29 October 2014

A place for gimmicks?

A friend recently used the word 'gimmicks' in reference to some of the ideas I share on this website. I got a bit defensive but I think it raises an important point.

I'm well aware that role of teachers is to impart knowledge. I'm paid to fill children's minds with mathematics. I need no equipment, no facilities, no tools - I just need my brain, my voice and an audience. I haven't lost sight of that. But if I have tools at my disposal that help make my explanations clearer, help inspire and engage my students, improve my assessment and feedback, and make my teaching experience more enjoyable, then I will utilise those tools.

What is a gimmick?
The word gimmick originally meant a piece of magician's apparatus. It now refers to 'a trick or device intended to attract attention, publicity, or trade'. In teaching you could see it as anything that is there primarily for the purpose of engagement, enjoyment or novelty value. Examples may include writing on desks, post-it note activities, Plickers, stickers and stamps. So I admit that some of the ideas and resources I feature in my weekly gems posts are a bit gimmicky. I accept that. Some of my posts focus on the process of imparting mathematical knowledge (like my posts on trigonometry, Pythagoras, calculus and fractions) and others are more concerned with techniques to engage students and make the learning process more enjoyable.

Gimmicks gone wrong
In my NQT year, I took on a smart but chatty Year 11 class. We finished the GCSE syllabus by Christmas and they were all on track for A*s. After their mock exams, I had to find a way to keep them engaged and focussed for a whole term. I started by reviewing topics from Key Stage 3 but I felt that I was patronising them. We did some past papers but they didn't focus. By February half-term I was dreading every lesson so I asked my colleagues for advice. I was advised to get my students to teach some revision lessons. So I did - they worked in groups and took it in turns to deliver maths lessons over a three week period. To be frank, these lessons turned out to be absolutely useless. No student made any progress whatsoever. At the end of the process no-one in the class knew any more mathematics than they'd known three weeks earlier. The only person who'd learnt anything was me - I learnt what it felt like to sit in a really badly taught lesson. This was a classic example of a gimmick gone wrong - I'd prioritised entertainment over mathematics.

I was very aware that the whole endeavour had been a huge waste of time. Even worse, it may have actually been damaging - I'd managed to undermine my own authority by delegating my role. I never managed to get them to focus again. Quite a few students from that class got a grade A in their GCSE when they were capable of getting an A*. I still feel responsible for that.

Fast-forward a couple of years and I found myself in the same predicament. This time I'd done some brilliant revision lessons with my new Year 11 class, particularly in reviewing the topics that are often overlooked in GCSE revision. But again I had a lot of lessons to fill, and again I was advised by my colleagues to get the students to teach the lessons. I was told that the reason it hadn't worked before was because I hadn't done it right. I decided to try it again but with a new approach. I shared the criteria against which I'd assess the lessons (for example they had to design their own worksheet) and I gave my students a list of things to consider:
I gave them more time to plan their lessons and more support and guidance in the planning process. Did it work? Well, it was better than the first time. The lessons and resources were a much higher quality. The students enjoyed doing the teaching and everyone was engaged in the lessons. Some progress was made (a negligible amount - and that was mainly when I interrupted lessons to highlight misconceptions). They learnt far far less maths in the three weeks of student-taught lessons than they would have learnt if I'd taught those lessons.

I do know teachers who insist that this approach works well if properly managed. They think these lessons work well because the students are engaged and enjoying themselves and developing 'soft skills'. I say these lessons don't work well because no mathematics is learnt.

These two things are not mutually exclusive - students can both enjoy maths lessons and learn mathematics. The pleasure of mathematics comes in learning something new and applying it to solve a problem.

So what should I have done with these classes to fill that time between the mocks and their final exams? Well I could have given them some rich tasks that consolidate skills and knowledge across a number of topics (Don Steward has some excellent examples). In addition I could have enriched their education with interesting mathematics that is not on the GCSE syllabus. I could have talked about the history of mathematics, etymology, peculiarities... I could have explored number systems, Fermat's Last Theorem, primes, matrices, set theory... Such a wasted opportunity. Next year - no more gimmicks for me.
Don Steward GCSE revision
A place for gimmicks?
If I had to pick a side in the traditional vs progressive teaching debate, I'd pick traditional. That means I see a lot of value in teachers giving clear explanations and students developing fluency through independent practice. I see less value in group work and inquiry approaches. However, one of the things I enjoy about teaching is that I have opportunities to be creative in my approaches. I enjoy experimenting with innovative teaching tools and technology. But in doing so I don't lose sight of my main priority, which is teaching mathematics.

If I want to use dots and stickers for marking, it may or may not be adding value but it's not obstructing learning is it? If I use Plickers for assessment, it doesn't mean I've stopped imparting knowledge does it? These 'gimmicks' may be useful. They're certainly not detrimental. Other gimmicks, like getting students to do my job for me, are detrimental.

I'm trying to find my way to becoming an 'excellent' teacher and I'll try a wide range of tools and teaching approaches until I get there. I'm learning from my mistakes as I go.

So, I've decided - I'll keep writing my regular gems posts, where I share teaching ideas I've seen on Twitter. And yes, some of them will be gimmicky. Some ideas will be more useful than others. But I'll also focus my thinking (and my writing) on the important questions: what mathematical concepts should we be teaching and how can we best explain those concepts? First up: circle theorems. Watch this space.

Too traditional...?


  1. I really enjoy all your posts and gain loads from them, it is then up to me as a professional to decide which to implement. Please keep sharing you have so much to give! Many thanks and don't we as teachers gain so much from our mistakes/adventures! Niamh

    1. Thanks Niamh! I'm really glad you find them helpful.

      I learnt a lot about teaching from watching my Year 11s teach lessons - particularly about how important it is to have good structure and flow. So although it was a mistake and was detrimental to those classes, the silver lining is that it improved my teaching.

  2. A few positive thoughts for you to consider Jo
    Progress occurs when you find effective methods.
    A gimmick to one is a tool under development to another.
    It is the reflection and what you do next that determines whether it really is a Gimmick.
    Good on your for looking and trying and reflecting.

    1. Thank you so much. That's a very helpful way of looking at things.