Tried using some thunks (http://www.thunks.co.uk) with classes last week with mixed results. I like the idea of a question which seems inane but, when used in the right circumstances, can provoke disagreement. I'll share one instance which worked well and one which didn't.
With two S4 classes, I was ready to begin looking at hot deserts. Two things had been playing on my mind. One was how strictly we as teachers define natural regions in geography. Most teachers, myself included, start looking at natural regions by mapping them. This adds to a notion that such regions are easily contained by boundaries, something we then turn on it's head when examining desertification and the vulnerable fringes of such zones.
The other factor foremost in my thoughts was the difficulty in describing a climate evident in some students earlier work on rainforests. I wanted students to think a little more deeply about what makes a hot desert just that.
The period with my large S4 group went well. They are a class where discussion usually flourishes not only due to the number of potential opinions due to the class size, but also due to the confidence of some of the individuals within it. I started the period with some pre-picked thunks - is it ever ok to cheat? Can days have a colour? Which weighs more, lined paper or blank? This set the tone before we moved on to the subject specific. An ex colleague of mine, Kevin O'Hagan, had drawn my attention to a story about the Ataxama desert in South America. Part of this desert had received 32 inches of snow in 24 hours. I asked the class if it was possible to still call the Atacama a desert. This led to discussion of what constitutes a desert, how a desert climate may be typically viewed in terms of temperature and precipitation, why freak events shouldn't distort an overall pattern and how we might describe that climate in geographical terms through temperature range, annual and seasonal rainfall patterns etc.
The second question I posed was after I had asked students to re-examine their natural regions maps for desert locations. As these gave very set boundaries for deserts, I asked if it was possible to say that deserts had a beginning and an end. One of the most interesting discoveries from this part of the discussion was that a number of students thought they did. From this, we could set about discussing why desert boundaries may be in a constant state of flux, thereby introducing desertification. For this class, thunks were a valuable tool in reaching the aims of our lesson.
With my smaller class in the same year group, the lesson could not have been more different and was down to a miscalculation on my part of what might engage the class. Despite, or perhaps because of the smaller numbers, I have always found it very difficult to engage this class in discussion. There are some very able students in the group, but students who are much more reticent to air their view or, in some cases (and not a bad thing) want to know the purpose of an activity before engaging fully in it rather than seeing where it takes them. I had thought that perhaps the random nature of the starter questions might relax the class into the subject specific part but, in hindsight, thunks only delayed my teaching input here rather than enriching it. I would use these again with the same class, but maybe as an anonymous vote or as anonymous written returns which could then be brought into the lesson at the appropriate point.
So, overall, in terms of the success of the strategy, a score draw. For the way in which it worked with the first class, I would encourage others to try it, but think carefully about who you might use it with and how. Please let me know if you try/ have tried thunks with classes and how it went by leaving a comment below.
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