Teaching Beautifully: Consistency not Uniformity

If there is one thing Penguin books does really well it is consistency. Take a look at their Classics series, the black band with orange and yellow text has only been around for a few decades and yet it is instantly recognisable as a Penguin classic. Generally you know from looking at it that this is an authoritative version of the text, usually with a good introduction and notes. That said the Classics range covers texts from every corner of the world and every corner of literature. It covers Anglo-Saxon chronicles, French revolutionary novels and poems about the South Downs. In that way it’s similar to our curricula across a school day, a student might drop in to Gothic novels, letters from WWII fighter pilots, Buddhist scripture and the finer points of mathematical formulae before they even break for lunch.

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Each one of those topics, just like every Penguin Classic, has its own place in history, discipline and geography but each ought to be given some consistency as they are taught to students of the same age, in the same place just as Penguin publishes their books in the same series for the same English-speaking audience.

Penguin is really adept at using cover art to give their books a context. Above we can see that the use of paintings and photographs is done judiciously, some are directly connected with the text like the portraits of Cicero and Pepys, some are contemporary works of art like the manuscript illustration from The Age of Bede and some have a more abstract, artistic link like the use of cubist art on Descartes’ Meditations or the use of Caravaggio’s Sacrifice of Isaac to illustrate the central story used by Kierkegaard in Fear and Trembling. As designers of curricula and resources we can do the same when trying to teach beautifully, we can access just as wide a range of art and illustration to bring context and concreteness to our information.

The level of consistency varies throughout Penguin’s catalogue. If we move from Classics to their recent non-fiction publishing efforts we see from the covers it is difficult to see any hint of commonality – Hatherley’s exploration of communist architecture is accompanied by a pastiche of Soviet design, McCulloch’s books on Christianity use paintings of Jesus and an angel whilst Mason’s political text incorporates bold typefaces and plain colours.

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Take a look then at the spines. Although (logo-aside) it is nearly impossible to tell from the cover that these books are all published under the same imprint when you see them on a shelf the bright orange, black and white spines immediately bring them together as a series and remind you this is a Penguin book you are looking at.

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At this point I really need to clarify something: I am not advocating for the kind of school-wide enforced consistency that is prevalent in many schools and MATs. That of colour-schemes, logos in every corner and the same front used without a fault. That is corporate design and not educational design. Educational design should focus on making teaching better and making learning as frictionless as possible – of course we can, and should, consider aesthetics but what is beautiful in the corporate world is not what is beautiful in education. We should have our own aesthetic, an educational aesthetic of art and design which is consistent when it aids teaching and different when disciplinary boundaries require it.

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Instead of school-wide consistency (which is out of most of our remits anyway) it seems like a department-wide consistency is more achievable. Although I don’t think having a ‘style guide’ in the corporate sense is particularly useful for schools it could be useful to think about how and why they are used. British Rail’s (as seen above) makes sure that passengers are never confused by different symbols, fonts and logos being used across the system and builds a visual language which has variety within it but an overarching identity. Our resources could use something similar, reducing our student’s cognitive load and adjustment time and aiding learning in the process.

In my own practice, whether I’m teaching Buddhism or Plato, I make sure to use the same symbols for reading, writing, questioning etc. When I teach Christianity I always use the same key words to refer to concepts, the same images as visual stimuli to memory and the same format when presenting Bible readings.

Here you can see slides from four different lessons on four very different subjects but with one unified visual style. You might think these look dreary but this is the bread-and-butter of my teaching and it would be adding to cognitive load to make these slides (or booklets, or worksheets) too visually arresting. I’ve spoken at length about bringing in aesthetic beauty in the form of art but that needs to be apart from the ordinary in order for it to be appreciated.

I know that often planning and resource-making is a piecemeal process that occurs over the course of several years, often with many teachers involved. For that reason thinking about design is not as simple as implementing a style guide. Few of us have the time or inclination to change the typeface on every worksheet or add symbols to every presentation but it is something we can bear in mind for the future. Since the start of the year I decided on a font, a set of symbols and a colour scheme and (as seen above) I have used that in all new resources I’ve produced (as well as in notices for my room and personal projects). To my mind this consistency does aid learning by reducing cognitive load so it is worthwhile from a cost-benefit point-of-view – you can decide for yourself if you agree.

Teaching Beautifully: The best of what has been drawn and seen

If we are to teach, as Matthew Arnold argues, “the best of which has been thought and said” then I think it is incumbent on us, as teachers, to include in that the best of what has been, drawn, painted, illustrated and seen. Visual beauty, just like the beauty of texts, is something worth teaching for its own sake but also as an aid to both teacher explanation and our students’ cultural literacy.

When we talk about curriculum we are really talking about choice. Though we have different levels of choice over what we teach in the classroom, most of us have a fair amount of liberty in how we choose to teach and, especially, in what resources we actually put in front of our students. Of course we think about how we want our students to have rigorous, challenging and rich content to enjoy and to aid their learning but do we also stop and think about the visual beauty and value of our curriculum choices?

Mary Myatt writes in The Curriculum about giving students the opportunity to produce beautiful work. Work that is polished and refined, work that is “sophisticated, accurate, important and beautiful”. This is surely admirable, and it has definitely made me think more about the end product of my teaching but it does pose a question for me: can we expect students to create beautiful work if we pay so little attention to what is beautiful work ourselves? Unfortunately when faced with the pressures of a lack of planning time, perhaps a lack of subject knowledge and a lack of beautiful pre-produced resources teachers have a tendency to veer into the ugly. It doesn’t have to be this way.

Take Abraham and Isaac, a subject I’ve been teaching to Year 7 just this week. When I was considering what to use for the text there was little debate in my mind, of course we would read it from the Bible. With good teacher explanation the story is fully accessible to that age group and it is the most accurate and enriching way to teach the story. There are too many videos on YouTube claiming to tell the story whilst subtly adjusting it for their own theological purposes, so why not read it in the Bible?

Then I thought that I wanted students to have some visual stimulus for the story, something that would help them think about the emotions involved and the motivations for Abraham and God.  A quick Google image search for ‘Abraham and Isaac’ bought me a pretty broad selection from Renaissance art to cartoons to Simpsons memes featuring Homer about to plunge a dagger into Bart. I can see why some teachers here might choose the cartoons, they are ‘fun’ and ‘relatable’, they make a ‘dry’ story more ‘kid-friendly’. I would however argue this is misguided and that is choosing ugliness over beauty. Firstly there’s no point in trying to trick our students into believing our lesson is as ‘fun’ as a Saturday morning on CBBC or an hour spent on YouTube, they’re cleverer than that and most of them are pretty bored of being patronised by poor-quality cartoons. Secondly if we believe the Bible is relatable and accessible to students, despite being several millennia old, then why is the same not true for Renaissance paintings? These images have endured in the popular imagination for centuries in a way that Bible Storiez 4 Kidz is unlikely to do so.

 

Instead of looking at a cartoon timeline of the story my students got to have a close look at Caravaggio’s Sacrifice of Isaac, one of the most evocative, emotionally charged paintings of a Biblical scene. A painting that is beautiful in its own right but which is also a tremendous teaching tool in helping students understand the emotional depth of this story. And it’s not just the emotions on display here either, a passing knowledge of art history will help students and teachers go deeper here. After some discussion about how Abraham and Isaac felt I could get students to identify the source of light in the painting and the way that Isaac’s face is so brightly lit showing God’s approval (or perhaps just his presence). We looked at the way that the Angel’s face is in shadow because they are not God but a messenger of God and the way we could deduce God’s message by looking at where the angel was pointing to a ram.

 

I don’t know if my students will ever get to see this in the Uffizi gallery but, with a high enough quality JPEG and a decent projector I think I did a pretty good job of getting them up close to Caravaggio’s work. I hope that it is a painting that will stick with them in their long-term memory, I hope it will cement some of the abstract ideas about God and sacrifice and free will that the story of Abraham and Isaac brings up and I hope that they enjoyed the experience of looking at it and felt that I was challenging them with this because I trusted their intellectual capabilities.

Perhaps I’m wrong about this. Perhaps I have a fundamentally conservative and out-dated notion of aesthetic beauty and my students would have been better off with the cartoon. My hope is that this is the first blog post in a series about teaching beautifully and that people will want to discuss this.

Writing knowledge organisers – a step-by-step guide

There are plenty of blog posts and articles and book chapters extolling the virtues of knowledge organisers, that’s not what this post is. Instead this is a step-by-step guide to how I write my RE knowledge organisers.

1. Decide what knowledge you want to organise

This might feel obvious, you probably have a scheme-of-work for the half term and that feels like what needs to go onto the KO but it might be worth stopping for a second and considering what is the best chunk to try and represent here. A half-term of GCSE classes for us is about 15 lessons whereas a half-term of KS3 classes is only 6 and A Level is 9 (per strand) so if you divide by half-term you are putting wildly different amounts of information onto each KO. In my opinion the topic absolutely must fit comfortably onto one A4 sheet. If that’s not the case either you need to better condense the information or divide up your KOs differently.

2. Find a revision guide

I love using revision guides to plan my lessons and KOs. They condense down all the knowledge that’s required, usually onto a couple of pages and they focus on key words and ideas that you need to focus on in your planning. Of course textbooks, course books and other resources are absolutely required for lessons but a revision guide and the exam spec should keep you focused on the bare bones for planning a KO.

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3. Sketch out the key words and ideas

I use a planning sheet I’ve created and I fill it in as I read through my own notes and the revision guide. I try to stick to five or six key ideas (sometimes divided into two sections) and between 16 and 20 key words (fewer for KS3). This stage really helps you clearly see what the central themes are for your SoW.

4. Find a ‘flow’

The key words will need to be alphabetised but the key ideas section should flow for revision purposes. It can follow the lesson structure in your SoW but I prefer it to almost make a logical story. For example with Utilitarianism my KO starts with Act and the Hedonic Calculus then Rule and the Harm Principle then the applications to animal experimentation and nuclear weapons. Chronology can be useful here for history, foundational to applied knowledge in other subjects.

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5. Use a template to create your KO

All of my KOs look very, very similar. I use a slightly larger font for KS3 ones but I think it creates a sense of continuity to be giving students a summary formatted in the same way for every topic they cover in RE at our school. As such I stick very much to my template using tables in Word to simply divide up knowledge. I might split the table in two or four to help with chunking but the format is quite rigid and in this way it sticks to Oliver Caviglioli’s design principles of using a properly aligned grid when designing work.

6. Dual code with a consistent symbol

I use Noun Project to find the symbols for my KOs. I try, as far as possible, to be consistent in the symbols I use. When describing abstract concepts it can be hard to find a picture which is adequate. For example, I use opera glasses to show Mill’s Rule Utilitarianism which is linked to the idea of ‘higher’ pleasures – if I use that consistently in all my handouts and presentations then it is embedded with students, if I were to just use it once it is unlikely to stick and provide the benefits that dual coding does.

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7. Enjoy the process!

Let me tell you a secret: I love making knowledge organisers. There’s nothing as satisfying as sitting back and looking at the whole of a module or SoW summarised on one sheet of A4 in such a neat and attractive way. Furthermore I have found the process of making them for all of our GCSE to be really helpful for my subject knowledge, not only do I feel more aware of the key concepts and words demanded by the exam board but also less overwhelmed when I know I can condense everything into such a short amount of text.

8. Use them

I am terrible for making resources and then either forgetting or neglecting to actually use them with my students. There is no shortage of articles on how to effectively use KOs in the classroom so make sure you read them and alter your teaching to incorporate them if you’re going to take the time and effort to make them!

Links & Resources

Reduce, reuse, recycle: PowerPoint, Word and cognitive load

What is Cognitive Load Theory and how does it apply to our resources?

This article from Impact presents two main ways in which Cognitive Load Theory (CLT) can be applied to the classroom: intrinsic and extraneous cognitive load. The design of our information and resources is absolutely key to tackling cognitive load so let’s look at how we can do that.

Intrinsic cognitive load can be reduced by breaking down the subject content, sequencing the delivery so that sub-tasks are taught individually before being explained together as a whole. The idea is to not overwhelm a student too early on in the introduction of new work.

Just as our verbal instructions and explanations must be clear and concise so must our visual instructions and explanations. Sequence and content overload are both things which can be overcome with good graphic design.

Extraneous cognitive load can be reduced by the way in which instructions are presented. We make sense of new material by referencing schema or mental models of pre-existing knowledge. Lack of clarity in instruction puts too high a load on the working memory, and so too much time is spent problem-solving the instructions as opposed to new schema formation. For example, lessons that use PowerPoint with excessive writing and the teacher talking at the same time, can inadvertently generate excessive cognitive load and lead to working memory failures.

Focusing our visual explanations and instructions on complementing rather than duplicating our verbal utterances is key to reducing this type of cognitive load. Furthermore we can think about where we are putting information and where students can access it to form schema and commit information to memory. Speech is very immediate but a PowerPoint slide might stay up for a few minutes whilst a knowledge organiser is a visual resource students can access whenever they need to.

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

I think there are three main principles to consider when you are assessing the effectiveness of your information design whether it’s presentations, worksheets, knowledge organisers or even students own notes.

1. Reduce

I certainly had a tendency in the past to use a blank PowerPoint slide as a brain dump where I would write down what I would later say in the lesson itself. By thinking of our information resources as complementary to teacher talk rather than duplicating it we can hugely cut down on the amount of text, and even the visuals needed on our slides. Do not read off slides and if you are going to have students make notes from slides do not have them on display as you are talking.

Similarly we need to reduce the amount of noise on the page. Whether that’s a busy PowerPoint theme, a selection of different fonts or colours or just a ‘jazzy’ worksheet. It has to go. Simplicity is absolutely key when you are trying to transmit knowledge in a visual form to children. Start with what is essential for the students to have in front of them then stop.

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An example KS4 Knowledge Organiser: black and white, grid format, one font, familiar icons

 

2. Reuse

As you plan a scheme of work you would naturally think of what kind of vocabulary you would introduce and then use throughout: if I am teaching the Religion and Life module I am going to want to introduce the idea of sanctity of life early on and keep referencing it. The same can be said of our visual language: if I introduce an icon of a cradle to symbolise the incarnation of Christ then I need to be reusing that exact same icon in all future PowerPoints, knowledge organisers, quizzes and even notes. This both increases cognition through dual coding theory by using both visual and verbal channels but also increases recall as students can recognise the symbols even if the exact vocabulary escapes their immediate grasp.

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Icons to represent key points in Jesus’ life I use again-and-again along with the key vocabulary

3. Recycle

Give yourself a visual style and stick to it. Not only does this reduce cognitive load on students as they don’t have to deal with a new font or layout or colour scheme each lesson but it also saves you work as you can easily adapt one lesson’s resources to suit the next. I use the same reading and note-taking template a lot and because I use it so consistently I can now present it to students without spending a long time explaining the task. Similarly reusing quiz slides, re-cap slides or start-of-lesson slides acts as a visual bit of routine building. Students know when they come in and see my start-of-lesson slide with title, date, definition and re-cap quiz that they have to do those things in that order whilst I get settled doing the register.

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My Year 7 start-of-lesson slide

Give these three principles some thought as you go to lay out your next worksheet or re-jig your PowerPoint slides and you can take some quite easy steps to reduce cognitive load on your students and even workload for yourself.