The Question of Knowledge

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PTE has produced this pamphlet in conjunction with The Association of School and College Leaders. In it, several headteachers from across the country detail their experiences and the challenges they faced when attempting to provide a knowledge-rich curriculum to their students, often with no resources or base to begin from. The pamphlet is free to download from this page.

http://parentsandteachers.org.uk/

Parents and Teachers for Excellence.

 

Mini whiteboards

Show Me: Maximising the Use of Mini Whiteboards in Lessons

Mini whiteboards can be an excellent way to gather information about class ‘understanding’ quickly and efficiently. When used badly, however, they cease to be an effective responsive teaching tool, and they can get in the way of learning and become a distraction. This post draws upon some of Doug Lemov’s ideas in Teach Like a Champion 2.0 (Show Me – technique no. 5), along with my own experiences, to offer some tips on on how to maximise your use of mini whiteboards.

Before the Lesson:

Plan questions in advance

As with most things in life, the better something is planned in advance the more likely it is of being executed successfully later on. In this case, the chances are you will have more success if you map out the questions you are going to ask your students to check understanding in advance. Too often we make the mistake of trying to come up with good questions whilst we teach. Often they are not precise enough to capture the data we need to guide our next steps, or we ask for lengthy responses we cannot possibly see from the front of the class. Well-considered questions avoid this problem and increase our chances of getting the valuable information we need in the moment.

Standardise response format

Format matters. Of all the ideas in Teach Like a Champion, I would say Standardise the Format is one of the most powerful and easiest to implement. I insist that all my students ‘Fill the board’ with their answers so that I can see them clearly when I am scanning the room. It also makes a difference what colour students write in. Blue or black pens have the most chance of being seen and not getting distorted by the play of light from the windows or from the flickering overhead artificial strips.

Standardise show me format

It is not just responses that benefit from being standardised; the format of the reveal does too. I use a simple 3-2-1 ‘show me’, but other instructions can work just as well, as long as they are understood by all and insisted upon in practice. All students should cover their answers once they have written them and raise their boards on the agreed command simultaneously. This approach reduces the likelihood of students being influenced by other people’s responses, which undermines the validity of the check. Wobbling boards the in the air is also unhelpful. And very annoying.

Screenshot 2017-10-21 10.57.14During the Lesson:

Insist on agreed formats

There is no point spending time establishing protocols for recording responses and showing them at the same time, if you don’t enforce them in practice. It is far better to sacrifice a bit of time in the short term getting these basics right, so that in the long term the process becomes so slick you can effortlessly question the whole class and gain immediate feedback on their current understanding.

Scan boards from front of the class

This probably seems so trivial and self-evident it is not even worth mentioning, but you would be surprised how many times I have seen teachers standing to the side or positioned in front of the first row of desks, where they cannot possibly see all the answers. The whole point is that you scan all the boards as quickly as you can and make a decision about whether to move on or to respond.

Approximate class understanding

As far as I’m aware, there is no hard and fast rule as to what percentage of students need to get the right answer for you to feel secure enough to move on. The obvious answer is 100%, but in reality it doesn’t always work out like that. Depending on the teaching point, you can sometimes correct one or two students’ understanding quickly there and then, but at other times you can spend several minutes trying to clarify something only for one individual to still miss the point. I aim for between 80-90%, and then make a beeline for students who got the wrong answer later on in the lesson.

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Mini whiteboards are just one of many tools that can help us respond better to students’ need, but they are largely useless if you don’ think through how to use them and plan accordingly.

Thanks for reading

The same homework for 3 years – how and why…

an interesting piece by @missdcox

We have a 3 year key stage 4. Students that opt for GCSE Religious Studies have 3 different homeworks that carry through every year. I have blogged previously about some of these (see links in headers) but not as our key stage 4 homework programme as a whole.

  1. Learning keywords

Students are given mini booklets of keywords that they need to know to understand the key beliefs and teachings of the religions studied. They are given these before they have studied their context. The idea is that they learn these ‘off by heart’ and then when we cover them in lesson their meaning and application to the religion becomes clear.

All keyword sheets are available in our classrooms and are always attached on ShowMyHomework when set.

We also have made Quizlet quizzes on all the words here. We also give students index cards to create their own testing set.

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The students then have weekly keyword tests. One week they are the ‘current’ keywords that they are learning (one of the pages of words) and the other week are ‘random’ from all previous pages learnt. They complete the test in class and then they peer mark using the correct answers. They get very good at this. In fact from when I give out the sheets for them to write on, they run this part of the lesson themselves.

The basis for these are that retrieval practice is good for long term memory. The second random test allows for spacing of retrieval as they don’t know which words will come up and how often. I am currently editing Dave Paterson’s random generator so I can automatically generate and monitor the frequency of these repetitions.

Scores are recorded out of 20 marks each time. On the current keywords they have to make progress every fortnight. They chose a focus word that they will focus on getting correct next time to slowly increase their score.

2. Writing multiple choice questions

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Student feedback on this system is overall positive with the caveat that they’re boring. I don’t care as long as they remember them.

After a few lessons of a new topic I set this homework. Students have to write a minimum of 6 multiple choice questions on the topic.

SMHW MCs

The rules are clear (see above).

The rationale for this homework is two-fold. Firstly it is really easy to see their misconceptions. If they indicate a correct answer that is in fact incorrect then I can see what they’ve misunderstood. Depending on the frequency and seriousness of the error I will give whole class feedback or individual feedback on that issue. Students then need to rectify their error.

I use their questions for the next homework.

MC template

3. Quizzes

The third type of homework uses the questions they previously wrote. I type them up onto a google form and then set them as a multiple choice quiz. There may be one or many correct answers. They must achieve full marks. Google forms records their scores.

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They can actually cheat by doing the quiz once and then keeping the answer tab open. I’ve told them how they can do this! However I don’t care. The point is that the answers are shuffled so they still have to fully engage with the correct/incorrect answers. This exposure is important.

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My screencasts on how to create these quizzes is here.

Once we have covered several topics, I can then start to repeat, space and interleave the quizzes. So year 10 currently have  quiz from a couple of weeks ago and one from January or year 9. This repetition supports the idea of retrieving information at spaced gaps of time during the time needed to learn them long term.

We have a class website and I also put a copy of these quizzes on there so any motivated student can go and complete these independently at any time. I’ve put a notification onto those sheets that email me when they’re completed so I can see straight away who has been doing some independent study.

The benefits of only 3 homeworks

  • Students always know what they need to do; it doesn’t change
  • All of these support research from cognitive science on long term memory
  • Parents know what to expect
  • Students can’t ‘get stuck’. There’s no new concepts (the keywords are initially just a memory task)
  • They need few resources: keyword list and a piece of paper to write the MC questions
  • It’s very little work for the teacher. I just check their MC questions which takes max. 15 minutes for a class. The online quizzes mark themselves. I just put the results on the screen. They mark their own keyword tests.
  • All homework set is of the same quality; no last minute rubbish made up by the teacher just because they have to set homework
  • All 3 homeworks feed into important knowledge and skills they need for their exam

The only issues have been if a student cannot access the internet for the online quizzes however, with plenty of time to complete these I always offer break/lunch access using our devices at school. In an extreme case you can print the quizzes but of course they won’t self mark.

I have been doing this for a couple of years now. I think our results show that this is significant in long term memory and consequently performance in their exam. To me, these are so important, I can’t imagine setting any other form of homework at key stage 4 that would make a bigger impact on learning

Teachings to the Top: attitudes and strategies for delivering real challenge

A really good blog about how to challenge students.

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Teaching to top has been a long-standing principle of effective teaching from my perspective.  One of my early blogs was ‘Gifted and Talented Provision: A Total Philosophy‘ and it remains one of the topics I am asked to talk about most often in CPD sessions.  I no longer think that Gifted and Talented is a helpful label – it never was – but the principles are the same.  I’ve also covered this topic The Anatomy of High Expectations.

As I’ve said previously, I firmly believe that too many students are systematically underchallenged at school, especially in the years furthest away from high-stakes tests.  I also think that, if you crack this, you crack most other things too; the bar is raised for everyone.  This blog is based on the CPD I usually deliver on this topic.

The secret to doing this well is to think about it in three areas of teaching practice:

  • Attitudes:  The belief and mindsets teachers need to have themselves and inculcate in their students. This influences everything else.
  • Routines/Habits:  The things you do all the time, in every lesson.
  • Extra Challenges: Things you build into an overall scheme of work and use occasionally.

Attitudes

  Teach to the top; make the high attainers drive you. 

This requires a deliberate shift in attitude. Too often teachers’ concerns about the struggles of weaker learners lead to content being softened; this is no good for top-end challenge.  I think teachers should consider the curriculum and plan activities based on the capabilities of the highest attainers as a total priority – lifting the lid as the image suggests.  Providing appropriate scaffolds for other students flows from this but teachers need to have the courage and confidence to challenge at the top end, relentlessly.

Pygmalion effect and Growth Mindset:

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These two sets of research findings are powerful.  Too often high attainers are regarded as having special gifts – which negates the need for them to also work hard.   It’s really important to challenge fixed mindsets in higher attainers. It is also a challenge for teachers who may not be 100% confident with the most challenging material.  Modelling earned fluency through hard-work and self-belief is powerful. The Rosenthal Pygmalion effect – as featured here – is powerful:  expect more, you get more and vice versa.  Don’t aim to pass; aim to excel.

Rigour; depth before speed

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Read this post on rigour.  It’s a set of teacher attitudes that means you are driving standards in all areas. You don’t accept mediocrity; you insist on excellent behaviour; you pay attention to details of the subject content, delivering and expecting clarity and precision; pushing students to find ever deeper levels of meaning.

Acceleration through depth before speed is a good mantra.   This means it is not inherently better to cover a set curriculum  faster, or enter exams early. It can be better to explore a subject more widely or deeply.  However, working at a faster pace is also something higher attainers value and benefit from, eg in Maths.  Depth before speed, not instead.  (With thanks to Tim Dracup.)

Awe and wonder

As well as rigour, it pays to continually project a sense of awe and wonder about the material. Whether it is a mathematical solution, a beautiful poem or piece of physics, a clever and interesting structure in French, or an awe-inspiring event in history or feature of the natural world – there is always something to light up your students’ minds.  In my experience, high attaining students always value their teachers’ command of their subjects and their capacity to bring it alive.

Routines/Habits

Pitch it up: high challenge concepts early on – be brave.

This is partly a mindset but is also a routine.  If you are successfully challenging the highest attainers, they will feel this all the time; it will loop back to parents that students enjoy your lessons.  A few one-off challenge events won’t be enough.  The challenge is to gauge this for yourself: you must routinely set work that is pitched to challenge your highest attaining learners.

How do you know if you are challenging your students enough?  I’ve met too many teachers who were rather deluded in this regard, taking compliant busy engagement as a false proxy or being happy just not to get any complaints.  The only way to find the limits is to push students beyond them…. try a bit of deep-end challenge and see where they get stuck.  Set some pre-tests to establish what your students already know and can do.  It’s pretty frustrating to be ‘taught stuff I already know’ as one student once put it to me.

Here are a couple of superb examples of high challenge. From KEGS – a sample of the Year 7 ‘Fun with Faust’ unit.  And from my son’s school – his first ever homework.  The first question he had for homework at secondary school was ‘What is the difference between science and philosophy’.  As a parent, this fills your heart with joy.

Explicit knowledge; knowledge organisers

High attaining students like to know the big picture; they like to run ahead and see where everything is going; to work out where everything fits in.  Give your students good course outlines, spelling out required knowledge, reading, resources they can learn from independently and so on.  Alternatively, involve them in creating their own, as a class or individually.

Try the FACE It approach: 

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Once again, giving credit to my wife who devised this neat acronym, this works well as a scaffold for a unit of work.  Even very sophisticated learners benefit from some routine knowledge drills.  However, try to make sure they have the opportunity to connect the learning across topics to make connections, asking them to explain them in as much depth as possible.

Synoptic questions like these are good examples.   Make sure you also build up their problem solving capacity by showing that they need to ‘own the problem’ – add labels, make choices, plan a strategy.

eg Find the fraction shaded.  Show them lots of examples first but then give them the challenge of doing this themselves.

Probing questions; teacher knowledge. 

You need to use high challenge questioning strategies that get students to think hard and  to develop good, in-depth answers.  As I say in the Great Lessons: Probing post,  good probing questioning that can develop into dialogic questioning, is probably the defining feature of strong teaching to the top.  It’s not a one-off party piece; it’s a routine feature of great teaching.  Once you’ve taught a topic in depth and/or provided some high challenge source material, there is always another level of understanding to reach if you keep probing.

Of course, this only really works if the teacher can explain and question at the level of depth required.  Very often, an important CPD priority for teachers is going to be to  make sure they have a really good command of the material.  Could  you get an A* or Level 9 in your subject? An A* at A level?  Developing confidence in your own subject knowledge is never going to be time wasted if it related closely to the material your students need to know in order to excel.

Exemplars of excellence to emulate

One of the key messages from the Austin’s Butterfly story from Ron Berger, is that, too often, we settle for less than students are capable of.  Another is that students themselves don’t know what might be possible and so they pitch too low.  As a routine practice, it pays to show students what the highest standards look like:  the expected length and quality of piece of writing, the quality of finish on any creative product, the language features or use of technical terminology; the precision of measurements or accuracy of plotting a graph.  Don’t hit and hope…. show them first.

Tiered levels of Problem-solving

Inevitably, you will have mixed ability classes;  students will always work at a different rate or need different levels of challenge on some topics.  If you routinely provide tiered questions that balance repetitive practice with a scale of challenge, you can’t go too far wrong.  This is not the same as expecting less of some students.  You should still pitch a lesson to the top.  However, the practice questions need some tiering if you are going to have a chance of optimising the challenge level for each student.  See this post on differentiation  for more thoughts on this.

Extra Challenges:

High challenge independent learning.

Every so often it really pays off to get students to flip the learning, asking them to read ahead, self-teach via youtube clips or text books and then to bring their learning into a classroom.  This adds to a healthy diet of learning experiences.  I got great mileage out of asking Y10s in Physics to teach themselves vlookups on Excel so they could make their own stopping distance calculator.  It’s amazing what students can to if you give them the green light to try.  Of course, some struggle more than others but you can create a culture where this is ok rather than simply play it safe.

I also find that, if you train A level students to take rigorous notes from a text book or online video tutorials in advance of a lesson, it frees up a lot of time for discussing questions and probing into their understanding.

Open-ended projects: ‘Dazzle me’

Sometimes it is really great to ask students to respond to a piece of learning in any form they like. A history teacher at KEGS did this with superb results.  She asked her students to respond any way they liked, ‘but you have to dazzle me’.  And they did. They produced exceptional pieces of researched material on individual figures from the Renaissance, creating artefacts and illustrations that they had taken great joy in making.  This was all done over a half-term holiday without taking any lesson time at all. The expectation was there.. and they rose to meet it willingly.   Of course, you might get a lot of lame rubbish- but then you wouldn’t accept that. Models from previous years also help to set the standards.

Oracy; pedagogical inputs

Oracy activities are superb for stretching high attaining students, alongside the routine practice of expecting high quality verbal responses in class. Here you can see a special event Soapbox Day where students are all giving their own personal five minute speech. The other image shows Trevor explaining a physics demo to his class.  These pedagogical inputs from students are usually much better than presentations with a powerpoint for getting students to pull their ideas together whilst also involving the class fully.

Co-construction; side-kicks; Edmodo/google apps

This, to me, remains the ultimate in full-blown teaching to the top.  I wrote about this a lot from my time at KEGS. There were so many fabulous elements as I’ve tried to capture in these posts:

Sidekicks.  Just check out Taran’s plan or the email exchange with Arjun.  These students were being stretched fully in the content of the subject were also exploring a wider set of skills in shaping their learning. This could be achieved with a sub-group in a more mixed class.  It’s exciting to give students the responsibility to plan, organise and deliver a set of science demonstrations and to do it really well.  Obviously you, the teacher, is always there alongside them, giving it depth and keeping it all on track but their experience is hugely enriched from this process as part of a more traditional diet.

Online class forum. Using an online platform like Edmodo to communicate between lessons provided a rich seam of challenge for students in a Year 9 science class.  I had teams for every unit and an overall tech team that kept it all running.  They found this hugely rewarding.

Excellence Exhibition

Finally -show it all off.  We all give value to the art exhibition and music concert  as a means of showcasing student work – but what about the rest.  At my recent schools, showcasing excellent work at an exhibition has been part of the thinking with some superb results.  The exhibition at KEGS contains short films from history and languages, extended essays, student magazines, sculptures and art work – and so on.

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If you get this right, everyone wins.  Your highest attainers are stretched, they love school all the more, you get great support from parents, your students are more motivated and the rising tide effect brings everyone with you.  Is it possible for a student to be under-challenged and held back in your lessons because you’re not expecting enough?  Give it some thought, test it out and then, if necessary, make the change.  All to gain; nothing to lose

Whole Class Feedback thoughts

Making a fuss of feedback

At the weekend I attended the Teaching and Learning Takeback conference at Southampton Uni – #TLT17. It was wonderful to meet so many engaged and enthusiastic teachers who had given up their time to share their ideas freely with others. One stand-out session was Rebecca Foster’s who discussed the problems with the need to provide endless streams of summative data and the implications of this for curriculum design. She also shared her method of giving whole class feedback (WCF). These ideas were tweeted out by me and many others – like the one below.

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Once something in education, that has always been done, is given a name you can expect a debate to kick off. Knowledge organisers, direct instruction, whole class feedback, none of these are anything new. Teachers have always shared with pupils lists of what they need to know (knowledge organisers), always told them things (direct instruction) and have always given feedback to the whole class about pieces of work. People who say, as they have said on twitter, “I would never explore whole class feedback” have clearly missed the point. Feedback is a constant process in class and inevitably some of it will be delivered to the class as a whole.

The debate around whole class feedback is an interesting one. As with just about everything else people end up dividing down roughly “traditional-leaning” (Pro-WCF) and “progressive-leaning” (more anti-WCF). This is an odd division. It is hard to image something more didactic than the traditional way of marking books where each pupil is told exactly what they have done wrong and what they have got right, whereas WCF encourages pupils to “discover” their errors for themselves; more with a guide on the side to help them. The education world is a strange beast.

When people say they are “against WCF” they tend to mean either.

  1. They don’t like the templates used (efficiency) or
  2. They don’t want it to replace individual comments written in books (effectiveness).

The template

WCF doesn’t have to mean filling in a template like those shared by Rebecca Foster. I was first aware of this type of template after it was created and shared by Greg Thornton here.

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The idea of using the template is that you have this next to you as you are looking through a class set of books and you are making notes on this to share with the class; either by showing it on a screen or as a prompt for what you want to tell them. The reason it is used is that many comments you write in one book you also end up writing in another. By using this template (or one like it) you write the comment once on the sheet, number it, and then write that number in any book where the target applies. The pupil then knows what they need to do to improve. the targets are specific to the piece of work. One example shared by Rebecca, from the Geography department in her school, also had the space to include a screen shot of excellent work. Once the class have been given feedback they then work on redrafting or (and I’d suggest more effectively) complete another task where these targets can be worked on. The first time I used this template it took a little less time than writing individual written comments but the more I used it the faster I got.

What gets lost in this is the fact that WCF doesn’t mean this template. As so often happens we risk losing the pedagogy and focusing on the structure. While I sometimes use a template like this, on other occasions I just put a few notes on a slide showing the features of good answers and the features of less good answers. Pupils then look for examples of these things in their own work and make corrections. This example is feedback following a Year 12 test on coastal processes.

WCF

This is far less time consuming than either writing the annotation on their papers or using a more formal template. It is certainly efficient but is it effective?

Replacing individual comments

There are a few problems with using individual written comments that WCF addresses.

The first is that of time. It is far quicker to give WCF than it is to write annotation on to pupils work. Is this a benefit for the teacher or for the pupil? I have yet to meet a teacher who uses WCF so that they can spend more time with their feet-up. Any time gained from using this method is spent on creating better lessons, creating resources, collaborating with others or working with pupils 1-2-1. There is a finite amount of time and we need to find ways to use it well.

The second issue that WCF addresses is that individual written comments do little to develop self-regulation (or independence if you prefer). When I give feedback to the class the pupil needs to look through their work and check if they have made the errors discussed or where they have made them. They need to look for the common spelling errors and make the corrections. This is developing important study skills for when they don’t have the constant support of a teacher, not just in the exam but throughout their life. There is no evidence anyone has been able to point me to that individual written comments lead to students making better progress and Hattie and Timperley’s meta-analysis shows that this feedback could be harmful if used at the wrong time for the wrong task.

One problem with writing individual comments is that they end up being very generic. You end up with comments like “add more detail here” or “explain this” but without being able to give the detail on how to do those things. When giving feedback to the class you have ample opportunity to demonstrate and model the difference between excellent answers and less good work. The feedback can be far more meaningful.

A criticism that seems to be leveled at the use of WCF is that pupils will miss the personal touch of these written comments. I have never heard this from anyone who has experimented with increasing their use of WCF however, or from a pupil. Again, we need to challenge the image of a lazy teacher using these templates and nothing more.

Pupils in my class get a huge amount of personalised feedback but this feedback comes verbally. After we have looked through the work as a class, and shared excellent examples we have seen, they improve their work or complete a different task to develop areas of weakness. During this time I give individual feedback to pupils about their work. I often sit with a pupil and look through their book with them 1-2-1 and give detailed and meaningful feedback on the progress they seem to be making. This dialogue is far more effective, and far more personal, than a hastily scribbled note asking for “more detail” or to “use examples”.

Conclusion 

Whole class feedback is something that almost all teachers do much of the time. We frequently discuss excellent work with a class or call their attention to common errors. If you are doing this, you are using WCF.

Increasing the amount of WCF you do, and decreasing the amount of individual written comments you write, saves time that you can then use to improve other aspects of teaching and should have no negative impact on pupil progress. Nor should it have a negative impact on relationships with pupils as you open a dialogue about their work.

WCF is an important tool and I am incredibly grateful to the likes of Greg Thornton and Rebecca Foster for giving up their time to explore it more fully with us.

Should we share Learning Outcomes / Objectives with students at the start of a lesson?

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Oct 4 GUEST POST: Should I share my learning outcomes with students?

Learning Scientists

For Teachers, For Researchers, Guest Posts

Dr. Sara M. Fulmer is an Educational Developer at the University of Guelph. She supports faculty, graduate students, and academic programs with implementing evidence-based approaches to enhance pedagogical practices and students’ learning. Her areas of research include student motivation in challenging contexts and teacher professional development. She received her B.A., B.Ed., and M.A. from Brock University in Ontario, Canada, and Ph.D. in Developmental Psychology from the University of Notre Dame. You can find her on Twitter @sara_fulmer. Sara previously contributed guest posts on learner-centered syllabi and how manipulatives can hinder learning.

 

How do you know which path to choose, or whether you have arrived, if you do not have a destination? In the context of teaching and learning, learning outcomes are the destination.

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This post responds to a reader’s question, “Is there any evidence to support sharing written learning outcomes prior to teaching a topic?”

By the end of reading this blog post, readers should be able to:

  • Evaluate the effectiveness of a learning outcome using a checklist
  • Describe the benefits of learning outcomes for students and teachers
  • Identify strategies to share learning outcomes with students

What are learning outcomes?

“Learning outcomes are measurable statements that articulate what students should know, be able to do, or value as a result of taking a course or completing a program” (1). In addition to a course or program, we can also write learning outcomes for smaller elements of the learning process, such as an assignment, single class session, or unit. Effective learning outcomes are student-centered, specific, and measurable, and provide a road map for determining the content, organization, and assessment of the course.

Learning+Outcomes+Checklist

To learn more about writing effective learning outcomes, see this post on setting learning outcomes and this resource on the differences between learning goals, learning objectives, and learning outcomes.

Why share learning outcomes with students?

Learning outcomes can increase student learning in foundational knowledge or short-term retention (2), (3) and higher-order cognitive processes, such as application or transfer (3), (4), (5). For example, student exam performance increased after a faculty member redesigned an introductory biology course by creating learning goals for each class session, making these goals explicit to students in each lecture, and labeling exam questions with the corresponding learning goal (4). These students also rated learning goals as the most helpful component of lecture, beating out clicker questions, quizzes, vocabulary lists, and group work (4).

But why do learning outcomes improve learning? Learning outcomes shape what students learn. When students know what they are expected to learn, they can direct their attention towards those particular areas (6) and use deliberate practice to strategically work towards learning those concepts and skills. Students in courses with clear learning outcomes aligned with the assessments, compared to students in courses without these components, are more likely to spend extra time studying and extend their knowledge by seeking additional information (7). Stating learning outcomes at the start of a lesson, unit, or course is also an important element of guided instruction, which is more beneficial than less-structured approaches for learning, particularly for novice learners.

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Knowing the learning outcomes in advance also helps students practice metacognition and become self-regulated learners (3), (8), (9). For example, undergraduate students report that having clear learning outcomes helps them to narrow their focus on important concepts and skills, organize their notes, track their learning towards those outcomes, and improve their study practices (10). Because learning outcomes help students to make strategic decisions, students also feel an increased sense of control or ownership over their learning (1), (9).

Sharing learning outcomes prior to learning can also increase students’ motivation and engagement (2), (4), (11). Learning outcomes give learners a sense of purpose for their learning, answering the frequently asked question, “Why am I learning this?” Learning outcomes help students feel more connected to the course material and perceive the content as useful (8), (10). When students understand what is expected of their learning, they are more likely to feel that they can be successful in meeting those expectations. For example, students who receive assignments with a clear purpose and explicit connection to course learning outcomes report greater academic confidence and a feeling of mastery of important skills (2). This is particularly true for first-generation, low-income, and underrepresented students (2). One reason why students feel more confident is because learning outcomes reduce ambiguity in a course. This is exemplified in a quote from an undergraduate student in Wang et al.’s (7) study:

“They (The instructors) are supposed to spell out what I shall achieve so that I do not have to guess. I know what they intend to teach, but I am not very clear what kind of outcomes they want us to achieve. For example, to what level are we going to apply the knowledge we have learnt.”

Worried about learning outcomes limiting students’ creativity? Check out this post on ways to use learning outcomes to set high standards and foster creativity and innovation.

Having clear learning outcomes also benefits teachers. The following table summarizes the literature on these benefits.

Benefits+for+Teachers

How can I share learning outcomes with students?

Learning outcomes can appear anywhere, such as a slide, whiteboard, handout, classroom poster, or in your learner-centered course syllabus. For creative ideas, check out these strategies for higher education, and for K-12, 40 ways to introduce learning objectives and this teacher’s decision-making process regarding how to share learning outcomes in his class.

The most important step of sharing learning outcomes is to ensure that students understand the learning outcomes. Engage students in a discussion about the learning outcomes with questions like:

  • Using your own words, what does this outcome mean?
  • How will I know if I’ve achieved this outcome?
  • Why do you think it’s important that we learn this?
  • How does this learning outcome relate to something we’ve already learned?

Bonus: these questions also help to stimulate students’ interest and curiosity!

At the end of the topic or unit, ask students to write on an index card or sticky note an answer to: “What do you think you were supposed to learn from this lesson/class/unit?” (9).

You can also introduce students to learning outcomes through a pre-assessment, asking students to rate their level of confidence or level of current knowledge/skill for each of the learning outcomes. The image below offers some examples of how learning outcomes were transformed into survey items.

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This strategy offers several added bonuses:

  • Gathering information about students’ current level of knowledge before you begin teaching a unit will help you adjust your instruction to meet students where they are.
  • Students have an opportunity to think about their current knowledge with respect to each of the learning outcomes, while gaining insight into what they will be expected to know and be able to do.
  • You can track changes in students’ perceptions of their knowledge over time. Give students the same survey before and after the unit/course and compare their “pre” and “post” responses. Share the aggregated data with students to help them recognize how much they have learned.

How will you share learning outcomes with your students? Comment below!

References:

(1) Cornell University Center for Teaching Innovation. Setting Learning Outcomes. https://www.cte.cornell.edu/teaching-ideas/designing-your-course/settting-learning-outcomes.html

(2) Winkelmes, M.-A., Bernacki, M., Butler, J., Zochowski, M., Golanics, J., & Weavil, K. H. (2016). A teaching intervention that increases underserved college students’ success. Peer Review, 18. http://www.aacu.org/peerreview/2016/winter-spring/Winkelmes

(3) Levine, L. E., Fallahi, C. R., Nicoll-Senft, J. M., Tessier, J. T., Watson, C. L., & Wood, R. M. (2008). Creating significant learning experiences across disciplines. College Teaching, 56, 247-254. http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.3200/CTCH.56.4.247-254

(4) Armbruster, P., Patel, M., Johnson, E., & Weiss, M. (2009). Active learning and student-centered pedagogy improve student attitudes and performance in introductory biology. CBE Life Sciences Education, 8, 203-213. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2736024/

(5) Rust, C., Price, M, & O’Donovan, B. (2003). Improving students’ learning by developing their understanding of assessment criteria and processes. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 28, 147-164. http://area.fc.ul.pt/artigos%20publicados%20internacionais/Improving%20students%20learning.pdf

(6) Rothkopf, E. Z., & Billington, M. J. (1979). Goal-guided learning from text: Inferring a descriptive processing model from inspection times and eye movements. Journal of Educational Psychology, 71, 310-327.

(7) Wang, X., Su, Y., Cheung, S., Wong, E., & Kwong, T. (2013). An exploration of Biggs’ constructive alignment in course design and its impact on students’ learning approaches. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 38, 477-491. http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/02602938.2012.658018

(8) Reed, D. (2012). Clearly communicating the learning objective matters! Middle School Journal, 43, 16-24. http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00940771.2012.11461825

(9) Fletcher-Wood, H. (2013, October 6). How I’ve tried to share learning intentions better. A Guide to Improving Teaching Blog.  https://improvingteaching.co.uk/2013/10/06/how-ive-tried-to-share-learning-intentions-better/

(10) Simon, B., & Taylor, J. (2009). What is the value of course-specific learning goals? Journal of College Science Teaching, 39, 52-57. http://www.cwsei.ubc.ca/SEI_research/files/LifeSci/Simon_Taylor_ValueOfCourseSpecificLG.pdf

(11) Reynolds, H. L., & Kearns, K. D. (2017). A planning tool for incorporating backward design, active learning, and authentic assessment in the college classroom. College Teaching, 65, 17-27. http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/87567555.2016.1222575

Starters – or ‘Do Now’ – really helpful advice and examples!

Thought back to me please – Tim

10.06.17Using the Do Now for Retrieval Practice–An Update from Alex Laney (blog post from Doug Lemov)

 

A year or so ago I wrote a post about Alex Laney’s Do Nows at Smith’s Wood Academy in Birmingham, England.  Since then Alex has kept in touch and he recently shared some insights about the school’s new approach to Do Nows or (as they call them) DNAs.

Most notably, given the very compelling research on the importance of regular retrieval practice to ensure that knowledge is stored in long term memory and remains accessible there, teachers at Smith’s Wood have been advised that retrieval practice is the purpose of DNAs.

“The schools policy is now that all DNA’s are intended exclusively to provide a venue for retrieval practice . This is what I feel our students need most,” Alex wrote.

But Alex and his team then went a step further.

Research in the cognitive sciences makes pretty clear that 1) the battle against forgetting begins as soon as you learn something  and 2) the best time to practice retrieving something from long-term memory is when you have started to forget it- the fact that you must work harder to retrieve it but then do so successfully causes you to build a stronger neural pathway—memory essentially—of the thing you are trying not to forget.

So Alex and company got a hold of a Forgetting Curve (at top)—which maps the rate at which people forget things they know—and asked teachers to not only use DNAs for retrieval practice and therefore make sure they retained what they’d learned but to try to practice retrieving information  on different places on the forgetting curve—that is, essentially with different durations since mastery.

“We have given guidance that approximately 20% of questions on DNAs should be focused on learning that is two weeks or older .”  You can see this in the example, below.  The bolded questions are from a unit that is older than the un-bolded questions.

“I want to get smarter with this,” Alex Noted. “We will eventually begin to track the content being tested in these recalls to better deal with retrieval and to stem forgetting.” In other words one of the new potential areas for data-driven decision making is studying the success of students in remembering thing relative to the placement of retrieval practice on the forgetting curve.

Fascinating stuff.  Here are a few more examples of DNA’s from Smith’s Wood:

Ten Principles for Great Explicit Teaching

Read this now!  – a great post from Ben Newmark on direct teaching.

I would like to begin by clarifying terminology. Put most simply, I will be discussing how to plan extended explanations of substantive content, delivered didactically to a whole class. Bizarrely, for something so simple which, at its essence, is just ‘teaching’ to me, there is no consensus on what this is called. When I first began writing on this I called it Direct Instruction but it has become clear this is misleading. Capitalised, Direct Instruction means something very specific and includes the scripted lessons currently causing much controversy. Greg Ashman wrote a series of blogs on this, which are tremendously helpful to understanding the differences between the various types of didactic delivery. For convenience, I am going to try and stick to the term Explicit Teaching to describe what I mean. Please forgive me if I use other terms and I ask for your patience if I do slip; for the sake of this talk today any other words I use can be treated as synonyms. While I, as will surprise nobody, have opinions on the merits and dangers of Direct Instruction, I am not attempting to get into this today.

The work of influential organisations, individuals and free schools teaching in an unashamedly traditional style has brought explicit teaching in from the pedagogical cold. A decade ago this style of teaching felt distinctly unfashionable. Good teachers were guides on the side and were supposed to facilitate learning, not explain content. Didactic teachers were viewed with deep suspicion and many had a pretty rough time, with a standard ‘target’ from old-style lesson observations being ‘reduce the amount of teacher talk,’ regardless of how good this talk was.

Careers were blighted and, according to some teachers I’ve spoken to, some great practitioners were forced out of the profession altogether.

This presents schools and teachers who wish to plan and deliver great explicit, didactic instruction and explanation with a problem.  How can this methodology be developed and improved if the educational system as a whole has been purged of those who know how to do it?  Who do we have to teach it, either to ITT students or as CPD to more experienced teachers?  A twitter poll I ran a while back, along with my own experiences and other teachers I have spoken with seems to support the severity of this issue, with the great majority of respondents saying they had never, not once in their career received any training on explicit teaching.  This is a big problem.  Explicit teaching will not improve outcomes if it is done badly and, if teachers are left to plan it with no support it will not, at least in the short term, be done well.  This could easily cause schools and teachers initially interested in this powerful pedagogy to misunderstand and dismiss it when it does not yield immediately improved results.  There are worrying signs that this is happening already with some dismissing direct instruction as a teacher dryly reading facts to children who are then expected to just memorise and regurgitate them in tests.

While it is a wonderful image, rounding up the old didactic warhorses along with the old civil servants from their allotments and car-boot sales probably is not the most practical solution to this skills gap.  Fortunately, I do not think it necessary because, as Mark Enser has pointed out in this great blog, which I will tweet out at the end of today, many of us have been, whether consciously or unconsciously, explicitly teaching for years. To steal Mark’s great phrase, it does seem to be what many of us do when nobody is watching.  The problem is that for a long time many of us have been doing it secretly and would never share practice, because we had picked up the belief explicit instruction was somehow cheating; great teaching, for many years, was seen to be facilitating learning experiences with directly telling children things a last resort when more creative methods failed. The highest accolade a teacher could be given by a child was “you don’t feel like you are learning in his lesson”, which created the impression that great teachers never told children things directly, but instead smuggled learning into ‘fun’ activities in the same way my mum used to hide smashed up paracetamol in jam. I remember being clearly told, with great seriousness, that whenever I taught something to a child I was robbing them of the experience of discovering it for themselves.

Teaching explicitly is, of course, the antithesis of this which means until quite recently there was little interest, at least formally, in planning to improve it.

Now, if we are to best take advantage of the opportunity presented by this change in the direction of the wind, we all need to start sharing what works best, so we can plan and deliver great explanations.

Outlining the lessons I have learned is not meant to, in any way, give the impression I have cracked it when of course I have not.  I am eager to learn from others about what they do so I can further improve.  I am impatient to do so because what little have learned so far took me too long.  It is the accumulation of a frustratingly inefficient decade of trial and error, chance conversations in staffrooms, snatched observations of a few teachers who did explicitly instruct and influences outside education altogether.  All of this was done stumblingly and secretly because I did not believe teaching this way was really allowed so it never occurred to me to ask for help – to do so would have been to admit defeat as a ‘guide on the side’.  Now that the environment has become more conducive my hope is just that some of what I have learned might help others improve faster than I did.

Principle 1: Be sage before you step on stage.

funnel

 

 

 

 

If they are to inspire confidence and attention, anyone speaking about anything has to know what they are on about.  Not knowing the material inside out means hesitation, repetition and deviation, which erodes credibility and causes students to switch off.  If students have questions we will struggle to convincingly answer them.  Children will quickly sense fakery and, quite understandably, stop paying attention.  Knowing the textbook is not enough because this is only ever the visible part of the iceberg.  For example, a book may include material on Henry VII’s pet monkey but without the context it is just a rather silly and distracting story whereas with strong subject knowledge it assumes meaning and illuminates something rather more profound.

Even in the lower year groups strong subject knowledge is crucial to planning great explanations because it is only by knowing more than we will deliver that we can be sure what we are explaining is of the most importance. It might be helpful to think of this process as a funnel or a sieve; by starting with a greater amount we can be more sure what we choose to deliver is of high value. For my own subject, history, Gustave Flaubert, provides a helpful analogy in saying that the writing of history should be like “drinking an ocean and then pissing a cup”. Planning for great explanations can be seen in the same way.

To teach well explicitly, constantly upgrading our subject specific knowledge must be seen as a professional duty, privilege and perk of our positions. We must accept we can never know enough. We must read widely in our fields, listen to podcasts, and attend museums and lectures. Schools should support this; personally I believe that at least, if not more, time should be devoted to improving subject knowledge as is given to generic pedagogy.

We must be sages before we step on the stage.

Principle 2: What, not how

ra ra

For many years most ITT and CPD emphasised the procedural at the expense of the substantive.  My early planning was almost entirely based around the activities I expected children to do with less thought about the actual material. I confess with some shame that I once spent an entire fortnight facilitating the performance of Ra-Ra Rasputin: The Musical, which involved extensive group work, musical instruments, costumes and got me an ‘outstanding’ in an old style lesson observation. This meant that on the rare occasions I did speak to the class as a whole, my explanations were poor.  Feedback from lesson observations advised me to deal with this by reducing the amount of time I spoke to the class, which robbed me of opportunities to practise, dented my confidence and made me worse at it.  To avoid this we need to think very carefully about what we are going to teach a class and how we are going to explain it.  Strong subject knowledge makes this easier because it means a better understanding of the most significant and important areas of a topic, which can then be better emphasised in the delivery.  I find making my own notes leads to better explanations, either through simple bullet points or mind-maps like this one:

egypt.png

The process helps me identify potentially tricky spots, anticipate questions I am likely to be asked, and think up analogies and metaphors that build student understanding and retention of the material.  For topics on which I know my own knowledge is still shaky, I will script out what I’m going to say after reading up.  I have a physical list of the areas in our curriculum on which I feel I am weak and try to work on these whenever time allows. It should come as no surprise that the more I have learned about the subjects I teach the easier I have found it to explain them to my classes.

All this means my planning looks very different to how it did when I first trained.  Whereas formerly, it was focused on the activities in the lessons, now most of my thinking goes on the substantive knowledge and how best to explain this directly instead of trying to find gimmicks on which to tangentially graft learning. I plan in the same way I do my lessons; I start with the objectives and then develop explicit explanation that directly addresses these. This approach is clear in the microteaching YouTube videos I make, in which I write the objectives clearly on the board and refer back to these throughout my delivery to ensure what I am talking about remains anchored to the most important points.

It is also a good idea to share the main thinking points from the explanation with children before beginning. I do this this through writing the questions children will answer on the board and going through them first. These questions, if worded skillfully, can help to keep students listening out for the key points. At the end of an explanation I will usually lead a discussion around them before setting pupils off on independent work.

Principle 3: Teach children to listen:

children

Of all the untruths in education, saying that children will always behave well if a lesson is well planned is perhaps the most damaging.  I am determined not to make this mistake here; even the best planned explicit delivery will be derailed if students misbehave.  Early in my career there was a culture in which if you taught this way it was assumed you actually deserved bad behaviour from your classes.  Children became unaccustomed to paying close attention while a teacher talked, which made it harder to teach explicitly than it would otherwise have been.  Poor learning behaviour is a serious threat to successful explicit instruction because if students are not listening carefully, they will not learn.  This makes it impossible for them to then complete tasks based on the teachers’ delivery, which makes further misbehaviour more likely.  Worse, disruption, whether we classify it as high or low level, while a teacher is speaking distracts the teacher themselves, affecting the clarity of their instruction and disrupting the learning of the entire group.  As the quality of the instruction goes down, so does the credibility of the teacher, which causes other students to switch off too.

If explicit teaching is to be successful teachers and schools must plan to develop and insist on perfect behaviour; children must listen silently, not interrupt and save questions until an appropriate time.  Children not used to this must be taught how.  While this process can be exhausting to begin with it is necessary.  It means stopping and starting again if even one child is fidgeting, staring out of a window, daydreaming or tapping a pen.  It means following up these apparently minor misdemeanors with sanctions which are, at least to begin with, likely to make children angry if they are unused to being picked up.  But it is necessary and, if the accompanying teaching is good, it will work in the end.  It might be helpful to remember, when deep in the fight, that all we are really expecting is that children listen while their teacher talks which should not be controversial.

Sound subject knowledge and perfect learning behaviour are the foundations of planning good explicit explanation but, of course, strong delivery is necessary too.

While, of course, styles of delivery can vary there are, I think, some fundamentals worth sharing.

Principle 4: Vary tone, inflection and cadence.

ferris.jpg

Using cadence and inflection to stress and add further meaning to parts of an explanation is really effective in helping students understand what they are listening to. Really good subject knowledge makes this much easier but even a little forethought can help.  For example, if I am explaining that the percentage of the vote for the Nazis rose I will use a rising inflection whereas if it fell, my tone will reflect that.  If something might be considered historically unexpected, I try to sound surprised.  Occasionally I will emphasis a particular point differently and more emphatically.  In one I punch a fist into my hand while explaining the influence of the SA to underpin the importance of violence to this group.  It might be a bit hammy, but used sparingly it is effective.

Principle 5: Use storytelling techniques:

spinning

People in general and children specifically find stories easy to remember and storytelling techniques can be effectively harnessed in the classroom.  Asking rhetorical questions to foreshadow later events or elements of an explanation help students identify a coherent narrative, which makes material easier to understand and retain.  Cliff-hangers are useful in building conceptual bridges between events.  For example, in my summary explanation of William the Conqueror’s victory at Hastings, I conclude by describing the meeting between the surviving English earls and bishops and asking students to think about why William might have worried about this, which is material we cover in the next timetabled lesson.

I draw heavily on metaphor and analogy in my explanations too.  Making conceptual links between different themes and events can be distracting if done unthinkingly but is powerful in driving understanding when done well. This is because by activating prior knowledge and using it to illuminate new material we can free up working memory. It is very important to be careful that metaphors, similes and analogies reinforce learning and do not detract from it. It is very easy to just tell a great story but, if this story is not directly supportive of the most important points it can easily become an albatross, with children remembering the story but not the point it was supposed to illustrate. I was guilty of this in a YouTube video I made on the NHS in which I told a story about my brother meeting a boy in Tanzania who was begging for a mattress on which his elderly grandfather could die. I told this story to try to illustrate why the NHS was so important but while, of course, compelling, it is actually distracting and is the only thing about the video many children remember. It is helpful to keep in mind Willingham’s insightful comment that ‘children learn what they think hard about’ to keep explanations focused on the most important points.

Sometimes metaphors occur to me on the fly while teaching, but mostly they come to mind before the lesson when planning what I will include.  One that worked particularly effectively was a comparison between a plate-spinner in a circus and William’s attempts to retain control of England and Normandy, ensure loyalty from his own supporters while defending his new kingdom from both Viking invasion and attacks from Welsh princes.

Principle 6: Repeat and link back: Image of a chain.

chain

Repetition of certain key phrases and terms is something I have stolen from oral traditions and cultures.  In such societies stories are the main way in which information is passed from one generation to the next and these can be very lengthy. I saw this first hand when I lived in Ethiopia and spent some time with village communities in which there was no schooling as we would describe it; there, children were taught important information about their society and culture by elders through long stories that they would in turn learn off by heart. To make this easier, elders used various mnemonics and devices, just as the Ancient Greeks did. The Iliad and the Odyssey, while now written, would originally have been learned off by heart.  To ensure these stories could be remembered by both the poets and their audiences, repetition of adjectives and certain phrases are used carefully and deliberately.  For example, throughout both works, the goddess Athena is repetitively referred to as ‘bright-eyed.’  To a modern reader this can be jarring but this fixes her in long-term memory because it gives her meaning.  Willingham, I think, would call this chunking.  I try to use this technique in my own explanations by, for example, always referring to Harald Hardrada as ‘ruthless Hardrada’ and to Edgar the Aethling as ‘unsupported Edgar.’  I hope that doing this makes students more likely to remember what was important about both.3

I am also trying to build and strengthen long term memory by, whenever appropriate, referring back to previously covered content.  Doing this makes students retrieve past information which then strengthens the memory.

Principle 7: Practise and rehearse:

stage

We will not get better at delivering explanations if we do not include practise as part of the planning process. Giving a well-crafted explanation is best viewed as a short theatrical performance, which means we should rehearse before we go live. One of the most frequent questions I am asked about my YouTube videos is how long they take to make. The answer is hours. Before going live in front of a video camera or a class I practise to myself in a quiet room where I know I will not be disturbed. I inflict myself on family and friends. My wife is particularly long-suffering, patiently allowing me to explain things to her while we are on country walks. I then video myself and watch the recording back. The final videos I post on YouTube, which typically last no longer than five or so minutes, are the end result of hours of reading, thinking, deliberate practise and rehearsal.

Principle 8: Teach from the front:

teaching from front

For years, when explaining things to children for any extended period, I was a pacer.  In the early part my career I picked up the impression that good teachers should not teach from the front because this encouraged students to see a division between their space and the space of their teacher, which led to poor behaviour.  So, to address this, I aimlessly paced.  This meant walking the aisles between the desks, sometimes stumbling over bags and PE kits, while, owl-like, the heads of the children in my class swiveled around and around to track my circuitous meanders.  Gradually I worked out this did not work.  The main reason for this was it made my explanations worse because my movements meant I was focusing on walking and talking at the same time, which resulted in the deterioration of both.

Secondly, it made it harder for the children in my classes to concentrate on what I was saying because they had to listen while simultaneously tracking my position in the classroom.

So, gradually, I stopped pacing.  Now I teach from one position, at the front where everyone can see me, next to the board.  I still move but this is now purposeful and linked to my explanation.  For example, if I am explaining the attacks on the early Weimar government from the political left and right, I might walk to the left when talking about the Spartacists and over to the right when explaining the Kapp Putsch.  The only other time I’ll move will be in direct response to something that’s happened in my classroom; for example, if I suspect a child is on the verge of switching off I may move subtlety towards them to bring their attention back.

The work of my students and their ability to remember what I have said shows this to be much more effective than pacing. Cognitive load theory offers insight as to why.  If teaching should avoid overloading the limited working memory of our students, then staying put makes sense because it means children can better focus on what we want them to.

Principle 9: Support with board work:

versailles.jpg

As quite a few of those who follow my work will know, I am particularly, perhaps annoyingly, proud of my handwriting and board work.  This is something I have worked very hard at and the improvements I have made are clear when looking at the difference between earlier videos I made and more recent ones, which are higher quality.  Clear, neat illustrations and text reinforce and support explanations because presenting students with information in more than one way strengthens memory.  However, any illustrations, whether they are hand-drawn on a whiteboard or displayed on a LCD projector, should be neat, directly related to the content and referred to at the appropriate time.  The key, as always, is strong subject knowledge and careful thought about the material being taught, which makes it far easier for a teacher to see which parts of the content would benefit most from visual reinforcement.  Crowded boards or too many distracting images overload working memory and undermine the overall clarity of the explanation.  Oliver Cavigliol’s outstanding work on dual coding has increased interest in this and his illustrations are increasingly informing my own board-work.

Principle 10: Beware of illusory superiority:

driver.jpg

My acquisition of any sort of didactic competence was slow and faltering.  Nonetheless I did improve and by the time I had been teaching for five or so years, I was pretty proud of my ability to explain things clearly and concisely.  A regular feature of my lessons was “Mr Newmark explains in five minutes”, in which I would deliver didactically what the class then worked on for the remainder of the lesson.  These sections seemed especially popular with my GCSE students and, about four years ago, a class suggested I videoed them so they could use them for revision.  Flattered, I agreed.

I worked up a board on Vesalius and then got a student to video my explanation.  The process took about twenty minutes and, with the student sent off to eat their sandwiches, I plugged my phone in to my computer and watched back the recording on my classroom’s LCD projector.

It was no better than OK.  I said ‘um’ a lot.  I overused the word ‘right’.  I said everything was ‘a really important point’ which made me look desperate and gave the impression nothing I talked about really was.  A comment I had thought was funny when I said it made me cringe.  Some of my explanations meandered away into dead ends.  I stumbled over some words.

Bluntly, it turned out that I was nowhere near as good as I thought I was.

I should not have been surprised.  Psychologists Van Yperen and Buunk coined the phrase ‘illusory superiority” in 1991 to describe the common phenomenon whereby individuals overestimate their own abilities in relation to others.  Put simply, humans are not good at accurately assessing their own competence.  In order to preserve our sense of self-value there is the possibility we are wired to assume we are better than others, when we might be of only the same or worse standard.  It has also been suggested that the worse we are at something, the more likely we are to overestimate our performance at it.  This is very sobering and, given how pleased I was with my ability to explain well, I am glad I did not know about illusory superiority when I first watched back a video of my teaching for the first time.

Although unaware of why I had overestimated my own performance at teaching didactically I was at least self-aware enough to know I needed to improve.  I also knew I would need to get feedback from others because I had proved that my own instincts were not reliable in assessing my performance.

Fortunately that year I had a very gifted and, even more importantly, fearsomely honest Year 11 student who was both willing and able to effectively critique my didactic explanations.  The student picked up the same issues I did when asked, and offered more as I made more videos.  As a direct response to her feedback I planned my videos more carefully, practised before videoing, varied my vocal tone and inflection, clarified board work, slowed down and stopped labouring and over-explaining.  I then showed these videos to whole classes and asked them which they preferred and why.  Once students were comfortable they were not going to hurt my feelings, the feedback they gave became quite insightful and the improvements I made can be seen in the improvements between my earlier and later videos.

As I deliberately practised my delivery I found my explanations, even when they were not being videoed, improved.  I found myself stopping and starting again when I realised what I’d said was confusing, rather than just ploughing on regardless.  This increased my confidence and I began talking for longer and longer in lessons.  It was as student outcomes improved that I finally accepted that the length of my explanations had never been a problem in themselves; it had been the variable quality of them which resulted in students disengaging and not learning what they should.

This leads me to the final point I want to stress.  It was planning, deliberate practise and responding to feedback that made me better at teaching explicitly.   For years I had overestimated my didactic ability, and did not improve until I sought out external feedback.  Once I did realise I improved because I worked deliberately on weak areas, which has led to, in my view, better teaching.

And, of course, the process for me is ongoing.  I know this because videos I once thought really strong now make me wince. This illustrates how far I have come but also suggests I still have a long way to go.  Interestingly, as my position on what good explanation in history is has shifted, so has my opinion on some of my past work.

This might seem to imply that the process of critique and deliberate practice is a depressing one, but to me it is not.  It leads me to hope and believe that my explanations are constantly improving.  This is a very heartening thought.

If we want to get better at explicit teaching we need to view as it the performance it is and plan for it.  We must know our material inside out, rehearse, insist on full attention from our audience, and seek and act upon feedback from others.  Only by doing this can we overcome our own cognitive bias and be genuinely sure we are improving. Planning is key to all this because it provides purpose and intentionality.

That’s it!

And, because I am sure everyone has been simply dying to see me practise at least some of what I have preached, here is the video I am proudest of:

www.youtube.com/watch?v=ux8bNLD4QWw

References:

Mark Enser https://teachreal.wordpress.com/2017/01/08/teach-like-no-one-is-watching/

Greg Ashman https://gregashman.wordpress.com/2015/09/11/faq-direct-instruction/