Lessons from ‘Small Teaching’

I would really recommend this book. Though ostensibly aimed at university lecturers, so much of this works in the secondary classroom, perhaps due to the way American universities organise and assess their courses. I loved the way the author started each chapter with a story to illustrate his principles, and also the way the tweaks suggested are minor and quick to apply for busy classroom practitioners. Here the key learning points I took from the book:

  1. Knowledge

Lang’s book begins with how to ensure students acquire the necessary knowledge, and he stresses the need to frequently quiz students on what they have learned to aid them in knowledge acquisition. But along with quizzing, he also explores the impact of predictions and pre-tests: even if students get these predictions wrong, it can stir their curiosity (with the caveat that learners do need some prior knowledge for this to work! It’s no good asking complete novices what they think of the French Revolution when they have absolutely no knowledge at all of revolutionary France). He then explores the best way to ensure long-term memory by weighing up interleaving of knowledge, concluding that it is usually best to block learn something and then revisit it while teaching the next topic.

  1. Understanding

I’ve often grappled with what it means to ‘understand’ what we learn, and I loved the simplicity of Lang’s conclusion: ‘understanding’ is when we take the blocks of knowledge and link them to our prior understanding; it is when we form links between our knowledge to gain a greater understanding of the whole. In which case, activating prior learning at the start of any topic is vital, which can be as simple as asking: ‘what do you already know about…?’ He then explores other ways to get students to make links, such as making concept maps (otherwise known as mind maps…), or asking about different texts or themes and how they compare.

  1. Practice

Lang points out that mindless rote-learning is pointless – we need to find a way to get students to practice mindfully. We want them to know things to automaticity without it becoming mindless. He counsels lots of in-class practice with teacher coaching as they write, rather than a lot of practice at home when students can be lazier and not push themselves.

  1. Reflection

I had always thought of ‘reflection’ as a sort of useless add-on in education, as so often our idea of what we understand is misjudged. This is possibly still the case with younger learners. However, I was intrigued by his overview of ‘self-explanation’, whereby you get children to explain what they are doing as they are studying, including saying when they don’t understand or are stuck. He advises teachers to prompt this inner reflection with a simple question as they study or write silently: ‘why are you doing that?’

  1. Belief

The final part of Lang’s book is dedicated to exploring beliefs. We know that if students believe effort leads to success they will be more successful; we also know that the teacher’s own beliefs about the reward of effort will rub off on their classes. Lang reminds us that humans are social animals and feed off emotions, and so the atmosphere of the classroom is vitally important. Like Willingham, he advises using story-telling to tap into their emotional response to learning, along with reiterating the purpose of the material covered and being generally enthusiastic about it. Citing Carol Dweck’s Mindset, he also asks educators to build in low-stakes tests that enable students to take risks and fail, as this will lead to greater learning, with the caveat that many students have a fixed mindset, and so early failure may put them off learning.

 

All in all, a fantastic and helpful survey of some key aspects of the science of learning, with lots of applicable ideas.

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