I’d be lying if I said that there was one single influence on my teaching greater than Cognitive Load Theory. It’s allowed me to strip back my teaching and fine tune the elements I’d always done. It’s shifted my focus during the planning and delivery of my lessons away from the resource, or the entertainment value of my lesson towards the thinking and focus of the attention of my students. I’ve already written about how it’s changed my practice here so this isn’t going to be the focus of this blog.
However, Cognitive Load Theory doesn’t just apply to our students. As teachers, we also need to be conscious of the limitations of our OWN working memories so that we can deliver the best learning experience for our students. The following are a collection of thoughts and experiences where an understanding of CLT has helped me to deal with situations in the classroom.
Firsly, the first half term after returning to school in September 2020 after teaching from home saw us working away from our classrooms, moving from room to room to students within their zones. Having to keep in mind what the new timings for the slightly shortened lessons were, which room I was teaching in next, grappling with an unfamiliar visualiser, lost remote control, taking account of the student who is accessing my lesson live and remotely as well as the other twenty-nine in front of me… I was acutely aware that the delivery of my lessons wasn’t as smooth as it could have been. All of a sudden I had extra considerations to deal with which placed a load on my working memory. My explanation of the complex Global Atmospheric Circulation Model, my ability to remember to return to the original responder during my ‘no opt out’ questioning, that set of worksheets that I realised part way through a lesson that I’d left back in the office in another building… I could go on. Understanding that there were reasons for parts of my teaching no longer going as smoothly as usual has helped me accept that teaching in the era of Covid cannot be like it is in non-pandemic times. My working memory now has far more to cope with.
I’ve become a huge fan of live modelling under my visualiser so that students can see what they should be aiming for and how they should be thinking whilst answering an extended or exam answer. In order for this activity to be fully effective, I need to ensure that every student is focussed, looking at the board, being made to think hard and not fiddling, doodling or talking. At the same time I need to model an excellent answer which would gain full marks in an exam along with modelling the thought process I want them to adopt in the exam room. The first time I attempted this, it didn’t quite go as smoothly as it could have. Constantly keeping an eye on thirty students who were also unused to this activity took up most of my working memory and were MY extraneous load. I had little left for conjoring up a perfect model answer, and quickly realised I needed to be better prepared. I now carry out this task with a pre-prepared answer off-screen, so that my attention isn’t split. It’s allowed me to plan for any questioning that might need to accompany the activity, along with annotations and key points to emphasise. I now have space in my working memory to check for the levels of student attention that I require without it affecting my ability to produce the work under the visualiser.
The nature of my subject, geography, means that much of what we teach changes over time. However, some of it, largely the physical side of the subject, changes far less. After twenty-three years of teaching longshore drift, the formation of waterfalls, and yes, what everyone remembers from their own school days, the formation of ox bow lakes (!) I know that if I am armed solely with a board marker and white board, that I could teach these in my sleep! However, teaching about the contrasts in levels of development in Nigeria or the Lesotho Highland Water Project is a different matter. These case studies are new to the updated GCSE syllabus and as such, are not places I am overly familiar with or have (until three or four years ago) ever taught about before. The content has not yet found its way into my long term memory. I need notes and the text book and some (simple) prompts for myself and students on Power Point slides. I feel less confident teaching this content as I have not yet developed mastery of it or a fully formed mental schema. My working memory is at full capacity whilst I deliver it to my students as I endeavour to remember and contain within my working memory (and thank goodness for the prompts!) two sets of advantages and disadvantages of the Highland Water Project for both South Africa AND Lesotho. However, being aware of these limitations has allowed me to practice retrieval activities for unfamiliar content prior to teaching it, or to practice drawing diagrams from memory to strengthen my ability to recall it in the classroom. In the past, I would have read the textbook the night before and hoped it would stick. Which is exactly what we tell the students not to do if they have a test! And then wondered why my lesson fell flat!
My five period teaching days are invariably more hectic than my lighter teaching days. And not just physically. Mentally, too, and probably more so. As I drive to work, my mind is thinking about the day ahead. Did I photocopy those worksheets for period one? Have I planned retrieval activities for the start of every lesson? More recently, in the light of my involvement with cognitive science, I’ve learnt that chunking content (or my working day) down can relieve overload on working memory. I cannot change my timetable, but mentally splitting the day into sections and just thinking about what I am doing in my first two lessons, putting out the books and resources, and then using break time to think about the next one, followed by lunch to mentally and practically prepare for the last two, has allowed me to focus on a maximum of two things (lessons) at once. A calmer teacher is able to deliver more effective lessons in any scenario. My working memory is therefore freed up to concentrate on just that chunk of the day, knowing the next chunk does not need to be thought about yet.
So, I’m not suggesting that I have solved any of these issues for myself, but a greater awareness of WHY certain aspects of my job are harder than others which can be explained by cognitive science has allowed me to be better prepared for those pitfalls and to try and plan for those occasions where my limited working memory is going to mean that things just won’t run as smoothly as I would like. Whether that be greater advanced planning or ensuring I know who to ask if the tech lets me down rather than having a blind panic. We, like our students, are also mere humans and we have limits to what we can do. Understanding this in the light of cognitive science gives us the tools to put our own ‘scaffolds’ in place for when those pinch points arise! And to (perhaps!) feel a little more in control of what goes on in our classroom!
Three weeks ago, I returned to full time teaching after 16 years of working part time. And what a time to have made my return! When I made the decision back in January, I couldn’t possibly have known what the circumstances would have been eight months later. The elation I felt at being told by my head of department in June that I would finally have my own classroom again, now that I was full time, was short lived. Gradually, the profession came to realise that despite the fact that the government wanted all students to return to school full time in September, the conditions in which this would take place would be very unfamiliar for most.
My school has taken the route down which many other schools have also chosen to go. Year groups are in bubbles and separate zones around the school. And teachers move to them rather than students coming to staff in their classrooms. Having been nomadic for the last 16 years, this filled me with less dread than I know it did many of my colleagues. However my nomadism had previously only been within my department. Not across the entire school site! Lockdown and remote teaching had taught me that despite my fears, taking on new challenges and getting to grips with and possibly even finding enjoyment in new practices was actually possible! So two weeks ago, on the Monday morning, faced with a five period day ahead of me, the new way of working began.
I won’t lie, I found it incredibly tough. Not least physically – the box which had served me well as I moved from room to room within my department now suddenly seemed much heavier and more cumbersome when I was faced with the challenge of moving it around between classrooms all over the school. By the end of the first day, my arms felt like they were going to drop off, and I knew I had to find a new way. A large holdall has now replaced the bag and leaves my hands free to walk around the site with much greater ease. However, now I have had a little time to reflect on my first fortnight, despite my initial fears about our new way of working, and I am still finding many aspects hard, there have also been some surprising and unforeseen benefits of working this way.
My form group and I have been allocated a food tech room for registration. Whilst this is a bit of a walk away from my base in the humanities department, this room is at a far-flung end of the school site. It is at the end of a corridor and no other children file past or even come particularly near to our room. As a result, I am beginning to enjoy our cosy 20 minutes each morning where we look out, past the ovens, pots and pans to woods and part of the school field. It feels less frenetic, more peaceful, and it’s providing me and my students with a much calmer start to our day.
Moving around the school site has also enabled me to strike up conversations with staff with whom I would not normally have the time or opportunities to meet with or even encounter! Food tech teachers and assistants, other departments and individual staff are now people I see regularly and have conversations with at break and lunchtime, as well as at the start and end of the day. The feeling of “we are all in this together“ means that we all have something to talk about in common. The “good luck” comments and “how is your day going?” as I pass staff in the corridor or staff toilets and the current shared experience seems to be making for a stronger staff team as a whole.
For a few years, now, I’ve been seeking to simplify my lessons, removing the jazzy nonsense and focusing on the subject matter rather than the resource. The occasional unexpected glitch with sound or slides not opening in some of the classrooms I’ve been in has reminded me of the fact that keeping it simple and relying on my expertise, explanations, questioning and diagrams drawn with a board pen or under a visualiser are all that is needed. Simple teaching works.
Lastly, and most importantly, the biggest positive for all of us is the simple fact that we are finally back in the classroom with our students. One of my biggest struggles during lockdown was the constant feeling as I sat at my laptop each day that no matter how much effort I put into the remote teaching I was delivering, it could never replicate what I knew was possible in the classroom. Our lessons may be slightly shorter to allow for staff movement, we may be more tired than usual, but we are back with them, in the room, able to interact with them and gauge for understanding in a way that was all too lacking last term.
How long we will be working in this way is impossible to tell. However, if we are to keep our heads above water and do the best that we can in difficult circumstances, trying to focus on the positive aspects of our day, however few and far between they may at times be, will help to ensure that we approach our roles with as positive a mindset as possible, which can only serve to benefit the students we have been longing to be back in the classroom with for so long.
This fortnight, we are focusing on the Challenge strand of the What Makes Great Teaching at Reigate School model. This week’s blog, from Durrington Research School in Worthing, focuses on one of the key proponents of how challenge for all can be achieved in our classrooms – Robert Bjork. He and his wife, Elizabeth Bjork, coined the phrase ‘desirable difficulties’, in other words, hitting the spot between as task being too easy so as to not cause any effort or hard thinking on the part of the student, or too hard so that too much working memory is taken up trying to make sense of the task for any meaningful learning to take place.
As an introduction to the concept of challenge, here is an extract from Shaun Allison and Andy Tharby’s excellent book, Making Every Lesson Count:
‘Put simply, challenge in education is the provision of difficult work that causes students to think deeply and engage in healthy struggle. It is unfortunate that all too often challenge is presented in the context of ‘challenging the most able.’ Fascinating, if controversial, research from Rosenthal and Jacobson in the 1960s into what they dubbed ‘the Pygmalion effect’, suggests that our expectations of students can have a profound effect not only on how we interact with them but also on the student’s future achievement. They found – and it makes uncomfortable reading – that teachers in their study would interact differently with those students of whom they had higher expectations. It is bizarre, morally questionable even, that we have come to believe that only those we describe as the ‘most able’ need or deserve to be challenged. Some overarching principles are needed to help us to use challenge in the classroom:
1. It is not just about the ‘most able’.
2. We should have high expectations of all students, all the time.
3. It is good for students to struggle just outside of their comfort zone, as that is when they are likely to learn most.’
The link below takes you to Durrington’s blog post.
Research Pod (1): Challenge.
If we turn to the world of cognitive science (the study of how our brains learn), we can see that what Robert and Elizabeth Bjork have to say in their paper ‘Making things hard on yourself but in a good way: creating desirable difficulties to enhance learning’ is supported by the idea that learning should be effortful. In other words, all students should be challenged so that they are thinking hard and so that learning is more likely to stick. The struggle zone that students need to be placed in are the desirable difficulties that are required for the correct level of challenge. However, in most classrooms, students will come to us with a varying range of levels of prior attainment, so what places one student in the struggle zone may not do so for another. Therefore careful use of scaffolding also needs to be employed.
Shaun and Andy in Making Every Lesson Count say that teachers need to ‘be responsive and support all students during the lesson to aspire to the bar… and beyond.’ Three examples of how different students may be supported are also given in their book:
”Less able’ Katy has not written a thing. You verbalise the first half of the sentence and she finishes it. Then she writes it down and off she goes. You come to Matt, incredibly able but prone to prolixity. He must cut out ten unnecessary words before continuing. Grace’s hand shoots up. You smile and motion it down. She smiles wryly back, sensing that, once again, you are encouraging her to be more resilient.’
As part of their concluding comments, Robert and Elizabeth Bjork comment on how students, not only teachers need to be aware of desirable difficulties and effortful study. This is important – if students do not understand why tasks have deliberately been made challenging, and why it will product more effective learning, we will not get their buy-in and they may switch off. Explaining this concept whilst they undertake a task will add to their extraneous load and reduce their working memory capacity, so taking time to familiarise students about WHY we wish to challenge them is vital. Here are Bjork and Bjork’s views on this in their concluding comments:
‘For those of you who are students, we hope we have convinced you to take a more active role in your learning by introducing desirable difficulties into your own study activities. Above all, try to rid yourself of the idea that memory works like a tape or video recorder and that re-exposing yourself to the same material over and over again will somehow write it onto your memory. Rather, assume that learning requires an active process of interpretation— that is, mapping new things we are trying to learn onto what we already know. (There’s a lesson here for those of you who are teachers—or parents— as well: Consider how you might introduce desirable difficulties into the teaching of your students or children).’
If you would like to read the entire paper, the link is below:
Blog of the week (2): Challenge.
This fortnight, we are focusing on the strand of Challenge from the Great Teaching at Reigate School model. This week’s blog comes from educator Blake Harvard. In this blog, he discusses the concept of ‘desirable difficulties’, a term put forward by Robert and Elizabeth Bjork which I elaborated upon in last week’s Research Pod section of the newsletter. He contemplates how we can encourage our students to resist always taking the easy route when it comes to study and revision, and accepts that to do so is human nature. Getting our students to see the benefits of ‘effortful’ retrieval and deliberate practice is key, he says, and talks through a range of methods that we can employ. Here’s the link to his blog:
Research Pod (2): Challenge
It would be remiss of any discussion on education research to ignore what the most influential paper of the moment has to say on challenge, so this week’s pod will look at what Barak Rosenshine has to say in his ‘Principles of Instruction’ (1968 and 2012) paper. I also firstly want to include a passage from the great Mary Myatt, from her book ‘The Curriculum: Gallimaufry to Coherence’. She says…
‘…pupils are keen to do difficult work. It is seen as a privilege to be thought capable of tackling demanding material. If we do not think this through and assume that challenge is only for some, then we are in danger of offering narrow narratives or by giving up on disciplinary rigour altogether for some pupils. If we are serious about narrowing gaps, we cannot be serious about signing up for a different diet for pupils of varying prior attainment. Apart from those pupils with significant additional needs, we should be making the case that the material studied is demanding, challenging and that access to that material is secured through talk, modelling and practice.’
Whilst challenge is not explicitly listed as one of Rosenshine’s ten principles, it is still a theme which runs throughout. For example, if high challenge levels are proving too tricky for some low prior attaining students, he states that scaffolding should be employed to assist those students in reaching the same points as others. However, he is clear to state that: ‘These scaffolds are gradually withdrawn as learners become more competent, although students may continue to rely on scaffolds when they encounter particularly difficult problems.’
Another of his principles is to ‘obtain a high success rate’, and goes on to say ‘in two of the major studies on the impact of teachers, the investigators found that students in classrooms with more effective teachers had a higher success rate as judged by the quality of their oral responses during guided practice and their individual work.’ His first principle, ‘Begin a lesson with a short review of previous learning’ refers to the act of students engaging in retrieval practice (not re-study). This is again is challenging and effortful, and thus will make knowledge stick and be more easily retrievable when required for new learning to be ‘hooked’ to it, along with applying it in tasks and assessments.
In summary, challenge is a strand which runs through everything we do. As Mary Myatt says, without high levels of challenge for all, we risk giving some of our students a ‘diminished diet’, and we might never allow them to reach their full potential.
This fortnight, we are focusing on the theme of modelling. Students in school are constantly in the process of creating pieces of work or performances. However, these do not reach a high standard by magic. As teachers, it is our responsibility to not only deliver content, but to show students how to use and manipulate their knowledge to form end products and to ensure they are of as high a standard as possible. Using model answers or showing good pieces of work is nothing new and is something we’ve always done. However, dismantling the model, and modelling theTHINKING and the step-by-step processes involved so that students might learn how to break down tasks to achieve success is vital. I once read (and I cannot remember who!) someone liken effective modelling to being shown a picture of a cooked roast dinner as a model of how to prepare a meal. The picture shows the intended outcome, but is of limited use to the novice as to HOW that standard of cuisine can be achieved! Had the expert provided a step-by-step demonstration, the novice cook would have had a far better chance of success!
This weeks blog is written by Shaun Allison, author of Making Every Lesson Count and head teacher of Durrington Research School in Worthing. In his blog, he discusses what he calls ‘modelling for excellence’ and examines what successful modelling can look like in the classroom.
Research Pod (1): Modelling.
As has been the case with many of the Research Pod pieces, we cannot ignore what one of the most influential papers in education has to say about modelling. Barak Rosenshine in his original (1968 and republished in 2012) report on what it was that the most effective teachers do (Principles of Instruction) stated that modelling is vital. He states that:
‘Students need cognitive support to help them learn to solve problems. The teacher modelling and thinking aloud while demonstrating how to solve a problem are examples of effective cognitive support. Worked examples (such as a maths problem for which the teacher not only has provided the solution but has clearly laid out each step) are another form of modelling that has been developed by researchers. Worked examples allow students to focus on the specific steps to solve problems and thus reduce the cognitive load on the working memory.’
Rosenshine makes very frequent reference to ‘Cognitive Load Theory’ throughout his paper. This is the idea that working memory is limited (although long term memory is not) and that as teachers, we should be constantly seeking to reduce the load placed on working memory, so that as much of it is freed up to complete the task successfully. Therefore if intrinsic load (the load placed on working memory trying to make sense of the task because it is too onerous for the student) is high, there is little working memory left to tackle the task or for any learning to take place. However, if the teacher is able to break down a task and demonstrate the THINKING required to achieve success, this can help free up students’ working memories and help them achieve the best possible outcomes.
Whilst modelling, it is also important the teacher seeks to reduce extraneous load, that is to say, any distractions that may impinge on students’ working memories, such as students’ talking or writing whilst the modelling is taking place, or the teacher going off on tangents whilst modelling. More on the cognitive science and research on modelling next week, including the use of my favourite piece of equipment – the visualiser!
Blog of the week (2): Modelling.
This week we continue to look at the topic of MODELLING. As we said last week, modelling allows the teacher to demonstrate the thought process behind successfully completing a task, breaking it down into chunks to reduce intrinsic load on working memory (the load generated by the level of difficulty of a task), so that more is available for effective learning to take place. As with all of the aspects of What Makes Great Teaching at Reigate School, modelling is something we have all always done. However, simply showing students a completed answer or giving them one to take away and look at for themselves can often be unhelpful to the novice learner as it is simply the finished product. The student needs to be shown and guided through how to approach the task by an expert – the teacher.
This week’s blog is by teacher Simon Baddeley, who tells us how he uses what is now my favourite teaching aid – the visualiser. How does this differ to simply writing a model answer on the whiteboard? The visualiser allows you to model, hide, show again, hide again – no more students copying what you have completed on the board, no more losing your model once you have removed it from the board and no more having to turn your back on students whilst modelling on the board. It has revolutionised my teaching of map skills – the simple act of having a copy of the same map as the students to display on the board and model grid references, measuring distance etc has made the world of difference. The reduction in the number of students now putting up their hands accompanied by a ‘Miss, I don’t get it…’ has demonstrated the value of modelling for all learners, less fire-fighting and repeating of instructions individually to numerous students and helps create a calmer learning environment.
Research Pod (2): Modelling.
Along with Barak Rosenshine’s ‘Principles of Instruction’ (1968 and 2012) paper, perhaps one of the other most important pieces of research centred around cognitive science and research is ‘Why Minimal Guidance During Instruction Doesn’t Work’ (2006) by Kirschner, Sweller and Clark. In fact, I’ve discussed it before and this won’t be the last time! With reference to modelling, they begin by stating:
‘None of the preceding arguments and theorizing would be important if there was a clear body of research using controlled experiments indicating that unguided or minimally guided instruction was more effective than guided instruction. In fact, precisely as one might expect from our knowledge of human cognition and the distinctions between learning and practicing a discipline, the reverse is true. Controlled experiments almost uniformly indicate that when dealing with novel information, learners should be explicitly shown what to do and how to do it.’
They then discuss a range of studies which support this assertion:
‘Stronger evidence from well-designed, controlled experimental studies also supports direct instructional guidance (e.g., see Moreno, 2004; Tuovinen & Sweller, 1999). Hardiman, Pollatsek, and Weil (1986) and Brown and Campione (1994) noted that when students learn science in classrooms with pure-discovery methods and minimal feedback, they often become lost and frustrated, and their confusion can lead to misconceptions. Others (e.g., Carlson, Lundy, & Schneider, 1992; Schauble, 1990) found that because false starts are common in such learning situations, unguided discovery is most often inefficient. Moreno (2004) concluded that there is a growing body of research showing that students learn more deeply from strongly guided learning than from discovery. Similar conclusions were reported by Chall (2000), McKeough, Lupart, and Marini (1995), Schauble (1990), and Singley and Anderson (1989). Klahr and Nigam (2004), in a very important study, not only tested whether science learners learned more via a discovery versus direct instruction route but also, once learning had occurred, whether the quality of learning differed. Specifically, they tested whether those who had learned through discovery were better able to transfer their learning to new contexts. The findings were unambiguous. Direct instruction involving considerable guidance, including examples, resulted in vastly more learning than discovery.’
Of course, these statements can be applied to a wide range of things we do in the classroom, but the act of modelling, of SHOWING the students how to do something and making them think hard so that the process is more likely to stick in their long term memories, is certainly supported by a wide range of studies that tell us that leaving students to discover content and skills for themselves will result in far less learning than guiding, modelling and explaining by the expert in the room – us.
Here’s the link again to the whole paper:
Blog of the week: Scaffolding (1).
The focus for this week and next is SCAFFOLDING and is one of the principles in the What Makes Great Teaching model at Reigate School. Scaffolding is an all-encompassing term for the support we provide in class to ensure that all students are given the chance to achieve our intended outcomes. Modelling can also be part of this, and I will save that for after half term! However in this week’s blog, Mark Enser, writing in the TES, examines the role of scaffolding, as well as giving some concrete examples from his own geography classroom. He asserts that good scaffolding can help with: getting students to engage in the task; simplifying the task by breaking it into easier stages, maintaining interest in the task, drawing attention to the most relevant parts of the task and modelling solutions to the task. The link to the blog is below – I will examine what the field of cognitive science and educational research has to say to support the use of scaffolding in the Research Pod section to follow.
Research Pod: Scaffolding (1).
If we return to one of the most influential pieces of research once more, that of Barak Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction, originally published in 1968 but latterly abridged and re-published in 2012, we can see that scaffolding and indeed breaking new material into small ‘chunks’ are two of his key principles. The link for his paper is provided again, below. Rosenshine observed that these two aspects of teaching played a key part in the lessons of the teachers who were obtaining the best results. In his paper, he states that:
‘Investigators have successfully provided students with scaffolds or instructional supports, to help them learn difficult tasks. A scaffold is a temporary support that is used to assist a learner. These scaffolds are gradually withdrawn as learners become more competent, although students may continue to rely on scaffolds when they encounter particularly difficult problems. Providing scaffolds is a form of guided practice. The process of helping students solve difficult problems by modelling and providing scaffolds has been called ‘cognitive apprenticeship’. Students learn strategies and content during this apprenticeship that enable them to become competent readers, writers and problem solvers. They are aided by a master who models, coaches, provides supports and scaffolds them as they become independent.’
If we look at what cognitive science has to say about scaffolding and how the human brain learns, we know that Cognitive Load Theory as described by John Sweller, states that as teachers, we should be seeking to reduce intrinsic load – the load placed on the working memory when tasks are too difficult or complex. Scaffolding has vital role to play in this. If a student is using up all of their working memory on trying to make sense of a complex task or new material, little space is left for actually understanding what they are tackling and for linking it to previously learnt content in their long term memory, which is vital for learning to take place. Students are novice learners and not experts in our field as we are, so by providing a range of support in class, students are able to better understand and enjoy learning, which of course also leads to increased motivation to want to learn even more going forward!
Blog of the week: Scaffolding (2)
This week, we take our second look at the concept of scaffolding to support all students meet the aims of our lessons. Scaffolding can take many forms, and can be done through questioning or modelling, for example, both of which are separate strands of the ‘What makes great teaching at Reigate School?’ model. We’ll have a look at each of those in the coming weeks, so I’m conscious of not straying into other strands prematurely!
However, one focus that hopefully is of interest is the changing view we now have of the definition of differentiation. So this week’s blog looks at how we can support all students of varying levels of prior attainment through the lens of scaffolding rather than the more fixed method of providing work on many different levels, which many say can hold students back rather than move them forward. Along with creating unnecessary workload for teachers! Last year, myself and Pete Bowdery were lucky enough to attend a conference partly hosted by Tom Sherrington (more from him in the Research Pod!) One of the over riding thoughts that the conference left me with was that if we never give students the chance to attempt the more challenging work, how do we ever know they cannot do it? Here’s the link to the blog:
Research Pod: scaffolding (2)
One of Rosenshine’s Principles is to ‘provide scaffolds for difficult tasks.’ Tom Sherrington, author of ‘The Learning Rainforest’ and former headteacher has written an excellent and very succinct book outlining what each of the principles can look like in the classroom, entitled ‘Rosenshine’s Principles in Action.’ (Copies can be found in the CPD library in the LRC at school). As previously discussed, Rosenshine sought to identify what it was that the most successful teachers regularly did in their lessons. So this week’s Pod will take a dip into that book and have a look at a few of the things Tom identifies as examples of scaffolding. Tom starts by saying:
‘Rosenshine tells us that it can be important for students to undergo a form of ‘cognitive apprenticeship’ whereby they learn cognitive strategies from a master teacher teacher who models, coaches and supports them as they develop a level of independence. The key is that the scaffolds are temporary; they support the development of a cognitive process but are withdrawn so that students don’t become reliant on them. This is a form of guided practice as a precursor to independent practice. All of the ideas in the fourth principle (‘provide models’) can be used as temporary scaffolds that are later withdrawn.’
Tom then goes on to give examples of methods of scaffolding, including: writing frames (for example, in Humanities, we use ‘PEEL’ – point, evidence, explain, link back to the question); exemplars (produced by previous students or the teacher); strategic thinking (guiding students through tackling a problem) and anticipating errors and misconceptions (perhaps through providing students with a checklist of common errors, and anticipating and teaching these ideas directly, so that, as he says, students are able to form a more complete schema for the relevant topic). Tom makes it very clear, however, that as students progress and become more proficient, that scaffolds should be removed. And of course, different students will meet this point at different times, depending on a range of factors. Nevertheless, the days of producing worksheets on three different levels for every lesson that we teach are behind us, meaning that all students can be given the chance of high levels of success, and our time better spent planning for high quality teaching in the classroom.
Blog of the week: Explanation (1)
This fortnight’s focus from the What Makes Great Teaching at Reigate School model is EXPLANATION. There’s some further discussion about this element in the Research Pod section, but Barak Rosenshine in his Principles of Instruction (1968) as a result of a wide range of studies into research on how the best teachers got the best results concluded that two things they all did was to present new materials in small steps, and check for understanding throughout. Teacher Helen Galdin O’Shea explains how another seminal and much-discussed research paper, ‘Why minimal guidance during instruction doesn’t work’ by Kirschner, Sweller and Clark had such an influence on her teaching. Along with Rosenshine’s paper, who also asserted that the most effective teachers talk for longer than less effective ones, these are the two that have most influenced me too, and have refocused my planning away from a culture of ‘doing’ to one of ‘thinking and learning’.
Research Pod: Explanation (1)
This week we are moving on to the principle of Explanation. The teacher in this week’s TWW blog of the week discusses how the Kirschner, Sweller and Clark paper had such an influence on her. I’m keen to include mostly bite-sized research chunks, as I know our time is precious but I thought, on this occasion, I would include the links to the two papers I’ve referred to in the blog section.
The first time I came across Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction, my overriding thoughts throughout were ‘this is just common sense’, along with ‘hang on, we all do this in our lessons already, don’t we?’ The paper lists seventeen (which have latterly been condensed to ten) things that the most effective teachers do. The trouble over the last few years is that we have taken our eye off the ball, and fads, that have no basis in evidence, but instead based on trends and hunches have crept into teaching. Many of these have been at the expense of using the most important resource in the classroom – the teacher. Learning became ‘discovery-based’ and ignored the research put forward by Kirschner, Sweller and Clark and wider cognitive science, that children are novice learners and need careful guidance and explanation if they are to understand new material. Preparing and relying on teaching methods that rely on the child discovering new learning for themselves are far less effective and also for more onerous on our precious time in terms of planning and preparation. Misconceptions which have to be unpicked later on and gaps in learning are also far more likely to arise this way.
So Rosenshine isn’t suggesting that a teacher should stand at the front of the room and simply lecture to passive students. This, he said, would also be ineffective. However, explanations which are broken down into chunks, effective questioning and checks for understanding throughout along with modelling have been proven to be far more effective than handing the learning over to the students. The research of Rosenshine, Kirschner, Sweller and Clark has empowered teachers to simplify planning and concentrate on what students need to learn. In essence, a more straightforward way of teaching with the teacher as the axis of learning.
Blog of the week: Explanation (2)
This fortnight’s theme from the What Makes Great Teaching at Reigate School model is explanation. This week’s blog comes from Shaun Allison, Headteacher at Durrington Research School in Worthing and organiser of ResearchED Durrington. In his blog, Shaun states that there are three key elements to good explanations in the classroom: making use of what students already know; making your explanations persuasive and providing time for self-explanation. If you really wanted to get your teeth into improving your explanations in class, I can highly recommend the book entitled How to Explain Absolutely Anything to Absolutely Anyone by Andy Tharby, who also works at Durrington School and who co-authored Making Every Lesson Count with Shaun. It’s an easy read and has lots of evidence-informed and importantly, practical tips to improve your explanations in class.
Research Pod: Explanation (2)
Continuing with the theme of explanation, I thought I would examine one of the key takeaways from the book referred to in the blog section: How to Explain Absolutely Anything to Absolutely Anyone by Andy Tharby.
There is so much excellent content in this book, all of which is research and evidence-informed. However, one element that Andy looks at is: what makes the perfect analogy and example when planning our explanations? He states that examples can breathe new life into stagnant ideas, and provide insight and clarity. The best examples, he says, connect to what a student already knows, should be as simple as possible, should appeal to the senses, should be easy to transfer to new contexts, should be memorable, should come in multiples and should aim to provoke an emotional response.
The author then gives the example of an extract from Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything, a science book for beginners. To explain the conservation of mass, Bryson gives the example:
‘If you burned this book now, its matter would be changed to ash and smoke, but the net amount of stuff in the universe would be the same.’
This little sentence, he said, provided a Eureka moment for him. It used something tangible – the book he was holding. It was simple, tactile and it helped him transfer the concept of conservation of mass to other objects. This strategy is supported by the Rosenshine and Kirschner, Sweller and Clark papers referred to in last week’s Research Pod (links to the papers are also included there) – that the teacher is the best resource in the classroom as the expert in the room, and that careful guidance, broken down into small steps, rather than handing the learning over to the students to discover for themselves, is what the most effective teachers repeatedly do.
Each week at Reigate School, in Surrey, where I am a teacher of geography, I am given the role of writing two short sections of our Teaching and Learning Newsletter. I do not do this in any official capacity, merely as a result of repeated hints and pestering to the powers that be that it was something I wanted to do and which I thought would benefit staff and of course students! A different component of our What Makes Great Teaching at Reigate School model (below) is discussed each fortnight. They are intended to be bite-sized, easily-digested pieces to slowly drip-feed the idea to staff, rather than ground-breaking, in-depth analyses of a wide range of research.
They feed into work we carry out to move the school forward in our Teaching and Learning group (named Teaching Without Walls – the creation of and run by our Assistant Head, Richie Emerson – tweets at @RichieEmerson3). The aim of this group, which all staff are able to attend should they so wish, is to look at educational research and discuss how it might look in our classrooms. Members will go away and try and tweak their lessons in light of discussions in the group, and then ideas are disseminated at Inset and through the newsletter. One rule: no fads or gimmicks!!
There was some interest on Twitter in my publishing these weekly pieces, so if these can be any use to anyone involved in education, please feel free to use or steal! Here are the first two Blogs of the Week and Research Pods, focussing on Retrieval.
BLOG OF THE WEEK – Retrieval ( 1 )
This week’s blog is by a science teacher from Bath named Rachel Wong. It summarises what retrieval practice is beautifully, along with why it is important and how it can be put to best use. It’s also vital that we share these reasons with our children to achieve ‘buy in’. I know many of us are beginning our lessons with retrieval practice now and children seem to be really on board with it is as they understand how it is benefiting them. I even had one of my hardest-to-reach year 11 children (unprompted!) thank me at parents’ evening for making quiz questions for the start of every lesson for the class at it was helping him to remember and teaching him what he should be doing at home! Enjoy the blog!
RESEARCH POD – Retrieval ( 1 )
Starting this week, we are going to be discussing fortnightly one element from the what makes great teaching model at Reigate School. This fortnight we thought we would start with retrieval practice. So what is retrieval practice? It’s all about children being made to bring back to mind previously learnt material. Research from Cognitive Science from the past one hundred years tells us that children who are actively asked to recall previously covered content in the form of short tests or quizzes, either completed at home, in class, or preferably both, perform better than those who do not, or who simply revise at home using re-studying methods, eg, re-reading notes or copying them out. Or by having content simply re-taught to them by the teacher.
These latter methods don’t make children THINK hard enough, and what we think about, we remember. Cognitive Psychologist Daniel Willingham in his book ‘Why Don’t Students Like School?’ puts it as: MEMORY IS THE RESIDUE OF THOUGHT. This is my favourite educational quotation as it applies to so much of what we do in lessons! As early as 1885, the German psychologist Herman Ebbinghaus conducted research on memory which led him to describe the Learning Curve (see below) He stated that unless new material is revisited (retrieved, not simply re-studied or re-taught, unless it truly has been forgotten or not understood in the first place and needs to be), then it will be forgotten. However, he also described the ‘spacing effect’, that is to say, that time between each retrieval practice session needs to be left – forgetting is actually part of the learning process! So there is little point in retrieving material covered in the previous lesson unless it is necessary for that lesson’s learning – to build on children’s existing schema (the web of knowledge in their brain). Retrieval practice is therefore a vital part of what we do as teachers to ensure that learning truly sticks and isn’t just a fleeting, one off event for our children.
BLOG OF THE WEEK – Retrieval ( 2 )
This week’s blog of the week is the second to look at retrieval as a method of strengthening our students’ long term memories. It looks at the work of Siegfried Engelmann who stated that the majority of lessons should contain review and only 15% new content. His argument, based on research, was that teaching new content in small chunks and spreading new concepts out across lessons, meant that ‘re-teach’ or revision lessons at the end of topics or close to exams became unnecessary. The spacing effect, detailed by Ebbinghaus’ forgetting curve of last week’s newsletter was being fully utilised. I hope you find this of use and that there’s something in this blog to guide your use of retrieval.
RESEARCH POD – Retrieval ( 2 )
Continuing with our theme of retrieval practice from last week, I wanted to share some more ideas from some of the related research and evidence with you. As we said last week, retrieval is, essentially, students being tested in some way and being made to retrieve previously covered content from their long term memory. Every time they do this, it strengthens their web of knowledge in their long term memory (their ‘schema’) and their ability to retrieve things at a later date. If nothing has changed in their long term memory, nothing has been learnt.
One of the best known and most often-referred to pieces of research was carried out by Karpicke and Roediger at the university of Illinois in 2006. The research involved 120 18-24 year old students. Here is the abstract from their research paper which sums up their method and findings:
’Taking a memory test not only assesses what one knows, but also enhances later retention, a phenomenon known as the testing effect. We studied this effect with educationally relevant materials and investigated whether testing facilitates learning only because tests offer an opportunity to restudy material. In two experiments, students studied prose passages and took one or three immediate free-recall tests, without feedback, or restudied the material the same number of times as the students who received tests. Students then took a final retention test 5 min, 2 days, or 1 week later. When the final test was given after 5 min, repeated studying improved recall relative to repeated testing. However, on the delayed tests, prior testing produced substantially greater retention than studying, even though repeated studying increased students’ confidence in their ability to remember the material. Testing is a powerful means of improving learning, not just assessing it.’
The graph below forms part of their paper and illustrates the different outcomes shown by those that simply used re-studying techniques and those that used self-testing (retrieval) techniques. In every case, at every point in time, those that used retrieval had the better outcomes. If we can build this into our lessons, we can start to improve our students’ ability to retain and retrieve information. And knowledge retrieval when introducing new concepts also gives them something to hook their new knowledge to, helping them to make sense of what we are teaching and building their ever-increasing internal schemas. A simple technique that can yield fantastic results!
I love being a teacher. I also love that I’ve discovered a renewed passion for it, after twenty-two years, since I stumbled upon the evidence-informed movement a couple of years ago. And I love the simplicity and logicality it has brought to my teaching. However, there’s one paper in particular that really sparked mine and the attention of so many within the teaching community: Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction. First published in 1968, it sought to observe identify what it is that the most effective teachers do.
When I first came across this paper two years ago, it did not make me completely change how I taught. Yet reading it has been one of the single biggest influences on my career. I recognised that to a greater or lesser extent, I already did what it said was necessary to gain excellent results from students. However, what it DID do was to remind me that teaching, including my own, seemed to have lost its way somewhat. In recent years, I will freely admit to planning lessons based on fancy resources, getting students up and out of seats (despite the fact that they often told me they didn’t want to) and even the odd game. This approach was time consuming at the planning stage for me, and, as I have recently become all too aware, fairly ineffective for the students’ learning.
Rosenshine’s strips effective teaching back down to basics. Largely, back to how I was trained to teach in the late 90s. However, what I love about these principles are that they dig much deeper than my training did. And they link in beautifully with Cognitive Load Theory, which examines how our working memory is limited and how we can reduce the load placed on it whilst we teach our students. I genuinely don’t remember being told during my training about how it is crucial to consider what our students are THINKING about at any given point in the lesson. This has now become my primary focus.
For example, are we overloading their memory with too much new information in one go? Rosenshine suggests chunking it down. Are we sure our students are understanding this new information? Rosenshine found that effective questioning can help with this, along with ensuring that our students are thinking hard so that new content is more likely to stick. Are we making sure our students get ample time to practice and apply new material to gain mastery? Rosenshine states that plenty of time should be given over to engage in deliberate practice. Prior to this, I was far too focused on what myself and the students were DOING at any given point in the lesson. And in ‘getting through the content’. Were they cutting and sticking? Great! That ensured they were kept busy! Were they given the chance to ‘hunt’ for information around the room (effectively copying whilst having a chat)? Even better! This was fun and would definitely lead to increased engagement and therefore learning!
So when I made a promise to myself two years ago after beginning to engage with educational research, that I would never, ever give my students a cut and stick activity again or make them do a scavenger hunt, or any other task that meant they were doing something other than thinking hard about my lesson content, I had a few teachers ask me or indeed tell me that my lessons surely must be quite boring now. Starting every lesson with retrieval rather than an envelope on desks, or music, or even better, information stuck under chairs to allow the students to guess what the lesson was going to be about! Standing at the front of the room and bit by bit, explaining a new concept rather than giving new content to students in printed form and asking them to work it out for themselves. Students largely working individually on applying new knowledge rather than in groups where at least one student sits out and the chatter moves off topic, meaning that no one is thinking hard about anything vaguely geographical. Surely my students are switched off by these simpler methods and can’t possibly be engaged or learning?
I would argue to the contrary. Now, I am able to engage my students through subject matter, through thinking about my explanation, the use of my tone of voice and anecdotes. I am able to better keep track of their understanding and to make them think hard through effective, targeted questioning. Modelling allows me to demonstrate how their answer should be structured so that they can attempt theirs with a better understanding of how to succeed. Each of these elements, which the Rosenshine Principles have caused me to divert my focus to, have meant that student engagement now comes from the pleasure that comes from succeeding and a genuine love of the subject because its content has been allowed to shine through, not because they are kept entertained by games and gimmicks.
So all in all, the guidance and renewed focus Rosenshine’s Principles have given me have increased and redirected my students’ engagement back where I want it to be – thinking about the subject matter and not the jazzy task, enhanced by the sensation of success that this simplicity brings. And of course, the fact that this has also cut my planning time is a wellbeing win, too! Happy, well-slept teachers also teach better lessons, after all!
An impromptu post given that it is the first week of the so long-awaited Christmas holidays. A couple of days ago I put out a tweet which was little more than me thinking out loud. However, to date, it has garnered almost 800 likes and several responses. The tweet can be seen below.
This tweet was written as a positive reaction to a brief conversation I had with my Executive Head in the lunch hall on the second to last week of a very, very long term! I knew that a class that has one or two tricky characters in were likely to be even trickier given that we were so near the end of term and that general merriment was starting to be felt across the school. The lesson that I was due to have with them immediately after lunch was not to be their very last lesson of the term with me – I was due to see them again on the very last day where I had planned to down tools and show a film of their choice. As a result, I had an hour of work planned for this class on the day of my conversation, and I knew that this may cause general consternation amongst some of the students.
Consequently, I had no hesitation in approaching our Executive Head to enquire as to whether a member of SLT wouldn’t mind passing through my next lesson as they had been doing throughout the day. Knowing that I could count on that support was invaluable to me – it meant that, should I need it, I had consequences that could be carried through that would be for the benefit of the whole class to ensure that good quality teaching and learning could take place. The thought that I or my teaching may be viewed negatively did not enter my head that day – I knew that I would be met with a positive response and a member of SLT did indeed pass through as promised.
However, the response to this tweet has caused me to think that perhaps I take this support and level of approachability for granted in my school. My SLT operate an open door policy – literally. All are ready to listen and support, regardless of the issue. I’m unclear as to what I am really intending the overriding message of this blog to be – I’m more used to writing about educational theory rather than effective leadership and staff wellbeing. However, these elements are all part of the big package that we call teaching. And I firmly believe that we are all in this together. The positivity that comes from knowing senior staff and for that matter, all staff, will support you without judgement results not only in that support having an effective impact on teaching and learning in that particular member of staff’s classroom, but from a wider viewpoint, it spreads a feeling amongst staff that they are valued, supported and that we are all pushing together for the good of the students.
And happy teachers teach great lessons, after all!
For the last eighteen months or so, I’ve become absolutely fascinated by cognitive load theory. Slightly too much so if the amount of time I spend on Twitter avidly following other educators’ conversations is an accurate measure. I’m ashamed to say, as a teacher who has just entered their twenty-second year of teaching, that until fairly recently, I was guilty of falling into the trap of believing that if my lessons were ‘jazzy’, that my resources had lots going on on them, they entered the room to music, or they had to hunt for answers stuck up around the room… (I could go on..!) that this would somehow mean that my students would learn more. They would be drawn in by the aforementioned music/slides/general edutainment and hey presto, learning would follow!
Cognitive Load Theory, along with Rosenshine’s Principles and the work of Sweller, Kirschner and Clarke, have made me take stock of my teaching in a way that nothing else has in over twenty years. The question ‘what are my students going to be THINKING about at each point in this lesson?’ is now the principal thought throughout my lesson planning, resource and retrieval preparation. CLT states that our working memories are limited, and so when, as teachers, we are teaching new content, we need to reduce the load that an entire raft of elements can place on our students’ WM.
At each step in my planning and execution of lessons I now take into consideration:
- Extraneous load – reducing unnecessary distractions. For example, flashing or too many images on a slide; too much text on a slide which I then talk over causing my students’ attention to be split; allowing students to fiddle with equipment (clicking pens on and off, etc..) Of course, there’s nothing I can do about a noisy PE lesson outside, classroom visitors or, because I don’t have my own classroom, overly-busy, bright and text-heavy displays competing for my students’ attention, although the latter is certainly a conversation I’ve begun to have in my school!
2. Intrinsic load – planning for the correct level of difficulty of explanations/questioning/deliberate practice. Robert and Elizabeth Bjork spoke about ‘desirable difficulties’ – finding that sweet spot that means that students are not using valuable space in their working memory to make sense of tasks that are too hard, but equally, are not too easy, resulting in too little effortful thinking on their part, meaning that new content is less likely to find its way into their long term memory. All of my classes across key stage 3 and 4 are mixed ability. So finding a common level of desirable difficulty can be tricky. As a result, I teach to the top, but I plan for a variety of questions pitched at different levels which I will pose to different students with different levels of prior attainment. In addition, during the deliberate practice phase of my lessons, I will provide scaffolding such as sentence starters, key terms on the board or model answers on different topics for low prior attainment students to enable them to free up as much of their working memory as possible and avoid using it all trying to make sense of the task rather than making sense of the new material.
3. Germaine load – the effort required and load placed on a student’s WM in order to make sense of new information will be far less if they have already built up a web of prior knowledge (their schema) to link it to. So when teaching new material, I carefully pick material that we have already previously covered as my retrieval activity at the start of the lesson, and build upon this in my questioning and instruction. This enables me to ‘hook’ the new content to their existing schema. When previously covered content is brought to mind in light of new content, the new content is more likely to ‘stick’ to the existing knowledge in their LTM. For example, in a recent year seven lesson on six figure grid references, my retrieval practice activity consisted of some questions where students were required to use four figure grid references. It’s pretty near impossible to understand six figure grid references without being able to do four figure first, so by calling to mind the first skill, I was better able to build on my students’ prior knowledge rather than teaching the new skill in isolation. In addition, where possible, I will make reference to examples from within their own experience (although this can vary wildly within a class) so that again, ever-increasingly complex links can be built within their long term memory. For example, in a recent year 8 lesson on hurricanes, in order for the class to grasp the concept of the Coriolis Effect, I discussed and questioned the students about the reason bath water rotates around the plug hole as it drains away. (The spin of the Earth being the cause of both!) Having this prior knowledge meant the new knowledge about the Coriolis Effect was more likely to stick.
4. Planning and delivery of feedback. I haven’t marked a set of exercise books in the traditional way (detailed written comments, all pages marked) for almost two years. My school has fully embraced verbal feedback, and we are free to choose the methods that we feel are best for our subjects and classes. No non-negotiables! So in planning for effective feedback, most of which is now immediate in the lesson whilst the thinking is still taking place, I consider what it is I want the students to achieve, be it completing an accurately-drawn bar chart/a high quality 9 mark GCSE answer/a description of a graph. I ensure that I plan feedback that allows students to see where they can improve and move forward. I might choose from live marking under the visualiser, live marking whilst I circulate, live modelling under the visualiser or whole class verbal feedback sheets for an exam answer or assessment. Each method makes the student THINK and allows them to be SHOWN HOW to improve, along with dedicated time to make the required improvements. Written marking, however, takes place after the event, and students are passive in the process, often resulting in the same errors being repeatedly made.
Despite teaching for over twenty years, I know I still have much to learn, and I am the first to admit that I don’t always get it right. However, I can honestly say I think the profession is in an extremely exciting place at the moment. For me, getting to grips with CLT has fundamentally changed my focus of my lesson planning, execution and feedback. It has reduced my workload as I am now planning for thinking that leads to learning rather than the next jazzy task which takes an age to prepare and which might, at worst, hinder the progress of my students. Daniel Willingham’s often-quoted ‘memory is the residue of thought’ from his book ‘Why Don’t Students Like School?’ sums up my new approach perfectly. Let’s plan for thinking rather than for entertainment, schema-building over time rather than fleeting, never-to-be-revisited moments and let’s view learning as a long-term process rather than singular, unrelated ‘events’.