Induction’s been officially passed, new term INSETs are done and dusted, and it feels like the holidays were an age away already. September’s here, and it’s time to get back into the swing of teaching. The timetable’s somewhat fuller, and there are less names to learn this time round, but it’s still equally nerve-wracking and exciting to be back at school.
When it comes to new year resolutions, mine are to stop over-planning, calming down a bit with marking and then making sure I leave work earlier than last year.
It seems counter-productive to actively try and do less this year, but it’s not. Last year, there were lessons where I was doing more maths than my students. That’s definitely counter-productive.
My new year 9 class were in their third lesson with me last week, (multiplying fractions) and I set them a textbook exercise. They were working in silence, and I gave them the chance to get their teeth into it, to focus. Not having some gre’t lummox faffing about asking you questions and confusing you for 15 minutes whilst you got to get your head down and practised meant that when we stopped, I could really start to question what they had understood.
“Why was question 4 different to question 5?”, “Which question was harder, question 8 or question 14? Why?”, “Write a question you don’t think you could solve this way, and suggest why not.”
If you’ve got no hook to hang your hat on, you’re just chucking questions around.
The breathing space for them allowed them to focus on what they were doing instead of what I was doing. The atmosphere was calm and the students were really proud with what they had achieved, which in terms of building confidence might allow them the security to attempt more involved problems applying their skills.
When it comes to building in routines and getting students to really hone a skill, unsolicited silence as they concentrated on getting through the task was a wonderful surprise.
If students aren’t working on a task long enough to run into a problem, they certainly aren’t going to have the time to dig themselves out of it.
I don’t need to micro-manage my students every second in my classroom and write it down, I don’t need to slave over every single thing my students write in their books either.
This year, I’m going big on routines, and sometimes that routine will involve doing a lot of similar questions quietly.
I have been on a mission over the last year to improve the quality of written work within Art. It has always been an issue with students seeing us as a purely practical subject – I truly think that some of them choose us at GCSE because they think there is no writing!
After having a play with a few ideas, I found a few that worked. I wrote a little piece on my staffrm profile earlier this year: http://staffrm.io/@mrsartytextiles/heLm2uKCtS about ‘Literacy games’, the main focus being on how to get students excited about written lessons in Art.
This theme has developed on and I now have a few successful strategies that seem to work well. Some of these are just embedded into everyday lessons – the writing frames and support mats for annotations etc. (all differentiated for each subject specialism and age range as you would expect) and others are the once a term type strategies that you pop in to encourage deeper thought and analysis at key points in a project. For example, when reflecting on a body of practical work or when discussing and comparing the work of others… This is where I would pull the Jenga out of the cupboard or get the bingo cards out.
I was asked recently why I’ve decided to make literacy a bit of a personal mission – I honestly think it’s because I’m not very confident with writing myself. I’ve often had that ‘Im just good at arty stuff’ type complex.. all through school I was never very good at the written stuff (those of you that know me will know that my verbal skills more than make up fo it!) I think I just know what it feels like to not really know where to start.. what it feels like to sit in a classroom and know what you want to write but not quite how to structure it.
The latest addition to the literacy strategies used is my ‘literacy loyalty cards.’ They are my new favourite – This is probably because there is a bit of drawing on them too! The image below is taken from my recent presentation at #BranstonTM and summarises nicely how the cards are used. They are essentially just a list of works with tick boxes next to them. However, they just look a bit nicer than a normal spelling list and if introduced to the students in a bit more of an engaging way (ie: with the promise of prizes etc.) then they really seem to work.
I have already set homework for KS3 students to learn them as spellings, find examples of artists work showing evidence of the words listed as well as asking them to describe the work of others using at least 3 of the keywords. The cards aren’t about doing something massive and ‘wordy’ – they are to allow the students to gain confidence with more subject specific vocabulary early on in their experience with us in art. The more the students are encouraged to use the words for smaller tasks, the more likely they are to naturally be able to improve the quality of their written work in class when evaluating or researching. The long-term hope is that these students will feel more comfortable with the written element of GCSE courses in our subject areas.. where good quality annotation is often an uphill struggle for a lot of students!
Why not give the loyalty cards a go? It’s early days for me but the students are already engaing with them really well.
How can we know whether a student has learned something? To answer that we need a working definition of what we mean by learning and the one I’ve come up with is tripartite; learning is composed of retention, transfer and change. In order to know whether something has been learned we should ask ourselves three questions:
- Will students still know this next week, next month, next year?
- Will students be able to apply what they have been learning in a new context?
- How will this transform a students’ understanding of the world?
Of course, I can’t prove that I’m right about what learning is, but it sounds at least plausible and I haven’t had anyone offer a coherent refutation.
More recently I’ve been thinking about whether the ability to retain and transfer new ideas or skills can result in a permanent change to the way we think. Now although nothing in this universe can truly be said to be eternal, I think we can make learning permanent for all practical considerations. It may not be straightforward but maybe we can strive to adjust the conditions of teaching and learning to create permanent changes in the way our students think and behave.
Back in May I experienced what I felt to be just such a permanent change to the way I perceived the world when I attended a speed awareness course after being caught speeding. I wrote about the experience here and concluded with this statement:
…attending ‘speed school’ has changed (hopefully permanently) my default option. I no longer intend to break the speed limit. After over two decades of driving, I’ve picked up some bad habits which I need to break, but I now have the will to break them. So far I’m doing alright.
So, what’s the situation now? Well, I really do seem to have changed the way I drive. That four-hour course appears to have made a lasting and powerful change. There are times when I lose concentration and find myself driving above the speed limit, but as soon as I notice I decelerate and get back within tolerance. There have been times when I’ve felt tempted to ignore the speed limit – especially when temporary road works result in limits which are much slower than seems necessary – but I’ve learned to accept that I’m not aware of the bigger picture and to keep within the limit. Basically, my own preferences and subjective biases do not allow me the privilege of breaking the law. Interestingly (at least to me) my new found thinking about the speed limit did not transfer as completely as I might have expected to driving in France over the summer. Somehow, I was able to think of kilometres per hour differently to miles per hour. But I was still far more aware of my speed than ever before.
So why did that speed awareness course make so much difference? Several times I’ve found myself thinking that if I’d been made to attend a similar course years ago I might have saved myself and other road users a load of grief. But is that true? Was it rather that I attended the course at exactly the right time in my life? Was I just lucky to have particularly effective trainers? Might someone else have failed to connect with me? Obviously there’s no way we could ever know we any useful degree of certainty, but I think I’d have been receptive to the message at any time or place, no matter who delivered it.
If that’s true, what might have made the message so resonant? Is there something we can capture in the way we teach the formation of oxbow lakes or the Treaty of Versailles? In short, what made the experience so memorable and compelling?
Firstly, the message was very clear. It was technical enough to pique my interest and curiosity (we went into the physics of residual speed) whilst being straightforward and simple enough to be easily grasped. This is, I think, key to any good explanation: it should be as simple as possible but no simpler. The instructors had clearly considered and refined various analogies and concrete examples for me to understand the abstract concepts I needed to grasp. Whilst I needed to active in making links and connections, at no point was I confused or unclear about the purpose of what I was learning.
Second, the message was highly memorable. There’s little point imparting information that won’t be remembered and the instructors were clearly at least implicitly aware of the ‘psychologically privileged’ status of stories. As a species we appear to be uniquely skilled at remembering narratives. We use stories we explain our place in the world and make sense of our experiences and we’re all the hero of own particular story. Some of the things we teach lend themselves to a narrative explanation whilst others would seem less susceptible to turning into a tale. But what if we were to consider what the beginning, middle and end of an explanation of simultaneous equations? What if we were able to insert cliffhangers and plot twists into the story of the digestive tract? And what characters could we weave into a story about the subjunctive mood, or the germ theory of disease?
Third, the information given was directly relevant. It pertained to my everyday experience of driving a car as well as my experience of running the risk of a fine and a driving ban. Clearly, we can’t create or rely this kind of relevance for every classroom lesson; not everything we teach can or should be reduced to the limited life experiences of school children. But we can create relevance by opening up knowledge gaps and invited students to fill the deficits in their understanding of the world. We can also do our very best to show why the particular aspect of the curriculum we’re teaching is interesting, valuable, beautiful or necessary. On reflection, maybe the most relevant aspect of my driving school experience was my realisation that there is never an excuse for breaking the law and that the consequence of ‘getting away with it’ had fooled me into thinking that speeding was an acceptable way to drive. This suggests we must make a special effort to make relevant the threshold concepts – those ideas that most shape and alter students’ understanding – of the subject disciplines we teach.
Finally, we were told that change would unlikely to take place instantly – we’d need to practice. I’m fascinated by the idea of phenotypic plasticity – the idea that we have an innate, inherited capacity to rewire neural pathways in ways advantageous to the environment in which we find ourselves. Change often seems overwhelmingly burdensome and although it’s more common for an overweight person to continue overeating in spite of the evidence that their health is deteriorating, it’s possible to permanently change the way we think about food and moderate our intake, to arrive a new default option. I was specifically invited to articulate how my behaviour would change as a result of what I’d learned and share precisely how I would drive differently I was given clear tips and strategies for enacting change (E.g. it’s much easier to keep to a 20 mph limit if you’re in second gear) and coping with pressure from other road users. We discussed how changing our intentions would make actual changes in habit more likely. It’s hard to change embedded habits even when we know they’re wrong – almost every student knows they should use capital letters in their writing but the consequences for not doing so are negligible, so it becomes easier to continue doing the wrong thing. I’ve been aware for some time that practice does not make perfect, practice makes permanent: we get better at doing what we repeatedly do. As a driver I had become good at driving too fast and poor at keeping with the legal limit. For me to commit to practising doing the right thing, I had to become convinced that speed is unacceptable so that my good intentions would result in my adjusting my behaviour when I become aware of doing the wrong thing. No one changes unless they want to. But when our intentions change, we find it easier to monitor our behaviour to change our defaults options and break the cycle of bad habits. And if this runs counter to your lived experience, I’d suggest that it’s best to keep an open mind and act as if although you haven’t changed yet, you can do so with time, effort and belief.
In addition to all this, there’s a compelling body of research on how we can increase retention and transferability of learning which I discuss in my new book, but which is also summarised here.
Can we make learning permanent? Maybe not, but I think there’s a lot we can do to make it last. After all, if we’re creatures of habit, we may as well try to create the very best habits of mind possible
Here’s a really clear, short and applicable summary of the key areas of cognitive science which can be applied to the classroom:
The summary looks at six questions about learning, giving a quick summary of the science and some ideas about how they might apply in schools and classrooms. It effectively summarises a great deal of things I’ve written about over the last couple of years in six pages! Here are some links for further reading for some of the key points of the summary:
- Getting students to think about meaning and giving them sufficient practice through things like low-stakes quizzing
- Automating the recall of key knowledge to reduce the load on working memory and giving specific feedback related to improvement
- Ensuring background knowledge is sufficient and secure, and focusing students on the deep structure of similar problems
- Beliefs about intelligence, the care with which we must use praise or rewards, improving student judgements of learning, and reassurance about belonging
- Students don’t have learning styles, popular neuromyths like left/right brained learners, there aren’t ‘stages’ of development, there are differences between novices and experts, and other misconceptions and pseudoscientific ideas surrounding learning
I’m looking forward to seeing future work by Deans for Impact – and I’ll be keeping an eye on their blog for more excellent resources!
Most of the blogs I write that get a good response are the ones about teaching. Thankfully. I’d write a book but a) it takes too much time b) the money is terrible and c) I’d just be repeating everything I’ve already written here. It would be called ‘Into the Rainforest of Teaching and Learning’. I like the organic metaphor because it captures something of the mystery, complexity and beauty of teaching well. This post is my very lazy outline for that book; another way of bringing some ideas together in one place.
I like the idea that learning is ‘lush, diverse, unpredictable, evolving, daunting, exciting’. This is my underlying philosophy for teaching better: rainforest thinking.
Although I’d change a few things, I’m still very happy with this series as a way…
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