My problem with posters (and other stuff)

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Tom Bennett wrote an article in the TES recently which caused a bit of a furore. He wrote about the ineffectiveness and inappropriate use of activities such as hour-long DVDs and poster work. Having read the article (avaliable here) I struggled to understand why both social media and the press went a little wild. Battle lines were drawn and the gloves were off. Generally, the two tribes of progressive and traditional educators were ready to go to war. Tom seemed to be the recipient of some incredibly inappropriate comments which I didn’t expect from the educational community but hey ho, life throws us surprises every day. Obviously, Tom being accustomed to the odd Twitter spat or two, handled any negative press with his usual calm, collected and sometimes impish manner. What I found mildly worrying was the way in which a number of people on social media failed to recognise the line between debate and personal attack. More so the fact that the majority of these people were linked to education, not the behaviour I would want modelled to the children in my care. I have written about perpetuating the curse of the playground bully on social media previously here. The purpose of this blog is not to preach about that topic (those of you who think we should toughen up will breathe a sigh of relief) and Tom has written an equally eloquent piece in this week’s TES about the wonderful ocean of EduTwitter which welcomes colourfully passionate debate. I am in complete agreement with Tom on this and I don’t feel the need to fight anyone’s corner. The purpose of this blog is about posters and similar activities.

For those people who have their feet firmly planted in the traditionalist camp, I am your worst nightmare. Eyebrows will be raised now and eyeballs will be rolling at the thought of another progressive cry for an active engagement based, child-centred approach to teaching. Again, not the purpose of my blog today. I’m more likely to frustrate those of you who want to label yourselves as true progressives if you read any further. I’m not going to deny the progressive versus traditional debate but my opinion (for what it’s worth) is that you don’t need to be in one camp or the other, a shark or a jet. You can be a shade of grey and I’m pretty positive that I’m not alone in this view. Before traditionalists and progressive alike are furiously hammering their keyboards to tell me that I’m wrong, you won’t change my mind. So let’s talk about posters….

As far as posters go, I’m with Tom and the trads on this one. My viewpoint doesn’t just stem from my experience in front of classes but from those as a student myself. One of the activities I endured under complete duress was the “let’s create a poster on ..” lesson, I hated the whole torrid affair from start to finish. The reason for my unreasonable bias was my perceived artistic ability, I simply had none. These were the days when BBC Micro computers were all the rage and any graphics you wanted to add were down to your own fair hand. Pictures had to be drawn, one aspect where I was seriously incapable. Did I learn anything from the painstakingly laborious hours of below-par, bubble headlined, badly coloured, A4 offerings? Probably not. My lack of artistic expertise ensured that style over substance was the focus of my efforts. The anxiety of how the finished product would look to my peers was always more important than the content itself. For me as a student, these activities were a waste of my learning time. I didn’t see the point nor did enjoy the experience. I saw it as “downtime”. This was compounded by the timing of the activities, generally used at the end of a term, when a display was needed or if our teacher was absent. Poster work wasn’t seen as “real work”. There was never any kudos given to it, I was never assessed on any of my posters at school (thankfully) and I’m sure the majority of my work was filed under B.

I hate to admit it but as a teacher I’m sure there are plenty of times I have perpetuated this waste of students’ time. Posters being a go to when planning has been poor, energy levels low or classes have been challenging. Not all the time but often enough. Again, I don’t think I’m alone in this admission. That doesn’t mean I don’t use posters now. I do but only when they will have an impact on students’ learning.

In the blur that was my degree, one assessment I remember with clarity was a poster presentation I had to deliver. My vivid memory of this experience was because I was out of my comfort zone. I could do exams, they were my thing, but posters, those bad boys filled me with dread. However, unlike my secondary school experience, on this occasion I excelled. Why? There was a purpose to my efforts. Excellence was modelled and clear expectations were given. Content was key and by this time technology could support the aesthetics. This was the only assessed visual presentation of my three year degree. It was clearly not commonplace. It mattered. I had to raise my game and I had a strong knowledge basis on which to build on.

The other influential factor came early on in my teaching career. My HOD gave me anecdotal evidence (I was young and naive then) about a teacher who was an expert at getting students through GCSE resits. He raved that her extremely impressive success rates were as a result of her approach, posters and practise. I began to look into this notion and the examples of her work with these students supported my HOD’s claims. The posters produced by the students were high quality, topic based, simplistic, clear, relevant and always sporting at least two worked examples and exam style questions. The posters consolidated the 11 years of prior learning. They recapped the subject knowledge succinctly and efficiently. Another suggestion of the miracle working teacher was that students stuck the posters they had produced around their bedrooms and would spend time every night looking over them and committing them to long-term memory. The additional benefit being if they could visualise their bedroom during the exam they would be able to recall the posters and their content.

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Applying a critical, discerning analysis of approaches to teaching and learning is vital. Were the extreme reactions to Tom’s words educationally sound or were they in an effort to jump to the defence of something which was being criticised? Posters do have a place in a number of subjects but when they are ubiquitously associated with downtime across school are we doing a disservice to those subjects where poster work and design are an integral part of the course. The dilution which taking the easy option creates results in a depreciation of their value. Observing creative subjects such as Art, Graphics, Drama, Media and Technologies can be telling. There is so much more given to the worth of the humble poster in these disciplines, there is also a much higher expectation on the design work which students produce in these areas. However, a great deal of teachers’ time is taken changing students’ mindset. The approach that the rest of us take towards this type of activity could go a long way to supporting this shift.

Films, DVDS and videos (for those of us who remember what VHS is – my Year 10 had no idea) are similar tools which have a place. Again, we need to think about how and when they are used. Purpose, impact and effect on learning, not just something to bang on when you’ve a stack of marking to do or an imminent deadline to meet. Being a child of the eighties used to having one film every two weeks from the boot of Video Man’s car (superhero figures in St Helens were thin on the ground) I would gleefully welcome (along with my peers) the sight of the TV and video being wheeled out during English lessons and as an occasional treat at the end of term. Adaptations of texts were used wisely, always after we’d read the text and broken down to be discussed. As equipment was not readily available, you had to wait for the next installment, the build up added to the excitement. If you were watching an end of year film you knew you’d been good, you’d worked hard, you were being rewarded. You sat and watched attentively, silently, even the awful productions (Spring and Port Wine scarred me for life) held your engagement. I was somewhat affronted as a young teacher when “treat films” were not appreciated by the students. As Dylan said “times they are a-changin,” I was offering something that the young people in front of me had in abundance, they could access much more interesting material than I could show them at the touch of a button. There were fifty other good intentioned souls like me with laptops and projectors showing them film after film. So how could I be upset at the lack of excitement when I was the fourth person of the day to suggest that they watch a film? A film which incidentally they would inevitably only watch the first hour of. Films a plenty, there was no treat. DVDs weren’t a reward, they became a distraction from students’ desire to communicate with one another. They would happily talk over the feature and I would regularly threaten them with turning it off as they were spoiling it for anyone that wanted to watch, generally this didn’t phase them as it was only myself and a handful of the class who were paying any attention. The behaviours which become patterns then influence attitudes where the film or play is important on the learning, in English and Drama (among others) where it’s a useful teaching device. I understand now why English teachers everywhere dismay when the rest of us get out Kung Fu Panda and Mean Girls, the BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice is never going to compete. I very rarely see a film being played as a treat now. Effective use of visual media can be observed across subjects, sparingly for the most impact on learning.

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Tom’s point about wasting students’ time is pertinent, everything they do should be of value. That doesn’t mean we can’t have occasional treat lessons but they should be of worth, earned as a result of hard work not just for the sake of it. Posters can be powerful, their rhetoric can have significant impact so let’s not devalue this with a lack of preparation, purpose or perspective.

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