Over the past five years or so I have been increasingly struck by the need to judge learning by the thinking taking place, not just by the tasks taking place. Too many discussions about lesson planning in my past focused on the tasks to be done. Of course, students need to do things, and interesting things ideally. But English lessons should ideally start with the kind of thinking that we want our students to engage in.
A great way to exemplify this is in my response to seeing interview lessons. Invariable these are self-contained lessons on a poem or a Shakespearean extract. I saw two such lessons, both of which were pleasant enough. Yet both suffered flaws of planning indicative of an underdeveloped philosophy.
One such lesson saw a teacher use a modern coming-of-age poem of suffering and angst. It mixed military imagery with suggestions of paternal or fraternal guilt. It offered ideas both structurally and socio-emotionally. The teacher taught it through students filling in a table and writing a generic paragraph of analysis. The poem could have been entirely switched and the nature and flavour of the tasks would have made no difference. In other words, it was a generic approach that did not really demonstrate knowledge of the poem, or even the passion to provide an experience about it.
The other lesson was more successful yet flawed in a different way. The students needed to consider a text and demonstrate passion for it. The text was compared to a modern pop singer. The students analysed both texts, identifying generic points of figurative language. To draw comparisons the students used props. Other artefacts were brought into the lesson with perhaps even an envoy group task. The craft of these tasks was well-managed. However, the heart of the thinking of the task – to work with the original text and inspire interest in it – seemed to be lost. Rather than excite interest in the text, the students were encouraged to be excited in the task. The idea behind this is clear: transfer excitement from the task to the text, or even at least activate excitement that might remain. Yet that is flawed. How much were the students thinking about the actual text, and how much were they thinking about the actual text?