Posters vs Posters

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Tom Bennett recently wrote an article in the TES in which he suggested that some tasks – like making posters – aren’t always the most effective use of lesson time. Some people didn’t read the article properly, interpreted the headline as a personal attack on their teaching, and a Twitterstorm ensued.

When asked my opinion on poster lessons I said that they aren’t my cup of tea, but I was picturing a specific type of lesson. There are posters, and then there are posters…

My Bad Poster Experience

In my NQT year I had to teach Year 7 about the Fibonacci sequence. There are many approaches I could have taken here: a lecture, a rich task, an investigation, a video… Open Evening was approaching and I’d been told to put some student work on my classroom wall, so I decided to take my students to an IT Room to make Fibonacci posters. Here’s the brief I gave them (written by my NQT self):

The Fibonacci sequence is a famous sequence: 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 35, …Your task is to create a poster about the Fibonacci sequence. You may submit this poster at the end of the lesson, or if you want to finish it for homework you may hand it in on Monday.

Your poster should be eye-catching and easy to read and contain interesting facts about the Fibonacci sequence. You should focus on one or more the following ideas:

1. Who was Fibonacci?

2. Fibonacci’s rabbits/family trees

3. The Golden Number/Golden Ratio/Golden Section

4. Fibonacci spirals

5. Fibonacci rectangles/geometry/architecture/Islamic art

6. Fibonacci in nature (flowers, plants, pine cones etc)

7. Fibonacci poetry

Important: Do not just cut and paste stuff from the internet without reading and fully understanding it. Try to put things in your own words. You must understand everything you put on your poster and be ready to answer questions about it.

I also provided a list of useful links to steer them in the direction of decent websites.

Some students made their poster on the computer – they cut and paste some standard information about Fibonacci into Word and spent most of the lesson playing around with fonts. I suspect that if I’d quizzed these students afterwards on what their poster actually said, they’d be clueless. Zero learning there then.

Some students did the research online and made their poster by hand. These were lovely, but far more time had been spent on bubble writing than actually learning about Fibonacci.

I took a quick look at the posters, realised that it hadn’t been a particularly effective lesson, praised my students for their efforts and put all of the posters on my classroom wall.

I was mortified on Open Evening when a visiting dad called me over to the display to point out all the mistakes. “Look,” he said, “this text doesn’t make any sense” and “Four of these posters haven’t even got the right numbers in the Fibonacci sequence”. He was right. The posters looked pretty but the content was terrible. I wasn’t sure what to say. I hadn’t expected anyone to actually read the posters! This man, understandably, had higher expectations of a top grammar school. There it was on my wall, for everyone to see – evidence that my students knew very little about Fibonacci.

That was the last time I did that kind of poster lesson. I’m sure there’ll be lots of people who’ll tell me that they’ve had much more success with similar tasks. That’s great, I’m not telling anyone not to do this, I’m just telling you about my personal experience. After my ‘create a Fibonacci poster’ lesson most students knew very little – if anything – about Fibonacci.

My Good Poster Experience

The resources of the Standards Unit and Mathematics Assessment Project are widely regarded to be outstanding. Many of these resources involve making ‘collaborative posters’. The aim of these activities is for students to work in pairs (or small groups – but I’d always go for pairs) to develop their understanding of a concept. These are nothing like the kind of posters I described above. These activities are about students actually doing maths, and the ‘posters’ are just a place to organise their thinking.

I used the Sorting Equations of Circles 1 lesson from Mathematics Assessment Project with my Year 12s just before Easter and it worked very well. After I’d taught them the general form of the equation of a circle, I asked them to work in pairs to allocate equations to the categories on the grid (which was printed on A3 paper). The solutions are shown below.

I don’t often do pair work at A level but in this lesson I heard excellent discussions in which students were really developing their understanding of the topic. Afterwards I collected the posters in, photocopied them onto A4 paper and handed a reduced copy to each student to put in their folder.

Another example is this brilliant activity Identifying Similar Triangles, again from MAP. This was done by my Year 10s at my previous school. They had to sort eight pairs of triangles into ‘similar’, ‘not similar’ or ‘can’t tell’, drawing on their knowledge of angle facts. They worked in pairs – it’s quite challenging so it took most of the lesson.

If you’ve not tried the activities from the Standards Unit and Mathematics Assessment Project, they’re definitely worth a go, whatever your ‘style’ of teaching.

I’m pretty sure that when Tom Bennett wrote his now infamous poster piece, he was thinking about the former type of poster lesson – the one where no-one learnt anything – and not the latter.

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