DVDs, drama and doodles: things that aren’t teaching

Tom Bennett

Schools aren’t marketplaces and kids aren’t customers, but value for money is still something we can take seriously in classrooms and schools. I’m not talking about the simple cost/ benefit analyses of the spreadsheet but bang for your buck. I was reminded of this last week when I heard a parent from another school complain that their child had been given a DVD for the entire afternoon that day. Was it part of a syllabus? No. Was it part of some broader study? Was it tangentially educational? Was it a “treat” for some other greater labour? All no. It was just there. “Why should I fret about making sure my son attends every day, on time,” she said, “if a teacher treats lesson time as something so disposable.”

And she was absolutely right. Burning up an hour and change with the latest Hunger Games film makes me want to kill a few tributes myself. Outside of a media course, the only place for a full movie is a film club or similar. Otherwise you’re just lighting cigars with fivers made out of children’s opportunities. Every second counts in a school; many children won’t get a second chance to sound out letters, learn about Vikings, run their tongue around algorithms and formulae and rhyme. For too many kids, school is the big window into another dimension, a cannon that can fire them from here to infinity. So why stuff that cannon with confetti?

There are lot of things that can happen in a classroom, and the teacher can set it up, and the children can do it, but it isn’t teaching or learning. It’s cargo cult teaching. From the safety glass porthole of the corridor it looks like a lesson, but it isn’t. DVDs are only one of the most obvious examples. In my career I’ve done plenty of them, I’ve seen many more of them, and it took me years to see through the candy floss and the tinsel. Some things just aren’t teaching; they’re activities that, yes, generate heat and light, but offer no warmth or illumination.

Posters often fall into this category. “Do a poster,” says the teacher. And an hour trickles away and bubble writing happens, and someone back shadows the title, and four sentences are written while someone else cuts out pictures of “crime” or “celebrity” from the staffroom copy of Take a Break!. To be honest, a lot of group work is “not teaching”. It just looks like it. Role plays are frequently not teaching either, especially if the teacher insists on drearily parading every troupe’s re-enactment of the death of Lennie (but updated for the 21st century! Lol) featuring wrestling and five seconds of dialogue.

“What do you think about…X?” tasks are often not teaching. “Design your ideal room/house/theme park, etc” are almost always not teaching. “Imagine you are an 18th-century blacksmith” tasks: they are usually an attempt to sacrifice content for that holy grail of zany education – engagement. The understanding is that the less content the better; the lie is that this is a better way to teach and that subjects taught in this way are more memorable. But the learning mind learns from what it attends to, not from what it avoids. Education is not some bitter pill to be slipped inside a chocolate drop. Learning about the world is an extraordinary thing. If we tell them it is, if we sell them that it is, then it is. And if we cut out some of the not teaching, you have more time for…well…you know.

Tom Bennett is a secondary teacher in East London, director of the ResearchED conference and the government’s school behaviour expert

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Tom Bennett

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