How teachers can steer clear of education gimmicks

Teachers must be wary of the scourge of 'pedagimmickry', which can waste precious time, says Richard Holme

Richard Holme

How teachers can steer clear of education gimmicks

Back when I was teaching in primary school, I loved a gimmick. Whether this was a neat new website, an activity I saw in a magazine or an idea I had magpied from a colleague, I would add it to my growing repertoire of teaching tips and tricks.

But one thing I rarely did was question the pedagogical value of the activity. Subconsciously, I was rejecting some, but I rarely took the time to consider the teaching and learning benefit. Higher education has issues with this, too.

And, following the move to online learning during Covid, everyone has been trying to utilise various brands of interactive quizzes. You can't question that these generate engagement, but what is less clear is how they impact learning and deepen understanding.

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This problem doesn't just apply to lecturers or class teachers. I recently joined a cohort of students who are studying for the Scottish Into Headship qualification. They were debating the issue of international policy tourism and the problems caused by initiatives and ideas coming and going.

Why teachers should be careful with education gimmicks

This led me to think about what life must be like as a headteacher. There must be a constant stream of initiatives and directives coming from the department head, local authority or – in England – academy trust leaders, often without any explanation of the research evidence behind the idea.

For a short period in the UK, for example, some school inspectors suggested that work shared on walls should always include mistakes, so that pupils could embrace their growth mindset. This sounds reasonable in principle – and I imagine many schools jumped to adopt it – only for it to vanish without trace months later.

Social media, and an audience of desperate teachers ready to embrace a new way to teach or demonstrate learner progress, has put rocket boosters under this trend for "pedagimmickry". "Life hacks" come at us from every direction – why not the same for the classroom and teaching?

So, why is this all so attractive to teachers?

Well, teachers are time-poor, and a gimmick is seductive. You see the "hoop hop showdown" PE variation of the rock, paper, scissors game on Facebook, or a clever way to decorate your class door for World Book Day and it looks cool, fills time and the kids will love it.

But, of course, it isn't always quick and it creates a false economy, where you disengage your teacher brain in the drive to find time to get essential work done. It is all about the product, not the process: well done, we congratulate ourselves, we did a thing.

What is the alternative? Well, we have to start with ourselves and what we know. You might have an hour  if you are lucky  to plan a morning's teaching. If you do, then don't spend this time searching aimlessly for activities.

Instead, go back to the subject. Ask yourself what you know about this topic. Perhaps develop a knowledge organiser for your own benefit. Reread the curriculum guidance or syllabus. Focus on the aim and objective. Finally, ask yourself how you will develop conceptual knowledge or key skills for the learners.

And last of all, when you see pedagimmickry in action, why not ask the instigator – in a non-judgemental way, of course – about the educational benefit? It might lead to a bit more reflection and a greater focus on learning.

Richard Holme is an academic at the University of Dundee School of Education and a former primary teacher. He tweets @richardjholme

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