The trap of gimmicks in the classroom

Author: Andy Sammons
Published: 18/08/2020

Gimmicks don't work, according to Andy Sammons, even if they are delicious cupcakes...

I loved the first year of teaching, but it was laden with gimmicks. I spent far too much time dreaming up new and innovative ways of presenting information to students, and even more weird and wonderful ways of getting them to demonstrate their learning.

Once, I baked 30 cupcakes and tied balloons to tables for the students when they arrived for my lesson. It was a lesson on celebrations. My deputy head was walking past, and I grabbed him, desperate to show him the lengths I had gone to for my students. He looked delighted and enthusiastically asked, ‘What are they learning?’ He wasn’t trying to catch me out, but he did. I didn’t really have an articulate response for him.

That feeling has stuck with me ever since. Beware lessons fused with cupcakes and balloons.

Seven years seems like a lifetime ago, and the educational landscape is unrecognisable now. When I trained, there was much more emphasis on engagement and fun in the classroom. There’s been a swing in more recent years towards knowledge; education seems more grounded in terms of the curriculum that we are being asked to think through for the benefit of our students.

For me, ‘gimmick’ is a relative term. If you think about it, the ideas of Dylan Wiliam were taken and warped into something which became a gimmick in lots of cases. His ‘Assessment for Learning’ was – in the worst cases – turned into a simple checklist of items on Learning Walks to check teacher compliance. It had absolutely nothing to do with meaningful learning.

When I was mentoring a newly qualified teacher a few years ago, they were spending time rummaging around in bags, pulling lollipops out to ask questions. I remember just asking ‘Why?’ I don’t dispute that things like this once came from a sound place, but for me they were about as much use in that classroom as my cupcakes were all those years ago.

What, exactly, does all this mean? One thing I always go back to is that learning is one of the most human things we can do. There’s nothing wrong with something that is meant to hook students or to engage them, but it must be about purpose.

My own reflection on cupcake-gate is that I needed to think about the end product with more clarity. I’m proud of the passion I showed, and I’m proud that I wanted to do something different, but I’m even prouder that I’ve remained in teaching for the years since to properly understand and have the benefit of hindsight and experience. Hopefully that benefits my students that little bit more.

Identifying purpose and avoiding gimmicks: Five things to ask yourself:

1. Can I explain the rationale to myself?

This is not about feeling pressured to justify everything you do, but if you can’t clearly explain the reason for doing something, it probably isn’t a good idea.

2. Where does this sit within the lesson?

Even if it’s just about getting the students hooked, everything you do should have a place and a reason for being in the lesson. If you’re unsure, it’s worth giving it some thought!

3. Where does this sit within the wider sequence of learning?

It’s really important to reflect on how the activity fits into the bigger picture. Does it ask students to re-use skills, recall knowledge from previous lessons, or does it need contextualisation for it to work?

4. What’s the outcome?

What do you want the students to do as a result? What’s the end product on paper, or even verbally? I remember one teacher saying to me: ‘What do you want them to know, and how will you know they know it?’ I don’t think you can ever be 100%, but it’s a good gauge, I think!

5. What response are you hoping for?

It’s always useful to consider the emotional response you are hoping to elicit. Is it excitement? Calm? Focus? Energy? A mix? It’s important to anticipate what kind of emotions you might incite with your activities. I remember an outside agency demonstrating an exploding chemical to a roomful of 12-year olds, and then being completely exasperated when they wouldn’t be quiet. It reminded me of the importance of being aware of your audience!


Andy Sammons

Andy Sammons is a teacher, writer and head of department (@andy_samm) and the author of The Compassionate Teacher.