Going postal about posters

Posters lessons. We’ve all done them. Maybe we were naive NQTs, who believed it really would be a great way for 7 set 4 to synthesise their understanding of the formation of ox-bow lakes. Maybe we were exhausted, the week before Christmas, sleep-deprived to the point of torture, and thought it would tide us over. Maybe it was coming up to the summer holidays, and all the key stage co-ordinator had written on the departmental Schemes of Work was “group work on fireworks”. Maybe Open Evening was coming up, and the yellowing displays needed replacing. Maybe we were taking our tricky year 9 form for PSHE, on a topic we knew little about and felt uncomfortable with; when we’d raised it with the Head of Year, all she’d said was that the other forms were availing themselves of the sugar paper.

Fine. I’ve been there. You’ve been there. But let’s be honest: a poster lesson is a desperate measure, not a rigorous first-class education.

There’s been quite the kerfuffle over Tom Bennett’s reasoned, measured comments about the value of certain lesson activities. Tom was very diplomatic, caveating his assertions carefully with the word “some”. I think he doesn’t go far enough. I don’t think posters are ever an effective use of lesson time. The exception, perhaps, would be graphic design, where the poster can be the point. As IndieP tweeted, “If you want to teach ‘making a poster’, teach it. If you want to teach ‘history’, teach that instead.”

The additional fripperies of poster making merely distract from a learning objective to acquire, practice or memorise knowledge. Thinking about layout and visual appeal takes up precious mental space that should be wholly focused on the subject matter.

A poster on the causes of World War I cannot possibly induce more learning than the same content written in an exercise book. The difference is that the poster will inevitably take much longer; it is much less time efficient. Wasting our pupils’ time is an insult to their futures, their intellect and their dreams.

And that’s assuming the poster is taken as seriously by pupil and by teacher – which, let’s be honest – it rarely is. Often, the less conscientious pupils won’t take the task seriously; the more conscientious will take it seriously, but entirely the wrong things. The bubble writing of the title will be immaculate; the speech bubbles coming from the cartoon Napolean’s mouth perfectly formed; Homebase could turn the border design into a wallpaper pattern. Work is rarely assessed beyond a tick and “2 house points” for the neatest girls’ work. After all, if it’s for display, you can’t sully it with ugly red pen. And if it’s the end of term, marking is as likely as eating your 12 boxes of Ferrero Roche in moderation.

Teaching is a noble, honourable profession… when we’re actually teaching. We are so much better than sugar paper and felt tips.

9 thoughts on “Going postal about posters

    1. Basia Korzeniowska

      I See your point but I teach children with learning difficulties. For them to prepare a poster to display their knowledge, when they have a particular audience and the added carrot of a termly assessment point, is extremely motivational and ensures their best work. They know they will be marked for content and knowledge, not artwork or bubble writing. And hey presto it works.

  1. Alison

    I agree. The most committed and interested history student does not necessarily excel or even enjoy design or art. And colouring might actually be a real area of weakness. Whereas, others love the creative challenge of re-thinking their ideas I visual format. Offer a choice: you can either write a report or produce a poster but I will be interested in your content. I have an intellectual son who has been dismayed by ‘poster’ type homework tasks.

  2. Deb Hepplestone

    Caution- A distinction needs to be raised between ‘naff’ poster syndrome and using visual language to process and embed information. Yes, bubble writing and felt pens are the domain of a slack lesson, a poor cover lesson or a ‘can’t be arsed’ end of term time filler, BUT care needs to be taken over marginalizing a tool which can be used successfully beyond the doorway of the Art or Graphics room. Again, it is always about quality, preparation and high expectations. I don’t agree that content written in an exercise book is always better. How do you know this is true for every child? Sometimes it is, but sometimes the important aspect of embed and recall may be achieved through other means.

    1. melker hioster

      what is important to you in your life, actually?
      what is feedback when it really works for you ?

  3. Pingback: Posters as an Academic Form | Trivium21c

  4. jennyrhs

    The new OCR Spec for A level English Language requires pupils to make an academic poster as part of the ‘non-examined component’ (coursework)!

  5. Brian

    It really isn’t rocket science now is it.

    Every activity has an associated learning outcome. If the activity contributes to meeting the learning outcome then surely it posters facilitate the learning outcomes then they are of value.

    There can always be a debate about which activity (of the many of value that are available) is the most appropriate in a given context and there will usually be a number factors that will influence the decision made by the teacher.

    It is quite possible that the chosen activity might not be that which maximises the achievement of this particular learning outcome. There may perhaps be other learning outcomes to be achieved during the process of the activity or the activity might be designed around the needs of learners or resources available etc etc. Even Dunkin and Biddle were aware of this when talking about learning transactions back in 1974 (i think it was).

    As other wise commentators have explained, producing a poster can be a valuable activity when considering the learning outcome. In a design class, the shapes colours and textures will be key. In an economics lesson, the knowledge, understanding and application or even the analysis, evaluation and synthesis demonstrated.

    In a lesson where the links between chinese trade policy and global recession, judging a poster based upon is aesthetics and the extent to which it was innovative in design and/or pleasing on the eye would be of little if any value. A poster which indicated the links between chinese protectionist policies and unemployment in the steel industry across Europe would be of great value perhaps.

    Don’t get me wrong, I have no issue with a teacher using a poster as an approach to engage learners on a cold Friday afternoon in the graveyard slot using a poster even if it is number 5 on the effectiveness list if it allows the teacher to maintain their mental health. If using inappropriate activities is common place due to laziness or incompetence then there may be a respon to intervene and there is some justification for complaint.

    I feel that as far as the Tom Bennett issue is concerned, there is I understand a responsibility in the law for consequences that can be reasonably foreseen. As the government’s nominated behaviour guru, most people will take what he says on educational matters as being made with some authority. This brings with it considerable responsibility in my view and when putting forward personal views about the effectiveness or otherwise of instructional activities he should ensure that he presents a balanced view. I have heard it said that he made it very clear that he was not criticising all use of posters but even if this was the case, I feel he should be aware that there are a number of influential people in the bloggersphere who have views that they see as factual knowledge. They make pronouncements telling everyone that posters, groupwork, peer reflection and many other popular techniques are a waste of time and a sign of incompetence, as if there are not already enough people criticising teachers.

    Tom should I feel, ensure that he foresees the consequences of his writing. Some have suggested that he sometimes writes in a way intended to provoke reaction but I can’t imagine this being the case even if views, tweets and retweets were as important as some people suggest.

    There are those who will grasp the conflict that such pronouncements inevitably produce and seek to jump on the bandwagon with their own motivations for doing so in mind. This is just “e noise” and should be avoided by anyone looking for sound guidance.


Go forth and opine