‘The best view comes after the hardest climb’
I have an event on my bucket list that I am not sure will ever be ticked – taking part in The Marathon Des Sables (MdS). It’s a gruelling multi-stage adventure in the Sahara Desert. Competitors have to be self-sufficient for a week; water is rationed and if you go over your ration, a time penalty is incurred. Harsh and hard-core. The closest I have come to this dream is competing three times in the Lake District Saunders Mountain Marathon – and you can fill your water bottle whenever you need to.
So what? I blog about my classroom practice and the strategies I use – why share something on my bucket list and what the marathon entails? Let me explain. As emphasised on the MdS website, ‘the race is a journey through endless dunes, over rocky jebels and across white-hot salt plains’ and ‘the sun will be your constant enemy.’ A juxtaposition from a walk in the park, but perhaps not a million miles away from the journey students embark on as they learn their craft amidst a plethora of knowledge building across several subjects. Now, I need your imagination to help draw the picture.
Create an image in your mind of endless dunes. See them as the contours found in each school day; student favourite subjects, subjects disliked, times of motivation and those times when students find motivation hard to reach. Friendships, a fallout, health and home life all thrown into the motivation mix too. Growing up isn’t easy. Sometimes one step forward can feel like two steps back – sand dunes make you work for your progress in moving forward. The rocky jebels? These are the challenges students are exposed to in their learning of the curriculum. Do students know how to break down subject challenges? Can they plan their next move, monitor and evaluate based on the strategies they have chosen? This landscape can be a hard place to be. As one competitor of the 2016 MdS commented ‘people were dehydrating all over the place . . . if they didn’t manage themselves properly they were in trouble.’ If a student can’t self-regulate their learning are they ‘in trouble’ and heading for difficulties? I believe so. What if this ‘dehydration’ was student frustration or anxiety, made all the more fervent with a lack of confidence (or over-confidence) in how to self-regulate their learning and manage their next moves? This paints a different picture and a change of approach. That relentless sun becomes the climate for learning and classroom strategies and teacher/student relationships become the thermostat to control the heat.
Concluded in the EEF toolkit ‘metacognition and self-regulation approaches have consistently high levels of impact.’ It goes without saying that this requires greater student responsibility. Like the runners in the MdS, those runners who learned of what was required and could self-regulate their journey were the ones who won their own personal races. When the run-up to the GCSE examinations begins, students embark on a journey across the white-hot salt plains. Arid places. A relentless landscape, symbolic in this instance of the student challenge of relentless revision where students will thirst for what they need to know for their examinations. Different cracks will appear and dissolve as the months and days disappear. This is when they need to be self-sufficient the most. Be clear on what they know and what they don’t. Know the landscape of the examination papers and how to tackle each question on approach. A ruthless and emotion lacking picture of the journey of student school academic survival? No. A picture of determination, teamwork, grit, patience and most of all, confidence to be independent; to start and end strongly knowing the finishing line of secondary education examinations has to be crossed.
A backpack filled with preparation
I think there are three important questions to ask in growing student self-regulation and independence. One: what strategies do we teach? Two: How do we teach them? Three: how do we get students to regulate and use these strategies independently? I’d like to take revision strategies as the focus to explain my thinking. As teachers, we all talk about student planning and revision, but what does proficient revision look like and how do student ‘masters’ of this go about evaluating and revising their revision schedules? In this climate of neuroscience insight, we take what we know and apply it develop independent learners. We supply the food for retrieval practice, explicitly teach strategies, and help identify goals and ways to accomplish those goals in order to move on to the next. But when it comes to exposing all students to this revision ‘preparation’ there undoubtedly has to be planned training involved with clear collaboration around the strategies to teach in order to make these strategies the bridge that connects to the goal.
Training for the self-regulation journey
What training do we give our students in order to prepare them to independently use specific revision strategies? Research concludes that teaching strategies explicitly is the most effective way to do this. Forging student understanding through a focus on specific revision strategies whole school is a perfect platform on which to grow understanding and ultimately support independent student use of the strategies. We begin by teaching students the strategies which we want them to use and also what elements are involved. We demonstrate a good example of the strategy being taught and also a poor example. We do this because cognitive processes is being modelled. Students then practice it (together then independently), we monitor and guide their thinking in order to help them self-regulate. How is the strategy working for them? What do they need to adjust? We do this until we can take their ‘L’ plates off and they can use the strategy without support.
MdS entrants have support too, not only through their coaches, friends and sports clubs – I would be confident in saying that many would have support from family members too; a supportive driver to the training club or simply knowing how to plan a menu that supports the refuelling and repairing of hard training. A triangulation of the runner, the coach and family engagement. Research has concluded that parental engagement can lead to plus three months learning gains over the course of a year. A shared understanding of the revision strategies being taught in school creates opportunity for parents to support their children by encouraging them to set goals, plan, manage their time, effort, and emotions. It’s that word self-regulation again made all the more powerful within a ‘perfect situation’ of the triangulation of student, school and parents. Evidence for which strategies work best to capture parental engagement are mixed. What is definite though, is working effectively with parents can be ‘challenging’ and is likely to require ‘sustained effort and support’ – just like the athletes training for the challenge of completing the MdS.
- Deliberate use of a whole school strategy to support student independence
- Use of thinking out loud to model thought processes
- Be clear on what you are modelling and how to model it
- Use of a visualiser to instigate discussion, highlight challenges
- Ask students to explain the revision strategy and how/where they would use it
- Students shouldn’t think of revision strategies as a choice of which they like and don’t – they are all part of the bigger picture of making knowledge stick and each have their place
- Look at how parents could support their child to plan, set goals and self-regulate.
Crossing the finishing line
Telling students to revise is quite different to students embracing revision independently. Imagine the power behind a conversation with every student taught which began ‘I can use X revision strategy for that’ and ‘I need to change my strategy as I have revision hot spots here, here and here’. That’s the goal isn’t it? What of the MdS runners? What would they do? They would adjust their strategies accordingly through the self-regulation of their progress. They would self-talk to generate motivation and draw on the atmosphere of collaboration at the times they found themselves running alongside others. In training, they would know how to space their running practice, when to interleave different training sessions for core strength and balance and when to push hard to accomplish training goals. I see the student revision journey as no different. Spacing and interleaving is taught and used to strengthen retrieval. Students pushing hard is a result of self-regulation and the identification of the revision ‘hotspots’ to work on. Maybe even our teacher role is parallel to the role of a trainer in sport – we support, we encourage, we model, we encourage again. Like the support team at the start of the MdS watching the runners move into the distance, we watch our students as they head towards the exam hall, in the knowledge that we have done all we can to prepare and train our students to embark on their journeys through the challenging landscape of their examination papers.