Confession: The Worst Lesson I Ever Taught

Part of an ocassional series of blogs from the #EduTwitter crowd confessing hineous mistakes made in the name of putting lesson engagement ahead of learning stuff.  You can read other confessions by Adam Robbins, Bob Pritchard, Grumpy Teacher & Amy Forrester.

I have on occasions pretended that I never bought into the fad of discovery learning and engagement. That I came into teaching as a career changer from academic research science knowing that traditional teaching methods of direct instruction and extensive practice were the bedrock of effective teaching and learning. But that’s not true, I came into my PGCE with those opinions, but believed my instructors when they told me these methods were old fashioned and outdated. I believed them when they told me that these were Victorian methodologies not ready for the modern digital world. I was shown a Ken Robinson TED talk and bought it; Hook, Line and Sinker. I was sold. Discovery learning was more effective, group work was king, use of technology was the future. I knew I’d need some training, it was against everything that felt natural to me as someone who’d been teaching in labs and lecture theatres for more than a decade already, so I listened to the advice I was given by my school and university mentors, because they were the experts, I was a novice, and I was determined to learn how to be an Outstanding teacher.

I tried many many things during my PGCE in the name of engagement: I had students write their own multiple choice questions, which were easy for their peers to answer because they were poor at writing distractors (if they bothered with distractors at all –  “yer mum” jokes are much funnier); I had students work in groups as sales teams for renewable energy companies; I had students work independently from blog posts I’d written so that I didn’t need to speak to the class at all, after all nothing is more boring than listening to a teacher, right? I even took a science lesson into the dance studio in order that students could choreograph their own dances that represented the signs of a chemical reaction. All of these lessons led to students learning precisely nothing that I wanted them to. But none of them come close to the slow-motion, “please wont someone stop this madness”, car-crash of the time I got bottom set year 9s to make homemade water-pistols.

Confession

The learning objectives were notionally regarding water pressure. That water pressure acts in all directions and the deeper the water the greater the pressure. I wasn’t stupid enough to plan for students to squirt them at each other and carefully planned for students to shoot at paper targets attached to a wall outside.  The “water-pistols” were to be made from plastic drinks bottles with students able to design their own by changing the size of the bottle, the size of the jet hole and how high up the bottle the jet should be placed. They would then take turns to try and shoot the target on the wall. The player with the best “shot” would win a choclate prize; competition element for the boys, see.

The class was a “difficult” one. Set 10 of 10. Just 14 students. The two teaching assistants, alongside myself and their normal class teacher meant an adult:student ratio of 1:3.5. Classroom management should be easy, right? Wrong. The hole making in the lab was managed well enough with most of the sharp metal impliements used with adult supervision and we counted the tools out and back in again, to ensure no one had helped themselves to a pocket weapon. However, things began to unravel outside.

I’d drawn two chalk lines on the playground floor. One for the shooters to stand behind and another further back, behind which students would wait their turn. I stood between the two shooters supervising the filling buckets and blocking the path by which students would shoot at each other. They wouldn’t dare squirt a teacher, right? I had this all planned out.

The first two pairs of students attempted to fire at their targets, but were actually well short, perhaps I’d mis-judged how far their homemade supersoakers would be able to reach? Students five and six had their attempts, then six loudly declared that the competition was “shit” and stepped over the white line to take another shot from from closer to the target, which he hit and declared himself the winner. This placed him now in the firing line of five who shouted “Nah man, you cheated”, changed his angle of attack and shot five.  Six laughed, turned and fired back and the two friends ran off to chase each other around the empty playground with their new toys, much to the amusement of the other students who cheered them on.

As I finally stopped five and six’s chase and stood at the back admonishing them, I let seven and eight step forward to take their turns with no human barrier between the firing stations. Unlike five and six, seven and eight were not good friends.  Seven had made a very large hole in their pistol which served to make her gun very ineffective and it did little more than make her shoes wet, much to the amusement of eight. Seven unscrewed the lid of the bottle and emptied the remaining contents over eight in retaliation for the insult. Before I could step forward to call a halt to proceedings, and in seemingly slow-motion eight responded by picking up one the buckets for filling and emptied it’s entire contents over seven.

Then all hell broke loose. There was screaming, shouting, laughing and baying. Seven, soaked to the skin, launched herself at eight and much hairpulling and slapping ensued. The shouts of “fight fight fight” caused a sea of faces to appear at the windows overlooking the playground so now several more lessons were thrown into chaos.

Myself and the usual class teacher separated the students and the remainder of the lesson was spend dealing with the fallout, seven and eight were given no punishments beyond the breaktime lost after the lesson and seven spent the rest of the day wandering around school in her PE kit. Two weeks later barely a single mark was scored by any of the students in the water pressure question in the end of chapter test, and I never taught water pressure with a homemade water pistols activity again.

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