Entertaining the Troops

by Mark Edwards

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One vice that I will publicly admit to is an addiction to Internet message boards. To be specific, one particular group of message boards: that of the Times Educational Supplement. Hundreds of teachers post regularly on these boards on topics ranging from ‘What’s your favourite all-time film’ to ‘Is coursework a fiddle?’ A recent one that caught my eye was called ‘Are we teachers or entertainers?’ A read through the postings revealed a lively discussion about whether teachers should compete with the Sony Playstation in order to grab children’s attention, or whether they should teach them to cope with boredom.

This threw me. I used to espouse the cause of accelerated learning long before it penetrated through to mainstream education because I have always thought it important to motivate pupils and get them excited about learning. I also know that emotionally intelligent children can tolerate frustration and possess what is sometimes called ‘stickability’ - an ability to persevere and see things through.

The teachers posting on this message board seemed to fall into two camps - those who plan and teach all-singing, all-dancing, attention-grabbing lessons, and those who teach as they’ve always done because they think it’s important that children experience boredom and learn how to cope with it. 

 At the school where I most  recently taught , the assistant head teacher sometimes took Year Six assembly. Unlike me, he was able to work the large-screen DVD projector that the school owned, and consequently, assemblies usually began with a film extract - ‘Harry Potter’, ‘The Lord of The Rings’ and most recently the new ‘Star Wars.’ (Monday morning at this school seemed to be more like Friday night.) This was very enjoyable and certainly held the children’s attention and the subsequent short elucidation built cleverly on the film extract - ‘we all have different skills and abilities, just like the pilots who operate the spacecraft in Star Wars.’ 

There is of course much merit in dramatic openers that engage the children’s interest -another example I have come across is starting a lesson by eating a chopped up Mars bar from a can labelled ‘dog food’- and of course once that is done the teacher can go on to develop the real teaching and learning which is the basis of the lesson. What bothers me is that it’s difficult to start every lesson like this, or, even if you could, children’s expectations are going to be raised. Then you have a kind of ‘excitement inflation’ - after the dog food trick it’s going to look pretty pathetic if all you do at the start of the next lesson is ask the kids to write the date on the top line, put down their pens and look at the teacher.

Which is ironic, because in my recent experience teaching a difficult year seven class, that is precisely what worked best in terms of calming them and getting them into a ‘learning readiness’ state. I abandoned all my flashy accelerated learning techniques and adopted what some would describe a very formal and traditional approach - some copy writing, reading around the class and a (carefully chosen) text comprehension. Not an  interactive whiteboard in sight, and even if there had been I wouldn’t have known how to use it. As I write this and reflect on that experience I am reminded of the words of Thoreau: ‘simplify, simplify, simplify’ and the advice given to a young musician by the legendary Bob Dylan : ’keep it simple.’ 

Children are bombarded with visual and auditory stimulation and many rarely experience  moments of calm in lives which are cluttered with playstations, Sky digital TV, microwave meals and dogfood-eating teachers. I visited a school in India a month or so ago - nothing on the walls, wooden benches to sit on and not a PC in sight. But the children were cheerful, eager to learn and responded with enthusiasm to their teacher’s questions. 

It may  be that we are over-stimulating our children. We need to get to ‘back to basics’ through developing a new 3 ‘Rs’ : reflection, resourcefulness and resilience. Guy Claxton, in his book ‘Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind’ suggests that we need to encourage a slower, more reflective approach to learning, whereby curiosity is developed through intriguing children, rather than exciting or stimulating them. This can be done through using stories, puzzles and creative ‘thinking’ activities e.g. how many things can you think of that fit into a bottle? and games which involve a high degree of internal visualisation, such as Kim’s Game.[1] This is in marked contrast to the Ofsted approved insistence on ‘pace’ and, dare I say it, some of the accelerated learning material, which seems to me to mirror some of the ‘business NLP’ approaches in which people are pumped full of motivation only to plunge back to earth  when it doesn’t all flow as smoothly as they had been led to expect. ‘Soar, crash, burn’ is one way I have heard it described.  

Rather than competing with (and using) the new technology to entertain children, we should be offering an alternative approach that goes beyond an initial motivation which soon wears off. Interested educators should investigate some of the ‘thinking skills’ resources currently being produced as well as the books below.

·       [1]Kim’s game involves memorising a number of objects placed on a tray which are  then covered after a few minutes.   

Further reading :

Hare Brain Tortoise Mind : Guy Claxton, Fourth Estate

Teaching Meditation To Children : David Fontana, Element


Mark Edwards was a headteacher, who still teaches part-time but combines this with writing articles, educational consultancy and entertaining people who like to hear badly performed rock, pop and music hall classics. He still carries a torch for child-centred education and is encouraged by the current interest in emotional literacy and thinking skills in schools. Mark is in the process of re-locating to Somerset, with his partner Liz,  where he will continue his training in Integrative Counselling. He is a Master Practitioner in NLP (Psychotherapy). Email: Mark4Ed@aol.com.