Explaining the Blair governments in five diagrams

Teaching using the principles of direct instruction, applied by explaining key content through planned diagrams and a central narrative. 

I have felt that my teaching practice relies upon written text to do too much of the ‘heavy lifting’. Within the classroom, I feel like a wasted resource at times, and then one that is being used inefficiently as I tackle a range of questions and deal with any misconceptions that students come up with. One of my more recent attempts to deal with this, in the Government & Politics classroom, was to deliver a lecture on Margaret Thatcher’s premiership. This proved to be an interesting and viable teaching method, for the sixth form. Despite proving an effective teaching tool, some students said that they did struggle to “sit and listen” for such an extended period of time.

Following our case study of Margaret Thatcher’s premiership, I needed to teach students about Tony Blair’s governments, their policy impact and to evaluate Blair’s governing style. Whilst doing so, I also wanted to invest students with a more detailed understanding of the principles of cabinet government and the broader electoral environment. I therefore came up with a lesson which I called ‘Blair in Five Diagrams’.

Step one remained rather similar to my ‘pre-lecture’ lesson with Margaret Thatcher. I cut back the amount of information supplied to two very short case studies, drawn from the course textbook, and a range of policies, actions and achievements of the Blair government which students categorised into a table like the one below.

  Strengths Weaknesses
Governing Style    
Policy Impact    

 

This warmed students up to the main themes of the Blair governments, and I devised five diagrams that I felt would deal with some misconceptions and extend a few key ideas further. The five are suggested below, along with some of the thinking behind them:

  1. Blair and the Use of Sofa Government: Students understanding of the term was a little weak. Students also did not understand the connection between poor government & the Iraq War.
  2. Blair and Brown: Questioning showed students didn’t understand why Brown was able to exercise such power.
  3. Blair and moving power out of Westminster. Students were fixated only on Scotland as an example so I wanted to show power moving to Northern Ireland, Wales, the Bank of England and the People through the Freedom of Information Act.
  4. Blair and John Prescott
  5. Blair, The Centre Ground and a Weak Opposition

 

For those interested in the specifics of what was drawn and explained, please do get in touch and I shall explain further.

I thought my approach would draw on the strengths of my lecture, by providing a clear narrative around the workings of cabinet government, with some carefully planned explanations. I am grateful for the kind of advice on good board work, and pens, provided by Ben Newmark which I kept in mind. I drew up my planned diagrams with the students, rather than supplying them fully drawn. Whilst doing so, I was carefully explaining my thinking aloud. Pausing after each diagram with a period of planned questioning broke up the learning a little more for students than the lecture had done. It also allowed me to check on students understanding and to use a classroom dialogue to work up knowledge.

I had planned for five diagrams. In the room, it felt like the fourth was unnecessary and the fifth had to be shifted over to the next lesson, due to a lack of time. I felt that the lesson worked really well and I think I’d use the same principles again when explaining key concepts. Some of the strengths and weaknesses of the lesson, as I perceived it, are given below:

 

Strengths Weaknesses
·         Drawing and explaining the concepts at the same time appeared to help students grasp

·         Questioning within the lesson and after the lesson suggested that this approach was able to draw on vague ideas students already had and to extend it with sufficient detail. The combination of principle (e.g. cabinet government) and the narrative that a real-life example provided seemed to really aid knowledge acquisition.

·         Questioning during the instruction also allowed me to support students in connecting their new knowledge to what they had before through follow up questioning and challenging misconceptions.

·         Students seemed truly engaged, as they had in the lecture. Though this is not a goal in itself, I think planning for a knowledge rich curriculum that students enjoy is. I took the number of questions that students produce in the lesson and after it as evidence of their learning and enthusiasm for the subject matter.

·         This worked far better than attempts at student presentations of Thatcher and Blair’s governments last year! Students writing is invested with far more technical explanations and a wealth of examples. I am going to give myself some credit for this!

·         I wish I had been more precise in telling students how to make notes. There were a variety of approaches and some, I fear, were too busy trying to write everything down than listening. In future, I’ll experiment with ‘pens down’ during the explanation and providing writing time. Twitter’s Thinking Hard has also suggested leaving any note making and written analysis to after the lesson to make the most efficient use of lesson time.

·         Four or five principles are too many to explain in one lesson. One or two would have been far better. I think I knew this in advance, but I had treated this lesson as a ‘proof of concept’.

·         I’m still not confident on the interplay between pre-reading, direct instruction and follow up consolidation. I think this is me being a little ‘loose’ with my instructions and my focus has been skewed towards planning the direct instruction components and resourcing. Now these are in place, the next teaching needs to think about this sequencing with greater precision.

·         It was an intense lesson to deliver. It is built upon developing my questioning technique and in depth subject knowledge. This isn’t necessarily a weakness, but perhaps places an additional limit on how quickly some teachers might be able change their style in this direction or how many lessons that could be delivered in this way.  

 

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