The nightmare of using scissors in the classroom

I knew it was fraught with danger but it had to be done. Yes, I went ahead and did it, and gave scissors to everyone of my Year 9 (14-year-old) pupils yesterday!

We are studying Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men and the idea was that the pupils cut out key quotes from the novel (we’d worked out what they were the lesson before and I’d typed up their ideas) and then chose what would be the best quotes for their essay, which is about the ways in which Steinbeck presents women in the novel. The idea behind them cutting them out was that they could move the quotes around and put them in “rank order” with the most important first, and also match them with key points.

Yes, I know, you’re saying: what a complete waste of time! Why can’t they just write on the quotation sheet, annotating the quotes, labelling the ones that are the most important? I would have probably said this a year, but I went a very inspiring lecture given by a neuroscientist which really showed that when children work with their hands (including teenagers) they learn more because this is the way we evolved as a species. It appears that language and tool-making actually evolved together; in other words, our intelligence evolved exponentially when we started doing stuff with our hands.

Hence, the scissors! The cutting out of the quotes caused a great deal of mess in my classroom, which some nice pupils — after being instructed quite forcefully by yours truly — cleared up, but the class enjoyed the session and did seem to have learned quite a bit about Steinbeck’s chronically sexist attitudes. (Classic quotes from the book: “I never seen no piece of jail bait worse than her.” “Well I think Curley’s married…a tart” and “Jesus, what a tramp.”)

And no one stabbed anyone else. Success!


Published by: @wonderfrancis

Francis Gilbert is a Lecturer in Education at Goldsmiths, University of London, teaching on the PGCE Secondary English programme. He also teaches the Creative Writing module on the MA in Children’s Literature, which is run by Maggie Pitfield and Professor Michael Rosen. Previously, he worked for a quarter of a century in various English state schools teaching English and Media Studies to 11-18 year olds. He has, at times, moonlighted as a journalist, novelist and social commentator. He is the author of ‘Teacher On The Run’, ‘Yob Nation’, ‘Parent Power’, ‘Working The System -- How To Get The Very Best State Education for Your Child’, and a novel about school, ‘The Last Day Of Term’. His first book, ‘I'm A Teacher, Get Me Out Of Here’ was a big hit, becoming a bestseller and being serialised on Radio 4. In his role as an English teacher, he has taught many classic texts over the years and has developed a great many resources to assist readers with understanding, appreciating and responding to them both analytically and creatively. This led him to set up his own small publishing company FGI Publishing ( which has published his study guides as well as a number of books by other authors, including Roger Titcombe’s ‘Learning Matters’ and anthology of creative writing 'The Gold Room'. He is the co-founder, with Melissa Benn and Fiona Millar, of The Local Schools Network,, a blog that celebrates non-selective state schools, and has his own website, He has appeared numerous times on radio and TV, including Newsnight, the Today Programme, Woman’s Hour and the Russell Brand Show. In June 2015, he was awarded a PhD in Creative Writing and Education by Goldsmiths.

Categories LearningTags, , 4 Comments

4 thoughts on “The nightmare of using scissors in the classroom”

  1. Any pigtails cut off?

    Good post, interesting to read that even teenagers benefit from using their hands when working on something. A good way to get the discussion flowing. I find that people talk more freely when they are doing something creative.

    1. No pigtails cut off, thank goodness. Yes, I think that there could be more focus upon “using the hands” in secondary schools. Of course, some subjects such as D and T, Art, Music entail students using their hands all the time, but the more academic subjects can be very text-based, and too abstract as a consequence.

  2. What a fantastic idea to teach how to find the right quotes, to order them and put them in contest. It will undoubtedly turn out very useful when writing all those essays at univerity level. It goes to show how often the most sensible and obvious approaches are those that go undetected. Using your hands helps because it forces one to engage with the text in more than one level: on one hand it is harder to fall asleep or think of something else when we are also physically engaged rather than just mentally, but also it transform learning from a passive action (espacially at that age) into an active process: the text and the work done becomes ‘real’ and ‘alive’ and the work fun.
    It also teach them that there are various ways of learning, and one should explore and try varous ways: it was enlighting for me to see a poster in a primary school one which enumerated the different ways in which people learn, some need visual stimulation, others must study in silence and methodically, others need cahos around them etc.

    Well done!!!

    I am also a bit shocked that giving scissors to 14teen years old can be dangerous. I know it is not you but the current paranoic safety regulation.

    1. A very small minority of teenagers I’ve taught during my two decades of teaching have behaved “inappropriately” with scissors, but not in my current school. Perhaps as a teacher, those very rare incidents stick in your head and stop you from experimenting when really you should. I promise to keep this in mind from now on.

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