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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Memory in English

On Saturday 7th November, I was delighted to present at Research Ed Literacy in Swindon. I was speaking about memory, and began by saying this is something I have only recently been concerned with. When Michael Gove some years ago suggested teaching children poetry by heart, I thought this was a terrible idea – what a waste of precious curriculum time! They have so much to learn, why waste time with this? I have, however, completely changed my mind on memory, and not just because of external imperatives – though, of course, closed text exams at GCSE has been the trigger for many of us in starting to prioritise memory.

Memory is important because if nothing has been remembered, nothing has been learned. I have an A grade at Physics GCSE, but if I sat the exam now I would fail completely. Can I really say I know Physics? I don’t think so. I’ve crammed Physics, enough to pass an exam, but I haven’t learned it. 

Cramming is not the name of the game; we are not computers storing endless facts. Instead, our brains collect these seemingly isolated facts and embed them into networks of perceptions, allowing us to have a deeper understanding of the world around us. And these facts, this knowledge, is vital to all we do; in reading comprehension, a knowledge of the subject matter predicts your capacity to comprehend a piece, as Eric Kalenze brilliantly pointed out in his session, with an incomprehensible piece on American football plays.

As Daisy Chrisodoulou points out, though, we often underestimate our knowledge and overestimate students’. She makes the argument that general knowledge is like oxygen: vitally important, but we only notice it when it isn’t there. Furthermore, the more knowledge we have, the more we can get: knowledge loves knowledge; or, knowledge is like Velcro: it sticks to other things.

English has, in the past, been seen as a ‘skills based’ subject; but the idea we can transfer skills across texts with no regard for background knowledge of those texts is only slightly less ridiculous than the idea that if we can analyse a maths problem, we can analyse a cave painting. For a full and enjoyable debunking of the skills argument, I refer you to James Theobald.

Willingham tells us that ‘memory is the residue of thought’: we remember what we think about. Our job as teachers, then, is to ensure students think hard about our subjects. This links to Bjork’s idea of ‘desirable difficulties’: we need to make students think hard, not allow them to sit back and passively let the ideas wash over them, leaving no trace of their existence. But we must be careful with this idea: school is already very hard; students are shunted from subject to subject, having to come to terms with up to six a day; there is no need to surprise students every time they enter our classroom (‘today – nouns! Tomorrow, ‘Oliver Twist’! Thursday, poetry!’) – this is just too difficult. We only need to put something in place that makes students think a little more. Don’t just read a passage, ask a few questions about it that students all have to think about to answer. That’s a desirable difficulty.

How do we build memory? In my initial scripting of the presentation I had written: ‘it’s not just rote learning of dry, meaningless facts.’ But actually, I disagree with my summer self – it sometimes is. In learning a language, I had to learn how to decline nouns, or conjugate verbs, and rote learning of those dry, meaningless facts suddenly became very exciting and meaningful in the schema of learning a language. Once those isolated facts were committed to memory, they could then link up with hundreds of other ideas. We’re keen to skip this stuff as teachers, because we know it isn’t fun; but school isn’t about fun, it’s about learning. And this is how we learn.

Making children remember what you say can take many forms: Willingham says we are attuned to narrative, so we could make our lessons into stories – not too difficult in English, as we deal in stories, but not always easy to make each individual lesson story-like. He also says we remember what prompts emotion, but it’s really difficult to be sure all your children have felt the emotion you intended. Also, what if someone comes in a bit tired, a bit grumpy, or already very emotional? I don’t think emotion or stories are reliable enough to ensure we build students’ memory in the classroom on a day to day basis. What is reliable is quizzing: any teacher can quiz students about key ideas. When I visited Michaela Community School, in every lesson I saw at least 20 minutes of recap: unabashed testing of prior knowledge, from previous days, but also from previous units.

I shared some strategies borrowed from Joe Kirby and Daisy Christodoulou: first knowledge maps, and then multiple choice questions, and explained how these were quick and easy to get recap into lessons on a daily basis.

In building students’ memories in English over the course of their study, I suggested two guiding principles: first, what are the hidden bodies of knowledge in the subject? The things we just know, that we now need to systematically teach to our students? I’d suggest these are grammar, and the literary canon (in a cruel twist of fate, I was scheduled at the same time as Katie Ashford, who has to be the most forward-thinking expert on grammar working in schools right now). We then need to sequence these ideas in the optimal way to help students see the links between them, and build up their knowledge incrementally, building in time for revisiting and interleaving the core concepts we want students to remember in the long term.

If it’s not yet clear, I need to explicitly say that there is not one original idea in what I have said. I’ve read a great many books, contained in the presentation, and a great many blogs, and had a great many conversations; I’ve stuck them together and worked at these in my own context. I’m not the ideas person. Despite this, I am so grateful that so many people came along, and were so engaging and so warm in their interactions.

research-ed

Memory in English

Memory: an inset session

On 1st September, I wasn’t as nervous about starting a new school as I was about standing in front of the teaching staff of the secondary school at 10am to make my pitch about knowledge and the curriculum. I advised myself that it is always easier to speak to people you don’t know, yet this did little to assuage my fears: whatever I told myself, first impressions count.

Happily, I have lucked into my second wonderful line-manager in a row, and together we worked on a session that would hopefully engage the teaching staff at the right level.

To begin, teachers had a multiple-choice quiz about memory, knowledge maps and multiple-choice questions. The idea was to put into practice what we would preach about pre-quizzing and how to construct MCQs.

We split the session into two parts: theory and practice. To begin, I took two key questions: how does memory work, and how can we teach to build memory? I used Hirsch’s example of ‘Jones sacrificed and knocked in a run’ to highlight that we don’t always know how important knowledge is unless we don’t have it and suddenly can’t access what looks like a fairly straightforward sentence (stealing from Daisy Christodoulou the sentiment that ‘knowledge is like oxygen: it is vitally important, but we only notice it when it is not there.’ I went on to explore other examples of sentences students required explicit content knowledge to be able to access ideas. Then, using Joe Kirby’s excellent ideas on knowledge and memory, asked what we mean by knowledge – after all, if many of us took a GCSE paper now we would fail it, having completely forgotten what we once crammed in. We need to move from a cramming culture to one of real mastery.

I then shared the forgetting curve, exploring the idea of revisiting to secure concepts in long-term memory, along with Willingham’s advice that ‘memory is the residue of thought’: we remember what we think hard about.

forgetting curve

The two practical implements we focused on were knowledge maps and multiple choice questions. Knowledge maps are hugely useful for three main reasons.

Firstly, they nudge subject leads to make decisions on what to teach. You obviously can’t teach everything about Frankenstein, for example; you must be selective and deeply consider the most vital information you want students to retain for a very long time.

Secondly, they provide clarity to teachers. The first question any new teacher has is ‘what am I going to teach them?’, and a knowledge map answers that in a single slide. They provide further clarity for subject leads in knowing that everyone in their department is on the same page, and are helpful for senior leaders to have more detailed knowledge of what exactly is being taught.

Finally, they are brilliant for revision. Not intended to be only for teachers, students too can be literally on the same page as their teachers. A knowledge map is a powerful tool for revision, helping students to know exactly what it is they need to revise, both as they are taught the unit, and in the months to come.

I then shared three organising principles for knowledge maps. Firstly, they are selective; you should only select what can fit onto a single page. Secondly, their terms are defined – a list of complex vocabulary without definitions is useless as a revision tool. Thirdly, they are organised into manageable sections, allowing teachers and students to focus on the discrete aspects of the unit.

To assuage the fears that MCQs could not test skills, I shared some examples. The first tests pure recall, which is of course important. The second two test application of that knowledge, looking at how well students can infer and analyse. I explained how each of these latter questions still relied on a huge breadth of student knowledge – you need to know the meanings of the poetic terms in order to decide whether they are being used in the example.

  • When did Coleridge write ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’?
  • a) 1665
  • b) 1793
  • c) 1797
  • d) 1815
  • e) 1816
  • ‘I, the true murderer, felt the never-dying worm alive in my bosom, which allowed of no hope or consolation.’ Which language techniques are combined here, and what is the writer trying to suggest?
  • a) In this quotation, onomatopoeia and religious imagery are used to emphasise how disgusting Frankenstein is.
  • b) In this quotation, a simile and religious imagery are used to emphasise that the death of Justine will never be forgotten.
  • c) In this quotation, pathetic fallacy and natural imagery are used to emphasise how destructive what has happened is.
  • d) In this quotation, prolepsis and a metaphor are used to suggest that the creature will wreak his revenge.
  • e) In this quotation, a metaphor and graveyard imagery are used to emphasise how destructive the guilt Frankenstein feels is.

Drawing heavily from people much smarter than I on MCQs, I explained three reasons for using them. Firstly, workload: although requiring a much greater effort upfront, MCQs are quick to mark and can be used year after year, compared with the uphill struggle of the essay, which is quick to set, but must then be marked 30 times, at length, year after year after year. Secondly, MCQs allow for a much clearer diagnosis of what students do and do not know – in an essay, where a student misplaces a comma, we might not be sure if they do in fact know how to use a comma, but were distracted by exploring Macbeth; or if they can use a comma for lists but not to separate clauses, or if they can’t use a comma at all. With MCQs, you can test each of these aspects separately, and have a much clearer diagnosis of what students know and do not know. Thirdly, MCQs enable teachers to test the breadth of their subjects, not just the depth; with MCQs, we can find out what students know about every single theme and language technique, compared with an essay which might focus on one theme, and include examples containing three or four techniques.

After sharing some key principles for creating MCQs – five options to avoid guessing, plausible distractors to make it challenging, unambiguous distractors to avoid contention over multiple responses, building misconceptions into the distractors, and including more than one correct option, subject teams had 15 minutes to make five using a subject-specific text they had brought along.

Finally, teachers re-did the do-now test as a plenary. Looking through teacher responses really helped me to see where my explanation had been clear, and where I need to clarify at a later inset. In particular, almost no-one managed to get the multiple correct options right; often they would get two of the three, for example. This made me consider that multiple correct options might be too tricky for students at the start of using MCQs, or that we should flag up how many correct options there are in the question.

I was excited to find for the rest of the inset days a number of presenters used MCQs, and my colleagues referring to ‘distractors’ as they noted some ‘ambiguous’ or ‘implausible’ ones where they occurred. More than that, though, I was overwhelmed by the excitement and energy expressed by so many teachers on these ideas.

Memory Inset

Handout