‘Learning without reflection is a waste. Reflection without learning is dangerous.’ Confucius
As the sun beats down in this spell of Mediterranean weather, the summer holidays seem to be racing ever nearer. It’s not down time yet. Year ten mocks are calling to be marked, schemes looked at and new faculty timetables drafted and finalised for September. Amidst the busy end of the school year, take time to stop. Reflect. Breathe.
Last September, alongside my teacher of English and coaching and development role, I was appointed Research Lead at The Halifax Academy. A privilege indeed, to take research by the reins and underpin the pedagogy taking place in the classrooms at the Academy where I work. It’s been a journey that has so far taken me from learning and sharing experiences from Lancashire to Yorkshire, growing my own expertise and growing the expertise of others too. Learning conversations at my place of work are now threaded with research and are at the heart of our coaching ethos; colleague to colleague, department to department. This is where reflection has grown and minds have connected to build on and bring the very best in teaching and learning to the students we see every day.
Connect and Activate
‘If nothing has changed in long- term memory, nothing has been learned’ Kirschner, Sweller and Clarke (2006)
- Low stakes retrieval practice:
Multiple choice questions (great for monitoring misconceptions)
Five a day (a mix of topics ensuring retrieval is distributed)
In my decade plus of teaching, I have often reflected on the question ‘what does learning actually include?’ and each time I have given myself a varied response. Added to the concoction of my answer formation is now a growing understanding of cognitive psychology and neuroscience through my reading around the research. When I think back to my days of piano lessons, and being able to play and sight read music now, I know that something was planted in my long term memory. Each time I recalled it, it came back stronger and new knowledge could be attached to it with a clear link why it was there and how it could be applied. It is how a music grade one becomes grade two, grade two, three and so on. I didn’t know then that it was a case of deliberate practice, knowledge retrieval and the application of those skills and knowledge. I bet Beethoven didn’t know this either.
Knowing this stuff is game changer in the classroom. Schemes come and go, topics change and new classes arrive each September. They are not all separate entities nor should they ever be. Each have a common thread – long term goals. Whether it is knowledge application and skills taught in schemes and topics through the transition of the key stages, or building on the knowledge and skills of students new to our teaching timetables, the goal is long term learning and it has to be. I see it like building a house – a strong foundation in the lower key stages, further growing and strengthening the walls of learning through KS3 and finally, placing those final slates on the roof of knowledge at KS4. It’s an attractive metaphor, but in reality we know it’s not that simple. It’s a vision that I know I probably share with many classroom teachers. Using research in the classroom is a part of the bricks and cement that can provide the best bets to fasten it all together.
In the specifications today, a vast body of knowledge needs to be retained. It is crucial that these topics are revisited and revised not just through the scheme being taught, but through each and every one, so the knowledge becomes like a golden thread of retrieval running through each scheme of the subject area.
My favourite retrieval activity from my growing knowledge of research in the classroom uses dual coding and students crafting questions which they ask each other. I call it a ‘grow your own’ self-quiz approach. It retrieves knowledge and affords the practicing of a revision technique that concluded by the Learning Scientists from empirical research (http://www.learningscientists.org/) is a method where ‘students learn best when they combine visual materials (like pictures or diagrams) with verbal materials (like words from a textbook)’.
The student process of crafting questions begins:
What does the floating dagger represent and why?
How does the symbol of a weapon link to Macbeth on the battlefield?
The questions are then answered student to student, followed by sharing the retrieved knowledge which I write on the board. The learning is further activated by deeper questioning and the modelling of my thinking – including the modelling of mistakes and challenges that we can face when thinking around such knowledge and the connections that can be made. Modelling mistakes supports an environment where it is safe to get things wrong. Students need to see the challenges faced in order to shape and progress their knowledge of strategies. They need to understand themselves in order to develop self-regulation and structured reflection.
I often throw in a picture/word from a different text to grow student knowledge through distributed practice. This often looks something like this:
Student challenge is raised and questions are generated such as the examples below:
How did Dr Jekyll show ambition in his medicine practices?
At the start of the play, Macbeth hid his ambition. How did Dr Jekyll hide his?
How does “deep and dark desires” link to Macbeth’s ambition and also Dr Jekyll’s?
What does Lanyon’s “unscientific balderdash” tell us about Jekyll’s ambitions?
How is duality shown in the murder of Carew? (The picture being a stimulus of the crime)
There are so many golden threads of knowledge to be weaved together, that it has the potential to make a Bayeux tapestry of literature knowledge from Shakespeare to Carol Anne Duffy. It is, however, a part of a bigger picture, a part of a sequence. It is the output of a planned explanation of concepts and explicitly modelled knowledge application. It is a product of scaffolding in an environment where it is good to make mistakes and take learning risks. Take all those away, and the retrieval process becomes an enigma.
As I reflect on my feats and failures and the conditions I create in my classroom of expectation, I have seen a growing independence in my students. Not an independence where they can work entirely on their own, but where they are demonstrating stronger resilience before asking for my input. Being research informed has highlighted the best bets that has not only sharpened my practice, but has made the impact on the students tangible and retrieving knowledge has started to yield better outcomes.