“Put down your pens…”


I am very lucky to work in a girls’ school where the students are extremely focused and conscientious. Many are not satisfied unless they have a page full of detailed, multi-coloured notes at the end of every lesson. Therefore, when I invited my Year 11 class into the classroom and asked them to put away their books and pencil cases, I was met with confusion and a little bit of apprehension! I had decided to try a ‘pens down’ lesson – a lesson which involved no writing, no panicking to get every word I say written down and no copying mindlessly from the board.

As I was beginning a new topic, ‘Development and Human Welfare’, it felt like the perfect opportunity to try something different. My lesson activities were planned like this:

  • A paired and then class discussion on what the word ‘development’ meant to elicit their initial ideas on the topic
  • Giving students 10 photos of different countries and asking them to place them in order of how developed they thought the country was (with some red- herrings to throw them off track and encourage discussion!)
  • A short video clip on ‘What is development studies?’
  • Giving students a set of statements which they had to group into different ‘strands of development’ to get them thinking about the idea that ‘development’ is multi-faceted
  • A true or false plenary where students sorted statements into two piles to assess learning

I observed the immediate benefits: the girls’ creativity was unrestricted, they weren’t concerned with getting the ‘right answer’ to put in their books, and they took risks as nothing was recorded. I also felt that it enabled my students to work on their speaking and listening skills, and it also allowed those who are less confident with writing to feel like they have achieved and communicated their ideas effectively.

I am, as many teachers will be, in the midst of planning the new A Level. Our department has chosen the OCR specification and I am teaching the ‘Global Migration’ topic. After the success of my pens down lesson, I am now planning to begin the year with another and hopefully the lesson will go as follows:

  • A discussion around two quotes on migration from the United Nations to explore the importance of studying the issue
  • Giving students the flags of 10 countries and asking them to order them to show the number of migrants each received in 2015A true or false activity where students move statements into two piles to reveal misconceptions about migration
  • An analysis of graphs and maps to reveal key trends in migration through group and class discussion
  • A short documentary on the recent European migration crisis

So, at the end of the development ‘pens-down’ lesson, what didn’t the girls have? They didn’t have a page full of notes; in fact, there was no record that the lesson had actually taken place. However, they did have enthusiasm, interest, a high level of engagement and a desire to learn more about the topic. It was also a lesson which they remembered. They often refer back to the lesson, not just stating how much they enjoyed it, but also mentioning some of the points we discussed and what they had learnt.

If you want to improve communication, boost enthusiasm and foster excellent debate and discussion, why not consider ‘putting your pens down’? Try it for a lesson, or, if you are feeling ambitious, The Communication Trust promotes an annual ‘No Pens Wednesday’ where the whole school puts down their pens for the day. I am always looking for new ‘pens down’ activities –  let me know if you have any that have worked well for you.

Rebecca Priest photoRebecca Priest is a Geography Teacher at King Edward VI High School for Girls in Birmingham. She is currently studying for a MA in Geography Education at the Institute of Education and presented a session on ISM at the GA’s 2015 Annual Conference.