How creative lesson tasks can be knowledge-rich, too

The debate over discovery-based learning vs knowledge-rich learning continues – but this teacher combines the two

Alysha Ali

Direct Instruction: Discovery-based learning can be knowledge-rich, too, says this international school teacher

Within education a debate often rages between those who advocate for a Direct Instruction, knowledge-rich approach to teaching and those who push for more creative discovery-based learning.

Both have merit, of course, but, for me, my experiences with EAL students especially have shown that creative approaches can be a great way to deliver real learning, while also imparting cultural capital.

This is because, according to theorists in the field of language acquisition, EAL pupils have an inhibitive "affective filter" – an invisible barrier to learning made up of anxiety, self-consciousness, boredom and a lack of motivation.

Thus, increasing engagement and motivation is essential in the EAL classroom.

So to engage my predominantly EAL classes, I have trialled a variety of tasks that are both practical and knowledge-rich in order to optimise learning.

Direct Instruction versus discovery-based learning

I recently kickstarted a Year 7 enquiry into "What can the Titanic tell us about the 20th century?"

To start this, I presented each child with a personalised "boarding pass" for the journey. Each ticket included the name of a victim or survivor, sourced from the fantastic Encyclopedia Titanica website.

Pupils would then take on the role of this character throughout the scheme of work, providing their person’s point of view on aspects of the Titanic journey.

This idea may be deemed a gimmick by some, solely for the purpose of engaging learners while taking up lots of teaching time with minimal payoff.

And yes, initially the tickets did serve as a hook for my pupils, decreasing the invisible "affective filter’ as my predominantly native Spanish-speaking pupils compared and contrasted their randomly assigned tickets.

Academic credentials 

However, more importantly, the task had academic rigour. Individual passengers were specifically chosen so that, through their research, pupils relayed deep knowledge on a diverse section of society.

From the intriguing story of the only black passenger on the Titanic to pupils discussing the "forgotten" Arab victims and Spanish victims of the Titanic.

One theorist argues that where topics are culturally relevant to pupils, they are able to create meaningful contexts and cognitive challenge is therefore kept high.

This was clear to see for my native Spanish link to my pupils further piqued their interest and engagement.

This also meant that the creative approach wasn’t just about a one-lesson gimmick and instead was hugely knowledge-rich, as pupils learned about trends of migration in the 1920s and attitudes towards race and nationalities in the 20th century.

Pupils were therefore exposed to diversity, again crucial in an international school context where cultivating global mindset is an imperative aim.

Building learning impacts 

Through later tasks such as diary writing, speech bubble creating and initial responses to primary sources, such as a Maiden Voyage brochure, pupils were able to put themselves in the shoes of their figure and really consider how their position and social background would have influenced their response at different parts of the Titanic story.

The use of practical and engaging tasks to lower the inhibitive affective filter in EAL pupils does not have to be restricted to young learners either.

Creativity can be embedded strategically and purposefully into lessons, balanced with direct instruction and retrieval.

For example, in a Year 10 lesson, my students initially struggled to recall terminology such as ‘’assembly line’’ and ‘’mass production’’ when learning about production lines and the Ford motor car during an iGCSE study into the 1920s American "boom".

So I introduced a practical task in which students were split into two teams who created their own Henry Ford-esque factories and assembly lines to produce paper planes.

Similarly, during placements in a dual language school in The Netherlands, I approached the teaching of Ancient Roman life by giving each pupil their "Ancient Roman name" and a character.

Pupils, whilst engaged, were able to demonstrate their knowledge from the enquiry in creating a storyboard of a day in their Roman character’s life. This use of visuals was extremely helpful for the EAL group.

These practical and creative activities involved lowering the affective filter to so that pupils were engaged and confident in approaching the lesson content.

Overall, I am not saying that teachers should shoehorn in creative tasks – but that creativity can be made purposeful and knowledge-rich when used in a big-picture approach. This is especially true – and valuable – in the EAL classroom.

And within the wider debate between creative activities and Direct Instruction, perhaps we need to find some space in the middle to meet and recognise the merits of each approach.

Alysha Ali is a teacher of history at an international school in Spain

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