Back to school. Beware novelty.

“We survive on novelty, so much less demanding than commitment.” 
― Mikhail Lermontov

Unlike the rest of the population, who do this kind of thing at the start of January, teachers usually make their new year resolutions at the end of August. We skip (or sometimes trudge) back, full of new ideas, new goals, new pedagogical practices gleaned from a summer of reading blogs and edubooks, while the rest of those on the beach flicked nonchalantly through Dan Browns and thrillers with the word ‘Train’ in the title.

Workload and burnout issues to one side, this is a good thing. If only as many pupils as teachers turned up for that fuzzy first day determined to improve and work smarter, after a period of reflection about their work habits, and the effectiveness of their intellectual input and output. I’m just as guilty of this as the others. I write blogs to (hopefully) help people think about, and even improve, their teaching. I want them to make notes. With a highlighter, if they must. I believe in picking up new ideas, in becoming a better teacher. And yet. And yet…

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Sometimes the quest for improvement becomes a search for novelty. Novelty is great. It is fun, fresh and funky. To start with. The successful novelty single enters the Top 40 (younger readers, ask your parents), spends two weeks at the top of the charts, gains ubiquity on the nation’s radio stations, sells a gazillion copies, appears on Top of the Pops (younger readers, ask your parents), before finally making a swift, undignified descent out of the charts and into oblivion (otherwise known as local radio).

The same often happens with new teaching ideas. It especially happens with new school policies. In the meantime, the kids – who at the start of term are bombarded with new tasks and sexy strategies – are sometimes left bewildered and dizzied by change. Until the next new thing comes along.

In the past, I was very guilty of this. My pupils will get bored, I’d tell myself, if we do the same thing over and over again. Repetition is the enemy, I thought. The boredom, of course, was all mine. I wanted something shiny and unaccustomed, not them. Not all the time anyway. They were quite happy revisiting topics, using the same skills, until they’d got the hang of it.

Now, I do less and do it more often. Familiarity hasn’t yet bred contempt in my classroom. I asked my Year 10 class last year – I’m aware this is a methodologically dubious way of garnering evidence – what single thing I’d done that they thought had helped them improve over the course of the year. Number one was the use of memory platform starters at the beginning of nearly every single lesson. I was worried that my students might find this dull. Instead, they enjoyed the routine, found it reassuringly predictable, and most importantly, found it most helpful in advancing their knowledge.

So what am I going to do differently this year? I will be:

  • introducing a couple of things I picked up from Andy Tharby’s excellent Making Every English Lesson Count
  • finally getting round to buying and using a visualiser
  • spending a bit more time on teaching root words and etymology when developing vocabulary

And that’s about it. In other words, I’ll be refining, not charging in gung ho like a child tearing open presents on Christmas day.

I hope you’re feeling energised and revitalised by your break and by the splendid new tips you’ve picked up. Do yourself and your students a favour though: don’t lob out the sparrow from the fount of new found knowledge*. By all means innovate, but don’t tear up what already works in your search for improvement.

 

* and don’t invent bad new idioms, when perfectly serviceable cliches will do

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