History Resource Cupboard – lessons and resources for schools

History Resource Cupboard - lessons and resources for schools

Teaching Issues

Why waste your time with lolly sticks?

Over the last few years Assessment for Learning seems to have been Top of the Pops. Most school Development Plans include three magic letters: AfL. These three letters, this magic bullet is going to improve all of our classroom practice and drive up attainment…isn’t it?

Well if you are as boring as me and read ofsted reports for schools you will notice a common thread for improvement which comes up time and time again, more often than anything else…it goes something like this: To improve the school should:

  • use assessment information more effectively to ensure activities in lessons consistently meet the students needs and sustain their focus
  • ensure that students have a  better understanding of the next steps in their learning…

In normal speak this is saying that  AfL practices in the school is pretty rubbish and the school needs to improve them. So for the last ten years schools have been concerntrating on AfL and spending time and money training their staff in AfL – what has the result been?  Major criticism from ofsted . Oh dear – poor old Dylan Wiliam must be spitting feathers!

Many aspects of AfL are hugely beneficial to help improve learning –  if done well.  If you want to think more deeply about assessment, progression and feedback in history click here. However, the one area of AfL that everyone seems to forget and give so little thought to is questioning. Why is this so when this is most common form of interaction in any classroom?

The thing that really gets my goat – or makes me laugh (depending on which side of the bed I got out on that morning) is the use of lolly sticks in lessons.  Why bother? What a waste of time. Some clever clogs on SLT has been on some poor course and seen a ground breaking new pedagogical approach.  If teachers have lolly sticks with kids names on and pull one from a little pot during question and answer sessions, then the quality of questioning across the school will surely improve!? How flippin stupid is that?

There must be thousands of boxes of  lolly sticks with kids names on in classrooms across the country. Are they helping teachers ask better questions and students think more through talk? Of course not.

What schools need to do is spend their time and energy thinking about what questioning is for: to help students think through talk. This means that they need to talk more and be asked more higher order questions. They also need to spend time thinking about how all kids can access the more open and difficult questions being asked: by getting teachers to wait long enough to allow students to process the question and come up with an answer. Think time.  You don’t need a lolly stick to do that. You need to read some research, reflect on your practice and try out some simple strategies in the classroom.

If you want to find out what this research and strategies are read this article. If you want to find out a little more, read Richard Harris’s brilliant chapter in this  book: Cross Curricular Teaching and Learning in the Secondary School: Humanities. Chapter 5: Using talk to support thinking in the humanities 

One last thing on lolly sticks: If I am teaching a class I think I have the brain and authority to decide which pupil I am going to ask a question to. I will mix up the approach so I ask volunteers and conscripts. I will also get them to discuss the question in pairs for 30 seconds before picking on someone. I really don’t need to pull a stick out a box to this, do I?


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