Threshold Concepts

Great blog from Class Teaching – Last week I was leading a training session for trainee science teachers, looking at the EEF ‘Improving Secondary Science’ guidance report – this is a great resource for science teachers and one that I would strongly recommend.  There is a section in the report on the importance of ‘threshold concepts’ in science teaching.  A threshold concept is described below:

“A threshold concept can be considered as akin to a portal, opening up a new and previously inaccessible way of thinking about something. It represents a transformed way of understanding, or interpreting, or viewing something without which the learner cannot progress. As a consequence of comprehending a threshold concept there may thus be a transformed internal view of subject matter, subject landscape, or even world view. This transformation may be sudden or it may be protracted over a considerable period of time, with the transition to understanding proving troublesome. Such a transformed view or landscape may represent how people ‘think’ in a particular discipline, or how they perceive, apprehend, or experience particular phenomena within that discipline (or more generally).” (Meyer and Land, 2003).

In the guidance report, threshold concepts are described as likely to be:

  • Transformative – they result in a change in perception of a subject and may involve a shift in values or attitudes.
  • Irreversible – the resulting change is unlikely to be forgotten.
  • Integrative – they ‘expose a previously hidden interrelatedness’ between other concepts within the discipline.
  • Potentially troublesome – we may have difficulty coping with then new perspective that is offered.

Once we start thinking about the idea of threshold concepts, it seems likely that this also applies to our understanding of teaching.  From a purely personal point of view, I would say that during the years I have been engaging with research evidence, I have come across some ideas that have irreversibly transformed my view of teaching.  Some of these have been troublesome and they definitely all interrelate.  For example:

“Memory is the residue of thought” from Daniel Willingham

New learning should be tethered to existing knowledge

“Feedback should be more work for the recipient than the donor” from Dylan Wiliam

“Learning is a change in long term memory” from Paul Kirschner & John Sweller

Fully guided instruction is more successful than minimal guidance from Clark, Kirschner & Sweller – more here.

These 5 ideas have definitely changed the way I teach and the way I lead teaching and learning.  This made me then ask the good people of twitter about the ‘threshold concepts’ that have transformed how they think about teaching.  This got a great response and I thought I would share some of them here:

Andy Tharby:

  • Understanding is memory in disguise – Daniel Willingham
  • Learning is invisible.
  • Students learn very different things from the same lesson.

David Didau

  • Speech is a powerful lever for cognitive growth.

Ben Newmark:

  • The only curriculum that matters is the curriculum pupils remember – Clare Sealy

Cristina Milos:

  • Performance and learning are not synonymous.

Mark Enser:

  • Learning doesn’t come from activity but from retrieval.

Sarah Donarski:

  • If we want our students to breathe our subjects, we must first do the same.

Tom Boulter:

  • Reasoning, problem solving and creative skills are largely domain specific and enabled by deep knowledge of the field.

Sallie Stanton:

  • Learning is a change in long term memory.
  • Gaps in knowledge make gaining new knowledge really difficult.

Rufus William:

  • Novices and experts think in qualitatively different ways.
  • The curse of knowledge.

Frances Walsh:

  • Learning is not a performance at the end of the lesson.

Dan Hannard:

  • Practice makes permanent.

Julie Stewart:

  • We are prisoners of our working memory.

Amy Pento:

  • Extraneous load – much done to grab students’ attention distracts from what we want them to think about.

Knowledge Organisers: Making them worth more than the paper they’re written on

A great blog from Durrington Research School:

As we have previously blogged about here and here, we at Durrington are currently implementing knowledge organisers across the whole school. At the moment, we have knowledge organisers in place in all subjects for Year 9 and Year 10. The knowledge organisers themselves are disciplinary, by which we mean they are subject specific and so show variation according to the curriculum that they support. However, we have also tried to ensure consistency through adhering to the following principles:

  • The knowledge organisers include judiciously selected tier 2 and tier 3 vocabulary. This vocabulary will be taught explicitly to students.
  • The knowledge organisers incorporate the building blocks for learning in that subject that all students are entitled to know and understand.
  • The knowledge organisers are designed to aid retrieval practice and metacognitive learning.

Here are some examples of the knowledge organisers that we are currently using in different subject areas:

 

We are very aware that knowledge organisers by themselves are fairly meaningless; it is how they are used for planning, teaching and testing that will have the intended positive impact on our students’ outcomes, experiences and future opportunities. Consequently, we are keen to share the simple yet effective ways in which different subjects are utilising their knowledge organisers in lessons, as described below.

In geography the team are collating the words that students most frequently misunderstand or confuse (these are words from the knowledge organisers). The students then take a two-part quiz: In part 1 they choose the correct explanation of the word from three options, and in part 2 they identify the word in the correct context from two options. This is a great example of how the vocabulary from the knowledge organiser is being taught explicitly to students and misconceptions are being tackled at the same time.

In history, the curriculum leader emails out weekly slides, comprising a section of the knowledge organiser, to be used across the department. These slides ensure that there is consistency to the use of knowledge organisers and retrieval practice in every history lesson. The students complete the slide-task, for example filling in blanks in sentences with appropriate tier 3 vocabulary, and then use the knowledge organiser to self or peer check their response. The tasks in themselves are simple but they effectively focus the students’ efforts on improving specific areas, for example accurate use of tier 3 historical words and phrases.

Maths are using their range of knowledge organisers to support homework tasks. Firstly, the students can access their maths knowledge organisers are any time using our online system Connect. This means that students have scaffolding in place for when they are working outside of the classroom. Furthermore, every fortnight the maths team set a homework that is based on retrieval quizzing. The students are required to use the knowledge organisers to find the answers to upcoming quizzes and then actually sit the quiz in class on the due date for the homework. Students who score less than 12 out of 15 are then supported in making flashcards on the questions, again gaining the information from the knowledge organiser, and use these to retest until they are successful. This strategy demonstrates how knowledge organisers can be used to support learning through the testing effect.

The science team have carefully selected the tier 3 vocabulary that they feel is imperative to scientific success and published these on their knowledge organisers. In class, the teachers explicitly teach this vocabulary using a morphological approach, i.e. by drawing students’ attention to prefixes such as mono, hetero, pent etc.. The beauty of this approach is that once the vocabulary has been decided there is no need for any further resources or planning. It is simply a case of the teacher taking a few moments of the lesson to highlight the prefix in order to activate students’ prior knowledge of this word part (or teach it for the first time) so that students can go on to decipher the likely meaning of the entire word.

Finally, in English the team are making frequent use of their knowledge organisers to retrieve the contextual knowledge, key themes and authorial methods linked to literary texts. In addition, the English team are also making students use identified tier 2 vocabulary by linking it to characters and plot situations from multiple texts, thereby giving the students ample and varied examples of the words in use. Knowledge organisers in English tend to be produced on PowerPoint and use a grid format. This makes it incredibly quick and easy to extract sections, put this on a slide and blank out boxes ready for students to fill as a 5 minute starter every lesson.

Our use of knowledge organisers is a journey and one in which we have only taken the first few steps. To move forward we will:

  1. Share examples of effective practice from the our colleagues in other curriculum areas, especially the practical subjects where the use of knowledge organisers may well yield some very different ideas for practice.
  2. Talk to students and make them a greater part of the knowledge organiser dialogue in our school. In particular, we want our students to have a secure understanding of how knowledge organisers work to support retrieval practice and vocabulary instruction, where they can find them and how they can use them for effective learning outside of the classroom, for example self-quizzing.
  3. Make knowledge organisers accessible for parents and carers via our VLE, online Connect system and through making them a key component of conversations at upcoming parents’ evenings.
  4. Reflect on how to improve and develop the work that we now have in place ready for our new batch of knowledge organisers that are required for later this year. In particular, we will consider the need for accumulation of knowledge across units of work and year groups in order to meet our end goals for every student who is part of our school.

If you are interested in learning more about our approach to teaching and learning please take a look at our upcoming training days here.

Fran Haynes.

Knowledge Organisers: Tackling the Misconceptions

Last week, Andy Tharby wrote about Durrington’s journey with knowledge organisers and in particular how we are using these to improve retrieval practice. Andy’s blog generated a lot of interest, perhaps because it taps into the current debate regarding the possible advantages and dangers of using knowledge organisers as a central resource for classroom learning (and because it is expertly written, of course).

One of the major issues we at Durrington have faced on this journey is ensuring a cohesive approach to using knowledge organisers in a way that tackles some common misconceptions about their design and use. Below is an outline of our experiences so far.

The Pros and Cons

At Durrington, we are aiming to have knowledge organisers in place for all units of work, in every curriculum area and for all year groups. This, of course, is an ongoing process and something that we hope to achieve over the next two to three years. To support this process, we have used the EEF’s implementation guide so that we can maximise the chances of this change being successful and having the desired impact on students’ outcomes.

We see knowledge organisers as having a lot of positive potential, especially with regards to our knowledge-based curriculum (you can read about this here). However, we are also highly aware that in order for this potential to be fulfilled we have to be judicious, informed and reflective in terms of their production and our expectations of how knowledge organisers are used by teachers and students. We do not want it to be the case that teachers dedicate a huge amount of time to producing knowledge organisers that are either ineffectively designed in the first place or created with expertise and attention but then fade out of consciousness as the year unfolds.

In the exploration phase of our implementation plan, i.e. when we were systematically investigating the practices tied into the use of knowledge organisers, it became increasingly apparent that there is not any robust research evidence that supports their use. As an evidence-informed school, this was a clear issue for us. Firstly, the current dearth of research evidence underpinning knowledge organisers means that there is also a lack of guidelines for best practice, or even concrete ideas about how they might be effectively used in classrooms of different contexts. Accordingly, any school that is thinking about implementing knowledge organisers as a whole-school approach, or even departmentally, faces somewhat of an abyss when it comes to knowing exactly what to do. However, the experiences of schools that have adopted knowledge organisers seem to align so closely with our T&L principles that it was deemed a path worth pursuing. In addition, it is important to keep in mind that the research evidence does not exist yet, meaning that nothing has been tested either way.

Tackling the Issues

After much research and careful thought, we decided to ask all curriculum areas to create knowledge organisers for the units that will be studied by Year 9 and Year 10 students in the first term of this academic year. Crucially, however, we also decided that the knowledge organisers needed to be the mechanisms for our three current whole-school T&L approaches: retrieval practice, explicit vocabulary instruction and developing metacognitive learners. By emphasising that the knowledge organisers should be developed and used in a way that supports our three evidence-informed T&L foci, rather than as a different pedagogic approach altogether, we felt that we were reducing the risk of them becoming obsolete bits of paper stuck in books, or at worst injurious resources that would narrow the curriculum.

In summary, we have come to believe that knowledge organisers as an isolated pedagogical tool are probably not the way forward, but using knowledge organisers as a way of enabling teachers to incorporate retrieval practice, explicit vocabulary instruction and metacognitive learning in their lessons seems very fruitful indeed.

Misconceptions

So far, the whole-school implementation of knowledge organisers has not been easy – they require a substantial amount of time and expertise, and tend to throw up more questions before any answers emerge. There have also been lots of very understandable doubts that we have struggled to quell with ease. However, some of these concerns were rooted in misconceptions that we have been able to overcome. These misconceptions include:

  1. I can’t fit everything a student needs to know on one side of A4.
  2. I don’t know what to put on a knowledge organiser.
  3. I’ve already got excellent resources, why would I need a knowledge organiser as well?
  4. It doesn’t work in my subject.
  5. They take too long to make.
  6. Surely I can just photocopy the exam specification?

Expectations for Using Knowledge Organisers at Durrington

To tackle these misconceptions we consistently emphasise that the fundamental purpose of our knowledge organisers is to put our three T&L foci into practice. Accordingly, we have identified the following attributes as expectations and reiterate these regularly through CPD channels such as INSET:

  1. All knowledge organisers include specific tier 2 and/or tier 3 vocabulary. Teachers will teach this vocabulary explicitly in lessons.
  2. Knowledge organisers distil and clarify the building blocks for learning in your subject ready to extend in classroom learning.
  3. Knowledge organisers do not replace other lesson resources. Rather, they make it explicit what students need to know automatically and be able to apply and develop in lessons.
  4. Knowledge organisers are based on cultural capital. Exam requirements are important for student success, but learning should also go beyond this. Knowledge organisers, therefore, should identify the knowledge a student should remember in ten years’ time about that subject.
  5. Knowledge organisers are disciplinary, i.e. they are subject specific. A knowledge organiser from history will look very different to a knowledge organiser from textiles. Knowledge organisers can be text-based, visual or a mixture of both formats as best suits the needs of the curriculum it supports.
  6. Knowledge organisers are designed in a way that makes them mechanisms for retrieval practice, explicit vocabulary instruction and metacognitive learning in lessons and at home.

The Journey Continues

Perhaps the best part of our investment in knowledge organisers so far has been the collaboration it has engendered. Rather than seeing the lack of prior knowledge organisers as a hindrance, we at Durrington are using this opportunity to galvanise a pioneering spirit. There are many questions that are still unanswered, and this means that curriculum time centres around discussing, questioning and debating what we should teach in our subject and why. There is no side-stepping the fact that the creation of knowledge organisers does take a very long time, but we believe that will be time well spent.

Knowledge organisers – how to make and use them effectively!

08.27.18Sadie McCleary’s Guide to Making and Using Knowledge Organizers

 

Sadie McCleary, Chemistry Teacher extraordinaire and Science Department Lead at Uncommon Collegiate Charter High School, is a good friend of Team TLAC. She’s a TLAC Fellow and constantly keeps in touch to share ideas she’s adapting and developing. And she has a special interest in Knowledge Organizers. This year she’s been trying to support other teachers in designing and implementing them effectively.  She put together a quick guide that we (i.e. Team TLAC) think is pretty tremendous.

The first section shows an annotated model of a Knowledge Organizer for a Chemistry class with some great clarifying comments. We especially love this point:

The vocabulary / key concepts are the foundational terms students should know in order to increase the rigor of the questioning possible by the teacher and increase the quality of student responses. Note that these are not the only terms/concepts students will learn this unit! They will continue to build on these and complicate their ideas. These are simply a starting place.

The second section shows how to use diagrams. This guidance is probably more specific to the sciences (we might be inclined to keep KOs to one page otherwise) but we love her point about annotating.

The third section is our favorite–it focuses on how to use the Knowledge Organizer during class.  There’s a lot of gold here but Sadie’s observations about teaching students to use them–and therefore how to study–is especially powerful:

Teach students to use it: Studying is a skill! Just like with other skills in class, we need to teach students how to do it. This means studying (even simple vocabulary drills) needs to be modeled and students need at-bats.

• Self-quizzing: Take 2 minutes several times in Unit 1 to explicitly show students how to fold their KO to hide the definitions and ‘self-quiz.’ The best way to do this might be conducting a Think Aloud – read out the vocabulary word and begin narrating your own thinking. Example – ‘Analog measurement – I know there are two types of measurements, and the second is digital. This means analog is non-digital, and I know there are special rules for these because the accuracy of analog measurements is not communicated.’ Follow this up with several minutes of students doing their own silent self-quizzing and an oral drill or recall quiz.

• Partner quizzing: Provide opportunities for students to quiz one another for 1 – 3 minutes in class. Explicitly name for students that this should be replicated at home with a family member or friend. Model partner quizzing for students, and set clear times for when partners should switch who is quizzing whom. If time allows, follow up partner quizzing with an oral drill or recall quiz.

All in all it’s an amazing piece of work. Our thanks to Sadie for sharing it with us and therefore with you. Hope it’s useful!

10 essential discussions to have in any teacher team.

Tom Sherrington: Towards the end of last academic year, I wrote a post outlining what might be in a typical school’s development plan:  Here’s your school development plan – no, really, don’t thank me.  All of those ideas are still relevant for next year.  But what about at a departmental level or a year level in primary? Here are 10 discussions that teams should be having – not all at once, obviously, but over time, involving everyone.

1. What’s in the curriculum? Does everyone know the big picture and the details? 

If you’re building a coherent spiral curriculum, you need to know what goes where in time; you need to know which pillars of your curriculum tower are crucial; foundational. You need know how it all fits and why things are where they are.  Not everyone knows – and it’s a mistake to assume they do.  This needs some discussion to create a shared understanding, beyond dishing out the scheme of work and syllabus and assuming that’ll do.

Similarly, how are we doing on the details?  If we’re building a deep knowledge-rich curriculum  then it’s important to explore the details of what should be taught – especially where non-specialists are involved, focusing on the core concepts.  It’s hard to think of a better use of team time – making sure everyone really knows the curriculum in detail.  I meet teachers quite often who haven’t read their GCSE specification themselves, missing out on the wording, the examples, the emphasis given to specifics.

2. What are the parameters for autonomy and collective action? 

At a basic planning level – as well as the level of team ethos – it’s important to establish how the team will function.  Do we do our own thing? Do we stick tightly to an agreed scheme of work? Do we allow the shared drive to fill up with endless versions of powerpoints and worksheets making it ever harder to find the original or best one?  Where in the curriculum is their scope for teachers to go off-piste without risking messing up an element of our carefully planned coherent curriculum?

3. How far do we prescribe the enacted curriculum:  What should be included in typical lesson sequences?

Forget about a rigid lesson formula, but over a series of lessons, are there common elements, features, processes, activities that we all agree should be included? Do we agree what science experiments to do as a class practical and what is a teacher demonstration – or is that up to each person to decide, even though this shapes the enacted curriculum significantly? Do we say poems aloud, chorally, learn complex French sentences in a call-response manner and start maths lessons with five quick recall questions? Or do our own thing…

Whilst being clear that it’s the spirit of any framework that matters, not the letter – not some rigid checklist to take people to task over – we do need some agreement about what lessons in our school, in our year, in our subject look like.  These decisions essentially form the curriculum students actually experience.

4. Are we using sound evidence-based practice in our teaching?  

There so many areas of sound instructional practice that teachers should know about. For example:

How is everyone doing in the team, engaging with these ideas and putting them into practice?  Is there a set of ideas relevant to our subject or year that we all discuss using a shared language?

5. Are we clear on the team focus and each individual’s focus for CPD and deliberate practice.

Every team and everyone in a team should have an agenda for professional learning and deliberate practice.  It could be that there’s a strong collaboratively determined shared agenda so that people can support each other in improving in a specific area; it could be that each person has their own CPD needs to agreed.  The question is whether this is all explicit, agreed and planned.  Planned!  You don’t get better by accident….it needs sustained focus and attention over time.

6. Have we got assessment right, balancing formative and summative information and workload? 

How is the team doing in discussing all the issues related to assessment: the optimum frequency and nature of tightly focused low-stakes formative testing and broader summative tests; the use of cumulative tests; the use of exemplars to model standards; the commitment to using the same tests to facilitate meaningful comparisons between classes and cohorts year on year.  Does everyone know what we mean by ‘making progress’ in the language of our subject?  What do we track in our mark books vs what information is usefully shared centrally?  All of this needs to be explored… otherwise we become slaves to the machine and data loses meaning and value.

7. Are we clear what our first-line interventions are? If  Michael is behind, what do we do about it? 

Regardless of which names come out in flashing lights on the data tracker, do we have a good understanding of the types of interventions that work when students fall behind? Do we have that built into our teaching so it’s not always about extra sessions after school?  What can students practice, re-learn, redraft, re-visit? Do we have resources ready to support them?

8. Have we got a sustainable, effective marking and feedback policy in place? 

Imagine your Headteacher has said – just tell me what you’d like in your marking and feedback policy. Do what you like as long as you can sustain it and it is effective in enabling students to make progress.  What would you do?  Is there a sensible diet of feedback of various forms including marking that works in your area?  Have you taken workload into account? Have you made sure it’s more work for students than for teachers? Have you agreed a protocol for students using lesson time to improve their work? Do you have an agreed language around feedback and marking that everyone understands – eg ‘green penning’, ‘whole class feedback’, ‘deep marking’.  Don’t assume people know..

9. Are we clear on the parameters and processes of quality assurance  – securing high quality outcomes whilst retaining a strongly supportive team culture.? 

What is the role and nature of lesson observations, learning walks, work scrutiny, student voice, data tracking – the menu of QA processes that go on in the team?  Do we all understand their status, how they feed into performance management or professional development… no surprises? Is the spirit right – ie are people being treated as professionals, engaging in work scrutiny collectively? Are people getting helpful developmental feedback; is there an opportunity for a more intense coaching approach; if there a good way to share and learn from each other?

If there is a tight compliance regime in place – do people at least understand the rationale and have a chance to discuss that to secure buy-in?  What are the expected standards for observable routines in lessons and in books?  It all needs to be discussed fully and often.

10. Are we clear on our immediate priorities and the longer term vision for the team? 

With a big and/or busy and ambitious team, there’s always a long agenda;  it’s all too easy to focus on too many things and end up doing none very well or for people to be pulling in different directions choosing what to focus on.  Priorities are priorities – there can’t be too many at any one time and that needs agreement and discussion.   At the same time, every team should have a sense of direction – an idea of what the longer term goals are with curriculum development, assessment planning and so on with some sense of what the milestones will be.

That should keep you busy. I’m sure you’ve got most of it covered!

How should students revise? A brief guide

One of the biggest lessons from research is that many students don’t really know how to study. Various studies have shown that students rate re-reading and highlighting as the most effective ways of revising when in reality they are often a waste of time giving an illusion of competence in the short term at the expense of long term gains.

Students may spend large amounts of additional time studying despite no gain in later memory for the items, a phenomenon called ‘‘labour-in-vain’’ during learning (Nelson & Leonesio,1988). Recent research with educationally relevant materials has shown that repeatedly reading prose passages produces limited benefits beyond a single reading. (Karpicke, Roediger, Butler, 2009)

In contrast, retrieval practice, spacing and interleaving are some of the most productive ways of revising material but how many students are familiar with this? I think there is often a tendency to focus too much on what teachers are doing and less on what students are doing.

Recently I got the chance to talk to some year 10 students from across our partnership of schools about study skills and I put together a brief guide to help them. The idea was to introduce them to five powerful approaches to studying in a language they can understand with the opportunity to apply them to a period of revision designed by them. All materials are below.

Thanks to the brilliant Olivier Cavigioli for the illustrations and design.

Wellington College Study Guide-page-002

Wellington College Study Guide-page-003

Wellington College Study Guide-page-004

 

Wellington College Study Guide-page-005

 

Wellington College Study Guide-page-006 (2)

Once you talk students through these key principles, you can get them to plan their revision using a revision planner like this depending on how much time they have left:

 

study timetable template pdf-page-001You can download all materials here:

Wellington College Study Guide

study timetable template

 

 

Further reading:

Dunlosky et al, ‘Improving Students’ Learning With Effective Learning Techniques: Promising Directions From Cognitive and Educational Psychology’ 2013

Karpicke, Roediger, Butler ‘Metacognitive strategies in student learning: Do students practise retrieval when they study on their own?’ 2009

Koriat, Bjork ‘Illusions of Competence in Monitoring One’s Knowledge During Study’ 2005