We’re always trying to be creative in order to make lessons more interesting. If I had a Pound for every time a student asked, “When am I going to need this?” I’d be so rich I could retire! However, relating topics to real life isn’t always the best way to pique the interest of your students.
Where appropriate, I like to pose a question at the start of the lesson that students should be able answer by the end of the lesson:
A brick and a sponge are the same size. In water, the brick would sink and the sponge would float. Why?
Why don’t Mr Jones’s glasses break when he sits on them? (He is a rather rotund gentleman!)
What are these and why would we use them? (Picture of architect’s drawings)
Using commas to consider Grandma’s safety: “Let’s eat Grandma!” or “Let’s eat, Grandma!”
Why do some colour combinations work and others look awful?
But students really don’t respond well to tedious links. A question about a ladder and an angle of elevation isn’t even mildly interesting and is not going to be relevant in the real world. Using people that students know in questions (their peers or a teacher) is a quick and easy way to get the students’ attention.
Where real life applications are not feasible, I’m hoping I can give you other strategies to fall back on that I use day-to-day to make lessons more creative and interesting than ‘just another worksheet’. I’m a great advocate of lessons not being exciting for the sake of it – I would rather students found success in my classroom, as the sense of satisfaction that stems from success is the greatest engager of them all! But sometimes, we need a ‘way in’ with classes, to build their trust and get them to open up enough to try.
One strategy that I use time and time again is the match-up puzzle. There are so many variations of these out there. The easiest way to create them is through Hermitech’s Tarsia programme, especially if you want your puzzle to take an interesting shape, but a table created in Word does the job just as well. As any resource or strategy, its success is largely down to how it is used. Give a puzzle made of paper to the class and you will have students blowing the pieces in all directions because it’s (apparently) funny. You’ll need to lay down some ground rules. You’ll also need to decide on whether you’re going to cut up the pieces for the students, or whether you don’t mind them doing that in the lesson. I have about ten Tarsia puzzles that I use regularly enough to warrant making them with coloured card. They’re definitely more resilient that way than on paper! I also make sure than students show their working or write their reasons and justifications for the pairs in their books. This sorts out the copying problem, and means that if they do copy, at least they’re looking at the reasons or working out whilst doing so!
Recently, I have started to mix up the standard puzzle a bit. Including intentional red herrings that students must correct is a great way to develop understanding. Or leaving a few blanks for them to fill in themselves to encourage them to be creative too. Why not ask them to design their own match-up puzzle completely from scratch? Alternatively, with Tarsias, it works well to remove a missing piece from the middle of the pack so students have to work out what some questions could be with a given answer.
Where you have a relatively short answer to a question, a treasure hunt can work well too. There are loads of these online, and lots of programmes that enable you to create treasure hunts quickly and effectively. Interactive Maths has a great one here that works well with formulae for maths and science, and pictures and text for all subjects. If you’ve got a fidgety class, this is a great strategy to get them learning out of their seats. Give students mini-whiteboards (or they can just use their books) and give them different starting points so they can move around the room answering or solving questions.
If you’re lucky enough to have access to technology, students will definitely find a lesson on iPads or computers interesting. You probably won’t have to try particularly hard here to be creative either – just copy and paste questions from a worksheet and think about common misconceptions that students might make. Again, ground rules are vital, and you’ll find the more you use any of these strategies, classes will settle into the routines of them as the novelty wears off. Kahoot! is definitely interesting, and students would probably argue that it’s verging on being fun! Instead, you might find that your school has an old set of Qwizdom devices kicking around in a cupboard somewhere. These enable you to ask interactive questions via PowerPoint or Smart Notebook, and your students can respond with the handheld devices. Graphing software also goes a way towards making a lesson more interesting. There are all sorts of cool creative things you can do with Autograph and Geogebra – great for geography, science and maths, or any subject where a graph may be useful.
Most classrooms now are equipped with a smart board or projector with speakers in one form or another. Sometimes students are just bored of hearing our voice. Mix up the start of your lesson by showing your students a video and let someone else do the teaching. There are loads of great educational videos out there – just search for the topic you’re teaching on YouTube! Or get creative in other ways and make your own. App stores have plenty of different apps to support you in making videos; you can write on the screen over your video or even speak through an avatar to give yourself a different sound or look. A strategy that I always employ when using videos is given students questions to answer whilst watching them. These could be fill-in-the-gap sentences, one word answers, multiple choice questions or something that requires a piece of extended writing. Better still, ask students to write three questions that arise from watching the video. It’s just something else to keep the students focused.
Students often find a lesson more interesting when they feel they can take ownership of something. Pass the creativity over to them again and ask your students to write their own exam question and mark scheme. This is a great way to develop students’ understanding of a topic or assessment criteria. Often, students will start with a question that’s way too hard or incredibly easy. Support them by specifying how many marks their question must be worth, or by showing them an example first. To really deepen understanding, ask students to swap their exam questions, answer them, then use the mark scheme to mark their peers’ work. You’ll be impressed by their subject-specific vocabulary and how well they actually can talk about the work when they’re proud of their creations.
I love printing single exam questions to A3 sheets of paper and asking students to work together to answer them. Everything seems more accessible and fun when not done alone according to most of the students I’ve taught, and exam questions are easy to come by. Supply ten to fifteen different questions on different coloured paper, and rate them in difficulty with chillies or stars. Tell the class that each pair or group must complete so-many stars or chillies worth of questions to ensure they complete a variety of challenging questions. You could ask each group to present one of the harder questions that they’ve answered to the rest of the class at the end. If you can’t be creative, just get your students to do it for you!
Being creative isn’t easy, and some days we’re just too tired to put in the extra effort to make lessons a little different. Just remember that creative lessons are interesting when they don’t feature strategies that are over-used. We’re all guilty of succumbing to fads, but try not to over-do it with any one of these strategies. Finally, don’t feel that every lesson needs to be all singing and dancing; progress is what we’re ultimately aiming for, and creative lessons aren’t always needed. Often, slightly tweaking an activity that you’ve used before and adding an extra dimension to it, will be enough.