‘Life gives many topics for reflection, but little time.’
One of the first things I notice at the start of a school holiday is how time appears to slow down. Every minute seems to hold its breath until I’m ready to let it go. My thoughts are absorbed and viewed before moving onto the next – each having a place that fits into my life outside of teaching – shaping, supplementing and supporting my personal destinations.
A classroom should be no different. Teaching is shaped, supplemented and supported by the overarching learning goals we identify for our students. Every minute holds its breath until we are ready to let it go. Thoughts are absorbed and viewed before moving onto the next. Right? Time often isn’t a friend in the educational environment. Lesson content can be the commanding cause for reduced consolidation of learning and quick questioning can accommodate the feeling of reflecting on the learning and ticking the consolidation box. It’s hard to slow down when doing a million things and being mindful of the things you do is even harder. If you think of time like money, it’s increasing value breeds scarcity. When scarcity is bred, an emergent pattern of doing as much as you can, in the teaching time you have, can seem the best way to get through the content.
The last two decades have seen rich dialogue between education and neuroscience. Insights from the mind and the brain have aimed at enhancing teaching and learning and have enhanced teachers’ understanding through these scientific insights (known in today’s educational climate as the science of learning) that in turn can drive an impetus to change and develop classroom practice. I think to do this effectively, teaching has to be slowed down. Not the pace of the lesson or what is covered, but holding onto and revisiting ideas and concepts, drilling down into the knowledge connections and creating a rich learning experience – practising retrieval, connecting new knowledge, growing ideas again and consolidating throughout.
Reflect, retrace and retrieve
I often begin my lessons with a picture or a single word. The picture or word is part of a knowledge retrieval exercise. I allow thinking time to grow connections to what the students see. Thinking time allows for depth to be probed in the knowledge being retrieved, and connections to be made across what is being retrieved and new knowledge that is being taught. There is a caveat here; if depth is not attached to the retrieval, it can lead to tricky situations where pupils may be able to recall facts, but are not able to apply them through inadequate deliberate practice of applying knowledge. Retrieval and quizzing definitely has its place, but it shouldn’t simply be a quiz – it should be seen as part of a foundation to teaching the subject. Thinking back over every turn, to make curriculum knowledge rich and a web of connected concepts that grow confidence in creative thinking, is a must to check for understanding and to guide the learning and thinking in the academic discipline of the subject being taught.
Think back over every turn
If you think of the breadth of knowledge that a well-educated person has, which they can draw on as and when required, and how we as teachers strive to pass on that knowledge to our students, then the whole concept of teaching becomes a different ball game. I have written in the past about developing schemata and how facts are an important component of this. We use knowledge organisers to bring these facts as a visual overview of factual knowledge – pupils retain these facts and job done. Or is it? Can each set text or topic be whittled down to a piece of A3 or A4 paper? Knowledge organisers should be just the start of what we want our students to know. Thinking back with the students, over every turn a lesson may take, builds multiple examples of precise knowledge in an organised way. Keeping a track of the navigation taking place informs us of the learning that is taking place. Keep reflecting back and building mental maps – the stronger the mental maps, the stronger the roads to the destinations planned.
Consolidate and check at every corner
New learning is more vulnerable to loss. Consolidating the learning makes the learning more permanent and it becomes easier to access – placing knowledge at the fingertips of the students. Newly acquired knowledge takes room in the working memory. If the extraneous load is to be reduced, then consolidating learning shifts the knowledge away from the front of the brain to areas where automatic unconscious processing takes place. Slow down, consolidate and check understanding as the lesson progresses. If this is to happen, then it takes time. Students should be justifying why they are improving in a particular area or how their new knowledge can be applied to what they already know. Student reflection through consolidation is part of the student staple diet of self-regulation. Consolidation has traditionally taken place at the end of a lesson as part of a lesson structure, and although I believe the consolidation of knowledge should take place throughout the lesson, importantly it still very much has a place at the end of a lesson too – not a two minute quick finish or part of a packing away procedure. Perhaps this is where the short term pressures overtake the long term learning. It’s something to be mindful of. Ten minutes to consolidate the new learning is imperative if we are to build memory and not memories.
Mirror, mirror on the wall, do my students learn at all? Hold onto every learning minute until it is ready to be let go. Take the time to retrieve, reflect on and consolidate the learning. The answer to the question then lies in what you see and hear as a result of the slowed down knowledge building and the consolidating of the learning that has taken place.