamentals of the topic whilst perfecting their note taking and learning skills.
  • Because the lessons of exploration and intrigue give teachers to opportunity to wow their audience, allow students to develop resilience and hone their problem solving skills.

Working with other subject areas (…are you mad?!)
This cross curricular malarkey is often spoken of and many see this as a great idea, whilst some see it as a sort of elusive wizardry.  There is often the opportunity to link lessons or at least align parts of the SOW across subject areas, but this is rarely done.

Hogwarts Prof

This year, I have had quite a few conversations with a Science teacher whom I share some students with.  The majority of my year 9 Mathematics set is in his Science class.  It began with us discussing strategies for improving behaviour for learning but then led to us talking about the topics that we were teaching.  Quite coincidentally, I was teaching substitution and he was teaching the class how to use a formula that week – bonus!  The long and short of this was, my lesson on substitution was made easier because the students were able to ‘teach me’ the Pressure Formula and I was able to lead a lesson with a memorable hook (Ice Road Truckers – thank you @AlexJFirth – he has other such lessons on TES e.g. X-Men Selective Breeding). The lesson was great!  The students had the opportunity to consolidate what they had learned in Science and feel good about their work in Mathematics too.  There were even some amazing presentations from group; even the quiet ones.

IceRoadTruckersS3-Ep4BlindingWhiteout

Another cross curricular link, inspired by @MrDayMaths was that of the Penrose Triangle.  We had Year 7 students draw the Penrose Triangle on Isometric paper as part of their Mathematics lesson.  With hindsight this could have been extended into Art and Technology; What other impossible constructions can we draw?  Is it even possible to build this impossible construction?  Take a moment and consider the consolidation of learning taking place, over the days and weeks.  The possibilities for cross curricular links, team teaching and learning are endless…

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“When will I ever use Algebra?”

Firstly, I would advise that a teacher doesn’t start the series of lesson by saying, “…today we will learn Algebra; the x’s and y’s…” or worse still, the a’s and b’s; “…a is for how many apples we have and b is for how many bananas, bugs, balls…” please don’t.  This leads to problems when teaching some students in year 10 and year 11, oh and this drives us teachers of Mathematics crazy!  Instead, consider introducing a problem by why of a question or real life scenario.  It will take a bit of preparation but will be well worth it.

The following is borrowed from an American school, where the teachers (D., & K. O’Connor) are introducing Algebra to 11 year olds.  This is an excellent example of introducing a topic by why of a problem and drawing out what the students already know.  It is also a challenge for many students in that age bracket;

You are a professional basketball team’s (WNBA or NBA) leading foul shooter.  You make an average of 50 foul shots per season.  Your manager has been presented with two contract scenarios for your season bonus.  One is a flat bonus for each player (B = $5000).  The other is given in the form of an algebraic equation, B = $3000 + $100(x), where x is # of foul shots made in the season.  Your manager claims he can’t do math and is freaked out by seeing the letter in an equation.  Because he doesn’t understand the algebraic equation, he is not sure which scenario earns you more money.  Since he is intimidated to discuss the formula with the letter, he plans to go into your negotiation to accept the flat bonus.  He wants to know if this is OK with you.

This is just the start of a problem that runs over two weeks (click here for details of the full project; Intro to Algebraic Thinking – Patterns & Variables).  It involves the use of Sports, Mathematics and English to clearly communicate the best option for the W/NBA player to earn more money.  Students need to justify their answer to the aforementioned problem in different ways:

  • in words
  • using tables
  • and graphical representation

Even if students are not sports fans, it is an accessible problem, it engages most, enables the teacher to stretch the more able and allows for a slightly different take on what most students see as a confusing/boring topic.  A learner tends to be engaged in interesting lessons and as such, these interesting lessons should sprout from a creative and inspirational scheme of work.


Inspiration
With the changes to the new curriculum and more emphasis on students being able to apply their learned skills, we need to look at what we can do to improve our SOW.  We must ensure that it is fit for purpose, that it contains well thought out (& planned) links with other subject areas and is full of resources that stretch and challenge all students.  Most importantly, it has to be a document that inspires us as teachers, to deliver the best lesson that we can teach.

It’s all well and good having a massive SOW for each year group but don’t let the pages and pages of words, limit the lessons that your teachers plan and deliver.  If you are really struggling for ideas, have a look on the internet, attend Teachmeets, visit other schools, enlist a consultant, speak to someone at your local teaching school.  I would suggest the first port of call always being a conversation with a colleague.  Speak to your trusty and enthusiastic PGCE students (&/or NQTs) who have come out of university with fresh ideas and ‘new’ resources that they may have acquired on recent placements.  They may have an amazing set of resources that you haven’t seen before.

So yes, get that long term plan sorted, make sure your scheme of work is clear and give your teachers the opportunity to be creative.  It will be hard work but you will not be disappointed with the results.


Teachers of numeracy and Mathematics, if you need a scheme of work or ways to improve your own, take a look at Kennys Pouch.  It’s free, covers KS1 to KS5 and has links to suggested activities for many topics.