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Is it helping them learn?

May 11, 2014 6 comments

Yesterday, I happen to bump into one of my old Chemistry teachers. In conversation I mentioned that I remembered him blowing up hydrogen balloons in the classroom and saying he wasn’t allowed to so don’t tell anyone!

This got me thinking about memory and the things that stick with you. Was this lasting memory useful, or was it just an explosion in a science room? I thought about it, and in this case it was useful, I remember the explosion and the claim not to be allowed to do it, but I also remember the lesson attached. That was that hydrogen was lighter than air and quite unstable, always looking for a couple of oxygen molecules to combine with. That’s why they use it as rocket fuel, that’s why the WW2 barrage balloons blew up and why we use helium, not hydrogen, in balloons for children’s parties.

Similarly, in this post from last year I discussed another chemistry lesson (different teachers, it turns our my chemistry lessons were pretty memorable!) where the teacher used simile to explain ionic and covalent bonding, again I remember the humour in the lesson, but I also remembered the lesson and still to this day know the explicit difference between ionic and covalent bonds.

This isn’t always true though. I remember in year 8 spending weeks in English creating a game show, but I don’t have a clue what it was about or what learning was involved. I just remember having real fun with my friends doing it. (We called it, “They think it’s just beginning”, and it was a bit like a cross between “They think it’s all over” and “Shooting stars”!)

I remember in geography being set a homework project to build a volcano. I enjoyed playing win paper masche, I enjoyed painting it. I even remember my mum coming up with the great idea of using nail varnish to put lava trails down the side. But I don’t remember learning anything about volcanoes or volcanic activity. I learned that in science later on.

I think this is important when planning activities in lessons. There is absolutely nothing wrong with making lessons “fun”, but we need to consider the content, and ensure it is that, rather than just the fun activities, that stay with our students. We need to ask “Is it helping them learn?”

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