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How To Get Students To DO Something In The Classroom

I read an article written by Jennifer Gonzalez entitled, ‘To Learn, Students Need to DO Something’ and it made me consider my approach in the classroom. I have been guilty of simply teaching to transfer information, mainly with my examination classes. This approach has been motivated by time constraints and volume of content to cram into a short period of time. I want to change this because neither of these motivations has anything to do with learning.

I thought I would create a walk through of an approach to learning a theoretical concept in one of my Politics classes. I always create my lessons as series rather than stand-alones, so this walk though incorporates four lessons and would take approximately 4 hours for my students who are aged 17-18. Depending on the time available and ability of the students, this time may increase, but it is unlikely to decrease.

The premise of the lesson series is to create multiple and varied opportunities for my students to master the learning of the theory of power according to Steven Lukes.

Lukes’ theory of power is divided into three ideas (the open face, agenda-setting face and the manipulating desires face). The first three lessons would cover one of these ideas and the final lesson would involve essay writing. The end goal is for the students to be able to write a response to a short exam-style question and to get there, they will participate actively in critical thinking, creative thinking, collaboration and communication.

The first step was for me to create three mini interactive e-textbooks as shown below. These would be given to the students ahead of the relevant lesson and would act as a flipped classroom experience. This would provide them with the beginnings of what will become their prior knowledge. This would mean that the students would have to read the short text before they come to my class. The e-textbook is mobile friendly so they can read it on their smart phone during the bus journey to school. The interactive e-textbook includes video links and hyperlinked text which leads the student to definitions of complex or new vocabulary or a deeper dive into an issue or idea.

Lesson 1

In this lesson the open face of power will be tackled. This lesson encourages critical thinking, fluency and flexibility. In this task the students are organising ideas, evaluating concepts and identifying links.

The flow of the lesson would be as follows:

I would ask the students to offer 3 words or phrases that made them stop and think, question or found interesting or compelling in the e-textbook:

I would then write these ideas on the white board or ask a student to do this.

The students would then be asked to identify how the ideas or concepts were relevant to the open face of power and linked to each other. This is a really effective method of identifying gaps in understanding from the flipped classroom experience. It is also a great active task as students will make connections and this is how they will create and plot an understanding of the topic in hand.

I would then select one idea or concept. It is likely that democracy would have been selected during the first task, so I would ask the students to give as many characteristics or definitions as possible of the term ‘democracy’. If the students have mini white boards they could write their ideas here but scrap paper will do just as well.

I would then note them on the board or perhaps a large piece of paper using a thick pen (this is dependent on the size of the class and number of students).

Once they had time to peruse the characteristics and definitions, I would ask them if they could see any similarities and differences. I would follow this up by asking which characteristics were the most important and the reasons for their views. Finally, I would ask if there were any anomalies that they could see (anomalies is one of the hyperlinked terms in the open face interactive e-book).

For the final task I would provoke the students by writing the following statement on the board:

“The open face of power is in line with the principles of democracy”.

I would ask them to discuss the statement within a small group. This task is designed to build the students’ confidence, creativity and resilience in forming and articulating an argument. I would circulate the small groups promoting and challenging where appropriate.

The homework would be to access the second interactive e-textbook ahead of the next lesson:

Lesson 2

As the students enter the classroom, they will be faced with a question written on the board or projected onto a screen:

“How is the agenda-setting face of power similar and different to the open face of power?”

A class discussion would follow with students drawing upon their prior knowledge of the open face of power and comparing it to the second face of power (agenda setting).

I would then ask the students to sketch note the example of the referendum dispute that is covered in the interactive e-textbook. A comic strip would also work well. The students would then show their ideas to the rest of the class, explaining what they have drawn/expressed. In a large class, a visualiser would be an asset to share such work.

The next task would require students to summarise the agenda setting face of power in no more than 250 words. Once they have done this, they would then be asked to edit this writing down to 150 words. This task helps the students with identifying the big ideas which supports the structuring of their learning and understanding (otherwise known as cognitive structures). If students are unfamiliar with the selection of relevant or big ideas from a source, the teacher should model this process by thinking out loud and making their cognitive process visible.

The homework would be to access the third interactive e-textbook ahead of the next lesson:

Lesson 3

I would begin this lesson with one of my favourite thinking skills tasks: essential questions. This idea is taken from McTighe and Wiggins. The students would be asked to construct three questions that have been prompted from their reading from the flipped classroom experience. I would hand out or project the following onto a screen the following text to help them with their wondering:

What is a good question? A good question….

  • Is open-ended.

  • Is thought-provoking & intellectually engaging, often sparking discussion & debate.

  • Calls for higher-order thinking, such as analysis, inference, evaluation, prediction. It cannot be effectively answered by recall alone.

  • Points toward important, transferable ideas within (and sometimes across) disciplines.

  • Raises additional questions & sparks further inquiry.

  • Requires support and justification, not just an answer.

  • Recurs over time; that is, the question can & should be revisited again & again.

Question starters:

  • Why....?

  • How would it be different if....?

  • What are the reasons....?

  • Suppose that....?

  • What if....?

  • What if we knew....?

  • What is the purpose of....?

  • What would change if....?

  • Had…..would…..have occurred?

  • How influential was……in……?

  • How does…..relate to…..?

  • How might……help us to understand…..

  • What does…..reveal about…..?

  • Could……have happened without…..?

  • Does…..matter when trying to understand the reasons for….?

The students would ask their questions and collaboratively we would attempt to answer them.

I would then ask the class if they believed that we could be manipulated without realising. I would anticipate a lively class discussion following this question. If they were not forthcoming I would follow up by asking if they could think of any other examples of where desires are manipulated by governments or businesses/brands etc. They may be able to draw upon their own experiences here.

The next task would require the class to sort and categorise the three faces of power. So at this point the students are beginning to draw together everything they have learned about the three faces of power. The students would be asked to rank the three faces according to which is:

· Most/least common in the world

· Most/ least dangerous

· Most/ least valuable to the people

· Most/ least democratic

· Most/ least legitimate

· Most/ least necessary

The students would be asked to justify their ranking of the faces and share their thoughts in small groups with the teacher circulating, prompting where necessary and asking follow up questions to challenge their ideas.

Lesson 4

The students are now ready to formalise their learning in an exam-style question:

“Analyse the concept of power with reference to the work of Steven Lukes”

They are instructed that they must write three paragraphs (one about each face of power). Within each paragraph they must describe each face, provide at least one detailed example and analyse the face of power. When they analyse they should comment on the relevance, importance, legitimacy, danger, how democratic it is and any anomalies. They are also encouraged to compare the faces in their response. Sharing these constraints will help to support the students with the construction of this formalised and standarised exam skill.


I hope this detailed walk through offers an insight into the way I would approach a lesson to ensure that active learning is at the heart of the classroom experience as opposed to me simply delivering or talking through text.

The experience offers the learners short sharp bursts of activities that involve working alone, in a small group and as a whole class. Relationships can be built through such shared experiences. The teacher as the ‘sage on the stage’ is not a feature, the experience is not transactional as the learners are not merely receptacles that I will fill up with my knowledge. They are independent thinkers able to construct their own meaning by creating mental models that the teacher scaffolds.

Thanks to Jennifer Gonzalez for the reminder of the importance of ensuring that students process, practise, apply, sort and evaluate the information they need to cover. Read her article here.

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