You gotta have a gimmick...;Pedagogy

22nd October 1999 at 01:00
Huw Thomas on how to give your pupils a lesson to remember

Anyone who has ever stood in front of 34 pupils can tell you that getting facts across to children is not so easy.

Information for this demanding audience needs to be structured so it will assist its communication. If you skim through youth magazines you soon see a trend towards "fact files" - information in manageable bites. Articles headed: "Three things you need to remember whenI" or "Ten things you didn't know aboutI" show an underlying structure children can grasp.

Before delivering such data, you have to organise it. This could involve putting it into three or five points - any more is pushing it. The facts themselves should always be related to something tangible. For example, one picture caption in The TES read: "The Grand Canyon is as wide as the English Channel, as long as the road from London to Newcastle and as deep as a dozen skyscrapers". The writer took the unfamiliar and compared it with something we could understand.

Subject-specific words can be a mixed-blessing but terms such as "erosion" are useful hooks on which to hang a big idea. If pupils can remember the hook, they can recall the idea. An explanation with a glossary-type list of new terms is essential. A title like "Five words about rivers" helps make the list even more manageable.

By structuring facts in these ways we do two things. First, we organise our own material, ensuring we have it organised for ourselves. Second, we provide the listener with one of the best tools for listening.

The use of common connectives provides a memorable pattern for facts. If a chunk of science can be structured as a list of "becauses" ("because the wind blows, the bubble stretches outwards") or history as three "afters" ("After the War of the RosesI" "After Henry VII diedI") a simple underlying structure is given to the children. "Structured information" needs a bit of passion. In organising and delivering your facts, give particular points that will "wow" your listeners.

As a way of understanding atoms I was once asked to look at all the pebbles on Brighton beach and imagine each of them was a little Brighton beach, full of as many pebbles over again. I was asked to imagine how many pebbles there would now be "because that's how many atoms there are in a pebble". If we can find the "wow factor" in facts like that, children will listen and remember.

A gimmick - however simple - helps a lot. If, as five facts are delivered, children are called out and asked to hold up a card with one of them written in big letters on it, this visual act helps make the whole thing more memorable.

Quizzes are still intensely popular. Any "information slot" that leads to a quiz will greatly enhance the lesson. And if the quiz has a gimmick, so much the better. There was a teacher who blew up balloons and asked children questions. When the pupils answered, the balloon was popped and the pupils found the right answer had been secreted inside on a little foil of paper, making these chunks of information something that few of the pupils would forget.

Mnemonics have a long and valuable history because they work. How many of us know our spectrum because we know about "Richard of YorkI". I still get confused about the outer-planets but at least with "My Very Easy Method Just Speeds Up Naming Planets" I can get their first letters in the correct order. Mnemonics don't have to be clever. Just start with the set of words to be remembered, such as a glossary for a subject, and compose any old nonsensical sentence; it works just as well.

Images are memorable. Stars, diamonds, simple pictures - they are far easier to remember than a pile of words. They can also support the memory of a pile of words.

In many lessons, information is often noted on a board as it is delivered. If information can be charted in a branch or star structure, or on five steps, it becomes more memorable - especially if there is some link between the structure and the subject. So facts about the Tudors can be recorded in the petals of a Tudor Rose shape.

The subject matter we deliver should be significant and worth knowing. Our job is to find what can be memorable about raw facts and fashion them into effectively delivered material.

Huw Thomas teaches in Sheffield

Six points to remember

* Organise information into clear and separate points.

* Relate the distant to something tangible.

* Use terminology as a tool rather than a burden.

* Find the "wow" factor in what you're communicating.

* Use gimmicks, such as mnemonics and quizzes.

* Find graphic ways of representing information.

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