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Engaging Students - A Ghostly Problem

“Professor Binns had been very old indeed when he had fallen asleep in front of the staff room fire and got up the next morning to teach, leaving his body behind him.”


If Hogwarts had been subject to a magical equivalent of ‘Rate My Teacher,’ I would hazard a guess that poor old Cuthbert[1] Binns wouldn’t have received many nice comments from his students. His lessons were described as “easily the most boring” at Hogwarts, and his sonorous soliloquies have managed to lull even the most diligent of students into a gentle slumber.


For those of you who are unfamiliar with Professor Binns, he is the ‘History of Magic’ teacher and is the only member of staff at Hogwarts who is a ghost. He is a man who is so set in his ways and routines, that he simply left his mortal body behind in the staff room one day and carried on teaching without even noticing. It’s hard not to envisage a teacher that you know when you imagine that scenario, isn’t it?


Professor Binns represents an age-old stereotype: a wizened man armed with reading glasses, chalk and a blackboard, who would likely be unfazed if half of his class were to suddenly burst into flames (an unlikely situation, but this is a school where turning furniture into farm animals is part of the curriculum, so who knows?). I imagine that anyone reading this remembers a teacher like that, or perhaps even knows one now. And therein lies the problem.


‘Chalk and Talk’ teaching was, for the longest time, a widely accepted teaching method. You wrote things down on a board whilst students took notes, and said students were expected to commit these notes to memory in preparation for a test which would analyse their ability to take notes and memorise them. My goodness, it is sinfully boring even just to type those words, let alone think of the poor souls who were subjected to such a poor quality of teaching.


The idea of expositional lecturing ‘at’ a class is one that has – quite rightly – fallen to the wayside, as the last 20 years or so have seen a dramatic shift in the way that lessons are delivered. New and old teachers alike are pushed to find innovative ways to engage their students, to make the content they are delivering excitable, relatable, meaningful and contextual. There is a strong culture in most schools now of lessons being ‘student-led,’ with a strong emphasis on minimising the amount of time that the teacher spends talking.


To illustrate this, let’s imagine one of Professor Binn’s lessons and see if we can’t make ‘History of Magic’ a little more exciting. Wands away please – open your textbooks and your minds!


Giant Wars: Bringing magical history to life


"Today, they suffered an hour and a half's droning on the subject of giant wars. Harry heard just enough within the first ten minutes to appreciate dimly that in another teacher's hands this subject might have been mildly interesting, but then his brain disengaged, and he spent the remaining hour and twenty minutes playing hangman on a corner of his parchment with Ron, while Hermione shot them filthy looks out of the corner of her eye." [2]


I’m inclined to agree with young Mr Potter here; the subject material may well indeed have been more interesting in the hands of a different teacher. This quote from the fifth book illustrates the problem with laboriously lecturing students for an hour – they will get bored.


So, let us assume the role of “a different teacher”. How can we make this content more engaging for the students, to ensure that they all make progress and that – ultimately – the lesson is a successful one?


Two disclaimers before we begin:


1. I openly profess to know absolutely nothing about the ‘Giant Wars,’ other than they supposedly took place during the mid to late nineteenth century. In fact, there is frustratingly little reading material available on the subject, something which I hope J.K. Rowling amends at some point. That being said, it matters little for the discussion which will follow.

2. These ideas are my own interpretation of a lesson, and they are just that – ideas. They are not the only ways that you could make the lesson more engaging, and they’re almost certainly not the best ways. They are simply some suggestions for alternative activities to break up the monotony of Professor Binns’ usual hour-long drone.


Learning Objective: To be able to evaluate the role that the wizards had in the ‘Giant Wars’

Knowing, as I do, absolutely nothing about the actual subject matter, I’m not going to get bogged down by the actual content of the lesson, rather the style in which it could be delivered. Here is a fictional lesson plan which comes to my mind when I look at the learning objective:

__________________________________________________________________________________

Starter Activity – Timeline (5 mins)

Give each student a ‘date card’ as they enter the room. Each one has written upon it a significant event in the ‘Giant Wars’ and the date that it took place. Ask the students to line themselves up along one wall of the classroom in chronological order. Instantly, you are engaging student’s brains with a simple problem-solving activity, which not only has them moving around the room (I’m a fan of this where possible and appropriate) but also puts the onus on them to access the lesson content.

This could potentially be followed by some questioning to assess what students already know about these events. I won’t go into questioning here, as that topic merits a discussion all of its own.


Main Activity 1 – 5/4/3/2/1 (25 mins)

The topic of the lesson could be introduced by the teacher. This might take the form of an image on the board, a short reading from a textbook, or a few prepared notes. The important thing is that it should be no longer than 3 minutes of the teacher talking, maybe 5 at the absolute most.

Give each student a ‘role’ to research from this point in history, using the textbook. The teacher provides students with a 5/4/3/2/1 template to help them organise their ideas. A 5/4/3/2/1 template is a simple concept, which is best illustrated with an example:


You need to find:

· 5 interesting facts about your historical figure

· 4 other figures they were connected to

· 3 reasons why they became involved with the Giant Wars

· 2 questions you would want to ask this figure if you could interview them today

· 1 word to summarise your historical figure



Immediately, the ownership of the lesson is transferred to the students – they are finding their own information, forming their own ideas and opinions and accessing the content with the framework your have provided. Sounds good, no?


Main Activity 2 – ‘Hot-Seat’ (20 mins)

Now that the students have some information to hand about their historical figure, make them use it! Have each student come to the front of the class and pretend to be the historical figure they have researched. The class takes it in turns to ask questions (the teacher could allow several minutes for the group to come up with some questions) and the student in the ‘hot-seat’ must answer as they believe their historical figure would have answered.

Again, this is a student-led activity, with students taking the role of ‘teacher’ for a short period of time. Another bonus of this, of course, is that it allows the teacher to quickly address lots of misconceptions at once with minimal effort.


Plenary Activity – Practice Question (10 mins)

The idea of a plenary task is to assess the learning that has taken place during the lesson – i.e. have the students met the learning objective? A quick and easy way to do this could be to give the class a practice exam style question from a previous O.W.L. paper.[3]

Allow students 5 minutes to attempt the question independently, and then ask the students to peer-assess their answer with another student. This could be assisted by the teacher putting a ‘model answer’ up on the board for students to refer to.

__________________________________________________________________________________


And that’s it! As I mentioned earlier, this is certainly not the only way to plan this lesson, nor is it the best way. The only thing I wanted to achieve with my fictional lesson plan, is to show poor old Professor Binns that his lessons could be much more engaging with relatively little effort on the part of the teacher.


It can be difficult to depart from the status quo, but sometimes it can be extremely rewarding. The important thing to remember, is to not be afraid of trying something new. You might stumble upon a fantastic new strategy which quickly becomes part of your teaching repertoire. Even if it doesn’t work, you should rest easy knowing that you are trying your absolute best to engage a group of young minds and give them a fantastic educational experience. And that’s all anyone can ask of you, really.

[1] Yes – Cuthbert is in fact the first name of Hogwart’s own, Professor Binns


[2] Harry Potter and the Order of The Phoenix


[3] An O.W.L. is the magical world’s equivalent of our GCSE exams. It stands for ‘Ordinary Wizarding Levels.’

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