Vanquishing the Content Demon

The newly reformed GCSE and A Level Specifications have led to increased content and more exams.  Unfortunately, I don’t think that this is a shocking statement for anyone in the teaching profession.

As an HOD, I braced myself for the ramifications of this: the lack of resources; new SOL to be written; new assessment objectives to get my head around.  What I had not foreseen though is that the new reforms would set my teaching back nine years and that suddenly I would be ‘teaching’ in a way that I had not done since I joined the profession.

Like a disappointing, time travelling trick, I regressed and began to deliver linear lessons that went through the motions but had the sole outcome of getting through as much content as possible.  Fast paced? Yes. Pages of beautiful notes that I had to mark? Yes. Engaging lessons? No. Certainly not lessons that I was proud of.

I had become obsessed with mountainous content, comparing information in glossy new textbooks and adding it diligently to lessons that were becoming epic – and not in a good way! A lot of it was stemming from the fear that I was going to miss something out and then under prepare students for the new exams. And, trapped in a vicious content- fear cycle but unable to specify the actual problem, I was losing confidence in my abilities as a teacher and as a HOD; I was supposed to be leading the department through this reform quagmire, and yet was unable to navigate it myself.

I was fortunate enough to have a breakthrough when I attended a course back in November. The course itself did not actually provide a solution to my problem, but I had an opportunity to step back from my own practice and establish where I was going wrong. Once I had identified my ‘Content Demon’, I could then take steps to vanquish it.

To begin with I began to pay less attention to the textbooks as these factual tomes were lacking in inspiration.  Although time is always of the essence in teaching, I had to invest some time to look beyond the textbook for that odd nugget that would spark the imagination.

And find them I did!

Suddenly, a lesson that could have been a boring timeline of the life of the Duke of Buckingham became: ‘Was the Duke of Buckingham the inspiration for Georgie Porgie?’ A lesson on the problems faced by William I towards the end of his reign became an investigation into the merits of each of his sons so that students could determine: ‘Who would make a better king of England: Robert or Rufus?’ Another lesson, delivered to year 13, challenged them to make comparison between the presidential campaign tactics of Donald Trump and the political manoeuvrings of George Wallace.

Effectively, all I was doing was putting back into my teaching something that had been overshadowed by the Content Demon: enquiry. Some enquiries were tenuous (Georgie Porgie!) but I found that my students were developing their own theories, working more independently and rising to the challenges that emerged.  Some of my year 12 students are convinced now that Georgie Porgie IS the Duke of Buckingham as they would argue that the line ‘When the boys came out to play, Georgie Porgie ran away’, refers to Buckingham leading the English navy against both Spain and France and losing spectacularly. Suddenly, my students have grasped the nature and ramifications of Charles I’s foreign policy in the 1620s on a whole different level. These enquiries have provided a basis for the acquisition of knowledge and provided a conduit for students to absorb even more. Consequently, I will not have to spend time later re-teaching concepts that my students have not fully grasped thanks to that little bit of extra reading around the subject. I knew all of this but the Content Demon had skilfully persuaded me that this method of teaching was not going to be sufficient.

Using enquiry and not basing everything on the textbooks are not the only weapons from my arsenal that I am wielding against my demonic nemesis.  I’m also attacking it by setting more efficient homework that requires students to learn content independently (followed by short, peer-assessed knowledge tests to check that they have done so). This has freed up lessons so that I can introduce more engaging activities that build on knowledge, or spend more time practising exam skills. In addition, I’m also trying to find more opportunities in department meetings to plan collaboratively so that subject knowledge can be pooled and ideas shared.

None of the steps that I have taken to combat the Content Demon are ‘new’ to me but I had missed them out by letting the Demon take control, reduce my capabilities and hinder my thought process. I can happily confirm that it is (for the most part) now vanquished but it has taught me a valuable lesson in finding opportunities to step back and reflect, rather than let copious amounts of change overwhelm me. To say I am grateful would be a stretch but being forced to revisit the basic concepts of successful teaching has been a worthwhile exercise overall.

Emma Smith, History.

What is the nature of the ‘Content Demon’ in your subject?

What steps are you taking as a classroom teacher to overcome the Content Demon?

Are there other fears that have emerged as a result of the new specifications? What could be done to overcome them?

For HODs: What steps can be taken to overcome the Content Demon from a middle leader perspective?  How could you be supported by SLT in this?

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