Inside Mr McKavanagh’s Classroom – Sam McKavanagh

November 6, 2018
Sam's Blog, Think Pieces,

I was going to write this piece about questions. Asking and answering them have become central to how I’m teaching this year, but as I started writing I realised that it is not just about the questions, there’s actually a lot more going on. So, whilst I was going to have a really witty title relating to questions, you’ve got a significantly less witty title, but a blog that sums up what my lessons look like and how this could benefit you.
If you have read my previous couple of blogs (Rethinking the curriculum and Lessons to be learned) then you’ll be able to see some of the changes that I’m making, the hope being that having some insight into my lesson format will show you that a few small changes are making an enormous difference.
Stage 1: The Read-Through
I’ve moved away from pupils having exercise books which they complete notes in, I now give them notes instead. That’s not to say I hand it out, let them put it in their folder and forget all about it. Once they have a sheet of notes, they go through highlighting what they feel is key information and writing questions about the material that they want to ask. This is something that I ensure I model for them at the beginning as (in my school at least) this is not something that they are familiar in doing.
We refer back to these in other lessons and these are the pupils’ first port of call when they ask a question, if they’re stuck for where to look; I find the admin side of this much easier to help navigate them to the correct piece of paper, and importantly the definitions and information that is given to the pupils is succinct and provides a concrete example/definition. When we go on to discuss we are all ‘singing from the same hymn sheet’.
Stage 2: Starting to Question
Once they have gone through it, it is time for us to go through it as a group. This means that it is already their second attempt at processing the material. This time as we go through I make sure that we take our time – something which at first feels a little uncomfortable as we’re really approaching it differently from how I’d ever taught before.
This gives me the opportunity to ask them lots of questions like, ‘What do certain keywords mean?’ ‘What would be a good religious teaching to go with this?’ It allows me to make suggestions for notes and annotations that I feel that they might need to add in. Importantly it gives them an opportunity to ask their questions, with other pupils having the first attempt to answer them. If I need to give them an answer, I will give them some prompts or maybe a connection to something we have already studied first, if I cannot elicit an answer from them, then I’ll tell them. They would then add this detail under the question they had written.
Stage 3: Application
This will have taken around twenty minutes, and I’m starting to get a good idea of how well they are coping with the material that we are studying. Then comes the application.
Having a rough gauge with how the pupils are grasping the material then allows me to target my intervention in class, who is going to need me to guide them through the application task and who is going to need a few quick check-ins. Now this is not an exact science (once I explain the following stage, then you’ll see how it can become more accurate as lessons progress) but it does mean that you can direct support where you think it is best needed. The general idea with the application tasks would be taking the material that we have learned, applying it along with a teaching and tying this to different interpretations. For example, if we were looking at the idea of equality, the application task would require them to select appropriate religious teachings, to align these with different Christian denominations and explain how and why that denomination may interpret the teaching in that way.
During this stage, whilst I’m supporting students and circulating through the room, I am in a position to ask more questions allowing me to check understanding as well as to stretch and challenge pupils. We will then discuss this as a group, with different pupils airing their ideas and at times others challenging these interpretations. Normally I will give some final comments to wrap this up and give my judgement, with time I’m hoping they’ll start to challenge my interpretations as well.
At other times, this application task takes the form of an exam-style question. We really take our time with this and I will model whole responses, or parts of a response for them. They will answer to exam timings and afterwards we will talk through and share some answers as a class. In a different coloured pen they are allowed to ‘magpie’ ideas, but it keeps a clear record of what they originally wrote and what they have added. Giving me an opportunity to see how well they are progressing and how much effort they are putting in to try and improve their work.
Stage 4: The Reckoning
Despite the subheading, this is nowhere near as ominous as it sounds. This is where I test their knowledge on what they have learned more formally through the use of low-stakes testing. I take this as an opportunity to test them not only on what we have just learned, but on historic material from previous lessons. As time passes they will be regularly tested on material that they have learned, they will be tested on material from weeks, months and eventually years ago.
This is normally a really fun part of the lesson and takes up very little time, I tend to use technology for this to remove the workload burden from me and to allow me to give immediate feedback. This can create some amazing dialogue around topics, and if topics are selected carefully you can help the pupils to forge links between the material studied and to illustrate where different teachings can work in different contexts. This helps develop their knowledge further.
Stage 5: No Rest for the Wicked
We move through material at a really good pace, but I do not want pupils to leave a lesson never to reflect upon what they have learned again. My school uses ‘Show My Homework’ (at a basic level an online homework diary, but that also has features where you can create spelling tests or quizzes). I love this because it allows me to set lots of regular (but small homeworks), meaning that I know pupils are having to look at the material often. It also marks for me and immediately notifies me whether or not pupils have completed the homework.
Pupils also love these, the homework does not feel so onerous and it gives them instant feedback on their progress and it has, on several occasions, led to some really involved questions in the following lesson.
Review: Is it actually working?
There’s no straightforward answer to this, I started to adopt this approach last year when pupils studied the Islam component of the GCSE course, it really helped them with the precision around terms (and a religion) that they really were not familiar with.
I’ve definitely refined what I am doing this year as my school has both a Y9 and Y10 cohort (it is an option subject now) starting the course. Pupils are adapting to the material well and crucially it seems to be having an enormous impact upon their retention of religious teachings. Reading through you might be thinking that the lessons are incredibly linear, and we do the same thing five periods a fortnight. The read through part is consistent, but the discussions that arise become more varied and nuanced as time progresses with pupils displaying an ever-widening knowledge and it is the application part where the lesson takes many different forms – application to questions, quizzes, game shows, creation of revision materials, etc.
Ultimately though, what we are working towards is the GCSE exam. I’m certainly not taking a gamble here, and I believe that this approach will prepare my students perfectly for it. But right now we are a long way from that point – so I can give you an update on it in two years’ time.
Sam McKavanagh teaches RE and Philosophy at a secondary school in Oxfordshire, is completing a Masters in Teaching and Learning at Oxford University, and regularly blogs on his website My Teaching Life ( He’s passionate about teaching and keen to try out tech and new teaching ideas.