I love a good teaching and learning book, as anyone who has popped into my classroom or tried to find something on my desk can attest. I also really enjoy attending research conferences (I’m speaking at ResearchEd Durrington this weekend and ResearchEd national conference in London in the Autumn) and find leafing through a research paper relaxing. I’m weird like that.
One question I am sometimes asked is what difference all this reading, tweeting and writing about education actually makes in the classroom. I’d like to take one example of a research review and show how I have applied it.
Barak Rosenshine’s article may be the most useful thing ever published on teaching and learning. It takes research from cognitive science in how people learn, the cognitive supports that make this process easier and from looking at highly effective teachers in the classroom. He suggests that excellent teaching contains ten key characteristics.
1. Begin each lesson with a short review of previous learning
Starting a lesson by recapping things the class have already learnt means we can take advantage of the testing effect, which suggests that every time we recall information we make it easier to access it again in the future. It also means we have somewhere to hook new information so that it fits with what we already know, we start to build a more complex picture of the subject.
I do this by ensuring that the start of the lesson is dedicated to recall. This will often be a short quiz (10 questions on one slide and answers on the next) or one longer question to which they need to apply what they learnt previously. I make sure that these questions link to the topic that we will be about to cover. For example, before a lesson on rainforest management I’ll include questions on low pressure weather systems, the nutrient cycle and sustainability. These are concepts they will use in the lesson and strengthening recall now will support their working memory later.
2. Present new material in short steps with students practicing after each step.
When I started teaching we were encouraged to limit the amount of time we spent at the front of the class (I am sure that most of us will have been told the myth about pupils only remembering 10% of what they are told but 90% of what they discover for themselves) and to set long open ended projects for pupils to complete during the lesson. This would allow them to explore the task for themselves and construct their own meaning. This form of minimal instruction “discovery learning” leaves pupils swamped with information they struggle to process and lacking the guidance to make sense of it. This influential paper by Clark, Sweller & Kirschner (2012) suggests that pupils benefit from very clear and explicit instruction from an expert rather than the expert simply facilitating their discovery.
Rosenshine’s research found that the most effective teachers spoke for a total of 23 minutes in a 40 minute maths lesson compared to just 11 minutes from the least effective. Effective teachers used the extra time to explain new material very clearly, give lots of examples and asked lots of questions (see below). This time wasn’t in a block but spread over the lesson, interspersed with deliberate practice from the pupils.
This research has made me much more comfortable standing at the front and being a “sage on the stage”. I use a clear Input – Application model of teaching where I talk the class through something they need to know, give them examples, use analogies, show model answers before giving them a short task to do. They still carry out longer pieces independent work but only at the end of the phase, once I am sure the building blocks are in place.
3. Ask a large number of questions and check the responses of all students.
Rosenshine suggests that not only do the most effective teachers ask a lot of questions, they also ask different questions; they are more likely to ask questions about the process that they have used to work out the answer. Questioning allows pupils to practice using the information they have been taught. It also allows us to receive feedback on their understanding and correct any misconceptions.
In the classroom I try to ensure that I target questions carefully (rather than using a random generator) and ask follow up questions. These might include
- Why do you think that would be the right answer?
- How does that link to what we know about X?
- Can you explain that but include a reference to Y?
- How would you know if that was the right answer?
I try to make sure that I receive feedback from as many pupils as possible by asking pupils to discuss it in a pair before sharing, using mini-white boards and by continuing to ask questions to small groups during the lesson. I try to think about the feedback I need from the class and focus my questions on common misconceptions and threshold concepts (See Meyer & Land 2003 and this piece on Threshold Concepts).
4. Provide models
Models and worked examples help to provide cognitive support to pupils so that they can focus on applying what they have learnt rather than concentrating on the form of the answer. They also allow pupils to see very clearly what your expectations are and allows you to set the bar high.
Over the last couple of years I have started using more and more models in the classroom. I try to show pupils examples of excellent answers and then unpick this answer with them so that they understand the criteria that makes this an excellent piece of geography. I also try to make sure I model things carefully where I know there are often misconceptions. Addressing the problem before it appears in their work.
Over time, it is important to remove the scaffolding that pupils get from modelling so that they can complete the task for themselves. I try to do this in a structured way. When they first try to draw a climate graph I will draw one with them and talk them through the process before giving them one to complete for themselves. The second time I remind them of the key points to remember and remind them of common mistakes before leaving them to complete it themselves whilst I circulate and support as needed. By the time they try it for a third time I expect them to be able to complete it with minimal modeling.
5. Guide student practice
As mentioned above, pupils benefit from guided instruction and having material presented in small chunks. It is important that they do something with this material as soon as possible. Using the information will mean they have to think hard about it and, as Daniel Willingham explains, memory is the residue of thought. It is also important that this practice is monitored. Some feedback, especially feedback on processes, might be best off delayed but feedback on the task, on tackling misconceptions, needs to be tackled immediately to prevent the error being embedded. Practice doesn’t make perfect, but it does make permanent. For more on different types of feedback and feedback during practice see Hattie and Timperley (2007) The Power of Feedback.
I try to apply this to my own classroom by making sure that lessons are built around answering “fertile questions” (See Benson and Knight 2013). These big questions are then broken down into the small steps that pupils need to take in order to answer them. This naturally encourages the lesson to be broken into smaller chunks with a focus on applying what they have learnt to a problem they have to think hard about.
I also make sure that I am monitoring the room as pupils are working and pick up on misconceptions as they happen. I am much more likely to stop the lesson to address a problem and reteach something than I used to be.
6. Check for student understanding
Rosenshine explains that the most effective teachers are always checking for student understanding whereas the less effective would ask “any questions?” before moving on. When we are building knowledge we are taking new information and linking it to other things that we know. This is the point where misconceptions can develop and information is mis-linked. For example, pupils learn that global temperatures are increasing and link that to what they have heard about there being a hole in the ozone layer.
In the classroom, I try to check for understanding by asking pupils to apply what they have learnt to a new situation. For example, if pupils have learnt how the nutrient cycle works in the rainforest and have learnt about the conditions in the desert, they should be able to apply one thing to the other and describe what the nutrient cycle will be like.
I am wary of plenaries at the end of a lesson to check for understanding for two reasons. Firstly, checking for understanding that close to the end of the lesson risks the chance of just getting mimicry rather than genuine learning. Secondly, the end of the lesson is too late to do anything about misconceptions you may learn about. If you check for understanding as they leave the room and discover most are walking out thinking the hole in the ozone layer is responsible for global warming, what then?
7. Obtain a high success rate
Following on from the points above, Rosenshine is clear that teachers need to ensure that pupils really understand something before working independently on it. The idea that pupils need to be secure in a small step before moving on to the next one is sometimes called mastery learning. Most work on this seems to come from the context of maths where knowledge is structured hierarchically with a clear progression in the subject’s difficulty. Geography, and many other subjects, are organised cumulatively whereby pupils gain a greater breadth of study over time but difficulty only tends to increase between key stages.
There are, however, areas where I have been able to apply some of this idea. As mentioned above, I am more likely now to stop a lesson to reteach something that clearly hasn’t worked and to set homework tasks designed to fill very specific gaps in what a pupil can do.
8. Provide scaffolds for difficult tasks
This point overlaps with that requiring the use of models. Scaffolding can take many forms but can be thought of as anything that lessens the cognitive burden of the task. This might include providing prompts to start the lesson, talking through the answer yourself out loud to show your own way of approaching it or providing checklists for a task to make the expectations clear.
One way I increasingly use scaffolding is through the use of diagrams and images. As I explain an idea to the class I make notes on the white board, draw flow diagrams and pictures to illustrate the key points. This serves two functions.
- Pupils take information in on both a visual and auditory channel. Both spoken and written text uses the auditory channel and reading out a text as they are reading it themselves can make it more difficult to learn. However, talking over images can strengthen recall. This is the principle of dual coding (See Mayer & Anderson 1992 – The instructive animation)
- It also acts a reminder of what has been said. Spoken words are transient and too many ideas overwhelm the working memory and can’t then be applied to the task. By leaving a visual record of my explanation and thought process I am allowing them to use part of my schema to support their work and build their own.
9. Require and monitor independent practice
Most of the preceding 8 principles are about effective direct instruction. It is important however for pupils to have the opportunity to apply what they have learnt. Rosenshine suggests that pupils work best when the teacher is circulating the room and monitoring their work and when there is an opportunity for pupils to share their work with those around them.
As mentioned above, I tend to phrase my lesson as a “fertile question” that needs to be answered. This question is answered independently using what they have learnt. During this time I stand back more than during the knowledge building phase but look for pupils who may be struggling or who I know might be having a problem. I find that my classes work in near silence but I always remind them that they can talk but it needs to be “A whisper, to their neighbour about the work”. This allows them to check a point or receive feedback on what they have said from someone else more quickly than I am able to do so.
10. Engage students in weekly or monthly review
This principle returns us to the beginning. Pupils need the chance to review what they have learnt and to consider how it fits into a bigger picture. The better they can do this the more load is taken off their working memory as they can recall the information they need to undertake a task from their long term memory.
I try to support this regular review in a number of ways.
- I sit with a pupil during a lesson and talk back over their work from the last few weeks. We look at the progress they have made and discuss what they have learnt.
- We use learning checklists and knowledge organisers to help them see how what they have learnt fits into a bigger picture.
- I make sure that the regular quizzes at the start of the lesson goes back over previous topics and not just material from the last lesson.
When re-reading Rosenshine’s principles again I am struck by just how simple it all sounds. But this shouldn’t be surprising. Teaching, at its core is simple. Recap previous information, input of new information, apply it, test and respond. However, doing these simple things well is complex and deserves some consideration.