Shaking it up – enthusiasm and engagement in secondary schools

Champagne uncorking

Uncork their enthusiasm!

Source: http://www.commons.wikimedia.org

  • Springy pavements generating electricity from pedestrians!
  • Office blocks retrofitted with living roofs and walls!
  • Hydrogen powered buses!
  • Free public transport for all!
  • Monthly cycle to work and litter picking days!

It’s hard not to be buoyed up about the future when you come across ideas like these.  And this effect is heightened by the fact that they came from people who will be responsible for shaping what the future of humankind will look like – our young people.

Fizzing with ideas

I recently marked a Year 8 class set of designs for a sustainable city.  They researched their ideas independently, drew up plans in pairs, then justified their plans individually in a ‘books-open’ in-class report.  I often marvel at students’ ingenuity and depth of research, and I know it might sound corny, but whilst marking this piece of work, I found myself breaking off every now and again to wistfully consider their enthusiasm – and what happens to it in the remainder of their years of secondary education.

City plan 1

Year 8 sustainable city work – showing enthusiasm and promise!

I was reminded of my childhood, when I had fantastical thoughts about designing buildings and cities, which I expressed in cartoons and occasionally in Lego.  You might be thinking ‘No wonder he became a Geography teacher!’ – but looking at the imagination and creativity shown by students year after year, I think that this enthusiasm is common among a very large number of younger students, not all of whom will go on to become geographers, architects or planners.

In primary school and in the early years of secondary school, teachers of all subjects find that most students fizz with ideas and positivity.  The almost palpable feeling of energy is part of why a career in education appeals to many people.  But teachers will recognise a slide in the levels of enthusiasm of their charges as the secondary school years progress.

The Enthusiasm Transition Model (ETM)

This trend can be illustrated by the rigidly scientifically researched ‘Enthusiasm Transition Model’ (ETM).  How many teachers (or parents) recognise the stages shown below?:

ETM

The Enthusiasm Transition Model (ETM)

The ETM and the secondary school years

Year 7, and, with a following wind, Year 8 too: Most pupils are keen to take part in discussions and many of them even like to perform tasks like handing out books.  Many pupils are even sorely disappointed if they are not chosen!

Year 9: A scattering of pupils volunteer their thoughts, but almost no-one is bothered if they are not chosen.  The enthusiasts fight to keep their keenness hidden.

Years 10 and 11: A couple of students half-heartedly volunteer, and there is no need to implement a ‘hands down’ policy in most classes because it’s de facto in operation anyway!

Years 12 and 13: Students have actively chosen your subject, so there is a slight resurgence in classroom engagement, if you are lucky.   However, it can be hard to keep students’ attention at such a busy time of their lives.

City plan 2

More Year 8 sustainable city work

Letting the champagne go flat

So what explains this gradual decline in most children’s enthusiasm in their time at secondary school?

Some of it may be lost as pupils are exposed to more of the realities of their personal life – the creeping realisation that they will not always be able to get what they want.

Similarly, as they escape from the protective bubble of their carers, children will see at first hand some of the more challenging aspects of the world: the homeless person they see under the arches at the railway station; the incident of road rage on the way to school; conflicts amongst family members which were kept under control in the pupils’ early childhood.

Some enthusiasm may be displaced by the increasing responsibilities of youth and adulthood – when you have momentous decisions to make about future careers, relationships, driving, and so on, there is not enough time to dwell on ideas, let alone ideals.

Some of it is swallowed up internally as young people succumb to peer pressure.  The pressure to ‘fit in’ with the norms of their chosen group(s) is often overwhelming.  This impetus to impress their friends over their parents and teachers is reinforced by subtle glances and under-the-breath comments in classroom discussions whenever someone forgets where they are for a moment and dares to volunteer.

Still more of it will surely be eroded by exposure to the negative tone, not only of the ‘mainstream media’, but also of many of the ‘clickbait’ stories used by some news websites to hook in readers.

But some of it, I argue, is attributable to various aspects of the educational system.  Yes, we have come a long way from the days of ruling by fear, the crushing of individuality and corporal punishment which featured in some pupils’ lives in relatively recent decades (although some draconian approaches have made a comeback – see the debate about ‘flattening the grass’ (Smith, 2019)).  Nevertheless, students are still held back, in different degrees in different contexts, whether this be by regimentation, institutionalisation, momentum and paucity of imagination in our education system (I write from a UK context), let alone financial threats to the curricular and extra-curricular existence of ‘creative’ subjects and sports.

Bubbling over

Before going any further, I realise that a burst of enthusiasm is not going to be an educational panacea: a certain degree of structure is required to allow our current education system to work.  I also realise that some readers will question the need to (re)enthuse our youth – there are benefits for young people and their educators from the former being calmed and directed at times!

Furthermore, as Adam Smith wrote in The Wealth of Nations, enthusiasm in the absence of facts and carefully considered analysis can be deleterious to the advancement of the populace, particularly in terms of politics and the economy: he believed that educated people are “less liable… to the delusions of enthusiasm and superstition”.  To put my head above the parapet, I can see some validity in this point of view in the context of the Brexit debate.  Finally, as I write elsewhere, and inspired by Hans Rosling et al (2018), a fact-based worldview is essential for us to make the right decisions for the future of humankind and our planet.

But all this notwithstanding, I don’t think that more engagement and ‘buzz’ will lead our students astray – rather, it should re-energise them with education and the wider world.

City write up 1

More Year 8 work: How can you continue to generate this kind of outcome from your students in the secondary school years?

Uncorking students’ enthusiasm!

In my customary search for a solution, I hereby volunteer some thoughts for how educators could try to keep young people keener for longer:

  • The only time that pupils may go outside in the school day might be during lunch or breaktime. This runs counter to the needs of childhood development.  Why not embrace the outdoors?  You can read some of my musings on this subject here, but the YHA has launched a powerful video on ‘the adventure effect’ (https://groups.yha.org.uk/adventure-effect) which draws upon research showing that the outdoors is not only beneficial to young peoples’ physical health, but also their mental well-being too
  • Think how you could give opportunities to young people to express their enthusiasm outside of lessons, perhaps by holding lunchtime clubs, or competitions. To this end you could keep an eye on your subject association, many of which will run several such competitions a year – see, for example, the Geographical Association’s World Wise Quizzes: https://www.geography.org.uk/Get-Involved-1/Student-activities/WorldWise-local-quiz
  • Reward ‘below the radar’ enthusiasm – such as students writing in extra depth in certain homework tasks – by writing positive comments (and giving commendations/merits) to demonstrate that you recognise and celebrate initiative and keenness
  • Be a role model in the classroom – show the class that you care about the subject and your enthusiasm might become infectious. Fair enough, this is tough to achieve, and I am acutely aware that my enthusiasm can come across as being too eager to please, but combined with humour and perhaps a touch of self-deprecation, this approach can work
  • School and year-group assemblies can play an important role in celebrating achievements and inspiring students to follow their dreams and interests
  • School or personal subscriptions to news outlets dedicated to young people can help to redress the negativity of adult-orientated media. Examples of these outlets include The Day (which my school subscribes to and which every form tutor receives by email every morning) and children’s weekly newspapers such as First News
  • Finally, in terms of day-to-day and week-to-week pedagogy, consider the tasks that you set pupils – do they allow students a free enough rein to follow their interests within the task? For instance, could you give…
    • a choice of case studies (offer the choices then see how enthusiastic the students are when they are told it is first come, first served!)?
    • a choice of websites for research?
    • a choice of websites, articles, or TED talks for students to consume and feedback on (I tried the TED talk choice for a recent A Level theme of gender equality in education)?
    • a choice of presentation medium and/or group size? For example, in one task we allowed students to either plan and deliver a form assembly as a group, create a website and social media campaign as a pair, or to write to their MP individually
    • more time during which pupils could generate ideas (‘ideation’). Ewan McIntosh introduced delegates to methods to facilitate this at the 2016 Practical Pedagogies Conference – these include using randomiser websites such as http://www.randomideagenerator.com/ to mix up unlikely concepts and end users.  I have used these techniques to try to break deadlocks when students struggle to think of ideas for projects such as EPQs.  More ideation techniques are available here: https://www.interaction-design.org/literature/article/introduction-to-the-essential-ideation-techniques-which-are-the-heart-of-design-thinking

As always, I welcome your feedback.  Don’t be afraid of curbing my enthusiasm!

David

Bibliography

Hazell, W. (2019) Teaching at ’flattening the grass’ school ‘felt like being a prison warden’ – TES, 14 February 2019 (accessed 24 February 2019): https://www.tes.com/news/teaching-flattening-grass-school-felt-being-prison-warden

Rosling, H, Rosling, O and Rosling-Ronnlund, A (2018) Factfulness (Sceptre)

Smith, A. (1789) An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (5th edn: Methuen and Co, Ltd – as reproduced at https://www.econlib.org/library/Smith/smWN.html),

The Last Straw or the Last Resort? Using Games in Geographical Education

playinglaststraw

Students playing their own health and development game

Source: Author

With nine minutes to go until my Year 9 class arrived, I tried to get my Year 13 students to pack up prior to a plenary activity, but they did not want to finish the activity which they had been working on for well over an hour.

What was this activity?  A video?  A past paper question just prior to a report?  No – it was a board game – in fact it was the third one that they had made themselves.  They were all genuinely keen to learn!  So I let them play the game.

The Last Straw

Sometimes, it’s a struggle to think how I can bring the requirements of specifications to life.  In this case, I needed to convey the relationship between development and health in the UK, Brazil, and amongst Aboriginal Australians*.  Hmmm.  As it happens, a few years ago, I was lucky to have attended a Teachers’ Workshop at Leeds University, led by Myles Gould (@Myles_Gould_UoL), during which he introduced ‘The Last Straw – a board game on the social determinants of health’.  This can be purchased here: www.thelaststraw.ca

tls-board

The Last Straw board game

Source: http://www.thelaststraw.ca 

It’s not the most exciting title, I admit, but I have played it over a dozen times with different groups over the years, and it works – it always generates a discussion on the complexities of public health.  The game is set in Canada, and in almost all respects, the scenarios are like those encountered in the UK.  It has stood the test of time, and indeed it provides a good basis for discussions about how public health challenges have changed over the past decade (some for the better and some for the worse, but, wearing my ‘optimist’ hat, more for the better, I would argue!).

Playing The Last Straw

The game comes with detailed instructions, but here is an outline: The facilitator splits the students into up to four groups, and each one is issued with a ‘character card’.  They roll dice to determine the socio-economic status, gender and ethnic background of their character.  Once these have been set, they are issued ‘vitality chips’ to represent their level of health – for example, males get ten chips and females get nine.  This provides the first of many opportunities in the game to discuss why there are health inequalities – and indeed, whether some of them have changed since the game was made a decade ago, and how some may differ in different countries.  At this point it is best to mention that there will be sensitive scenarios in the game, some of which may apply to players in the room or their close acquaintances, and that mutual respect would be appreciated.

Then the players proceed around the board, encountering individual scenarios (e.g. rolling a dice to decide if they try drugs) or community scenarios (e.g. ‘the government provides funding for pre-school care’).  For every scenario, the player risks losing or gaining ‘vitality’ chips.  There are also three staging posts – adolescence, adulthood, and old age – when dice are again rolled to determine whether, for example, the educational level of the character changes.  Discussions are always encouraged, and sometimes, mini quizzes are set – such as when all present are rewarded with a vitality chip if they can collectively think of some ways to overcome a public health challenge – e.g. ways to stop smoking.

Taking it further

makinglaststraw

Students designing their own health and development game

Source: Author

This worked well – but I decided to build on the game and ask students to design their own.  They did this in small teams – one group made a game for the UK case study, another made one for Brazil, and the last group made one for Aboriginal Australians.  I made a smaller playing board but asked the students to retain the mixture of initial life chances, individual scenarios and community scenarios.  The students then took it in turn to play these games (I became a participant too, although I also corrected any factual inaccuracies and stimulated further discussion points during the games).  These were the games that the group were determined to play up to and beyond the end of the lesson.

Other games

Other games I have played in Geography are include:

Justifications for using games in teaching

I recommend the judicious use of games in teaching, and especially recommend the practice of students making their own games, for these reasons (among many others!):

  • Students engage with the topic in both the playing of, and the creation of, the games
  • Games encourage students to modify case study content, not just regurgitate it
  • They allow teachers to develop plenty of ‘primed’ discussions where the seed of a situation is planted**, rather than ‘blank slate’ discussions where students are asked to think on their feet

Take care!

Games should be used carefully, and here are some factors which should be considered:

  • The size of the class
  • The behaviour of the class
  • Time of day, day of the week, and time within the term: some of the more active ones can work well when children might be less receptive to more settled tasks, but others, such as the Last Straw, require more deliberation and discussion
  • The time available – for example, the activities covered above took longer than the time I would normally take to cover the bare bones of the content.  However, the listening, processing, and deliberative skills developed by playing The Last Straw and the three spin-off games justified the time devoted to them
  • The time taken by the teacher to prepare for each game (this is a great opportunity for spreading the workload around colleagues!)
  • Whether or not the players need to take notes, and if so, in which format, and when – during, or after the game?  In my experience, such reflections can work as a homework task
  • Follow-up activities – this could be a written reflection, or it could be a sample examination question – this is what I will be giving my group after playing The Last Straw

Finally, each of these games requires contextualisation and on-the-spot willingness on behalf of the teacher to be flexible.  It is also worth mentioning that the seriousness of the subject matter of each game should be considered – they represent real life scenarios.  I still wince when I remember playing a board game created by a fellow PGCE Geography student 18 years ago – he called his game ‘Bangladesh bingo’, and the first player who successfully ticked off the impacts of a flooding event, such as ‘a cholera outbreak kills thousands’, had to stand up and celebrate by shouting out ‘floodtastic!’.

Final thoughts…

Has anyone come across a climate change – or ‘sustainable futures’ board game of the same level of complexity as The Last Straw?  I was thinking that one day, I could make a board game!

David

* For the Edexcel A Level ‘Health, Human Rights and Intervention’ module.

** Such as ‘You lost one vitality chip for contracting an STD, but two for the anxiety resulting from being bullied – is this a fair representation of the relative seriousness of these two events, and indeed what is your opinion of the importance of physical versus mental challenges to health?’