In one of the schools I worked in, my main role for a long time was supporting other teachers in their lessons. One person I supported was a history teacher. The arrangement worked well I think: I knew a lot about using technology but not much about history, while the converse was true for him. I should note that the lesson I'm about to describe took place in one of the computer labs -- this was in the days when laptops cost a small fortune.
They say a picture tells a thousand words, and so I'd like to direct your attention to the picture below. Although the scene it depicts took place a long time ago -- circa 1991 -- it does contain a lot of information about the sorts of lessons we ran and the atmosphere in which we ran them. Let me talk you through it.
History lesson circa 1991
1. Posters on the wall relevant to the topic under consideration. This is very important. There were permanent posters up on subjects like remembering to save your work, but for lessons any posters or wall displays were put up specially. This helped to create the right sort of atmosphere, and it also meant that we could refer to the posters when necessary. In this case some of them depicted scenes from a film of the parade going on just before the moment of the assassination of JFK.
2. Pupils were working in pairs or small groups, because research (and experience) had shown that often pupils learn more that way than by working alone.
3. We teachers were guides on the side -- though in those days we just got on with it: it never occurred to us to come up with a catchphrase and become instantly famous! Ah well, what a missed opportunity<sigh>.
4. The computers (Ataris, which were the best available at that time for an affordable price) had been loaded up with a (free) database about JFK, which the pupils could use in their research. Remember, these were pre-internet days.
5. Not all pupils were working at a computer. They decided what resources would be best for their requirements at any particular time.
6. Note the camera on the table. The pupils were encouraged to take photos to include in their work, to show what they had been doing. We used the camera too, to capture what was going on in the lesson.
7. This is an intangible, but I think you can tell that the pupils were pretty engaged.
Why did the lesson work?
The lesson worked well because of the things that we the teachers had put in place (as well as the fact that the pupils were nice kids):
- An ethos of allowing pupils to work how and with whom and with what they deemed best for their needs.
- A well-maintained computer set-up.
- Resources at hand, such as the database on the computers, the posters, and the printed materials (seen on the central table in the picture).
- A knowledge of the research: I knew about the research into paired working, and the history teacher also knew this approach worked well.
- Good collaboration between the history teacher and myself, including planning the lesson together, running it together, and then discussing afterwards what went well and what could be improved for next next time.
Something to bear in mind is, of course, the timelessness of all this. The photo could have been taken yesterday, apart from the obvious differences in technology. Let's face it: good teaching is good teaching -- but what we really did was not so much teach as set up really good conditions for learning. That's the nub of it.