Robert Falcon Scott had a vision to be the first to reach the South Pole. He spent years raising the funds and in 1910, armed with mechanical sledges, dogs and ponies, he and his team embarked on their journey. Scott soon realised that the sledges and ponies were not the best bets for the conditions they were enduring, so they left them behind. Ed Stafford, an adventurer of the 21st Century, also had a vision – to be the first man to walk the entire length of the Amazon. On his journey, just like Scott, he faced many setbacks (around 200,000 mosquito and ant bites to name one) but he too completed his journey. Both expeditions are a long, long way from the world of classrooms, but I think they have a connection to teaching and learning, a connection where for both, the end goal has to be kept in sight.
‘Thoughts without content are empty, intuitions without concepts are blind’ Immanuel Kant
A colleague recently shared that they had lost their way in a scheme of work. The steps to reach the summit had been lost in a blizzard of new suggestions from different directions, and it simply wasn’t helpful. Sometimes we have to simply stop and think where we are and where we need to be heading in a sequence of learning. We need to keep a hold of the things that work and build on them, in whichever way will strengthen student knowledge and skills in the area of the desired outcome. Get rid of the things that don’t.
In this fast paced world of education, there are many new ideas brought to the table to help make knowledge stick in the classroom. With research in neuroscience underpinning ideas of understanding, and pedagogy that considers metacognition, I can see why it could be overwhelming. It doesn’t need to be complicated. For me, it’s a bit like a kid in a sweetshop, where the unknown is tantalising and each choice is a new experience to be practised again or not. I’ve heard such independence of choice described as the grey area that sits in between the black and the white. An organic area that is grown from professional trust and autonomy that works its magic in the classroom. It’s shaped by leadership vision, channelled into classrooms through pedagogical collaboration and conversation, feeds into lesson structure, and is fuelled by subject knowledge which is ignited by a deep understanding of teaching and learning. I find autonomy of choice enticing and engaging, but for some, too much strategic selection may become a blindfold to the learning bounty which such practice can yield.
Research is there to help us make choices, guide us in our thinking and inform pedagogical discussion. There’s a lot of educational research out there, but we don’t have to try and do everything. Doing so will add to workload and create a spaghetti junction of options with no real conclusions as to what works best. It shouldn’t be an extra plate to spin. Being informed about educational research can shine lights on the things we know make a difference and can support in the reflection and refining of practice. One simple idea can be a platform where great results are generated. Less is more.
My current ‘stop’ point is thinking about how best to layer knowledge. This ‘spotlight thinking’ has been generated from using recall strategies (shared by the Learning Scientists) and presenting new material in small steps to help the working memory handle new information (Rosenshine’s Principals of Instruction). As an English literature teacher, my end goal is for my students to have a wide understanding of the texts, not only in relation to characters, writers’ methods and historical context, but a real comparative understanding of how today’s society and its structures, can strengthen their understanding of suggested writers’ intentions at the time the text was written. I felt a visual representation of layering knowledge around a question was a good starting point to reach this goal. I like the strategy of pictures and words (dual coding) so I came up with the ‘knowledge circuit’.
In the centre of the circuit, students write the question to be answered. In each lightbulb, a piece of knowledge is connected to support the answering of the question – not just quotations, but vocabulary which has been grown from instilling an understanding of society, perspectives and beliefs. I see it as a visual representation of layering knowledge, starting from an initial simple idea, through to a hierarchical demonstration of linked knowledge on the set text. The crafting of the writing structure can come later – a response can’t be written if there is no knowledge on which to build the response. The exact same idea can be used as a recall activity (sometimes referred to as a brain dump/brain drain), each bulb highlighted in yellow, indicating that that piece of knowledge has stuck. Any lightbulb not coloured in shows the knowledge circuit is broken and needs repairing with further recall. This is nothing new, it’s recall, knowledge testing, it’s knowledge organisation, and a way for students to self-regulate their learning in their efforts in making knowledge stick.
Reflect on what is really working. If what you are doing is not yielding what you thought or wanted it to, get rid of it. Why go down the road to nowhere? My lightbulb idea is working for my classes, so I want to stick with it – and I have. I have attached the lightbulb to the concept of ‘the big idea’ and together, we are now on the journey of crafting a response using their lightbulb knowledge of the text. It looks something like this:
And so on . . .
On my board, IPEELL has become a series of pictures that stimulate knowledge. In fact, I haven’t mentioned a PEE paragraph yet this half term, but my students are well on their way in crafting insightful responses that are layered with knowledge connected to the big idea and the question being asked.
Just like a confident learner needs to know where they are going and what success looks and feels like, the teacher needs to know that what they are facilitating is doing its job. Time for a bit of student feedback. As I move around the classroom, supporting discussions around the learning activities taking place, I ask my students how they think the activity is helping them learn. Is it closing the gap between what is understood and what I want them to understand? Good feedback is around us in every lesson. It’s reflective of the past, present and the future of the learning journey – and it doesn’t always need a coloured pen. We have a privileged job as teachers that can grow the potential of our students to become responsible, resilient and successful learners. The brain can be shaped, and how our students are taught can accelerate them on their path to success. Learning is for life, not just in the classroom. If we can capture the hearts and minds of the students we teach, we can grow their curiosity, give them a voice, and through always keeping our classroom teaching and learning goals in sight, prepare them for the competitive world which is beyond the walls of our schools and academies.