Last week I had two conversations about the front of the classroom, that I think are worth sharing and thinking about.
The first was on a street corner, outside the school, whilst I was on duty before school. Sue Wolstenholme, was walking into school and stopped for a chat. Sue and her husband John, were both hugely successful English teachers who worked at Durrington for many years (more here). Now retired, Sue still comes into school to do some one to one and small group work with our students. Sue mentioned that she had noticed something. In some classrooms, the central point at the front of the classroom, was often some kind of screen, that powerpoint slides were often projected on to. Then to the side of them, was a rather small whiteboard, for the teacher to write on. Sue went on to question this and in particular, the message that it gives – that the projected powerpoint image, in the centre of the classroom, is more important than what the teacher was writing – and often difficult to see for some students, as the whiteboard was off to the side. Sue’s point was that it should be the other way around. The best way that a teacher can model how to write, in their subject genre, is to model it on the whiteboard with students – not by projecting up a ready made piece of writing. Students need to see and hear the thought processes that the expert writer i.e. the teacher, goes through when they are writing. The best teachers will do this in a very organic way – writing a bit; discussing it; explaining why they wrote in that way; asking students what should come next; seeking ideas; writing the next bit etc etc. With this in mind, the whiteboard – where this writing magic will be happening – should be in the centre of the classroom. That’s not to say that powerpoint slides don’t have a purpose – of course they do. Should they take centre stage though, and push the whiteboard, complete with valuable teacher writings, over to the side? Probably not.
The second conversation was with Director of Humanities, Martyn Simmonds. I’ve been into Martyn’s classroom a few times recently, and have noticed that the display at the front of the classroom, has been covered with old sheets. I assumed that it was something to do with controlled assessments and didn’t enquire any further. Eventually, I did ask though. Martyn’s explanation was very sensible. The display had key information about the case studies, Y11 students had to remember for their forthcoming GCSE exams. So when Martyn was trying to get Y11 students to retrieve this information from their memories, by using regular, low-stakes quizzing in his lessons, they simply looked at the display board and read what was on it. They weren’t having to think about it, so in fact no ‘cognitive-work’ was being done – so the whole process of quizzing was not helping students to commit things to memory, as it should. The solution? Cover up the display, so students have to think about the answer.
The message here? Think about your displays. I think a nice display brightens up a classroom and looks great. However, they are often claimed to promote learning, but as explained by Martyn, they can actually serve to suppress the learning process – by stopping students from having to think and retrieve things from their memory.
Two great examples of the importance of stopping and thinking about why and how we do things in the classrooms – especially at the front of our classrooms.