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Primary Education News
News A teacher's guide to immersive lessons
What does a truly immersive lesson look like? Sarah Findlater shares her proven tips on engrossing your class in a topic
Every now and then I throw caution to the wind and teach a lesson where everything is a little bit different, unexpected. An immersive learning experience, if you like. These are the lessons where fun and learning intertwine and the students forget they are in a lesson at all. Most of the learning is done by accident. Sneaky, I know. The turn-everything-on-its-head lessons are my favourite and each time I teach one I wonder why I don't teach every lesson that way.
What does suspending belief in the classroom involve? It can encompass many things. It could be just tweaking how I speak to a class or introduce a topic – hamming it up. It may be using visual, audio or props to create an atmosphere or spark discussion. I have even been known to dress up as various characters; from an air hostess to a detective, a vet to a Greek god, and stay in role for part or all of the lesson. It is about getting them hooked on the learning at a deeper level. Completely immersing them in the story, scene, concept or topic. Allowing them to escape from the real world, here and now in the classroom, and experience an alternate world in the past, another country or different life. There are many roads one can take to this destination.
Don't just stick with the that formula that works with your class
It is great if you have found a way to get them learning and focused but don't be scared to mix it up. Students are treated to five shows a day and more often than not they are fairly similar. This is not a bad thing but boy does it stick with them when a teacher chucks it all up in the air and pulls out a well-planned, risky lesson. Perhaps they don't write the lesson objective down. Maybe the classroom isn't set up in the way they are used to and the seating plan is obsolete. Possibly there is a waft of unfamiliar sounds, foreign objects or strange colours or images as they approach and enter the room. Keep the focus on what you want them to learn, but mix the lesson up. Swirl up the elements that are usually so well ordered. It is freeing for the students and you may be surprised at the result.
A different approach needs proper planning
If you are doing something different it is essential that you have a well-planned lesson and have set up what you need in advance. Think through the lesson a few times. I tend to ask myself some questions when I am planning and setting up the lesson. What will I need at each point of the lesson? Where will I be in the classroom and will the items I need be easily accessible without causing a distracting fuss? If you are in role or are asking the students to be in role in some way, the last thing you want to do is distract them from this by faffing around on different sides of the classroom because you have not set it up correctly before hand. What will the experience of the student be? This last question is the most important. I will often sit in one of the students seats and imagine what they would see, hear, feel and so on. If you want any lesson to go well this is important, but even more so when you are mixing it up and need them to possibly suspend their belief for that session.
Stay in 'role' to keep them involved
The core of this is what the best of us teacher folk try to do all the time – you staying in your positive 'teacher' role, convincing them to get involved in the learning. It is no mean feat keeping them focused by your enthusiasm and involvement in the lesson, even on days that you don't feel like it. Showing them your excitement at the lesson, even in the face of an occasional groan or roll of the eyes, is essential if you want them all on board. They will come on board if you are convincing enough, so don't get sidetracked and downhearted – persevere. Make it so fun that the naysayers will not be able to resist. Involve them in the setup of the lesson, if you can foresee any issues with certain characters. If you are one of the brave (and slightly mad) ones and are actually taking on a role of another character then it is essential that you think about how you will instruct them whilst staying in role. Setting up tasks that go with your role and the situation where you can exert your teacher presence without coming out of role is a good idea. For example, a spy may set top secret missions for the class with guidelines for completion included. If you have to deal with a behavioural issue think of an inventive way of remaining in role but still dealing with it. A police officer may threaten a student with being sent away to jail for the remainder of the lesson, for instance.
Use music visuals and objects
The use of audio is a powerful mood setter. It can change the whole feel of a boring old classroom. Students are transported to another space, the usual classroom noise is no longer there. I have used powerful classical music to depict a battle when teaching war poetry, a medley of James Bond theme tunes when writing spy fiction and opera to inspire creative free writing. I have seen others use Gregorian monks chanting to set the scene for a religious history lesson, power ballads of the 1990s to explore the emotions behind love poetry and tribal African music when discussing appreciation of other culture. Music touches the coldest of hearts and I have seen it bring tears to students eyes if used in the right way.
Visuals are another great tool to immerse the students into a topic quickly. Deep analysis in groups of an image related to the lesson and sharing of findings can lead to immediate deep learning and empathy. Shocking, confusing or unusual images spark discussion and open students up to a topic on another level. Using audio and visuals within the lesson for effect just adds another level of immersion keeping the students connected with the learning.
Objects from outside the classroom are a great way to spark curiosity. To your students, an object will have many different, often surprising, connotations. There are many ways to use objects to help student suspend belief and jump into a story or topic. I have used a great poetry lesson about objects found in a shipwrecked sailor pocket, bringing in a few objects to spark discussion. Setting up a mock crime scene where students have to investigate what has happened always goes down a treat. And, in history I have seen a soldier's helmet or a gas mask used, to create interest and spark discussion. These objects bring the lesson into reality, often someone elses reality very quickly.
This type of immersive learning where students can escape into the world of the topic is a really important part of their school experience. It is because of this that we must ensure that while keeping it fun we must keep it real. What learning do you want to take place? Work back from this point. Sometimes the time restraints and the pressure of the job squeeze the fun from our lessons and I believe it is important that we fight against this. We need to make it one of our priorities to create these exciting learning experiences that will stay with the students, and us, forever.
Sarah Findlater can be found on Twitter as @MsFindlater. She has worked in London schools since she began teaching. She has been KS3 coordinator for English, head of languages and communications faculty (English, media and MFL) and is now an assistant headteacher.