How do you get the very best out of an activity?
I’ve discussed in other parts of this zone the importance of being very clear in your objectives in terms of both knowledge and understanding of the past and understanding of the process of doing history. Vague and woolly objectives lead to vague and ineffective outcomes.
But to get the best out of an activity you also need to think after the activity has been completed by:
- undertaking a thorough exploration with students of what they have learned from an activity and
- doing your own thinking about what was achieved and what you might do better next time.
This is vital and all too easily rushed through if you’re short of time.
To get the best out of an activity the students need to be explicit about what they’ve learned and how their ideas about a person or situation have changed. This is a fundamental of effective learning – thinking about what I thought or knew before and asking ‘how has that changed?’ This is difficult for students of any age but that doesn’t make it any less valuable. This is why some activities on the site suggest beginning by finding out what students know and think before they do an activity – assuming a blank mind that you can imprint the correct answers onto is all too often a mistake. I suspect that all activities need this kind of preliminary guidance – but I’ll leave that for another summer!
So, if you’ve done asked the key questions beforehand, debriefing can take the form of ‘how has your thinking changed?’ Whether you have done or not, the following sequence may structure your questioning.
Firstly, use closed questions which allow students to demonstrate knowledge of people and events or other information gained from the activity. These boost self-esteem as they realize how much they can remember without having written anything down! These questions also reinforce the narrative framework.
Higher-Order Open Questions
Secondly, ask more challenging, higher-order, open questions which deal with motives, explanation, consequences, attitudes etc.
How did they feel?
Thirdly, ask students to describe aloud what they were thinking and feeling at different stages of the activity. For example, in Je suis le roi! students who played English landowners were able to express how their feelings had changed from insecurity to anger during the activity and reflect on how their inability to understand William (who spoke in French) had affected them.
Bravest of all ...
The bravest questions of all are the very open ended (but worth asking!):
- What have you learned today?
- What surprised you about what happened in that activity?
Now it’s time to spend some time thinking how an activity went – with a mentor or colleague perhaps. You could wish to use the Reflections questions that appear at the end of each activity or cross-refer to Reflections on Active Learning in the Teaching Issues section of the site. There I’ve divided up the overall range of questions into sub-sections:
- Styles of activity
- Enjoyment and motivation
- What did they learn?
- Building coherence
- Cross-curricular and general
Of course, you don’t need to think about all these things – not unless you’ve secretly discovered another 12 hours in the day. If you’re pressed for time (and you will be) just write down one thing you’ve learned from teaching an activity and one thing you’ll do better next time you use this activity. Do this within 48 hours of teaching the activity or the good intention of doing so will get overtaken by other things. And make sure you write them down – that gives you a much better chance of remembering them next time.
A last thought - what’s important is to get into the habit of reflecting on your teaching and students’ learning. In the long-run that improves your students’ performances and results and has another immensely valuable benefit – it keeps you feeling young because you keep developing as a teacher. There’s nothing worse than a cynical ‘stuck in a rut’ teacher – they bring everyone down with them.