In an educational climate where the danger of overemphasising 'coverage' exists we need to consider the issue of acquisition and reflect on a range of methods which help to maximise the acquisition levels of our pupils. One area which needs consideration is the field of hedonic psychology. At the core of hedonic psychology is the principle that human actions are determined primarily by seeking the pleasant and avoiding the unpleasant. Recognising that happy individuals are usually productive individuals, the business sector has not been slow to embrace research findings, and bodies such as 'The Happiness Project'*1 are currently working with a range of companies in order to increase the effectiveness (through increasing the general happiness) of the workforce. The same principles may be directly transferable to that other institution - the school. If we apply hedonic psychology to classroom practice, acknowledging that what occurs in the classroom is the significant determinant of change, then it can be surmised that in order to create a high-level learning environment educators need classrooms to be places which their users (pupils and teachers) associate with pleasant feelings.
The merits of such a statement are unlikely to be debated by members of the teaching profession; it is something which we all strive for. And yet there are a range of components which can enhance enjoyment of the learning process. As there is now clear neuro-physiological evidence that increased excitement aids long term memory, the following set of seven goals for the 'Wow-factor' classroom are presented for discussion:
1. THINK HUMOUR / FUN!
If the 'My Best Teacher' column of the Times Educational Supplement is analysed for, let us say, a year, and we extrapolate from that the facets or attributes which make the teachers discussed the 'best' then humour sits highly on the final list. We only need to think back to our own 'best' teachers to realise that (non-destructive) humour can be an effective aid to learning. Common sense therefore dictates that we should seek opportunities to utilise humour in daily classroom practice. It is common sense but it is not always common practice.
There are numerous reasons for this which include (a) teacher tension in relation to behaviour and control, and (b) that somehow this will lead to a 'dumbing-down' of the curriculum.
Although under-researched, the field of 'education through humour' is receiving greater attention. Associations such as ARISE (Association for Research into the Science of Enjoyment)*2 are lending intellectual credibility to this aspect of the educative process, as have writers such as Jean Ruddock, David George and Milhaly Csikszentmihalyi whose book 'Finding Flow - The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life' should feature on the reading list of all teacher-training courses.
'Edutainment' is not, currently, a complimentary term - perhaps the profession needs to rethink its attitude toward the connection between education and entertainment?
2. THINK WEIRD
The importance of this approach is best exemplified through a simple analogy - the typical strawberry picker will consume a significant percentage of the pickings on their first day in the field. This percentage will reduce as the days pass until, inevitably, they will become sick of the sight of strawberries. A bland teaching model is like a continual diet of strawberries; it needs to be varied if we are to retain our interest in the fruit!
Introducing the unexpected is a simple method of engaging pupils. A polite class is not necessarily an engaged class and if we are to avoid passive-listening syndrome there is little that can better the shock of the unexpected. Methods of achieving this fall into two particular modes...
There are innumerable variations on the two examples given but in the latter a guiding principle would be to look for opportunities to invert the norm.
3. THINK REAL PURPOSE.
This approach is already an intrinsic part of the practice of effective teachers, although there are always opportunities to broaden the range of activities in which we engage that are purposeful. It is always wise to reflect on the question. 'Purposeful for whom?'. It is also wise to make the purpose of any activity EXPLICIT to pupils. A purpose which the adult has in mind may not be understood or perceived by the pupil unless it is actively shared with them. (Even when it is shared we ned to reflect on its relevance for the pupils.)
Some time ago a class of Y6 pupils and I wrote to the Greenwich Maritime Museum enclosing a range of letters for the attention of two elderly ladies; Millvina Dean and Edith Haisman. When their replies arrived they were opened in class with due ceremony and read out loud. The class response to those two survivors' accounts of the Titanic's sinking is something which I will never forget (The 'Wow' factor in this instance was a two-way process!). A normally boisterous class sat silently, mouths open, utterly captivated by 'their' letters. My contention is that we could have practised writing letters until we were blue in the face and it would never have generated the enthusiasm which 'our' Titanic letters engendered. The immediate and lasting quantum leap in both pupils' interest in letter writing and the improved understanding and application of layout (discussed whilst they were still 'wowed' by the opening ceremony) was non-debateable. What was really interesting was that this did not occur with only a small number of children but conversely with the great majority of the class.
A further useful avenue to explore is the formation of links with local newspapers. Contacting Features Editors directly can prove useful when aiming to publish the work of pupils.
4. THINK EXPERIENTIAL / MULTI-SENSORY
Basically, look for methods of 'doing' things that are not traditionally 'doing' activities. For example, when studying locational writing in narrative genre, how better to introduce this than to engage in some 'plein'-air writing. The coverage model of curriculum tends to 'put a brake' on this kind of activity and yet the acquisition benefits of such an approach should not be underestimated.
Where we are already engaging in experiential activities we can also ask ourselves how best we can further expand opportunities. In a previous role as the Head of a Museum and Gallery Education service it was clear to me that pupils visiting the museum derived many benefits from their trips, yet those who derived THE MOST were those whose teachers preplanned the activity, discussing with the Museum Education Officer opportunities for handling artefacts replicated in the collection, objectives for the visit and chances to talk with a range of staff. This approach is undoubtedly labour-intensive but the benefits are long-lived.
5. THINK ANECDOTAL
Jean Ruddock's research has highlighted the need for the teacher to 'come across' as a rounded human being. Pupils want their teachers to be 'real' people. Personal anecdotes are a powerful way of achieving this and in one sense they are a modelling tool i.e. they 'model' the relationship between what is occurring in the classroom and the world beyond it. This encourages empathy in the pupils who are more likely to make connections between what is occurring in the classroom and their own everyday existence. In the Summary of Findings of the Research Project 'Effective Teachers of Literacy' (University of Exeter, 1999) it was found that '..the effective teachers were generally much more likely to embed their teaching of reading into a wider context..'
With regard to the curriculum as a whole, this notion of embedding teaching in a wider context as a desired aim can partly be facilitated through the use of personal anecdote.
6. THINK BRISK!
A further significant finding of the research project 'Effective Teachers of Literacy' was that '..the lessons of the effective teachers were all conducted at a brisk pace.'
This does NOT mean that the pupils have no time to think. In order to 'Think Brisk' the teacher needs refocusing strategies and a sense of dynamism within the lesson structure itself. Techniques such as 'deadlining' provide pupils with both a goal and a sense of purpose. One of the best lessons which I have witnessed was one in which deadlining took a dramatic turn. A group of Y6 pupils were asked to write a radio advert which would last exactly 2 minutes. They then had 20 minutes to write the advert, refine it and record it for timing. The concept of 'air-time penalties' was introduced whereby pupils were 'fined £10' for every 10 seconds over or under the allocated 2 minute slot. This dramatic (fun!) approach to deadlining did not result in anxiety but instead it focussed the attention of the group on the task in hand whilst facilitating a situation in which drafting for a real purpose occurred. Sentences were extended and curtailed in order to meet the time requirements and the group devised an internal editing process to improve their advert.
7. THINK HIGH-LEVEL QUESTIONING.
There is a clear need for the application of reflective teaching methodology within the arena of questioning. Knowledge of 'open' and 'closed' questioning techniques are merely the first building block of effective classroom questioning.
We need to consider the skills we are eliciting when asking questions of pupils. I recently had the opportunity to study teachers' questioning in relation to the skills that they elicited and discovered that they all had Preferred Questioning Patterns (PQP's) i.e. there was a detectable common pattern of skills elicited, by the questions they asked, regardless of the subject being taught. A teacher who mainly asked recall-type questions in a science lesson would mainly ask the same kind of questions in a Literacy Hour. Reflecting upon this skills-base and consciously increasing its breadth will engage a greater number of learners. The simplest way to achieve this is to draw up a skills-list which we wish to elicit from pupils (prediction / empathy / summarisation etc.) and then refer to this in our lesson plannning.
The other essential technique is pre-questioning. By asking questions before an activity or indeed the reading of a passage or text and then instructing pupils to listen/look for the answers during it, we give them a reason to listen / engage.
In conclusion, the purpose of this article has been to raise awaren4ess of an approach to teaching which emphasises acquisition through the medium of enjoyment. Bolting a 'Knock, knock' joke to a lesson is NOT what the 'Wow-factor' is about. Rather, we need to embed enjoyment within the planning process and to reflect on ways of increasing it in our evaluations and future teaching. The application of hedonic psychology is not another 'fad'; it is an approach which makes the educative process more effective and also more pleasurable for both teachers and pupils alike. Surely that is something which we are all striving to achieve?
*1 'The Happiness Project', Elms Court, Chapel Way, Botley, Oxford OX2 9LP
*2 'The Association for Research into the Science of Enjoyment' (Arise); PO Box 11446, London, SW18 5ZH (0181 87455481)