Building Anticipation…

How to get kids to look forward to your lessons without dumbing down

A guest post by David Didau, Director of English at Clevedon School

One of the banes of every teachers’ life is that endless, whining chorus of, “Can we do something fun today?” The correct answer to this pitiful plea is of course that learning is always fun and that today’s lesson, along with every other lesson, will contain the gift of knowledge. What could be more fun than that?

But this isn’t what they mean or what they want, is it? Sometimes, especially at the end of term, they’re less subtle and straight for the jugular by asking if they can watch a film. (And they’re not clamouring for Herzog or Kieślowski, are they? What they want, naturally enough, is Pixar or superheroes.) Yes, I tell them, of course you can. When you get home you may watch films to your heart’s content. Why would I waste this precious opportunity to expand your horizons by showing you something that you have already seen?

Surely, our job, at least in part, is to expand students’ cultural capital?

Two recent lessons with my Year 11 class neatly illustrate these issues.

Having sat their English Language exam earlier in the day, Year 11 felt that they deserved a ‘fun lesson’. Knowing that being allowed to watch films is utterly verboten they opted for a somewhat more disingenuous request: can we have a quiz? But this isn’t what they mean either. What they mean is, bless ‘em,”Can we have a lesson off?”

Although they groaned theatrically at having to commence studying Julius Caesar, they are, largely, a biddable lot and were happy enough, once their complaints were duly registered to get on with it. But it did make me think. What I should have done was to have lured them, á la Hywel Roberts, into learning despite themselves.

Today we were looking at Caesar’s dilemma in Act 2 scene 2 where he has to decide whether to heed Calpurnia’s warnings and stay at home or follow the advice of the devious Decius Brutus and toddle off to the Senate to get stabbed. Now this wasn’t a situation I felt that many of my students would recognise so I decided to focus on the familiar and liven it all up with some upbeat music.

So, this is what I confronted them with:

Click the pic for sound!

No one asked whether they could have a fun lesson. Why? Because they were having fun.

After a couple of minutes of this I could, frankly, have followed up with pretty much anything but, not wanting to waste all this anticipation, we moved straight into discussing the language and structure of the scene using The Ultimate Teaching Technique and had one of those lessons where everyone feels disappointed by the bell. Well, I did anyway. And they were discussing Shakespeare’s language! Like it mattered!

Building anticipation is, you’ll be pleased to hear, dead easy. It really doesn’t take much effort at all. While there are all sorts of techniques, Hywel, the master of accidental learning suggests:

5. Change norms (move furniture or rooms)

4. Place a ‘teaser’ poster on the door e.g. Plague Here

3. Dress up

2. Music

1. Fascinators: pics/sounds/objects that stop ‘em in their tracks.

Of these I regularly use 4, 2 and 1, with music being my personal favourite. All I have to think is, what is the sound track to today’s lesson?

And, at the end of the lesson, what is the EastEnders moment?

You see? Engagement doesn’t have to be a dirty word and there is never an argument in favour teaching The Simpsons instead of Macbeth! All it takes is pre-empting the ‘fun lesson’ question by working out what you’ll put on your spoon to help the medicine go down.