A transformative year

The past year has been transformative in my teaching career, not because I’ve joined a new school, taken on a new role or taught a new subject, but because I have discovered the world of educational research and evidence informed practice. I purchased Daniel Willingham’s Why don’t students like school? in June 2017, but it was only during the summer holidays in 2018 that I picked it up and started reading. I’m so glad that I did. This introduction to cognitive science and its implications for classroom practice changed the way I think about knowledge and skills and their relationship to one another. It also put some vague ideas I had about how we learn into clearly stated “cognitive principles” with direct links to pedagogy which I could see practical ways of implementing. The shift in my thinking while reading this book was profound. For the first time in my teaching career I felt that I had grounds to make changes to my practice with the confidence that research backed up what I was doing. Four of Willingham’s “cognitive principles” which have particularly shaped my teaching are:

  • Factual knowledge precedes skill.
  • Memory is the residue of thought.
  • We understand new things in the context of things we already know.
  • Proficiency requires practice.

I had joined Twitter by the time I read this book, having been told by several people that it is ‘the best CPD you’ll ever get’ (I now say the same to others). I wanted to find out more about the available research and how teachers were putting it into practice so I started to engage with more people, read articles, blogs and books and found myself picking up more ideas than I knew what to do with. I also joined Teacher Tapp and the daily tips were a source of new ideas and inspiration. I was hooked. 

I have read more about teaching this year than in the first seven years of my teaching career combined. I have also talked more about the what, why and how of teaching – surely the most important questions we can consider in a school? I have learned many things – some completely new, some affirming things I was already doing and some challenging what I previously believed to be true. In this post, as I reflect on another year of teaching, I want to briefly outline a few areas in which what I have read has influenced me and altered my thoughts and classroom practice and the direction in which I am leading my department. I have tried to include links to the blogs, articles and books which I have found particularly helpful. However, I have read so many that I’m sure I will miss some out for which I apologise.

  1. Curriculum design – content, sequence, coherence. At a department level, this is the most important thing we can consider. What do we want students to know, understand and be able to do at each stage? What is the best order to teach this content? Are the resources, definitions, explanations etc. coherent between teachers, lessons, year groups and subjects? Carefully considering the curriculum, identifying the core knowledge content and moving towards an optimal teaching sequence is probably the most valuable process I have gone through this year. A well thought through curriculum is the necessary foundation if the more day-to-day strategies which follow are to have their maximum impact. Tom Sherrington’s blog is an excellent starting point and Michael Young’s, Knowledge and the Future School and Mary Myatt’s, The Curriculum: Gallimaufry to Coherence give a more in-depth introduction to the thinking behind designing a knowledge-rich curriculum. I found blog posts by Ruth Walker and Jasper Green particularly helpful for Science.
  2. Plan for learning in a topic, not a lesson. This has been one of the biggest shifts I have made in my thinking – planning for learning in a sequence of lessons, rather than lesson-by-lesson. I no longer have a lesson plan. In each lesson we recap prior learning, I introduce and explain new ideas carefully and students practise. Lots. This gives me the opportunity to assess their understanding and confidence. We get as far as we get and pick up where we left off in the next lesson. I plan carefully, thinking about the knowledge I want students to acquire, the best order to introduce concepts, how to explain new ideas clearly and how to assess understanding. I have a good idea of how long the topic will take, but exactly how much time we’ll spend on each part is something I can’t predict. It depends on me, the class, the time of day, and a multitude of other factors beyond my control. I don’t use booklets to teach (perhaps I will one day), but Adam Boxer’s blog on teaching with booklets covers this concept of planning for a lesson sequence really well and in great detail.
  3. Doing doesn’t equal learning. This is very closely linked to point two above. It’s easy to follow a scheme of work and think that because you’ve delivered a lesson and students have done whatever activity you planned, learning has taken place. This is not necessarily true. Do you really know that they have learned what you want them to? How? Even if they can all complete a task at the end of this lesson will they still be able to do it tomorrow? Next week? If it’s dressed up in a different context? I’ve started to think very carefully about how and when I will check learning as well as building checks of prior learning into future lessons so that I can assess longer term retention and see whether students have really understood a concept or simply rote learned a method or explanation.
  4. Regular retrieval. Cognitive science points to retrieval practice as key to long term knowledge retention. I have used Retrieval Roulettes with my KS4 classes this year and seen a marked improvement in students’ confidence and ability in recalling core knowledge and explanations. Each lesson starts with a handful of questions about prior learning (recent and more distant). I probe students’ understanding with further questioning as we talk through the answers and they make any corrections or additions to what they’ve written. The constant recall and thinking involved is building security and automaticity in this core knowledge which will underpin and enable a deeper understanding of more complex concepts.
  5. Practice, practice, practice. Similar to regular, repeated retrieval, practice is crucial. The more you practise a skill the better you become at it. This is as true in Science, Languages, History or English as it is in sport or learning a musical instrument. My students now spend much more time in lessons practising using the knowledge and skills I have taught them – recall of key facts, writing explanations for complex concepts, completing problems, applying and rearranging equations, writing methods for practical procedures. SLOP booklets from Rosalind Walker and Adam Boxer and guided practice for Physics and Chemistry equations (@MrKhairi_) or the EVERY method (@DrChillimamp) are excellent resources for Science which others have generously shared.
  6. Efficient, effective feedback. The change I have made, and encouraged across my department, which seemed most counterintuitive was to reduce written marking in students’ books. I now give more whole-class feedback focused on common errors and misconceptions. Most commonly this involves revisiting an area which students have misunderstood or found more challenging (identified by reading through their books) and giving students an opportunity for further practice following a clear explanation or additional modelling of a method or expectation. The time I would have spent writing similar comments in each student’s book is now spent thinking about how to improve my explanations, address a misconception or in writing a set of questions to check understanding more thoroughly. Jo Facer, Niki Kaiser and Stuart Kime have written about aspects of this in more detail. 

This is by no means an exhaustive list of the impact that engaging with the evidence has had on my own practice. If you’re new to this world, as I was a year ago, the areas and links above are some excellent places to start exploring. This year I have rediscovered my love for teaching. There’s so much to read, so much to learn, so much to consider, so much I want to change. At times it feels overwhelming, but I do not want to go back. I’m thinking again and it’s enjoyable, it’s exciting. The what, why, when and how of so many aspects of education are questions which I will probably never fully know the answers to but I shall keep on asking them.

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