How do we design great explanations?

This post was written by David Fawcett @davidfawcett27.

GREAT EXPLANATIONS

One of the most fundamental components of being a teacher is transferring knowledge to students. In almost every lesson we teach we are trying to explain ideas and new information to the individuals we work with in an effort to help them understand and learn. The topics we teach vary in complexity and can provide mixed results. At the heart of this is the quality of explanation that we provide. Although not scientifically accurate, it probably goes without saying that the better our explanations, the more likely students are to ‘get it’.

Now the art of an explanation is actually a tricky thing. I’m guessing we’ve all had moments when it hasn’t gone to plan. The times when we know what we want to say but mid-explanation…….realise that nobody else does. The times when you begin explaining that tricky concept and struggle to find the clarity of words to do so. The times when you think you’ve nailed it only for a class full of hands and confused faces to slowly appear. Getting explanations right take practise and experience. It takes thought and prior planning to ensure we effectively get difficult information across to students. Although how we deliver these explanations are dependent on our subject, teaching style, students we work with and so on, there are some practical tips on making them more effective.

Know your topic

There is a well-known quote attributed to Albert Einstein stating that

“if you can’t explain it simply you don’t understand it well enough”.

How accurate this quote is I’m not sure. However, it does point to some sensible advice that excellent content knowledge is essential when explaining a topic. Being able to take a complex concept and communicate it with clarity requires in-depth understanding. What are the key things that you must include? What can you omit the first time you explain something (which you will obviously explain at a later date)? Do you clearly understand how the various parts of the topic link together? What parts of the topic must you highlight and pay particular attention to? Can you deal with difficult questions if students pose them? Having a solid grasp on topics is extremely important. Brush up, read up, make notes and make sure you know what to say.

Look at the explanation through students eyes.

John Hattie talks about great teachers being able to see learning through the eyes of a student. Having the same approach with explanations is equally important. When thinking about what you will say, think about how students may interpret it. What parts might students not understand? What language might you need to carefully select to ensure that this particular class understands it? What examples may provide most clarity? Would you understand it if you were in the lesson? What vocabulary, academic language and specific terminology could you challenge students with? What you don’t want to do is pitch an explanation so high that students become confused and form misconceptions. Equally, you don’t want to make an explanation so watered down that they don’t learn anything worthwhile. Practise what you are going to say. Does it sound right? Does it make sense? Would you class understand it? Planning can go a long way in ensuring that what you say is effective.

Old knowledge helps learn new knowledge

Cognitive psychologists and scientists including the likes of Daniel T. Willingham and Robert Bjork have highlighted that learning new concepts is more effective if built upon prior knowledge. It’s therefore essential to draw upon previous learning as much as possible to help build understanding. Referring to an already taught topic like diet in your explanation may make understanding a new topic like somatotypes much easier. If you’ve taught Shakespeare previously then drawing upon this may help students make more sense of Victorian novels. Knowing the particle theory of matter (solids, liquids and gasses) helps understand why materials would be good conductors/insulators of thermal energy. Having this in mind when planning explanations can be extremely helpful. Take time to look back at what has already been taught. Don’t assume that they still remember that information off by heart, but be confident that referring to it may help contextualise new learning and help clarify concepts and topics you are about to teach.

Working memory

There are various claims of working memory capacity detailed in research literature. The most famous is from the work of George Millar who found that the capacity of the short term memory was around 7 +/- 2 pieces of information. Irrespective of the actual number that an individual can store, the constant message coming through is that short term memory capacity is limited. We therefore need to be very mindful of how long or detailed our explanations are. Indeed, there may be times when a complex concept requires an in depth explanation, but how much of that information will actually be retained? Will that two minute explanation actually be remembered by students? Will they be able to digest all of the information? Could that explanation be broken down into smaller chunks with gaps between them? Could you cleverly repeat key points within that explanation to reinforce and expose students to the core content repeatedly? Could the explanation be stripped back to the basics and built up over time rather than all in one hit?
Thinking about, and being aware of, the level of information you will share beforehand can reduce confusion and help make what you are going to say more meaningful.

Driving questions (or giving the bigger picture)

At times, students fail to understand how a topic that you are explaining fits into a wider context. Some students find it difficult to see the connections between other topics already covered. Some may miss how today’s topic relates to prior learning or specific examples. Trying to provide this clarity when explaining could therefore support your explanation.
Using a driving question is one idea. If you’ve never heard of them, a driving question is a problem posed to the class, based on your current topic that starts the process of linking the lesson together. For example, in a Science and Technology in sport lesson, you could begin the lesson with the question “How has science and technology influenced sports performance? Has it gone too far (or will it)?” Having this projected on screen as students arrive and getting them to think about it helps set the scene. You can then begin to plan your subsequent explanations to tie into the question. How can you use it to explain that the development of full body swimsuits may create an unfair advantage? How can you use it to explain the complex argument why or why not, athletes with prosthetic limbs should/shouldn’t compete with able bodied athletes? How can you use the question to explain how facilities, materials and equipment have all impacted on sports performance? A driving question is good as it helps students build up an idea/image of the topic in question. It calls upon schema which your explanations can link to. Referring back to it repeatedly helps build up understanding and makes acquisition of knowledge via your explanations easier.

Using stories and concrete examples

“Research from the last 30 years shows that stories are indeed special. Stories are easy to comprehend and easy to remember, and that’s true not just because people pay close attention to stories; there is something inherent in the story format that makes them easy to understand and remember. Teachers can consider using the basic elements of story structure to organize lessons and introduce complicated material, even if they don’t plan to tell a story in class.”

“Psychologist have referred to stories as being “psychologically privileged”. Our mind seems to treat them differently and we see to understand and remember. Teachers can consider using the basic elements of story structure to organize lessons and introduce complicated material, even if they don’t plan to tell a story in class.” Daniel T. Willingham.

Using stories in explanations is one of the most effective way of sharing information. Some of the best explanations that I can remember have been shared via a story or an anecdote. Stories are great because they allow the person explaining to grab interest and use an example to provide clarity. As a teacher, using stories can be excellent and explaining difficult concepts. Using the story of how Michael Jordan rose through the ranks of Basketball is great at explaining the concept of sponsorship. It makes it easy for the listener to see how ‘a’ relates to ‘b’. With this obvious positive effect, do we regularly use stories to explain difficult concepts?

The use of stories in your explanations can come in two forms. Firstly you could use a story to contextualise what it is that you are explaining. You could tell a story during your explanation to help students understand a concept. Selecting a relevant story to get your message across can be powerful. For instance, using British Cycling’s ‘Secret Squirrel Club’ is a brilliant way to help explain the concept of scientific and technological developments in sport. Telling the story of how this element of cycling came about and the research and development they undertook can provide real life examples to support your facts. Stories become memorable, provide clarity and definitely enhance your explanations.

If you can’t find a suitable story, a second way is to use the format and structure of a story in your explanation. Great stories contain specific elements. Daniel T. Willingham highlights that these elements include causality, conflict, complication and character. With this in mind, can you plan your explanation which shows how one event leads to another, or how an obstacle is being overcome, or even how barriers were put in place? The structure of stories can help you evolve your explanation and make it easier to understand and remember.

Worked examples

Linked to Sweller’s Cognitive Load Theory (1988), using worked examples with an explanation improves learning. It does this as it reduces the cognitive load during knowledge acquisition. It provides clarity and scaffolds what it is that you are trying to explain.
Worked examples can come in a number of ways ranging from a maths problem annotated by the teacher, or a live essay answer written via a visualiser in front of the class. The process simply allows the teacher to support the verbal explanation with a visual demonstration.

A great way for using worked examples is the ‘I do – We do – You do’ teaching strategy. As a teacher, when explaining a new theory, process, concept or topic, the teacher works through an example and models it to the class. As they work through the answer, they explain their thought process and explain any concepts that are needed. The teacher can repeat this to show the class exactly what is required.
The teacher then moves to the ‘We do’ section and collaboratively answers another worked example with the class. The teacher still explains the process but begins to transfer ownership to the students. It becomes an excellent opportunity to check understanding (and assess the quality of your explanation).
Finally, the student now take on the ‘I do’ section and complete a question themselves. The process of teacher led explanation/modelling and collaborative explanation/modelling, helps students understand the topic being worked through better.

Thank you to David Didau and Shaun Allison for subject specific examples.

Modelling and metacognition

This post was written by David Fawcett @davidfawcett27.

As a teacher, we spend the majority of our time transferring knowledge to students in the hope that it sticks. As we teach new content we do all we can to ensure that students grasp this new information and hopefully learn it. We provide challenge, differentiate where needed, provide feedback to close gaps and question until we finally become confident that students ‘get it’.

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Unfortunately there comes a time during assessments and exams where this confidence that they ‘got it’ begins to disappear. On numerous occasions I could have put my money on all the students in my class doing well in a test, only for the answers I mark to be nothing like what I expected. Students who can usually verbalise answers with key terminology and structure suddenly write answers that lack all of this. A* style answers in class become mere waffle or vagueness under exam conditions. What we had hoped and expected, clearly did not end up that way. The biggest surprise comes in the exam follow up. When questioned again in class about their answers, students who had failed to write a coherent answer, suddenly provide exemplary ones when questioned. There seems to be something not quite right going on.
So what is it? Is it the pressure? Is it the exam conditions? Is it the exam? The technique? The use PEED, IDEA or whatever? Did we learn it well enough in lessons? Did I teach it the best I could? Did I ask them the right questions? What was it that students struggle to do in exams that they seem to do well in lessons? Part of the problem may be how they tackle the question. In a lesson we prompt, explain, question and give feedback. We focus on the content and hold out until we get the perfect answer. But do we focus on how to tackle exam questions? I know most teachers do. Many have writing structures or have a focus on command words (and rightly so). But I wonder if we really look at the thinking behind tackling them. Do we go into detail showing them the thought process of answering a question really well?

Modelling excellence

Following in the footsteps of Ron Berger, sharing excellent examples of work with students is an essential part of the process. Students need to see what is truly meant by ‘high quality’ work. By building up a bank of exemplar material, teachers can carefully select a piece that will help steer students towards the highest possible academic standards. Exemplar work can come from many avenues as well. I have been privileged to share work from ex-students whose writing, clarity and structure can highlight the requirements of great writing. Having a wealth of published articles with a variety of writing styles can also be distributed among students and provide real examples of professional work. The most effective pieces I have seen used are models from teachers own work. As teachers we sometimes devalue our own contributions but actually finding time to write an essay, exam question or report, which students themselves will have to do, can provide so much clarity when shared in class.

Unpicking excellence

A model can only go so far though. For some the model may appear to be out of their reach. For others, understanding how to get to work of that standard may be confusing. There may also be students who can’t clearly identify what it is that makes that piece of work so good. As a teacher it is therefore our duty to unpick it with students.

What is it that this work has that makes it high quality? How has the writer used key terminology, structure or tone in their work? How has the writer used evidence or concrete examples to support their thoughts? All of these types of questions can begin to unpick the thinking behind work, and therefore begin to help develop the thinking of our students in creating better work themselves.

Modelling metacognition

We can teach students how to structure sentences. We can show them how to use PEED to construct paragraphs. We can model many techniques within the classroom but do we really model how to think? Do we spend time showing students what our thought process is when detailing an answer? Is there time to really go into depth about how to unpick a question and really plan it well? In the rush of a school day and the pressures of a curriculum, probably not as much (or in as much depth) as we might like.

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There are a number of methods being deployed in schools which do such things. Take for example the new phenomenon of a ‘Walking Talking Mock’. The process itself brings together a cohort who are guided through an exam, with a teacher explaining what they would do for each question. The process models the thought process of an expert and provides clarity on how to produce high quality answers. The mock exam itself does have its pitfalls for the everyday teacher though. Bringing a large number of students together within a facility big enough to house them is a big logistical task and can’t be done regularly. The exam itself is also usually led by one teacher who is not able to answer the questions of every single student during the process so personal feedback isn’t readily available. How then can we transfer the same principles into a format that can be used in any lesson?

A while back I read a superb piece by John Tomsett who wrote about Metacognition and Self-regulation as a means to help students with their thinking in exams. Instead of organising a large scale walking talking mock, John annotated a past paper with notes only on what he thinks when tackling each question.

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Such a simple idea can have amazing benefits with students. Taking the time to complete a paper which in turn can be copied and shared with a class is an effective and efficient method. The process of modelling this can be done in many ways. Pick a question which you can demonstrate the thought process to the class. What did you pick out from the question? What command words did you focus on first? What did you interpret by state/describe/analyse/assess/compare? What parts of a topic come to mind? Are there any specific definitions that we should be mindful of? What should I be starting my answer with? What evidence would support it? Showing students how you got to your worked answer is a great way to show them how to think when answering questions.

This process can then evolve, allowing time for students to analyse the rest of the annotated paper before attempting to answer the questions (or similar ones) but having themselves showing their thought process first. And that is the important point – insisting that students show their thought process before writing down any academic answer. Being able to see what they think and not just what they know allows us to tackle another element of the learning process.

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Metacognition workbooks

In lessons we spend a lot of time asking students to practice exam questions. The process itself helps us check understanding and we can work on structure as we go. It’s a vital element in any exam preparation. With most of this time focusing on content checking, it is important we continually find time to get students practicing, and demonstrating, their thinking behind answers as well.

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A simple approach is that of a metacognition workbook. The book itself includes many elements and supports each unit or topic. Within it is a section purely on exam questions. With a split page format, students are required to write down what they are thinking about the question before they actually tackle it. What things are they focusing on? What do the various subject specific words mean? What examples might they need? What do they think they need to include if it’s a three marker? Getting this form of thinking and approach to questions in early is key. Having the time embedded into the curriculum (via homework, in lessons, in post exam lessons) over the key stage gets students thinking about how to think. It also gives us as teachers an insight into their process and allows us time to correct it if needed.

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Students sharing their thinking with students

I don’t feel that there is an end point with this, but, somewhere towards that is the ability of students to share their own thought process correctly with others. This element of students leading the learning of others can be powerful. There are many simple and time effective ways to do this in lessons.

Projecting a question onto a whiteboard where a student annotates it to the class, either independently or collaboratively, allows them to model the process to others. Under a teacher’s careful guidance, the process can be navigated towards the right outcome.

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The use of a visualiser like an IPEVO camera allows a real time account of how a student is thinking about an answer. Simply ask them to work through a question under the lens and it projects across the whole class. As a group you can challenge, support, agree or pick out parts of the thought process. Working collaboratively and scrutinising what to think about an answer before actually putting pen to paper is something we probably don’t do enough of, but can easily be rectified.

So next time you spend time looking over exam questions or practicing technique, ask yourself are you giving any time for students to understand the thinking behind it first? Building in metacognition is a cheap but potentially effective strategy and models exactly what it is that students should be doing with their answers.

The Summer Exam Season

This post was written by David Fawcett @davidfawcett27.

Exam Season Frenzy

It’s that time of year again when teachers and students make that last dash towards final exams. Over the years, with new accountability towards results, the summer term can become a frenzy of revision sessions, exam advice and last ditch interventions. Obviously revision is an essential component of exam success. It is important that we pass on the message that students should be undertaking it at some level in order to ensure knowledge, information and relevant examples are stored in their memory. There is however the worry from teachers wondering whether they’ve done enough for the students. There’s also the frantic ideas swaps between colleagues about what is actually a good revision session. Then there’s the creation of the 800 page in-house revision guides full of glossaries, definitions, exam questions and numerous teacher hours, sweat and tears.

If we’re not careful the summer term for teachers of Year 11’s can resemble a 1980’s Hollywood action blockbuster which results in one liners, a whirlwind of chaos and multiple casualties. Like many of these films, the storyline is predictable to the onlookers but the main characters make the same decisions over and over again. And worst of all, when you think all is calm, there comes the killer catchphrase at the end where the exam season stares at you straight in the eyes and says “I’ll be back”.

But when it’s over we breathe a huge sigh of relief. It’s then though that we really need to sit down, reflect on the period that has just passed and decide whether we want to put staff and colleagues through that again a year later? Is it actually sustainable, or even healthy, for teachers (and students) to work incredibly hard all year, only to go into overdrive for the last term? Is it possible to spread the frantic exam period over the entire year and lighten the load imposed on teachers and students at the end? I think it is. And I think that this is the perfect time of year to start putting plans into action to ensure that “Exam Frenzy 2 – The Sequel” doesn’t get put into production.

Build in retrieval practice

A key message that has come through numerous cognitive scientists/psychologists is that frequent low stakes testing that takes place consistently over time helps retain information in the long term memory. Planning to implement a programme of these within a scheme or curriculum is actually easy to do and simply needs a careful eye on planning. Over the duration of the course you teach, map out a section in every lesson/other lesson where students undertake a quick five minute test that forces them to retrieve old information. These tests should be quick for the teacher to mark and create very little extra workload. It is essential that you rotate the topics so that each is retrieved at different times over the year. By doing this you create gaps between the retrieval of each topic and ensure they are recovered multiple times.

Build in skills practice

Answering exam questions and refining technique is a great skill. Students don’t become masters of this independently and will require lots of teacher direction. Again don’t leave this to chance but instead identify key times in a topic, a scheme, or a unit where there will be a great opportunity to build in exam technique practice. Build it into a curriculum overview so every teacher knows.

Cumulative tests

Many subjects and departments across the country run regular end of unit assessments of tests. Many of these focus on questions from that specific unit which allow you to gauge the level of understanding that students have developed. This type of block practice can be detrimental though. If we continue like this (only testing students on the unit that was just taught) then what happens to Unit 1 when we reach Unit 7? Is it right to be surprised that students may not remember anything because it was taught a long time ago and hasn’t been tested since? Making every unit test/assessment cumulative in nature means that parts of every topic are retrieved regularly. This regular retrieval helps keep students familiar with previous topics and strengthen memory retention.

Forgetting curve homework

This idea is taken directly from Will Emeny – @Maths_Master a Head of Maths in Hampshire. Will explains how he maps out homework for the whole year. Each homework is a set of questions from previously taught topics which students go away and complete. As the year progresses, these homework’s build and cover all of the topics numerous times. Students are therefore continuously retrieving prior knowledge throughout the year.

Involve the parents

At a Year 11 parents evening earlier in the year, I informed the parents that I would be sending home a large cumulative test resource for their child to complete at their leisure over the year. The resource had numerous questions randomly ordered and covering every topic we teach in the subject. It also included the full mark scheme. A parent suggested that these could be sent to all parents with the suggestion that they keep them and at sporadic times, test their child by firing a question at them. In the subsequent appointments I suggested this to every other parent who embraced the idea. With many parents wanting to play an active role in revision but not feeling comfortable to do so, this type of resource allowed them to help. It allowed them to pick one or two questions a night which they could confidently quiz their child on.

Don’t just say “You need to work on exam technique”

Because lots of students have no idea what that means.

Help them form good habits

Answering exam questions well is as much an important part of the revision process as remembering content. Marks can be easily lost if a student fails to communicate an answer well. Students can also be guilty of giving amazingly accurate answers, but fail to realise that it wasn’t what the question was asking. There are many ways to do that ranging from incorporating system processes like B.U.G (Box, Underline, Glance) or even focusing each unit on a particular good habit forming skill. This could range from Unit 1 focusing on identifying key words, all of the way to Unit 6 looking at planning and proofreading answers. Build it into your curriculum so that all students know.

Model good answers

Have a bank of ex-students answers from which you can model what full marks looks like. Have these both in paper and digital format. Showing what a great answer looks like which students can annotate, pull apart and learn from is such a fantastic resource. If you don’t have any to hand, write some yourself. The process is not only good for creating resources, but also helps you understand what students are required to do. Alternatively, using mark schemes as a basic example of an answer can be good for seeing what examiners are looking for. Begin to collect these examples from this year’s departing cohort and use it with future groups.

Show them what you would do

If you haven’t read John Tomsett’s blog post on metacognition and exam practice, I would urge you to do so. A link can be found here. Once you do, invest some time annotating a number of past papers with your thought process so that students can see why you’ve tackled a question a certain way. Look to purchase a visualiser for your department so that you can get students, or yourself, modelling the process of their answers for all of the class to see. Do this regularly throughout the year and at key times so that students understand process as well as content.

Don’t just say “You need to revise”

Because lots of students have no idea what that means.

Build in revision activities where they are relevant

Revision techniques are dished out thick and fast when it gets closer to exam season. The thing is, shouldn’t these have been shared throughout the year? Better still, being aware that not every revision technique fits everything you’re trying to revise is also important. Map out times over the course where using the chunking method might helpful in remembering the classification of bones in the body. Plan out the time when using acronyms to remember the various banned drugs in sport might be a better way of remembering them. Identify a topic where using flash cards might be a useful resource. Look through the year and see when revision techniques can be matched and introduced through topics.

Do something with your data

What do you do after students have sat an exam and then received their papers back? There is a huge difference between reading through an exam and actually trying to close the gap. Can you implement DIRT time as a review lesson after every assessment? Could you place ‘Closing the Gap’ lessons after unit tests? Can you use curriculum time to try and get students up to speed on topics there and then rather than leaving it until the end of Year 11 when panic sets in? A simple change can help minimise the frenzy that could take place when exam season approaches.
And talking about data, do you use the data to help your department improve their teaching and learning? If not then all of the misconceptions and gaps that crop up in the final summer term could have been avoided a long time ago. It may have needed a change in the way we teach. For more information on using data to improve the practice of teachers, see here.

Learn from previous years and talk to your students and department

As a final note, after the exams are done, sit down with a selection of willing students and ask them for their honest opinion about revision. Talk to your department and try to see what could be done differently. Reflect, review and begin to put together a better plan for next year.

Have we got differentiation the wrong way round?

This guest post was written by David Fawcett @davidfawcett27.

The various layers and levels of a classroom highlight the complex job that being a teacher entails. All classrooms are made up of unique individuals who all need a variety of instruction or support to get the best out of them. Over the years the higher profile of the term ‘differentiation’ has seen an increased awareness of students’ abilities and encouraged us to think of and implement numerous intervention strategies. There has been the use of ‘must, could, should’ outcomes that have seen different levels of learning aimed at different children. We have seen the use of amended and adapted worksheets with varying difficulties deployed in the classroom. Differentiation has increasingly become a thing that is looked for during observations. All of these in their own right have the best intentions. They are designed to support those who need support and help push learning forward. But (there’s always a but), have we got differentiation the wrong way round? Are our best efforts actually holding learning back rather than moving it on?

Focusing on those who need it most

If we let it catch us, we could end up being expected to differentiate for every member of our classes. Not only is this unrealistic, but it reduces the impact on those who could benefit from our time the best. Take time to find out those with specific needs, those whose reading age is low, those who need support with their writing or those who have language requirements. Supporting these individuals means that our time and effort will have a bigger impact.

Think up not down

With the use of strategies such as ‘must, could, should’ and levelled worksheets, students are actually being fed the message that producing less work than others (or even of a lesser quality) is what we expect. It makes it the norm. It’s saying to certain individuals that only completing a core task or getting a basic grasp of a topic is sufficient. But what about when that student sits the same exam as other students who have been directed to more complex work? Is there a knowledge gap that we are creating which will hinder them in the future? Clearly not every student will be able to achieve an A* but as Daniel T. Willingham explores in his book ‘Why don’t students like school’, should we not make the task easier, but instead make the thinking behind it easier for students?

Set high (but achievable) expectations

With the idea of making the thinking easier and not the task, be confident to set challenging work with high expectations. The process of challenge if pitched right can be an excellent learning experience and one that can help memory over time. Yes it may cause confusion, but as in the short study by Eric Mazur (2011) showed, confusion when learning has an increased retention rate as the individuals have to grapple and make sense of the information. Challenge it seems is good and should be encouraged.

Model what excellence looks like

I seem to have be wooed by the craft of modelling excellent work to students. Showing students what a fantastic outcome may look like can help solidify what it is they have to do, and provide inspiration of what they should be achieving. There are those who will find such high exemplars daunting so a range and variety of pieces should be used. Once shared it is then the skill of the teacher to show how creating work of similar quality can be a realistically achieved.

Scaffold and support

Obviously some students will struggle to achieve the very highest standards you expect. Or will they? Is it our perception or reliance on labelling students (like a level 4 boy, or underachiever?) that in turn lowers our own expectations of what we think students can achieve. In Ron Berger’s book ‘An ethic of excellence’, his students create architectural blue prints for houses, Radon gas reports for their town and even biographies of local senior citizens that tell the stories of their fascinating lives. If we set a high standard of work, we as teachers can help support and scaffold the process. Creating strong success criteria, frameworks, writing scaffolds and milestones for the task can help students reach the heights that we are trying to encourage them to reach. Our craft and skill to make the process clear is essential.

Write like they’ve never written before

Show them what good writing looks like. Even show them how to write like your subject requires (like a historian, a scientist, a philosopher…). Don’t settle for poor spelling or lack of technical vocabulary. Lowering the standards because we label students only means that the student will never be pushed to up their game. Analyse texts, perfect answers, past students work or even work from an expert within your subjects’ field. The process of reading these texts is itself a way to help them write better in the future. Use writing frames and scaffolds that can be removed later on once their quality and accuracy consistently improves.

Draft, redraft and then redraft again

Set the norm that work can always be improved. Rename work and call them drafts. The unique feedback we give to each student is one of the clearest examples of bespoke differentiation I can think of. Getting that student to then redraft and improve work is key. It shows them that work can get better through improved effort or process. Time may be a concern but the benefits from redrafting work to make improvements will pay dividends in the long run.

Talk like they’ve never talked before

If you wouldn’t accept the quality of an answer if it were written down, don’t accept its quality if it is verbalised to you. How often in the rush of a lesson do we take answers from students that aren’t as high a quality as they could be if we spent time developing them? Encourage students to say an answer with the same high expectations that we hold for written answers. Use techniques like think, pair, share or ABC questioning to help build up the quality and academic language. Model answers with students and then pull it all together. Insist on the use of correct terminology and meaning. We could easily except a lack of depth or inaccuracies but why not help all students communicate language effectively.

Go beyond the curriculum

Now this is probably the idea that will make us wary the most. We all have curriculums and specifications that we need to follow. Many of them are fantastic and have great depth. But how many times have you heard in conversations with teachers “Yeah but they don’t need to know that for the exam”. Now this in itself is partly right. Sometimes with time and workload we barely have enough lessons to get through the content required. Sometimes we have groups who latch onto our every word and any tangent we may go off on becomes engrained in student’s minds only for them to use it incorrectly or at the wrong time. There are however those times when the limits of the curriculum could be broken. Could we bring an expert into our lesson? Could this be in person or via media such as Skype? Could we visit local college, University or industry departments to show us how our subject is used in the real world? Could we find times when going beyond the syllabus would drive the learning of the entire class forward rather than limiting what they know?

Rethinking differentiation

In a session I led a while back I changed the word differentiation to ‘stretch and challenge’. Instead of making tasks easier, we make the thinking easier. Instead of settling for second best, we inspire to go further. We show students that they can go beyond what they thought they could only achieve and show them what is possible. Miracles don’t happen overnight, but then again differentiation isn’t a short term fix. The constant refinement, encouragement, modelling, examples, direction and teaching can help students produce work that may even surprise them.

Re-reading isn’t the same as revision

This guest post was written by David Fawcett @davidfawcett27.

We are now in an education system where assessment and testing throughout the year has become the norm. Students sit unit tests, end of term tests, topic assessments, mock exams and the beloved final exams. The frenzy of these seasons, especially at mocks and final exams, can become a whirlwind for both teachers and students. Revising for numerous different exams, attending regular revision sessions and covering topics for a second or third time in lessons can become very overwhelming. Many schools are highly effective at supporting students throughout this period but a few questions or concerns come up over and over again.

Recently I was very lucky to hear John Fenlon, Director of Learning at Brookfield Community School talk about students and revision. The main message I took away from his speech was a very simple one:

“Students mistake reading for revision”

There are numerous times when student inform us that they have undertaken revision prior to a test. When we then dig a little deeper, a common approach for them seems to be re-reading their notes. This has been highlighted in many places as being an ineffective yet commonly used strategy. Only a few weeks back the Sutton Trust and Professor Rob Coe noted that there was no evidence that this works. According to the report, “[re-reading] gives a satisfying – but deceptive – feeling of fluency and familiarity with the material”. It seems that an approach which can become the default setting for many students is actually not time well spent.

Sutton Trust Report

But why do so many students mistake this as revision? Could it be a lack of knowledge of what effective revision is? Could it be that students simply haven’t been shown methods that work? Could it be that the deceptive feeling of familiarity after reading notes is too much of a draw for students? Whatever it is, replacing note reading with a different strategy could bring about better results.

Testing (or retrieval practice)

There is a wealth of literature out there explaining how one of the best methods of revising is through retrieval practice or testing. The sheer process of forcing your brain to locate and use information improves what Robert Bjork calls storage strength and retrieval strength. According to Bjork, these two factors are the key to ensuring information is retained in the long term memory for a sustained period of time. The higher the strength of these, the easier it is to a) hold this information and b) locate it. Re-reading notes, especially close to an exam (seen as cramming), can give the illusion that information is well retained, only for it to disappear very quickly. Re-reading notes simply doesn’t build up storage strength or retrieval strength. So it seems that encouraging students to test themselves during revision is a more effective approach. The problem though (in my personal experience) is that students don’t usually engage with this method. Some common comments from students I’ve taught cover things like “Tests are boring” to “It’s too much effort”. It is therefore important that we highlight that tests can come in many forms. This can range from exam papers (with mark schemes), flash cards, mini quizzes, listing 10 facts about topic x from memory, linking subject content to a stimulus image and more. The message should be that testing/retrieval practice is good and low risk/varying/fun tests all help.

Have we actually shown them how to revise?

How many of us have been guilty of saying this in the run up to exams? “Your exam is in two week so get revising!”
On the face of it this seems innocent enough. But have we actually shown them ways to revise? If a student uses an ineffective approach to revise then they’ll just go away and continue to use this ineffective approach. Can we instead, at key times over the year, build in sections of our lessons to explicitly teach students some revision strategies? Can we agree a core group of strategies as a department which we all share with our classes? Could this go further and become whole school approach with 5 simple revision methods we all agree to and teach our students? Make it the norm with students? With all of the hard work that goes on in subject areas it would be a shame to lose it purely because students are unaware how to revise better.

 

Acronyms

Use mnemonics, acronyms and similar strategies

Although they are not the answer to revision on their own, these simple methods are triggers or starting points for retrieving information. They are a great memory aid that can help locate information that students can then expand on in exams. A History teacher I know shares the EAT PASTA acronym as a way to help students remember the Roman Public Health System. The easy and catchy phrase helps them recall ‘Empirical observations, Aqueduct, Town Planning, Public Baths……’. Without grouping them together as a single phrase I wonder how easy it would have been to remember them?

Teach them how to make (and use) notes effectively

Note taking can be an easy way to condense pages full of information. Although they will still need to be used in a more effective way, showing students better strategies to make notes can be very helpful. What we are aiming to do here is turn pages of notes into something that the brain can use more efficiently. Asking students to revise from a 50 word notes page rather than 500 words of book notes has got to be a better approach. We are also trying to avoid students copying bulks of texts and equating this to ‘doing some revision’. So how can we synthesise notes from class into tighter revision notes?

There is a multitude of ways but getting students to the following may help:
• Identify key words that either summarise or act as a trigger for larger concepts
• Use images to explain ideas
• Condense paragraphs or long explanations into just one simple sentence
• Divide topics up and number them so you know you have 8 things to remember about topic x, or 4 things to remember about topic y.
• Chunk notes into sections
• Substitute words for symbols to keep word count down.
(Adapted from J. Fenlon)

It is worth pointing out that the original class notes are still a vital source of information and should be used when students need to check or clarify their updated revision notes.

Chunk your revision

Cognitive psychologist, George Millar, found that the average human working memory can process 7 (+/- 2) pieces of information in any one go. Using chunking as a revision method therefore helps the remembering process of large pieces of knowledge. Demonstrate the effectiveness of this with students in your lessons. Take the hardest or most content heavy topic and actively show how to break it down into sub groups. Give them the lesson to practise it and then ask them a week later. Hopefully the results will help show how well the method works. By dividing a topic up into smaller sections we feel we have less things to remember, when actually in reality we are remembering the same amount.

Forgetting Curve

 

Space it out – cramming and nearly forgetting

Massing practice or cramming, especially reading notes the night before an exam, is not as effective as students believe. For that short period of time the information they are trying to remember feels reassuringly well retained. The problem is that this information may have a high retrieval strength in the short term but is quickly forgotten. A better way that helps store information for longer is spacing revision out. Over time this information begins to be slowly forgotten. By then revising it again, we retrieve it and increase its storage strength. Planning out revision so you cover a different subject or topic on different nights, then revisiting it a week or so later, is much better in the long run than cramming the night before.

Build it into your curriculum so you don’t have the exam build up frenzy

The build-up to exams and revision season can be a very hectic one. Teachers and students run and attend numerous intervention sessions and workshops in an effort to be best prepared. Is this the wrong way around though? Instead of a furious last few months, could we design our curriculum so that regular testing, retrieval and revision is engrained in our subject area? Regular mini quizzes, fun tests, retrieval practice, reflection, concept mapping and other strategies could be rolled out from the start. Mapping out the spacing, interleaving and testing of topics as a department means that revision/retrieval becomes second nature with students.

And if you are going to read….

Read around the subject you are revising for. If you are looking at science and technology in sport, read up on the immense work of Team GB and Team Sky’s cycling teams. If you are looking at looking at sponsorship, read articles on the impact sponsors have in the NBA or Premier League. Reading around the topic area helps students’ link content knowledge into real life which in turn helps strengthen understanding and memory. It also provides excellent examples for teams.

Questioning

This guest post was written by David Fawcett @davidfawcett27.

Did you know that it is thought that 80% of teachers’ instructions actually involve asking questions? (Marzano, 2001). Did you also know that it is thought that teachers’ ask between 300-400 questions a day with some citing that we ask them every 43 seconds? (Leven and Long, 1981). If that’s true and the research is to be trusted, that’s a lot of questions we pose to students. But are all of these questions good questions? Do all of them pull out information or force students to retrieve knowledge? Do they help formulate a greater understanding of topics and help those finally ‘get’ something we have been teaching? Do they always spark curiosity and engage students within the learning? If we had our hand on our heart we’d probably say that in the hustle and bustle of a teaching day, some of the questions we pose may fall short of what we would hope. And I think that’s fair. We aren’t super humans who can conjure up world class questions at every moment. But there are strategies that we can use to ensure that the questions we ask are better. And what is more important, there are also methods that teachers can adopt that can help improve the responses given by students.

Plan a key question

I would never suggest that anyone plans out every question they would ask as the skill of questioning is primarily responsive depending on what students ask you. I would however consider planning one or two bigger questions. Every lesson, topic or concept has a point within it which is difficult or causes confusion. It is these points that I would encourage teachers to write one or two questions that may assist students’ in the learning of it or challenge them to look at it in greater detail. Planning these key questions helps us identify ‘sticking points’ in lessons and allow us to plan accordingly.

Academic answers

Teachers’ spend an enormous amount of time marking students’ written communication with great scrutiny. We check for grammar, use of terminology and even the ever so prominent ‘SPaG’. If a student writes without such high standards we usually ask them to spend time redrafting, rewriting or improving work. But how often do we find time to correct students’ verbal communication to the same degree? If the 43 seconds between every question is true, isn’t it of value to expect the same high standards from what students say as what students write? And there are ways to do this without eating into precious lesson time.

Live write the answers – as a student gives an answer, write it in as close detail as possible on the white board. By keeping track of the dialogue we can then take it through a process of refinement.

Literacy/vocabulary upgrade – with the answer annotated on the board, ask students to identify one or two elements of the answer where either a word can be substituted for a more academic/technical replacement, or, an alternative word can be used in its place. As a class can you find a different way to begin the answer or use an alternative ending?
Modelling – with words being upgraded on the board, the teacher can then step in and take the necessary time to re-model the answer with increased academic rigour. The process has taken a student’s answer and developed it to a new level. The use of a board and the precise nature at which it has been critiqued draws focus on the importance of giving high quality answers. It begins to set the standard and culture of the class. It only takes one or two answers to go through this process every lesson or so to allow students to understand the level of expectation in your classroom.

ABC

ABC

ABC stands for ‘Add, Build and Challenge’. It is a fantastic way to develop students’ answers and model the process with your class. It follows this very simple process:

Pose the question which you want students to answer.
Take your first answer from students in the class. Listen to it carefully and recap any important or interesting points.
Add – Ask students if there is anything they would add to the answer or are they be happy that this is the furthest we can take it (I guarantee students will want to improve it). In this phase students may want to add a particular fact that was missed out or a key piece of information that might have been overlooked.
Build – Here we can begin to develop the answer by building in the quality. We can use strategies mentioned earlier such as improving academic words, terminology and sentence structure. A teacher may help guide or direct this as it happens.
Challenge – This is the part where any student may challenge what has finally been presented as the improved answer. Are there fundamental flaws with the answer? Is there a fact that is wrong? Is there a technical word which isn’t quite correct? A student may even want to challenge what has been said by proposing a better/alternative way of communicating the answer.

Wait

Wait time and the power of silence

All too often we ask a question and then a split second later ask for an answer. Now there are probably students who have lighting fast neural connections who have the answer ready in a flash. However, the majority of students’ need a bit of time to actually process what it is you have asked before being ready to contribute. I do worry though that the fear of onlookers (observers, line managers, SLT, outside agencies) has meant that silence in the classroom is an anxious time. We worry that if no one is saying anything then the pace is lost and the lesson will crumble before your eyes. But it won’t! By allowing students actual time to think through and answer before asking them, we not only get more students involved in the process, but we have a better chance of getting answers which are of a much higher quality. Simply giving students five, six, seven seconds of thinking (wait time) might go some way in reducing the ‘I don’t know’ or poorly pieced together answer which does not benefit the learning of others. Make it the norm and be brave to silence.

No hands up (with hands up)

There is a lot of discussion about ways of getting reluctant students’ involved in the questioning process. We can all think of students’ who simply do not contribute. One way is to use the simple method of ‘No hands up’. The process is as simple as it seems. You pose a question and then (after some wait time) ask a random student to answer. There are a number of ways to select the student such as using random name generators or lolly pop sticks, but I prefer the simple method of calling a name or pointing at a student (much more reliable). The method helps ensure that no student slips through the cracks and that all must be involved. But what about those students who generally want to answer a question by putting their hand up? What about those who genuinely want to contribute? If we don’t ask them to answer do we cause them to lose motivation? Do we begin to overlook them and have them perceive that we aren’t interested in their thoughts? It’s a risky game but can be easily rectified. By all means use the no hands up method as it does really encourage a larger number of students to be involved. But do leave time for those who want to contribute to get involved. Take a follow up process by encouraging hands up (they may even want to add, build or challenge an answer).

Questioning Hinge

Hinge questions

Hinge questions or diagnostic questioning is a great way to get a wide response from students (in fact you normally get a 100% participation rate). The idea is simple. Identify a point in your lesson where a specific core concept will be learnt well enough to proceed onto a more challenging context. Normally we could ask one or two students a question at this point and dependant on the response, reteach that concept or securely move on. The problem though is we are using the answers of two students to gauge what the others students’ are thinking. Instead of this, plan a challenging question which has four possible answers. The answers must be high in quality so that they force students to scrutinise and think about the possible answer, yet not be so difficult that misinterpretations or mistakes are accidently learnt. Display the question on the board, with the four possible answers, and ask students raise either one to four fingers depending on which response they think is correct. You can quickly scan the class before deciding to move on. But what about those students who put the same answer as everyone else without knowing why? Well it is important that you follow up the responses by asking a variety of students to explain their answers. Use ABC if needed.

Snowballing

Alternatively there is a version of this called ‘Think, pair, share’ but snowballing goes a bit further. The method is very simple. The teacher poses a question and gives students a moment of silent time to formulate their own answer. The teacher then asks students to run their answers by their partner. At this point students can add, build or challenge what has been said. When a pair is happy with their response, they then form a group or four. This goes on until we have a number of larger groups or a whole class answer which has been refined. The teacher can then unpick the answer and model it with the class. The process of answers being unpicked at a micro level before being shared on a wider scale ensures that the quality is improved.

Mapping out their thinking

This post was written by David Fawcett @davidfawcett27.

There are frequent times within a teachers week when no matter how hard we try, some students simply find the topic we teach them difficult. In these instances we may adapt our explanations, the way we introduce the concept, the tasks we get students to do or even the way we question them. Occasionally we may even begin to design additional resources to supplement or support learning.
Now resources can create a bit of discussion in a number of quarters. Some hand-outs or worksheets really clarify what it is the teacher is trying to get across and help thinking. They can become a great tool to have up your sleeve. On the other hand is the issue of time. Some resources take hours to design and create and eat into time we could be using elsewhere. One piece of advice I was given mid-way through my career was ‘If a resource takes longer to make than it will be used by a student, is it worth it?’ Now this sentiment has also been shared on Twitter and is one that actually made me sit up and think. In my early career I have been guilty of creating various students resources that have simply taken hours to make. Then when they are used in lessons they become a 5 minute task and usually get scuffed up in the bottom of a bag or underused in students books. Is that a great example of effective use of time? I’m not so sure.

Coming back to the original problem, does the design of some of these resources actually support students’ thinking better than a great explanation, tailored feedback or prompt question would? Do they help student piece together all of the information around a topic? Again I am not so sure.

A few years ago I was introduced by a transition teacher to a set of resources called ‘Graphic Organisers’. Many of you have probably used them before but have never associated the name. Graphic organisers are visual thinking resources such as spider diagrams, Venn diagrams, double bubble maps or compare/contrast maps. They are designed to help students make sense of information, concepts and instructions. They allow students the opportunity to visually arrange knowledge, ideas, relationships, similarities, differences and so on. The beauty of this type of resource is they allow students to place information on a page in a visual sense and manipulate it, rather than trying to do it in the working memory. For those students who struggle to grasp a topic a graphic organiser can really help.

photo 2 (4)

Spider diagrams

I prefer these to the copyrighted ‘Mind Maps’ that we see floating around in schools these days. Mind Maps become too regimented with ‘only use single words’ and ‘keep things branching off of a previous strand’. That latter point is the sticking point for me. When I want students to map out the various components of a topic I don’t want them to think of each segment in a linear fashion. I want students to be able to identify how various topics interlink and where the relationships come from. I want them to look to see how seemingly unconnected bits of information might just be linked. Spider diagrams can go on and on and that is a real beauty in the design.

 

How?

Simply share the stimulus, task or question with the students. They use words to demonstrate the knowledge that they have/know. They usually branch off of main headings. Encourage students to use single words or short terms to ensure space isn’t wasted. This rule could also be used to encourage students to develop literacy through removing redundant words and using better or more academic language. Then get students to map out the links between these pieces of information. As with all of these resources ask students write up a number of these strands in continuous prose to show understanding in more depth.

photo 1 (4)

Double bubble maps

There are times when teachers introduce two perspectives, two opposing systems or two closely linked topics. Double bubble maps allow students’ the opportunity to explore similarities and differences very easily.

How?

Pick two topics such as the aerobic and anaerobic energy systems. Based on what the students have been taught, ask them to place ‘how these systems are different’ in the outer rings. Where the two systems are linked and work together or in similar ways, they place these pieces of information inside the linked spaces. They work very well when topics can be easily confused (like the energy systems) as they isolate them as separate entities before showing how they connect.

Relational - IDEA Map

Thinking squares

Initially an idea borrowed and adapted from Lisa Jane Ashes, this organiser is great for helping students plan/map out thoughts before turning them into structured answers. The squares here are linked to a writing framework called I.D.E.A (Identify, define, explain and apply) but any other such as PEED can be used.

How?

Students have a question or stimulus image which they must base the resource around. They pick out key points and identify them in the inner box. They then expand on that by providing the definition in the next box layer. In the third layer they then explain it in their own words before applying it to a real word context in the last. This can then be transferred into an answer with only a few structure adaptations needed.

Multi-structural cause and effect

Cause and effect organiser

There are times when students need to explain the consequence or an action. They may even need to investigate the cause of an event and the effect it has had on it. A cause and effect map is excellent for unpicking this.

How?

Label the event or stimulus in the centre rectangle. In the left column or boxes, students identify causes of an event. In the right column of boxes, students describe the effect that those cause had on the various ‘causes’ they have talked about. The boxes can also be labelled. For instance, if looking at the Olympics, the teacher could label one set of boxes political, another one social and another cultural. This forces students to think about specific areas to consider when completing the organiser.

Kiplings Map

Kipling’s Map

There are times when students need to know the who, where, what, when, why and how regarding a piece of information. Kipling’s Maps makes that process much simpler and easy to unpick.

How?

As simple as the map demonstrates. Students simply place the topic in the middle and then input the corresponding information into the various boxes. It allows students the opportunity to build up a bigger picture and include all of the relevant information.

 

Sequence

Sequence

A great way to help students see the ordering of a process or historical event.

How?

When students have received all of the relevant information regarding a process or event, they can begin to piece together a sequence using the map. For instance, when explaining the journey that oxygen takes through the body during exercise, the sequence graphic organiser can help students see how it enters the body, which respiratory organs it goes through, how it enters the blood stream and how it makes its way to the muscles. Makes what could be a very complicated explanation become a much simpler concept.

Article Analysis

Source/article analysis

When students are asked to read and unpick a variety of sources or articles, the graphic organiser helps students think about what they might need to look for/consider.

How?

Ask students to read through the article/source to gain an understanding of it. Students then summarise the piece in the first box. They are asked to unpick any vocabulary or key terminology in the next section. Finally students look to link the article to the current learning by seeing what they can transfer. Again, the organiser allows students to chunk various pieces of information before using it in subsequent learning.

Graphic organisers are now a huge part of my classroom and really help students manipulate information, see links, pool together ideas and compare concepts. There are some key things to remember though:

• These are just the starting points – always get students to follow up the map by sharing exam questions or extended writing tasks. It’s great to fill in sheets but students need to do something with it.

• Include the question or stimulus on the graphic organiser – This simply focuses the learning and helps students organise their information more efficiently.

• Make them huge – All of the organisers I use are A3. However, especially at revision time, I ask students to stick additional sheets to them to make their exploration of topics even more vast and in depth.

• Allow time – You will be surprised, especially when completing a well-constructed spider diagram, just how much time students can spend completing these properly. Especially at revision time these can last a lesson or series of lessons.

So returning to the original two points of this post, graphic organisers are incredibly simply to design and easy to transfer between subjects and topics. One design can be used in a variety of ways without the need to generate a whole new resource. This surely makes teachers time more efficient and a more efficient way of working. In terms of whether a resource helps students think, well these do. The sheer nature of them forces students to have to collate their thoughts, ideas and information, and then manipulate them. They are ideal for use after you have taught a topic. They can be used to help scaffold extended pieces of writing rather than simply jumping in. They can be used to help plan discussions and consider various perspectives before initiating debates. They can help piece together larger topics which helps recall and retention. And at their most basic, they help make the words that teachers say become more clarified. Graphic organisers are a great tool and far from being a gimmick. They could actually be a resource which gets used again and again.

Making the complex simple

I spent the day last week reflecting with a colleague about how sometimes, no matter how well you plan or explain things, students simply don’t get what it is that you are saying. At times our most skilfully crafted explanations can be met with the most glazed over look. A trance like state confronts you and you quickly scramble through your thoughts to work out at what point did your best efforts force the class to “zone out.” But it isn’t always this extreme. I could easily lose count of the times over the years when I would be confident I had explained a complex topic, concept or principle, only to be met with ‘What? I don’t get it!’. The instant reaction would be shock. How could my perfectly constructed demonstration, accompanied by a carefully worded description, cause such confusion?

Picture1 - No credited author

But it doesn’t just stop there? If I had managed to make the complex simple, there are still those times when I set students off on what I would deem an easy enough task, only to find 5 minutes in that most of the class were stuck or confused. How is this so?

My initial reaction would understandably have been to question the students. It has to be them! Doesn’t it? As years have gone on and I have become more experienced, I have also become more reflective and critical of my own practice. Digging into various books and blog posts have made me realise that actually the root cause of this problem is not as distant as I had thought. What if it wasn’t simply the students but how I present information that creates such confusion? If it is, then that’s something within my own control and easy for me to tweak and change.

If you have ever read through the various work of cognitive science you would have probably come across an explanation of the working memory. The mind is an incredible thing but has its own limitations. The first and probably most relevant is the capacity restrictions on the working memory. The working memory is the processing unit we use when we think, talk, listen, watch, problem solve and more. You are using it right now as you try to decipher the words in this post and make meaning of them. The working memory is an amazing piece of kit and makes how we function as human truly unique. With all of its beauty, the working memory does have restrictions.

Adpated from Daniel T Willingham Kris Boulton

George A. Millar (1956) explained what he called ‘The Magical Number 7’. He worked out that the working memory itself had the ability to process 7 pieces of information, plus or minus 2. Over the years other researchers have argued that this number actually could be slightly less. Either way, what this highlights is that the working memory can only compute relatively small pieces of information before it becomes too much. This ‘overwhelming’ has been termed by Educational Psychologist John Sweller as ‘Cognitive Load’. It is the time when the working memory receives too much information which it is unable to process effectively and ultimately causes students to forget, get confused or misunderstand.

So why does this happen? The working memory receives this information and tries its hardest to make sense of it. It accesses the long term memory to find any stored memories, or schemas, that might help this process. The more relevant memories/schemas we have, the easier the working memory can do this. Novices or beginners have less complex schemas and tend to find it difficult to make sense of new information. Experts have more complex schemas with more information and memories attached. Because of this it makes it easier for them to understand new things. Take this for an example, when we learnt to drive we got very clumsy as beginners and constantly had to think and made mistakes. At this stage we had very simple schemas related to driving. Years down the line and we can drive effortlessly because we have built up more complex schema and can process information easier. We can then deal with the various processes of driving much more effectively.

So what does this mean for the classroom? Well think back to those moments of confusion and zombie like states. How many of those times were created by us overloading students working memory? How many times did we make things a little too complex which caused them to get stuck? How many of those times did we set tasks that asked a bit too much too soon? Is there anything we can practically tweak to make the complex simple?

1. Don’t dumb it down!

One of the first things we might do is make learning easier. This actually doesn’t help at all. Instead it makes long term retention actually less likely. As Daniel T Willingham said, it’s not about making the task easier, it’s about making the thinking around it easier. All students will ultimately have to sit the same exam with the same difficult questions. Making the content simpler will only hinder them in this situation. Instead, can we make getting to the desired outcome a more broken down and scaffolded process?

2. Background knowledge.

Those with more background knowledge have more complex schema. This allows students the ability to draw upon more information, knowledge, ideas and experiences to make sense of new learning. To get novices up to the same level, try and ensure that they have the sufficient background information. This could come through richer sources of texts, encouraging more reading, spending more time sharing core information with those who need it and so on. Some classrooms give pre-texts to read before their next lesson to ensure everyone has some understanding of a topic before a teacher begins exploring it. Are you ensuring that you are helping build up background knowledge?

Articles

3. Chunk it.

The memory struggles to process numerous pieces of information at once. We can however make the processing more efficient. By chunking topics together, the mind processes larger groups of information as individual components. For example, if I asked you to remember MPGAARACBPRPMVWBMW you might find it difficult as you have 18 things to remember. If I said how about breaking it down into MP GA ARA CBP RPM VWB MW you now have 7 things to remember. If we take it one step further and bring in some background knowledge, you could chunk the letters to MPG AA RAC BP RPM VW BMW. There are still 7 things to remember but because they are linked to cars it makes the process easier. This is because many of us have large complex schema linked to this topic which we can tie our working memory to. In lessons the same feature can be used. When teaching the skeletal system in a physiology unit, grouping the bones by the classifications of long, short, flat and irregular makes learning them easier. By grouping all of the various science and technological developments into facilities, equipment and materials, it again makes learning them more manageable. Are there common groupings or ‘chunks’ that we can use when dealing with large or complex information? If so, it may benefit your students’ first encounter with them.

4. Graphic organisers.

When learning new bits of information, concepts, strategies or topics, students can fall into the trap of making copious amounts of notes. When looking back at this it can be quite overwhelming to see pages and pages of information. By using graphic organisers (or even concept maps) the working memory can quickly and efficiently manage them. So what are graphic organisers? In a various basic statement they are methods to visually organise your thinking/information. They include things like flow charts, cause and effect maps, double bubble maps, T-charts and even spider diagrams. The unique thing about them is it allows students to organise large pieces of information quickly. Many force students to compare, contrast, evaluate and make links. Looking at a well mapped out graphic organiser can really help make the complex simpler.

Graphic Organisors

5. Language.

The use of academic language is imperative if we are to push students to higher levels of learning. You do have to beware of introducing too much too soon. When studying at A level, things like the topic of Information Processing models initially confused me when I was met with terms like ‘Stimuli Input Information Display’. Again I am not talking about dumbing down content, but in the initial phases of learning complex concepts, can we carefully select our use of language? Can we select the main terminology that is repeated over and over again and focus on them to begin with? Can we select the fundamental key terms? Can we do this first to build up background vocabulary in order for new learning to happen easier?

6. Attention grabbers.

Daniel T Willingham in his book ‘Why Don’t Students Like School’ talks about a situation where a teacher asked students to create a PowerPoint on a particular topic they had taught. After a few lessons in the computer suite, the teacher had noticed that there wasn’t much learnt content. Instead students had spent most of their time thinking about what animations to use. What fonts to include. What colour the background should be. If the teacher had asked the students to plan the content first, and then created the PowerPoint, the students would have had a better and more memorable learning experience. What students had done is focused on the wrong part of the process and missed the key thing, the actual learning.

PowerPoint

7. Distractions and humour.

Some students need no excuses to get distracted. Students’ brains and specifically their working memory can easily focus on the wrong things. The amazing whizzy title on your presentation can actually lead them to think about that rather than listen to what you are saying. So what about humour? Humour is fine in the classroom but beware that if during an explanation of a complex topic, a joke can actually distract the students’ attention. Their working memory focuses on that and not the topic and successful learning is lost.

8. Modelling.

Modelling is one of the fundamental tools in a teacher’s armoury. If a concept or even a task might be quite difficult to understand, a well modelled working example can be extremely helpful. Showing the process or stages that are required helps a student finally see what is expected. The working memory can then process the steps and allow success to take place.

9. Look at it through the students eyes.

You probably won’t find this advice in many educational books, but I feel it is vital. Once you have finished planning your lesson, go back through the stages one at a time. Lessons must be challenging for long term learning to take place, but quickly evaluate and identify anything which may be too complex. If you were a student would you get it? If it is too difficult, remember Willingham’s words and make the thinking around it easier, not the task.

Worth reading:

‘Why don’t students like school’ Daniel T. Willingham
‘Make it stick’ Brown, Roediger and McDaniel
‘Visible Learning and the Science of how we learn’ Hattie and Yates

Developing written responses

As literacy and academic writing have been propelled into the spotlight over recent years, the ability of our students to write coherently has become even more important.

Numerous strategies, courses and resources have been delivered and shared as teachers seek to improve.  An influx of word mats, PEED posters, literacy mats and pages in student planners have all been added into subject areas to try and address any issues.  These additions all have their place and are fighting a good cause but can we simplify this and make developing written responses part of how we teach, rather than something we add onto it?  As a colleague of mine once said (and undoubtedly borrowed from elsewhere), “We are all teachers of English”.  With this in mind, what simple strategies are there that we can use to get the ball rolling?  Are there things we can do through our teaching to help students develop their written communication? How can we help our learners at a non-specialist level* improve the way in which they write?  Hopefully, the following ideas may get you started:

Specific terminology

If we are to get our students to begin to take a step towards academic writing, they first need to take a step away from writing as they speak.  A number of students that I have worked with can verbalise or even write what they mean in a very sketchy way but frequently miss out the terminology needed to demonstrate the requirements of our subject.  This lack of academic vocabulary can hold back the quality of the response.

Simple ideas to combat this could be:

  • Planning to introduce key terms with meanings throughout lessons or schemes of work – Some students have a limited range of vocabulary compared to their peers and this gap can continue to grow throughout life.  Specifically identifying key words and technical terminology that is not only shared but explained and then used in context can be a simple way to increase the range of word use.

 

  • Keeping a glossary of terminology – A simple idea in which a spare few pages at the back of an exercise book can be transformed into glossary of key words.  The key though is to ensure meaning is understood.  Too many times I have seen students misinterpret a word and confuse its meaning in written responses.

 

  • Focusing on these key words – sharing them and even getting students to write new vocabulary in a glossary or similar format is fine.  As the teacher we need to not think of that as a job done but more importantly design opportunities for students to focus on using key words.  This can come in the form of specifying words that ‘must be included in your sentences’ or even as simple as underlining/highlight these new words in use.

 

  • Expanding general vocabulary – Bringing in new subject specific terminology is high on most teachers’ minds (especially in subjects like PE or Science) but do we sometimes focus on this subject specific element and forget standard vocabulary?  Working with students to create ‘alternate words’ or synonyms for general language is very important and should be encouraged by us all.  Making lists that students can select from can be a great way to expand their range of vocabulary.  Simple things such as instead of using a word like ‘happened’, students select from a list including ‘transpired, occurred, ensued, materialised’.

 

  • Introducing academic language – Through the introduction of carefully selected articles or high quality texts, students can begin to be exposed to an improved level of language.  As a teacher, it is important to use these to pull out key vocabulary and explain the meaning and context in which they are being used.

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Experts and excellent examples

In my personal experience, I have failed to get students to produce excellent writing because they simply don’t know what it looks like.  They may understand the task and even have a plan at hand, but the quality of the writing is not as I had expected or predicted.  Bringing in examples of excellence can be a powerful way to understand how experts write.  If you are asking students to write a newspaper article, why not share and analyse ones written by professional journalists to understand the process of writing involved.  Seeing how these writers use language is a great way to inspire and demonstrate high quality work.  You could even take this one step further and bring experts into your classroom.  Whilst working with a professional journalist with my Year 11’s last year, not only did the work at that moment in time improve, but the standard from then on went up.  Picking her brain and having professional advice or critique was an experience worth investing time in.

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Sentence starters – with a difference!

For a while now I have been very adverse to sentence starters.  I always felt the ‘generic’ ones that were shared around were too flat and uninspiring.  Essentially they provide a starting point for developing written responses, but I always felt they lacked challenge or freedom to be creative.  Do they really make students think about what they are writing?  Doug Lemov completely reversed my thinking with his post ‘At First Glance: A Sentence Starter Adds Unexpected Rigor to Writing’.  In the post, Doug explains that taking the time to create challenging yet thought provoking sentence starters such as ‘At first glance….’ is a simple but powerful tool.  The unusual three word prompt, chosen specifically to challenge students, allowed them to articulate some very high responses.   What is the topic you are covering?  What response do you want students to write?  Can you create an interesting three word starter?

Four part process– defining words and creating beautiful sentences

Getting students to define and then craft beautiful sentences is a great skill.  There are a number of fantastic methods to help students structure and support students in the process.  One way that I have found incredibly effective is the four part process borrowed from Lee Donaghy.  The process is excellent for defining a key term, idea or piece of terminology.  It forces students to take this point and create a structured sentence from it, incorporating the definition and meaning.  Students pick out the information being defined.  They then select a verb or process that will help link it to the definition.  The important element of the meaning is then added so that a full sentence can be read across the framework.  The process isn’t just finished there though.  The teacher models how to redraft it, constantly refining it so that the sentence becomes more academic in nature.  The process of co-planning and coaching the students helps them understand the requirements needed to build this definition into a response of very high quality.

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Break it down – Planning longer responses

A difficulty with writing is the inability to unpick what it is that the question is asking.  I have had some of the most able students stumped with a task because they simply didn’t know what they needed to do or how they would go about doing it.  Spending time modelling how to go about tackling a question is essential.

  • What are the key elements – Share the question and ask students to discuss in pairs what the key features of it are.  What is the question asking you to address?  What key words are already prompting you to think of responses?

 

  • What would your plan be? – Share the question and ask them to unpick the question and bullet point a quick (and very basic) plan.  Bring these ideas to a discussion and model the best answers.

 

  • Model, model, model – Project the question on a board and with the help of the students (and some great questioning), unpick the question as a class.  Explain, challenge and discuss why some ideas might be more relevant than others.

 

  • Do it yourself – Complete the task yourself and explain the process you took.  Remember, this is done to inspire and not simply replicate.  We want students to think for themselves and produce something unique.

 

  • Get it all out – Mindmap, spider diagram or brainstorm ideas around the question.  Branch off new and more developed chains of thought.  Try and tie in key vocabulary as you go.

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I.D.E.A – Writing longer responses

Writing frames can be incredibly beneficial to help structure long answer questions.  Many people are familiar with PEED, but we use IDEA instead.  The process asks students to following the following steps:

  • I – Identify – The piece of information or aspect that they would like to talk about.
  • D – Define/Describe – State the definition or describe the thing you are focusing on.
  • E – Explain – In your own words, demonstrate that you understand the meaning.
  • A – Apply – Relate it to an example or put it into context.

Students plan out their written response using the framework as a guide.  When you combine the four elements, it produces the basis of a well thought out paragraph.  For longer answer questions (like the AQA GCSE PE 8 mark questions), this process can be repeated a number of times to explore different points.

It is important to stress though that IDEA is the beginning of developing improved written responses.  After students have sufficient skill in various techniques, the framework should be removed to allow students more creative freedom in their writing.

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The re-drafting process

Work is always open for improvement and written responses need this as well.  Students should be encouraged to have work reviewed and critiqued.  Scaffold and model the process with students, carefully comparing it to precise success criteria or examples of excellence.  The follow up process of re-writing and redrafting work allows for students to improve the quality of what they have written.  The evolution of the work in front of them from specific feedback (as well as modelling) can be an exceptional strategy.

 

These ideas are simple starting points to get the process moving.  They can be of great help at a basic level and can help students understand the requirements for writing.  The ultimate aim above anything else though is encouraging students to feel confident enough to step beyond these strategies.  Reaching the stage where students are encouraged to think hard about what they are writing is a goal worth aiming for.

 

*as a non-English teacher or literacy co-ordinator.

Feedback should cause thinking

Feedback, according to various research, is one of the methods of teaching that has a high effect size in the classroom.  If used effectively, it can improve learning among students greatly.  It has the power to get students to see misconceptions and learn from them.  It can improve subject knowledge and skills when errors are pointed out.  If acted upon by the student, it can be a key component of moving the learning forward and ‘closing the gap’.

Unfortunately though, when feedback is used poorly, it can have a very low impact on the learning.  There are even cases where the structure or type of feedback given can even have a negative effect.  So it’s important to understand what the common mistakes are for providing feedback, as well as some core principles that we should use every time.

So what things should we think about?

  • Feedback shouldn’t be an ‘end of the line’ process.  Students that receive feedback only when work is completed or finished have no opportunity to act upon it.  They also see feedback as the end result; a comment or summary which has no bearing on improving learning.  Instead, feedback should be a continual process, and as Hattie says, given “Just in time, just for me, just for where I am in the learning process and just what I need to help me move forward”.  Give feedback during the learning, not simply at the end.

 

  • Feedback needs to tackle faulty interpretations or misconceptions (and not a complete lack of understanding).  Feedback works best when there are errors in understanding.  This allows students to work out what is wrong, whilst having a fundamental knowledge base to improve.  If a student has a complete lack of understanding, providing feedback will not benefit them at all.  Instead, in this case, we should be providing further explanations, clarity or teaching.

 

  • Whole class feedback isn’t very effective!  This is purely down to the fact that students are unsure and unaware of whom the feedback is being directed to.  Try and make feedback as personal and direct to individuals as possible so it has more chance of being acted upon.

 

  • With our best intentions, feedback can unfortunately lose effectiveness because it can be too specific or complex.  See the feedback through the eyes of a student.  If it is not clear, too complex or too specific, students may fail to understand what it is you want them to do, so simply won’t do it.

 

  • Praise and grades can actually be very unhelpful.  Various work from Dweck, Hattie and Wiliam have shown that students who receive formative comments make more progress in their learning than those that receive grades only, or, a grade with a comment (which is quite surprising for some).  As Wiliam states, “Most teachers, therefore, are surprised to learn that the effect of giving both scores and comments was the same as the effect of giving scores alone.  Far from producing the best effects of both kinds of feedback, giving scores alongside the comments completely washed out the beneficial effects of the comments”.  The same is roughly similar for praise.  If we add praise comments to our feedback, students focus on that information and bypass the important constructive comments that help them improve.  When giving feedback then, it is important to think hard about how we attach praise or grades in order to make sure the important comments are read and acted upon.

 

  • Too much feedback = work must be poor.  Students can have perceptions that if their work has lots of feedback, it must mean that it is bad.  It obviously must have more mistakes and more errors.  Work with a few comments therefore must mean the work is good.  We need to be conscious of this and ensure that feedback is equal for all.  Excellent work can still receive comments to stretch and challenge the student.  It is important to create a culture that we all receive feedback and it’s all aimed at improving the learning.

 

  • Peer feedback.  Nuthall (2009) in his research found that 85% of feedback students receive is from their peers, and that most of this feedback is incorrect.  It is really important that we skill our students up to provide each other with structured feedback (critique is an excellent method for this).  Modelling the process, sharing exemplar work, constructing clear success criteria, helping to structure the language students are using……are all methods of tightening up peer feedback.

 

  • Feedback can sometimes seem a one way process where teachers simply cast judgement on students work.  As a result of this, students may not read or act upon comments because they are not involved in the process.  Provide opportunities for students to start the process off and tailor the feedback they need.  Make feedback an open dialogue where the process goes back and forth to improve learning.

 

  •  “We don’t do anything with the feedback”.  Probably the most common pitfall with feedback is actually designating time for students to act upon it.  If we don’t allow an opportunity for students to read your comments and do something with them, you might as well have not provided them in the first place.  To ensure feedback is used, plan time for it to happen.

 

  • Feedforward, feedforward, feedforward!  Such a simple change in language but instead of simply providing comments that look back at work (feedback), provide comments that help students take the steps to move forward and improve learning.  Are you currently providing feedforward?

 

  • And finally, probably the most important principle of all, one which has transformed my own use of feedback is this from Dylan Wiliam “If I had to reduce all of the research on feedback into one simple overarching idea, at least for academic subjects in school, it would be this: feedback should cause thinkingLook at the methods that you use.  Read the comments you provide.  How much of what you ask students to do involve them actually thinking hard about their work and then making improvements?  If they don’t, it may be time to tweak them so they do!

 

So once you have thought about the various principles, what methods of feedback have the best impact?  Well as usual there are no perfect strategies.  Everyone’s students and subjects require different things.  One size doesn’t always fit.  One thing is for sure, whatever method you choose to use should be less work for you and more work for students.  So here are a few ideas to make feedback that bit more effective:

  • Use Ron Berger’s Critique ideas – The method is incredibly simple and follows a few important protocols.  It involves getting students to draft work, critically assess it, offer constructive comments to improve it before it finally gets redrafted.  The process is a perfect method for skilling students up to provide accurate feedback comments to each other.

 

  • Burning questions – Before handing in a piece of work, students proof read it and highlight a particular area that they would like you to focus most of your feedback on.  You can quickly mark the other parts and scrutinise the chosen element in more detail.  This is a great way for involving students in the process and focuses on the areas probably needing the most work.

 

  • Make time – Lots of people are now use ‘DIRT Time’ or ‘Closing the gap lessons’.  Both are dedicated time where feedback is read by the students and acted upon under your supervision.  It makes the process of feedback gain value and helps students see the benefit or importance of acting upon it.

 

  • Marking keys – Simply devise a very clear and structured marking key.  This speeds up the process of ‘general marking’ and gives you more time to provide constructive comments where it’s needed.

 

  • Feedback questions – When spotting misconceptions, put a number in the column where the error took place.  At the end of the work, place a question which links to that number.  The question must relate to the misconception and force students to think about the error they made and improve it.

 

  • Triple impact marking – Feedback needs to be a dialogue.  It is therefore important to mark the work and provide feedback, let the feedback be acted upon, before marking the improved work to check if the gap has been closed.

Although this alone won’t make the learning from your students dramatically improve, it should go some way to help the way you give feedback be that little bit more effective.

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