Decluttering Your Mind

What do Homer Simpson and Sherlock Holmes have in common?  

  • Holmes says, ‘I consider that a man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out’.  
  • Homer Simpson says, ‘Every time I learn something new it pushes some old stuff out of my head’

I think a teacher can clutter their mind with a lot of different things to worry about.  This
to an extent will come from SLT, who are keenly trying to implement whatever thing they think Ofsted most want from them.  This might include the four-step lesson plan, yellow box marking, brain gym, or mini-plenaries.  There’s a blog about it here.  I think I have spent the last three years unlearning a lot of the chaff from my PGCE year which was engaging, creative and exciting, but had a tiny effect size.


Then there is simply your ‘To Do’ list, which also takes up head space: talk to that student about how they appear to be on a downward spiral; email HoD a list of names of students who [whatever]; review SOW; call home about this student; chase this student about missing a detention.  The better the teacher, the better they are at prioritising what to worry about.

I have recently been keeping two things at the centre of my teaching: explanation, demonstration, application; and the information-retrieval effect.  The first is teaching students to do something and the second is to make them remember it.

  • Explanation demonstration application: I got told this before I even became a teacher by a Frenchman called Freddie.  It’s simple, it works, and it’s fairly self-explanatory.  In an English lesson, I might explain one way to use a semi-colon, show it in a sentence, then get students to write five sentences, all of which accurately use it.  Many, many times my lessons have slowed down or not gone as well as they might have because I didn’t consider this enough when planning.  I think teachers often spend too much time explaining, don’t give enough demonstrations, and don’t let students spend enough time applying their knowledge.  
  • The information-retrieval effect:  Even smart students will forget loads and loads from the average lesson, and I have found that testing and retesting is the best way to both assess retention, and improve it.  I taught the use of semi-colons to my sixth form class this year.  Every time I marked their essays someone would use it wrongly, and I would test them on it again.


Edit: I’d like to add a quote from this blog.  ‘After school I had a conversation with an NQT (hello, chief!) who, marvellously – astonishingly? – hasn’t been taken in by the bells, whistles and tinsel of active learning. He told me how on his PGCE a lesson where he just taught science was criticised because there wasn’t any active learning. A later lesson, stuffed with card sorts, dripping with group work and sizzling with role play, was judged Oustanding™.’


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