Mary Wakefield

What are 16-year-olds supposed to learn by making posters?

Most schools seem to think that poster design can teach you everything: English, history, religious studies, geography...

25 October 2014

9:00 AM

25 October 2014

9:00 AM

My niece, Lara, 15, has a mind like a surgical blade. On any subject, from calculus to The X Factor, she finds the heart of the issue and dissects it with alarming ease. Lara makes mincemeat of homework, trailing A grades, which is why it was so odd to find her stumped two weeks ago. The trouble was with her English language GCSE. As part of her coursework (controlled assessment) she had to comment on a pamphlet, produced by a charity, about volunteering.

On the cover of the pamphlet was a slogan in a pink circle, and Lara’s dilemma was this. She said: I’ll get points if I write that the circle symbolises something, an unbroken ring of trust, or the fullness of life. But I mean, the truth is, someone at the charity just chose a circle at random, didn’t they? So what should I say? Then she looked me in the eye. And why, she said, are we studying pamphlets, not like, great novels or poems? I mean, what’s the point?

In the fortnight since I last saw Lara, her question has been worrying away at me. It’s had me casting about online, looking at teaching websites, sometimes chittering rat-like with rage. But I do now have the beginnings of an answer. That pamphlet is not an isolated phenomenon, I don’t think, but best thought of as a local outbreak of a national virus that’s been infecting the minds of teachers for over a decade. Chief among the virus’s symptoms is a strange passion for requiring children to both study and make pamphlets and posters.

State schools, private schools, council-run or independent, they’re all at it. I’m not for a minute suggesting that six-year-olds shouldn’t colour in, but these are 16-year-olds — and it’s their GCSEs. Teaching websites show no subject escapes the craze. History GCSE: ask pupils to design a poster for a film, ‘Churchill: hero or villain?’ Religious education: make a poster explaining Kosher food laws. Geography: students should design a pamphlet warning of the dangers of river pollution. English lit: imagine Of Mice and Men as a bromance flick — how might the poster look? That’s a suggestion of my own, but it’s quite in keeping with the rest. Last term, Lara had to imagine she was a baker in ancient Rome and design a flyer advertising bread. Did you learn anything from it? I asked. ‘No.’

The reasons most commonly given by teachers for their enthusiasm is that pamphlets and posters are ‘modern’ and ‘fun’. Studying flyers produced by charities makes English language ‘relevant’; designing posters helps engage a lazy teenager, they say, and God knows, no one envies them that job. But the more I think about it, the less fun I bet it actually is. I’ve been stretching my mind back two decades to div. 3 science, to my gang of bottom-feeders for whom C+ was a terrific coup. Even for us, real fun came not with a chance to draw a conical flask, but from those rare moments of ‘getting it’ that a good teacher helps invoke. For one term, as GCSEs loomed, the school’s best physics teacher was sent upriver from div. 1 to raise our game. I still remember the unaccustomed joy of joining one thought to another and making sense.

Posters aren’t fun, they’re just easy. The kids will keep quiet, which is nice for teacher, and designing a poster is the opposite of essay writing: no consecutive thought required, no coming to a conclusion, just choosing images online. If teachers find pupils prefer to analyse a charity pamphlet than a passage from Dickens, it’s not because it’s more socially relevant, but just because it’s simpler. The thicker kids, says Lara, are encouraged to forget the word part of the pamphlet and focus more on the presentation, which tells you all you need to know.

But I think there may be more to it than that. The real root of the problem, the origin of the virus, I suspect, lies in that pernicious sink-pit of a subject known as PSHE. This stands for personal, social, health and economic education, and as you’ll know, it’s been part of the National Curriculum for schools in the UK since 2000. The birth of compulsory PSHE coincides with the beginning of the poster fetish, which makes perfect sense for several reasons.

To start with, as far as I can gather, kids do nothing but make posters in PSHE. The idea is to imprint them with what’s right and wrong, to jam into their tiny minds the unbending commandments of our secular age: bullying bad, recycling good, volunteering good (but watch out for health and safety rules!). There’s no discussion required in PSHE because these things are unarguable, so week after week children churn out what looks like very amateur public health marketing material. Stop, think before you litter! Say no to junk food!

And if you look at the pamphlets and posters designed in other classes, with one eye still on PSHE, you begin to see that they share this same high-minded tone. In Geography, it’s all about the environment. In History, perhaps a protest sign over the discriminatory crusades. Lara’s English Language pamphlet is a perfect case in point. Though nominally a language exercise, the subterranean message is that it’s nice to volunteer, kids.

I can see a role for poster-designing at GCSE. It might be instructive, for instance, for teenagers studying the second world war to imagine that they’re Dr Goebbels, minister for propaganda, and design a poster explaining the need for ethnic cleansing. This would,   perhaps, not play well on parents’ evening, but pupils would soon understand how dangerous propaganda can be, and how fragile the human psyche. They’d learn not to believe everything they read, which would be more useful than any amount of PSHE.

I spoke to Lara last night, to test my pamphlet theory and she answered with a spring in her voice. She’d had her favourite teacher that day, a Mrs B, and she spoke about her in that bright, happy voice teenagers use for the few adults they don’t think are morons. Mrs B, she said, had been reading the teaching guidelines for that day when she’d come across the suggestion to ‘design a poster’.

‘Oh, what rubbish! What a waste of time! Let’s not bother with that,’ said Mrs B.

Lara and her class were thrilled.

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Show comments
  • JimbusSedley

    I teach at a college in the USA where the students are roughly at the 85th percentile.
    The faculty is rapidly developing a mania for field trips (sorry, off-campus learning excursions). Field trips in an academy of higher learning with young adult students. It is now being touted by some that this is the real learning.

    • Malcolm Stevas

      Ah, “off-campus learning excursions” – when I was in teaching (I escaped, years ago) this was known as “FOFO” teaching: F**k Off & Find Out.

    • Ambientereal

      For me it develops a bad habit in the student. They become used that the learning subject must be “fun” and then the attitude “no fun no learning” takes them to a dangerous point when going to the University. Learning must be “interesting” and it will keep being so also in College. Interest develops concentration and in turn the student will easily devote more hours to study.

  • Malcolm Stevas

    Posters are easy to cobble together even for thick children, and are not so vulnerable to objective criticism as something more traditional, rigorous and scholarly such as writing an essay. So within an education system where all must win prizes and discrimination in favour of the intellectually able is supect, it’s popular. Simple really.

    • ChrisTavareIsMyIdol

      Plus the teachers get to stick them on the wall at Parents’ evening and say “See what I helped your dullard create?”

  • The perhaps still do this sort of thing better in North Korea, but PC Britain is catching up.

  • brian

    I am not an English teacher, but this for me is an interesting topic.
    Commenting on the original issue, I believe considering the text contained in a pamphlet and looking at audience and purpose (or maybe register and lexicography or similar if one were an English teacher) then I think it has some merit. I doubt that there was any intention for students to look at the pink circle at all, although it suits the plot here.
    On the wider issue of posters, clearly to give a student a poster to keep them entertained is not awfully educational. Posters can have very productive purpose. For instance 3 approaches to improving recall are repetition, elaboration and organisation. Creating a poster can be an excellent vehicle for elaboration and organisation. D Willingham (US Cognitive Scientist) makes the point that memory is the residue of thought. Getting learners to engage with the information/content is vital if they are to remember and understand it and creating a poster may be one way of doing this.
    Essays have their place as do graphs, models and pamphlets. Most teachers could produce a long list of clichés about academia, traditional, scholarly and rigorous learning if the wished but they do not. They simply use posters when appropriate and essays when appropriate.
    Due to workload or requirements to cover for absent colleagues, sometimes keeping them busy is the goal. Sometimes when teaching those who are “included” when in fact they really should be “excluded” is the reason for creating a poster.
    I think Jimbus sums the situation up below saying ….”I teach at a College where the students are roughly at the 85th percentile”. Surely one wouldn’t wish to prepare children for the real world now would one, especially in an “Academy of Higher learning”. Surely no one would expect a student at the 85th percentile to create a poster, heaven forbid.
    ps… A level students go home and produce little posters for themselves all the time to aid their learning. They do this voluntarily and some of them are even above the 85th percentile.

    • Philip

      Given that the purpose of a poster is to communicate an idea an embed it in the mind of a viewer / reader, the process of creating a poster cannot require, I quote: “no consecutive thought required, no coming to a conclusion, just choosing images online.” To create a good poster you’ll need an idea to communicate, spend time devising a method to communicate it, then assemble the materials to communicate it, then make the finished artifact with all the elements coming together in concert to convey the point. Much like writing an essay (indeed as Jaques Derrida pointed out: “Everything is a text”). But, I guess, if you are a self-confessed C- “bottom-feeder” you wouldn’t be able to understand that.

      • brian

        Indeed. Maybe the original writer should have given the article the
        title…”what will a 16 year old learn from me giving them a poster to

        I also find this with a number of “popular”
        educational bloggers, they judge an idea by the mess they would create
        if they used it rather than the value it would create in the hands of
        someone who knows what they are doing.

        The sad thing is that the 16 year old referred to in the article seems to have formed the view that posters are a waste of time and this has been reinforced by the author of the article. Ignorance is not a crime, but to guide someone else based upon ignorance should be.

        • grutchyngfysch

          Stones in glass houses and all that.

          • brian

            I have no idea what you mean. Would it be possible to expand just a little? Much appreciated.

  • quinbusflestrin

    In certain fields, posters can be a legitimate scholarly medium. They don’t necessarily have to be lightweight. Nonetheless, the author’s point is well-taken and the examples here surely seem to be time-wasting exercises, the path of least resistance strewn with the flowers of do-goodism.

  • PSHE Education Teacher

    PSHE Education is NOT statutory in the UK. The subjects in amongst it are sex and relationships education, drugs awareness, economic needs and understanding alongside positive mental health. To categorize it all as poster making is offensive and ill-informed. That is all!

  • JimHHalpert

    Orwell: “Ultimately it was hoped to make articulate speech issue from the larynx without involving the higher brain centres at all.”

    When children get used to thinking in poster slogans, the victory is complete.

  • annewareham

    Posters seem a little dated, but they are about marketing. It’s possible that learning marketing could be the most important skill a person can have, from the day they have to market themselves into a job or to market a company they start. Self employment is on the rise.

    • Fergus Pickering

      Oh my God. I can’t believe you said that.

      • ChrisTavareIsMyIdol

        Oh yes, there are people who think it’s more important that you can market yourself than it is for you to have any real skills.
        I blame The Apprentice.

        • Fergus Pickering

          I taught at a Further Education Collge that taught Marketing forty years ago. It was bollocks then and it is bollocks now.

  • Ambientereal

    For me it is as building a complete articulated human body, what sometimes takes about 20 hours, with the intention to learn the body parts in a foreign language, something that should take 10 hours. So, instead of learning during 10 hours the student has to devote 30 and will hate the body parts and the foreign language forever.

    • ChrisTavareIsMyIdol

      Exactly. My daughter was given the task of creating a 3D model of the human eye in science. Apart from being ruddy difficult the time could have been better spent reading a book or learning more science.

      • kentgeordie

        Sorry but US soaps insist that correct modern usage is ‘tasked with’ not ‘given the task of’.
        Never insist on traditional English usage, railway station, at the weekend, when there is a perfectly good American alternative.

  • Sean L

    Talking of English, it’s *evoke* not invoke.

  • Jankers

    “I’ll get points if I write that the circle symbolises something, an unbroken ring of trust, or the fullness of life. But I mean, the truth is, someone at the charity just chose a circle at random, didn’t they? So what should I say?
    That’s the first few sentences sorted now continue to analyse and criticise for another 1000 words.

    • ChrisTavareIsMyIdol

      “I’ll get points if I write that the circle symbolises something: An unbroken ring of trust or the fullness of life.”

  • Fergus Pickering

    The best people in education (not counting the children of course) are the teachers. The worst people are the administrators. That has always been so. It is no diferent now from what it was like at my Scottish school in the sixties. The best teachers ignore as much guidance as they can. I taught for years and despised what you would call my line managers and ignored them always. Result – happy students! Take a leaf from Miss Jean Brodie’s book!

  • trace9

    In a way this teaches us about the latent capabilities of a female skool whizz when presented with an item from the ‘real world’. Nonplussed – ‘initiative’ failure – asks (mummy – who tries cheating), for help – plea for the unmanageable beast to Just Go Awaaay – delight when it magically does! Let’s hope she never goes into child-protection work, the Forces, doctoring – as if.. Insular Academia calling!

  • kentgeordie

    The justification for posters is obvious. They take the pupils hours to make, and the teacher seconds to mark.