Help for thinking creatively when planning lessons…

So on one level, a lesson is about getting information out of your head, or a textbook or other resource, into a students’. So I could lecture this information, I could get the student to read or some other way of getting that information out of my head or resource into someone else’s.

But will it go in? Will they understand and/or remember it? There’s also the added hope that they might be inspired by it, a third definition of “going in.” When I went to school, they mostly just lectured us, we took notes, if we missed something, it was missed for good, and then at the end of the course we would read those notes over and over and then try to answer questions, which we didn’t know anything about, not even how it was all marked, or what the examiner was looking for, and hope for the best.

But do I remember any of that stuff now? Very very little. Did I engage with that information? Well, we had the odd discussion and I guess I did sometimes, in practice essays, homework and things, but, no not really. I knew where the information was, I knew that all I had to do was know enough of it, just before the exam or test in most cases, to do ok, so it stayed in my folder until I needed to remember it, verbatim rather than understanding, and then it would be forgotten. I certainly wasn’t inspired by it. None of it, really, went in.

That’s private schooling in the 90s for you! Today we demand more; particularly in the state sector. We know that the student has to engage with the information. Not just because it will be remembered better but because of what I like to call the Ikea rule. If we were in a field with nothing else around and I started reading Ikea furniture instructions to you, you’re not only not going to understand any of it, you’re not going to remember any of it.  Now if I was to do the same thing, and share the instructions with you so you could see too, in front of an unassembled ikea bookcase (or whatever) and using those instructions you started to put the bookcase together, you are going to understand it. You also, probably, will remember how it was done and not need those instructions in the future.

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We need a reason to know why we need to know something AND we need to see how it applies in order to understand and remember something. In short, we need to engage with information; that is actually more important than the information giving in the first place. We can call this “installing” of information. It’s slow, takes steps and retries, isn’t just verbatim or rote learning, is engaged with, is understood, remembered and thought about. (Thinking about, or rather learning from, is important, but read this article for more information on that, as it deserves it’s own focus.) All of this, is what we mean by imparting the information and the student engaging with it; installing and it is a lot like putting software on an AI computer, it’s two way but the computer can “own” it after the install and make it its own.

Ok, so knowing this, let’s go further. Teachers, being dedicated to their subjects, often, have particular ideas about how their subject’s information should go into their students’ heads. This can lead to rigidity or particularity that is false. For example a music teacher may think that the only way to teach music is for the student to listen to the piece and then talk about it and then maybe create their own versions. For me, having taught so many different subjects and focussed on the fundamentals of it all, I see it broader than that.

I see it as: take information x and install it (p) into student y through vector z. x can be anything.  Notice how the teacher is not mentioned as I am not necessarily needed to install; the student can install themselves or each other, for example. Thus p (and also z) can be anything too. So learning = y+x+p/z.

Understanding this is the key to creative lessons. Why? Because, now, I can be free. Once I understand that it doesn’t matter what the information is, it can be anything, (something teachers who think their subjects, or how it should be learned. matter will struggle with), that I am not important as the teacher, that what we are doing is p and that this can be anythingthat y matters a lot as it is the only semi-non-variable, and that z can be anything; this is how to think of creative lessons (and how to be an awesome teacher!).

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For example, I was charged with getting some children with behavioural and academic special needs at an after hours youth centre in a run down area of London to learn about classical music. None of them had heard much classical music and they certainly weren’t interested or engaged with it and they didn’t like education or learning for that matter either. I had to get them to listen to Carnival of the Animals and learn about it; learn it, engage with it.

So I opened it up, just like my equation. I took Carnival of the Animals (x) and installed it (p) into students (y) through the following vector (z): I bought loads of different types of food, thinking about how food can have tones or sounds or feelings attached. For example, citrus is light, tingly, high pitched. Blueberries are light but also a little earthy. Milk chocolate is smooth, dark chocolate is bitter and so on. I tried to have more food than I needed and to give choice so the students were in charge. I then asked the students to listen to the piece of music. I then asked them to listen to it again and try to pick out the different tones and sounds and changes in the music. I then got them to try the food and decide what tones and sounds and flavours they had and could be attributed to the music. I then got them to listen to the music again and link their flavours with the different parts of the music. Finally they played their own version of the song, through taste alone, by feeding a partner the different tastes. It really really worked and is now a concept that has been developed and expanded by The students learned the piece, engaged with it, remembered it and loved it! You can see more details about the project here: and the lesson plan is at the end of this webpage.

Another example. In a challenging all boys school in the Brixton area, I had to get disengaged and challenging children to learn about Jesus, particularly Jesus art. Now an art history lesson like Sister Wendy Becket’s is not going to go down with these ys! So, instead, I showed them car adverts and other adverts and got them to identify what was going on, how symbols work, how messages work, how you can tell a story or give a message in an image. I then got them to look at comic books (like spider man, marvel and things boys like!) and do the same. Then I got them to look at traditional images of Jesus and do the same. Then I showed them non-traditional images of Jesus (like a Rasta Jesus, an Asian jesus, Rothko images and more) and did the same. Finally, I asked them to create their own images of Jesus using what they had learned. The results were spectacular and Ofsted, who visited at the time, loved it! They had remembered so much about Jesus, about Jesus art and art in general and they were really engaged. They still talk about it! Above all, you should be able to see that you can take any “boring” or other piece of information and using creativity, make it interesting, engaged with and learnt. As long as you open it up and become free with your information, installing and vectors!

Please do email me for clarification or other ideas and good luck, I hope this is helpful!



Carnival of the Animals workshop lesson plan Here is the actual lesson plan for the creative music lesson I designed. Bittersuitesworkshop.doc Microsoft Word document [21.5 KB]