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'Stop asking pupils: "What do you want to know?"'

When starting a primary topic, build pupils' knowledge before asking them what they'd like to learn, says Michael Tidd

Primary pupils can only tell you what they want to learn about a topic if you give them some knowledge first, writes Michael Tidd

When starting a primary topic, build pupils' knowledge before asking them what they'd like to learn, says Michael Tidd

What’s the most interesting thing you know about the reign of George III? The madness, right? Because everyone knows about that, even if only because of the film. But what if I were to ask you what else you’d like to know about that period of history? Save for a few history buffs, the chances are most readers aren’t sure there is anything much more of interest. And you can guarantee that virtually nobody is thinking: “I’d really like to know about who the Georgians were and what sort of houses they lived in."

A few weeks ago, I’d have been in the same boat. I’ve not even seen the film The Madness of King George, but I’m vaguely aware of the history of kings and queens and had a rough idea about the madness. But what I didn’t know about the period – I didn’t know. At a push, I could have given a very rough estimate of when it was and then I’d have struggled. I certainly couldn’t have told you what I wanted to know.

Why is it that we expect children to participate in the bizarre ritual of telling us what they want to learn about a subject?

Whether it’s through a grid in their books or brainstorming as a class, it can feel inclusive and engaging to ask children what they want to find out, but in reality, they rarely know enough about a topic to know. And so we end up with the generic headings they recall from previous studies. If it’s history, then “What did they eat?” crops up. A study of Brazil? “What do they eat there?”. A science topic about space? “How do they eat up there?”

Unlock pupils' curiosity

The truth is, until you know a reasonable amount about a topic, it’s hard to make any sense of where your gaps lie. Rarely is our interest sparked by a subject we’ve never encountered before. Indeed, our lack of knowledge can be a barrier. For me, knowing Tudors and Victorians well from the primary curriculum, and recognising the importance of the Stuarts through the Civil War and Reformation rather left me thinking that there was little to know about the less-mentioned Georgians.

Recent experience, however, has proven me wrong. I’ve been listening to a series of podcasts called “Rex Factor”, which looks at the lives and events of kings and queens since Alfred the Great. I’d almost have been tempted to skip over the Georgians, based on my flimsy knowledge, and yet was surprised to see that George III warranted a double-episode. It turns out that a huge amount happened in his long reign, from the French Revolution to American independence and the only assassination of a British prime minister.

What's the relevance to teaching? Well, if you’re starting a topic by asking the children what they want to know, what are the chances of them asking: “Were any prime ministers assassinated in the period?” Fairly slim, I’d expect. The same will be true of many of the topics we teach. How many children would start a topic about Romans wondering if there were any female warriors involved? Or would think to ask whether Italy had a particularly volcanic history?

Instead, we end up with the banal mundanities of life, and there’s a risk that we actually switch children off learning. It’s hard to get excited about a new subject when all you can do is guess at what might be involved.

Much better to start a topic by telling them that there’s much excitement to come. Ditch the “what do you want to know?” question, and replace it with the exciting stuff they’re going to find out about: that’ll really whet their appetite.

Michael Tidd is headteacher at Medmerry Primary School in West Sussex. He tweets as @MichaelT1979 

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