Building anticipation… How to get kids to look forward to your lessons without dumbing down

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?

A recent lessons with my Year 11 class neatly illustrates 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, gawd 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:

download (5)

Click here for sound!

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

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. Here are, Hywel Roberts’, the master of accidental learning, Top 5  suggestions:

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.

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10 Responses to Building anticipation… How to get kids to look forward to your lessons without dumbing down

  1. FunkyPedagogy says:

    An excellent post full of ideas which I will definitely be stealing! “Can we have a fun lesson today?” My usual response to this is, “I don’t know, can you?” My students have had the lecture many times about how it is THEIR responsibility to find something in every lesson which excites them; to be truly engaged in a lesson is to enjoy it. They all have an ‘engagement card’ in their pencil case which gives them tools for getting better involved in lessons which do not ‘float their boat’, e.g. asking a teacher for an example or analogy, considering their own opinion, thinking about the ‘big picture’, empathy (for a character or situation). With guidance and support, students can discover for themselves what it is about a lesson which has (in the words of @TeacherToolkit) ‘stickability’. This is the way to promote independent learning, confidence and passion which comes from the students’s own interests, not just from great teaching. Of course, this only works well when combined with teachers who work hard to plan engaging, challenging lessons which appeal to he imagination of their students. I just want to avoid the feeling that I am simply an entertainer; I want my students to take their own role as engaged learners seriously, and not just go from class to class expecting to be thrilled and amazed!

    I am not talking about diminishing the responsibility of a teacher, just raising that of a student so that the overall outcome is even greater.

    I’d be really interested to know your thoughts on this – I’m sure there are better ways of achieving my aim here.

  2. Martin says:

    We must have similarly disposed timetablers in our schools. My year 11s were whipped out at the end of their English exam to go to Science for exam revision. My objections on the basis of needing and deserving a break fell on deaf ears. They returned to me at 2pm for period 5 in a state of some exhaustion and antipathy towards doing any work. ‘We aren’t doing any work’. was their opening gambit. I ran through many ideas in my head and instantly discarded them.
    ‘I know, would you like to watch a film?’ Even at sixteen and after more than ten years of state education, it is possible to hoodwink an entire class. ‘Yes please.’

    Seven or eight minutes later we are seeing the snow scene in Citizen Kane where the young Charles Foster Kane is playing on ( spoiler alert!) Rosebud while his parents sign his future away- it’s something to do with a goldmine – to a rather forbidding authority figure. By now Year 11 are almost ready to burn the classroom to the floor. ‘How old is this?’ ‘It’s in black and white!”
    Three minutes later I’ve asked the question about how many camera shots they have just seen.
    Cue fascinated class for rest of lesson. Distract your classes with interesting stuff and then they want to learn; no motivation necessary.
    Sometimes!

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  8. Jill Berry says:

    Am late getting to this, David, but I enjoyed it and it made me remember one of the best pieces of advice I was given during my PGCE year when training to be a secondary English teacher. One of the lecturers said, ‘Get them to the point where they WANT to write’. Through good use of questions/discussion/stimulus material you can create the context where pupils are really keen to express their own ideas and they enjoy the opportunity to do that – building anticipation is key.

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