‘Thank you for caring about our questions Miss.’
The new GCSE and A-level specifications have brought in a new world of getting through subject content to ensure pupils are adequately prepared for exams. In the melee, it can be easy to forget that our students have curious minds and often just want to ask questions.
Last year, my school held an art exhibition which looked at how empires were built in the Sahara. My pupils saw this set of interesting landscapes on their way into school every day, yet none of them from any of my year groups asked me – their geography teacher – about the images.
It frustrated me that our students had the opportunity to see a fantastic exhibition everyday, yet engagement was so low. So I took matters into my own hands and used the project to teach Year 7 the difference between describing and explaining. I chose Year 7 mostly because we had time in our scheme of work to take a lesson ‘out’ of plan, but also because we were introducing ‘describing and explaining’ skills and this felt like an ideal way for them to engage in a way that was relevant to their learning.
My lessons with them were usually very structured – a task ready as they came in, clear outcomes to meet, showing progress to keep up with our scheme of work. This was different, though. We started by introducing the exhibition, and thinking about how to describe what they could see, before suggesting why the landscape might look like that. Students circulated the exhibition in small groups, and we then reconvened.
These powerful images of the Sahara, many of which challenged pupils’ ideas of what a desert looked like, sparked a flurry of truly fantastic questions. How do people survive here, I can’t see any water? Is that the sea mixing with the sand – does the sand disappear? How do these animals survive? Why don’t we ever see the Sahara on the news? Do you think we could capture our rain and send it to those school children? How was the Sahara created? Why is sea water salty? Why is there snow on top of that mountain if it is near the Sahara? Who owns the Sahara? Who runs the Sahara?
The fantastic ‘geography’ my pupils were thinking about was much more powerful than anything I could have told them. These independent minds were processing the world around them to a high level and listening to the answers to their questions with real engagement. Thinking about the roots of my subject, I always remember my lecturer at university emphasising that geography was about being able to look at the world and shed some light about why it looks like that. The school environment – where the focus is on memorising keywords, processes and case studies – can take away that natural curiosity. I want my pupils to see a new environment and to be able to think, appreciate and notice.
It wasn’t just about engaging with my subject either. This lesson enabled me to forge stronger relationships and give out a lot of praise. This academic year, I have noticed a real difference in the willingness and confidence to ask questions between those pupils I taught last year who did this exercise and new students. Activities similar to this will definitely be part of my teaching regularly, whether as a whole lesson or not.
Giving my pupils the space to think was the most valuable part of teaching I could have done. Yes, they can now describe and explain a bit better, but the real success was my taking a step back and giving pupils the space and confidence to ask questions. As an NQT who has been trained about the importance of carefully timed lessons, with clear outcomes and specifically identified content, moulding the lesson around the class was fantastic. I had many activities up my sleeve just in case students didn’t engage as I had hoped, but I have learned to trust myself and my pupils, because they really are fantastic.
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