When is a sequel not a sequel? Part Two

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This article was written for Autus Books and was first published in June 2016. You can read the original version here. You can read more of my articles for Autus Books here or visit Autus’s Book Blog at www.solutionsforschool.co.uk

This is part two of a two-part article. Read part one here.

In Part One, I explained that there’s a famous and possibly apocryphal story that Alan Bennett was asked to rename the film adaptation of his stage play The Madness of George III to The Madness of King George for fear that American audiences wouldn’t go to see it because they’d assume they’d missed the first two films in the trilogy. Teach 2, I said, is a sequel of sorts but it’s not essential you’ve read the first book.  Instead, Teach 2 says some of the things I forgot to say in Teach as well as some of the things I’ve learnt since writing the first book because – and isn’t this just the best thing about life – every day is a school day.  Teach was about the science of learning and whilst I stand by everything I said in that book I have come to regret not laying down some foundations first. For example, I didn’t make clear that before we can talk about cognitive science in any meaningful way, we need to address the rules and routines of an effective classroom. So Teach 2 takes us right back to basics, to the building blocks that make great teachers and great teaching.

In Teach I argued that there are three aspects of formative assessment which I believe hold the key to unlocking the secret of great teaching.  I called these three strategies the ‘Big 3’ and they were:

  1. Pitch,
  2. Questioning, and
  3. Feedback.

These three strategies underpinned Teach because I was certain – and still am for that matter – that they are in the 20% of drivers, they are ‘the main things’ that if improved will lead to great teaching and learning. In this article I will explore this ‘Big 3’ further and also share what I think outstanding teaching and learning looks like in practice…

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It’s impossible to do justice to a 60,000-word book in this short article – and nor would I want to for the sake of my royalties! – but here is my best attempt at summarising the general tone and content of that book…

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What is outstanding teaching and learning?

There is no silver bullet, no secret formula for teaching outstanding lessons – what works is what’s best. The best thing to do, therefore, is to get to know your students by regularly assessing them and then to plan for progress by providing opportunities for all your students to fill gaps in their knowledge.

Learning is invisible and cannot be observed in a single lesson. A lesson does not exist in isolation; it is all about context, so it is better to think of a lesson as one learning episode in a long series. It does not necessarily need a neat beginning and end or to be in four parts and it does not need to prescribe to a particular style of teaching. For example, every lesson does not need to include opportunities for group work or independent study. A lesson can be meaningfully spent with students reading or writing in silence so long as, in the wider context of the series, there is a variety of learning activities.

The best teachers are sensitive to the needs of their students and adjust their lessons to the ‘here and now’. Students work best for the teachers who respect them, know their subjects, and are approachable and enthusiastic. The most effective teachers are relentless in their pursuit of excellence and are able to explain complex concepts in a way which makes sense.

Outstanding teaching takes place when all students make progress over time. Students make progress over time when they are challenged and engaged. That is why the Big 3 – the strategies I recommend you focus on in order to improve the quality of teaching – are: pitch (providing challenge); questioning (encouraging engagement); and feedback (leading to progress).

Learning takes place when certain cognitive principles are observed, including: factual knowledge must precede skill; memory is the residue of thought; we understand new concepts in the context of things we already know; it is impossible to be good at something without deliberate practice; and intelligence can be changed through hard work.

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The 1st strategy in the Big 3: Pitch

Students are more likely to get better at something if they believe intelligence can be changed through hard work. The word ‘yet’ can be a powerful tool in the teacher’s toolbox: “I can’t do this… yet.”

The best classrooms are those in which students feel welcomed, valued, enthusiastic, engaged, eager to experiment and rewarded for hard work. The way to achieve this is to prize effort over attainment and focus on progress (learning) not outcomes.

If the work is too easy, students will switch off; if the work is too hard, students will switch off. Work must be pitched in the ‘zone of proximal development’ – hard but achievable with support. If something’s too easy, we rely on our memory instead of thinking (e.g. 1 + 1 =); if it’s too hard, we run out of processing power (e.g. 46 x 237 =) and stop thinking; if it’s challenging but achievable and we are successful, our brains reward us with a dose of dopamine which is pleasurable and binds neurones together creating memories. This is learning.

Desirable difficulties make information harder to encode (learn initially) but easier to retrieve later. This leads to deeper learning. We achieve desirable difficulties by: spacing learning apart with increasingly long gaps; interleaving topics rather than finishing one topic then moving onto another; testing frequently – using low stakes quizzes at the start of topics/lessons to identify prior learning as well as knowledge gaps, and to interrupt forgetting; and making learning materials less clearly organised so that students have to think hard about the materials (e.g. using a difficult-to-read font).

At its simplest, learning is concerned with the interaction between our environment, our working memory and our long-term memory. Our working memory is about awareness and thinking; our long-term memory is about factual knowledge and procedural knowledge. We can improve the speed and ease with which we retrieve information from our long-term memory and transfer it into our working memory (where we can use it) by making connections between new and existing information – applying prior knowledge to new knowledge.

Prior knowledge helps us to ‘chunk’ information together, saving precious space in our limited working memory, allowing us to process more information. For example, the acronym ‘BBC’ takes one space in our working memory whereas, without the prior knowledge that the BBC is a TV company, the letters B, B and C would take three spaces. Prior knowledge is domain-specific. We know BBC whereas people in Japan would know WMBC. They’d take one space to remember WMBC whereas we would take four spaces to remember W, M, B and C.

When planning lessons, we should focus on what students will be made to think about rather than on what they will do. We might, for example, organise a lesson around a big question.

We need to repeat learning several times – at least three times, in fact – if it is to penetrate students’ long-term memories.

Tests interrupt forgetting and reveal what has actually been learnt as well as what gaps exist. Accordingly, we should run pre-tests at the start of every unit – perhaps as a multiple choice quiz – which will provide cues and improve subsequent learning. Retrieval activities like this also help students prepare for exams.

Information ‘sticks’, so to speak, when each lesson clearly articulates and is built around a simple idea – i.e. when the teacher is clear about the key take-away message from each lesson, which could be a question or hypothesis.

Information also sticks when we use metaphor to relate new ideas to prior knowledge and to create images in students’ minds.

Information sticks when we pique students’ curiosity before we fill gaps in students’ knowledge (thus convincing students they need the information). This can be done by asking students to make predictions or by setting a hypothesis to be proven or disproven.

Information sticks when we make abstract ideas concrete by grounding them in sensory reality (i.e. you make students feel something). The richer – sensorily and emotionally – new information is, the more strongly it is encoded in memory.

Information sticks when ideas are made credible by showing rather than telling students something (e.g. experiments, field studies, etc. beat textbooks for ‘stickability’).

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The 2nd strategy in the Big 3: Questioning

Classroom discussion – best achieved through artful questioning – makes students smarter because it makes students think. Questions should only be used if they cause thinking and/or provide information for the teacher about what to do next (in other words, we should avoid the ‘guess what’s in my head’ charade).  The most common model of teacher talk is IRE: initiation, response, evaluation. But it doesn’t work very well. A better model is ABC: agree/disagree with, build upon, and challenge whereby students pass questions around the classroom. The Japanese call this neriage which means ‘to polish’ – students polish each other’s answers, refining them, challenging each other’s thinking.

Increasing wait time – the amount of time the teacher waits for an answer to their question before either answering it themselves or asking someone else – makes students’ answers longer, more confident, and increases students’ ability to respond.

Good questions are an expressive demonstration of genuine curiosity, have an inner logic, are ordered so that thinking is clarified and are a part of an ongoing dialogue. In open questions, the rubric defines the rigour. In multiple-choice questions – which, as above, are effective ways of interrupting forgetting – the options define the rigour. Effective assessment combines open and multiple-choice questions.

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The 3rd strategy in the Big 3: Feedback

Feedback is information given to students about their performance relative to their targets. Feedback should redirect the student’s and the teacher’s actions to help the student achieve their target. Effective feedback: addresses faulty interpretations; comments on rather than grades work; provides cues or prompts for further work; is timely, specific and clear; and focused on task and process rather than on praising.

Feedback works best when it is explicit about the marking criteria, offers suggestions for improvement, and is focused on how students can close the gap between their current and their desired performance; it does not focus on presentation or quantity of work.  Feedback can backfire – it needs to cause a cognitive rather than emotional reaction – i.e. it should cause thinking.

Feedback can promote the growth mindset if it: is as specific as possible; focuses on factors within students’ control; focuses on factors which are dependent on effort not ability; and motivates rather than frustrates students.

Self- and peer-assessment can be effective strategies because they: give students greater responsibility for their learning; allow students to help and be helped by each other; encourage collaboration and reflection (useful skills for life); enable students to see their progress; and help students to see for themselves how to improve.

Improving student’ ability to self- and peer-assess can help raise their levels of achievement but self- and peer-assessment needs to be used wisely.   Students need to be helped to develop the necessary skills and knowledge because research suggests that 80% of the feedback students give is wrong.

The only useful feedback is that which is acted upon – it is crucial that the teacher knows the student and knows when and what kind of feedback to give, then plans time for students to act on feedback (e.g. DIRT – directed improvement and reflection time).

And that, in a nutshell, was what I said in Teach.  So good they made a sequel.  That’s not a sequel.

Teach 2 is out this summer – I hope you enjoy it.

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