“No! Of course it doesn’t make you go faster!”

As the year 7 said this to me at the beginning of the week, I couldn’t help feel that I had made a massive error. The sort of error that people talk about because it was so basic! The sort of social faux pas that can reduce a room to stunned silence at your ignorance! I was shown to be the charlatan that I was, my interest was in the conversation was exposed as fake because surely anyone who is even half interested would know that!!

‘Ok… so explain it to me then. What does it do?’
If I wanted to continue the conversation I was going to have to confess my ignorance. Come clean and then we could start talking again!

Me: ‘What does this chain you have bought do for the bike then? I thought it made it go faster?!’

Matt: ‘No! It gives more strength to the pedals Sir. It means if I jump on the pedals they won’t snap off.’

I could feel a light dimly coming on in my head as I started to understand a little of what Matt was talking about. He was clearly cross with me for not understanding what he was talking about and why he was so enthusiastic about it! His enthusiasm had taken a knock by meeting this wall of stupidity personified in me!

‘Right… er…’

Matt: ‘You still don’t get it, do you?’

Me: ‘Er no…’

Matt: ‘It means I can kick the pedals harder. If I am going downhill I can push harder on the pedals and go faster. And that’s what it is all about. Getting down the hill fast!’

Now we were getting somewhere!! Now that dim light had become a 100W bulb! The reason Matt was so enthusiastic was because he was talking about something he loved – BMX racing. The new chain he had bought was a small link (sorry no pun intended) in a bigger picture. Getting the chain meant he could achieve more – he could carry on doing what he loved and now had the possibility of being even better at it!

‘Sir, why do we have to do this?’

The experience with Matt lead me to understand something about a year 8 class I teach. I have just started a new unit with them on prophecy, a topic to me which is exceptionally interesting and has 1001 different academic intellectual avenues to explore.

The year 8 class however have not seemingly wanted to engage in any of this. All of the theology I find fascinating! This has led some of them to loudly declare to the classroom ‘Why do we have to do this?’ [It is important here to get the tone right – don’t confuse this for a ‘Why do we have to do this because I am really keen and want to find out where it fits in with my learning journey that I have been planning at home?’ Oh no! You need to capture the tone of ‘Ohhhhhhhhhhhhh GGGGGGGGGGGGGooooooooooooooodddddddddddddddd – this is sooooo boring! This is rubbish. You’re rubbish. I wish we could have our old teacher back!]

However, the reason why these students are saying this is becoming increasingly clear. It is increasingly clear to me that I have made a mistake. I have heard the cry of ‘Sir, why do we have to do this?’ and understood it to mean ‘We don’t want to do this’. I have misread the signs and thought the students wanted to do something else, anything else but this subject/topic. But I have made an error – it is instead the cry of ‘help me understand‘. The students are like me with Matt. As I had no idea why Matt was so excited by a chain, the students have no idea why I am excited by 2000 year old prophecies.

I need Captain Hook

‘Why do we have to do this’ is a cry for a change of approach. It is a cry for finding the hook, that point of engagement with the students. Some of the students cannot see any point of connection with the topic and that is what I need to build for them. It could be something as easy as:

  • A discussion about the future of technology leading to a discussion about why do people predict things and finally leading to why do religious groups/individuals predict things?
  • Or we could start with a discussion about why people are talking about next generation ipods, what does that tells us about people’s views on contemporary society? If it tells us that people think technology will change then what do we learn from that? So prophecies can tell us something about contemporary society as well as the future. So what does this tell us about religious prophets?
  • Or who was Emilie Pankhurst? Using clips and resources talk about who she was and what she stood for? How was she treated by society for what she said? What do we think about what she said vs. what did they think at the time? So can that tell us anything about how prophets are treated? What might this lead us to think about with religious prophets and how they might have been treated by their contemporary society?

Engaging with what the students engage with will hopefully allow me to achieve my new aim: to transform ‘Why do we have to do this’ to ‘Why haven’t you told us about this sooner?‘ The negative experience I had with several students asking very loudly across a classroom first thing on a Thursday ‘Why do we have do this?’ should have become a call to arms!

Vanilla Ice – a true prophet to us all!!

What am I going to do next time? I think it will be time, as a great man once said, to Stop, Collaborate and Listen.

Stop:         Clearly the current task isn’t working. No point forcing the point on if the students don’t engage with it. The effective learning has gone.

Collaborate:     Use the students. What do they engage with? What do they understand? What do they know? How can I use that to help me help them connect with the learning.

Listen:     Hear what the students are actually saying rather than what I think they are saying! Speak to them and ask them why they are asking that question? Do they think the subject/topic is a waste of time? Do they understand the aim of where I am going with my approach? Do they need a recap or a vision of the big picture? Do they need to leave the subject and go to something they understand and then work their way back to the subject?

A brand new invention?

Have you had a similar experience? How do you deal with students who can’t/won’t engage with a lesson? Do you have any strategies for dealing with these situations? Have you had to scrap everything you thought would work and approach a scheme or lesson from an entirely new angle because the students don’t get your approach? I’d be really keen to hear your thoughts!

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