Sunday, 2 October 2016

On gimmicks

What is a gimmick? The dictionary defines it as “a trick or device intended to attract attention, publicity, or trade.” So, putting a cartoon tiger on a packet of breakfast cereal in order to attract children’s attention is a gimmick. So is repackaging ordinary Shreddies as ‘Diamond Shreddies‘. In the words of Rory Sutherland, these sorts of gimmicks attempt to solve problems by “tinkering with perception, rather than that tedious, hardworking and messy business of actually trying to change reality.” An example of something that isn’t a gimmick is a BOGOF offer where the customer actually gets something of practical value that they actually want. In this case an extra roll of toilet paper or a half price book tangibly changes reality. A cartoon tiger merely tinkers with our perception of a cereal as being more fun. 

In educational terms then, we will define gimmicks as tricks or devices intended to attract students’ attention in the hope that they will become better behaved or more motivated to work hard. To help us decide whether a teaching intervention can be described as a gimmick we can apply Sutherland’s neat description. Does the practice ‘tinker with perception’, or does it try to change reality?

Here are somethings teachers do which are, according to this way of thinking, not gimmicks: asking questions, marking books, reorganising seating plans, setting tests, group work, praising effort rather than outcomes, and using a text book. I’ve deliberately chosen this list so that it contains things different people might consider good or bad. That isn’t the point; whether you like these things or think they’re a mistake, they all engage teachers in the “tedious, hardworking and messy business of actually trying to change reality.” We might not agree with the ways they may end up changing reality, but – for better or worse – that is their aim.

Let’s compare this list with things that are gimmicks: lollypop sticks, motivational posters, reading a book on an iPad rather than in print, Kagan Cooperative Learning, amusing YouTube videos, #PoundlandPedagogy, and Tabletop Shakespeare. Again, I’m not making a value judgment on any of these, I’m just point out that they are all attempts to repackage something that can be done in another way in the attempt to attract attention and ticker with perceptions. Lollypop sticks are a way of targeting questions randomly in order to prevent some children from not answering questions. You can argue that writing students’ names makes this process easier but you can equally argue that it’s just a gimmicky way to ask questions. Kagan Cooperative Learning is just a fancy way of packaging group work with some rather overblown claims made about its efficacy. There are plenty of ways to use iPads that aren’t simply gimmickry, but when they’re used to make reading seem more interesting, nothing of substance is being changed, just our perceptions. Slapping up motivational quotes and posters is the ultimate in perception tinkering.

So, what’s wrong with gimmicks? At root, attempts to tinker with perceptions are as Sutherland pointed out, appealing because they’re so much easier than actually teaching children to master challenging and rich subject content. That takes sustained effort and requires excellent behaviour and the expectation that all children are capable of academic success with sufficient support. Using gimmicks on the other hand means you can tolerate poor behaviour and lacklustre effort by getting kids to do something they’ll think is fun. I outlined the problem with prioritising fun here. Essentially, it’s not that students enjoying lessons is a bad thing – of course it isn’t, it’s just that it should be an incidental by-product, not the purpose of a lesson.

Here’s a cautionary tale. Some years ago I had a extremely tricky year 9 class to whom I had to teach Romeo and Juliet. A sizeable minority in the class were of the opinion that Shakespeare in particular and English lessons in general were a tedious burden which took time away from their preferred pursuits: chatting, putting each other in head locks and being offensive and other students’ mothers. In an effort to get them on side I decided to get them to make sock puppets of the characters and act out modern versions of various key scenes. We spent a couple of weeks making puppets and preparing performances. I wouldn’t go far as to say the class behaved well, but they tolerated this approach as it was relatively undemanding and allowed for lots of chatting. The puppets and performance they produced were mostly rubbish and after a couple of lessons I was heartily sick of vignettes inspired by Eastenders and Jeremy Kyle. But at least they did it. Then, we got on with a modicum of reading and attempted some analysis of the key scenes. At one point, I was sitting next to one students who seemed unable to remember even the most basic plot elements of the play. In frustration I reminded him about the puppets he had had a hand in making and prompted him with the question, “So what can you tell me about Benvolio?” After some though he eventually said, “Er, wasn’t he made of blue stuff?”

Using gimmicks comes with three costs:

First there’s the opportunity cost. The time we have available to teach children is strictly finite. If you’re going to invest lesson time on activities with little or no cultural capital then this is time you can’t also spend on something more culturally rich. You have to make a choice. The time I spent making puppets and thinking about Jeremy Kyle was time I couldn’t spend on thinking about Romeo and Juliet and Shakespeare’s theatre.

The second cost is the load gimmicks place on working memory. As Daniel Kahneman argues, “Anything that occupies your working memory reduces your ability to think.” If the packaging of our lessons is attention grabbing, students will have a bit less capacity for processing what’s important. This matters because “memory is the residue of thought”: what students think about is what they’ll remember. If they’ve thought about SOLO taxonomy or exciting mini-plenary activities, these are what they will remember. My students had a vivid memory of making puppets but coukldn’t remember – or didn’t know – the point behind making the puppets.

The third cost is that the reasons teachers rely on gimmicks go unaddressed. If teachers have prepare lessons to motivate children to come to lessons, not punch each other and sit in their seats then this sends out the message that there a low expectations of what students can do. Instead of tackling the reasons why it was impossible to focus on the text, I made excuses and did something I thought my students would find easier and more enjoyable. Not only did they fail to learn anything of value about Romeo and Juliet, they also learned that it was acceptable to carry on behaving precisely as they wished.

So, while it may seem look a good idea to save time by tinkering with perceptions, if you don’t do the hard work necessary to change the reality of what students know and can do, reality won’t change.

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