No, not that type. This has nowt to do with noisy children. Have I pulled you in under false pretence? No, wait! Don’t leave! This will be much more interesting.

I used to be a noisy teacher. That is, I used to add too much noise to my teaching, to my delivery. I still do, but not as much.

What is noise?

By noise I mean that which is superfluous. No, not the anecdotes and links to something that’s happening in the news currently (though the appropriateness of that must be well judged and timely), and not the stories about your cat that makes the funniest noises #OMG.

By superfluous I mean that which simply doesn’t aid the learning. Making posters, for example, is something that creates noise unless, of course, the intention is to develop students’ ability to make posters. History classes are also notorious for students’ recreations of scenes from the Battle of Hastings (here’s The Stanworth Academy Tapestry, and here’s 11 year-old Callum Nicholson’s highly dubious interpretation of Harold Godwinson’s grisly death, complete with swastikas and BLOPS2 helicopter gunship) or newspaper front pages telling of the defeat of the Spanish Armada, usually from cleverly titled fictional papers such as The Moon and The Daily Tudor, because – as everyone knows – Elizabethan society was big on its national free press.

Noise is that activity which you bring out to a cacophony of trumpets and little drummer-boys every November, you know the one with all the envelopes and that typo which you’d love to change but can’t find the original (it was on an old shiny memory stick which your nephew mistook for a Quality Street chocolate that one Christmas). Noise is the way you explain the difference between metaphor and analogy, knowing each time that there must be a better way but, well, they know what you mean.

Noise is also more subtle, and harder to spot.

Noise is the very slight difference between the heading on the sheet and the title in their books. Noise is the very slight difference between the way you’ve scaffolded their answer on the board to the structure of the table in their books. Noise is that very slight difference between the analogy you gave today to the analogy you gave yesterday. Noise is that lack of consistency that, for anyone attempting to grapple with a new concept for the first time, confuses and befuddles.

Is noise ever appropriate?

Yes. But only once a student is confident. 

I might introduce those slight differences in order to deliberately confuse, to create that liminality to push the boundaries. But I’ll only do it when I feel students are confident. Don’t get me wrong, because I’m clever and all that and want desperately to prove my acumen I often want to introduce something a little confusing too early. And sometimes I’m guilty of it. It’s my big challenge this year, actually: to be less noisy.

How can we be less noisy?

  1. Produce less. Once we’ve been teaching for, I don’t know, three months many of us build up these huge stockpiles of resources. There are often, when I look back, many parts of the same lesson presented in many varying ways. I now tend to collate rather than produce. But wait, you call, I haven’t yet built my activity arsenal – what can I do? 
  2. Focus on three things. I’d suggest the destination, the cargo and the means of transport – where, what and how. Think of the quickest route there. You can add in noisy diversions later if and when it’s appropriate to confuse – I do so with A level students from time to time, but I also tell them that I’m doing this. If I want to confuse, though, I do so just before we reach our destination and leave our footprints in the dust.
  3. Be consistent. We should take risks, but experimenting all the time, tinkering away at lessons as if they’re machines, is dangerous. The beauty of teaching is that every day and every lesson is different but we need to have a consistent approach. We do so when it comes to behavioural expectations and so we should also do so with our delivery. This is not an argument for robotic lessons or automated content delivery, but consistency in the way we explain and the timbre of our exposition, for example. If we’re ranting about fractions but so-so about cubes then our students will follow suit.

If you haven’t already laid hands on it may I recommend Peps Mccrea’s Lean Lesson Planning?