Give this to every teacher you know: A brilliant, short, accessible, *free* guide to using cognitive load theory in the classroom cese.nsw.gov.au/images/stories… This should be on every teacher training course there is.
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:
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:
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:
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:
If you are interested in learning more about our approach to teaching and learning please take a look at our upcoming training days here.
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!
These are the current top research papers and edu books – have you read them all?
This award-winning title has now inspired a whole series of books. Each of the books in the series are held together by six pedagogical principles challenge, explanation, modelling, practice, feedback and questioning and provide simple, realistic strategies that teachers can use to develop the teaching and learning in their classroom.
Packed with practical teaching strategies, Making Every Lesson Count bridges the gap between research findings and classroom practice. Shaun Allison and Andy Tharby examine the evidence behind what makes great teaching and explore how to implement this in the classroom to make a difference to learning.
Cognitive scientist Dan Willingham focuses his acclaimed research on the biological and cognitive basis of learning. His book will help teachers improve their practice by explaining how they and their students think and learn. It reveals–the importance of story, emotion, memory, context, and routine in building knowledge and creating lasting learning experiences.
The Hidden Lives of Learners takes the reader deep into the hitherto undiscovered world of the learner. It explores the three worlds which together shape a student’s learning – the public world of the teacher, the highly influential world of peers, and the student’s own private world and experiences. What becomes clear is that just because a teacher is teaching, does not mean students are learning. Using a unique method of data collection through meticulous recording – audio, video, observations, interviews, pre- and post-tests – and the collation and analysis of what occurred inside and outside the classroom, Graham Nuthall has definitively documented what is involved for most students to learn and retain a concept
In this thorough, enlightening and comprehensive book, Carl Hendrick and Robin Macpherson ask 18 of today’s leading educational thinkers to distill the most up-to-date research into effective classroom practice in 10 of the most important areas of teaching. The result is a fascinating manual that will benefit every single teacher in every single school, in all four corners of the globe.
Here, David Didau and Nick Rose attempt to lay out the evidence and theoretical perspectives on what we believe are the most important and useful psychological principles of which teacher ought to be aware. That is not to say this book contains everything you might ever need to know – there is no way it could – it is merely a primer. We hope that you are inspired to read and explore some of the sources for yourself and see what other principles can find a home in your classroom. Some of what we present may be surprising, some dubious, but some in danger of being dismissed as ‘blindingly obvious’.
As teachers grapple with the challenge of a new, bigger and more challenging school curriculum, at every key stage and phase, success can feel beyond our reach. But what if there were 50,000 small solutions to help us bridge that gap?
In Closing the Vocabulary Gap, Alex Quigley explores the increased demands of an academic curriculum and how closing the vocabulary gap between our ‘word poor’ and ‘word rich’ students could prove the vital difference between school failure and success
The Learning Rainforest captures different elements of our understanding and experience of the art and science of teaching. It is a celebration of great teaching and the intellectual and personal rewards that it brings. It’s aimed at all teachers; busy people working in complex environments with little time to spare. The core of the book is a guide to making teaching both effective and manageable using a three-part structure: establishing conditions; building knowledge; exploring possibilities.
Today I had the pleasure of presenting with Claire Hill on what a research-informed classroom actually looks like. Both Claire and I share a vision of using research to guide effective classroom practice in our departments but also as a way to reduce unnecessary workload by focusing on the things that are more likely to really make a difference. Link to the PowerPoint slides here.
I started by talking about the fact that in the first years of my teaching I did not have a good definition of learning – which now seems pretty remarkable given that I was in the job of getting students to learn stuff… However, if we take this notion from Kirschner, Sweller and Clark (2006) it’s a bit of a game changer. If we make long-term learning the goal of our teaching then it calls into question all sorts of practices which have long been established. For example, the model of massing practice in half-term long units (sometimes focusing on knowledge/skills which will never be revisited) is perhaps not the best model for learning.
Such massed practice is great for performance of learning – your students will probably appear to know a lot about a topic by the end of the unit. However, this gives us a false sense of security because it’s so easy for students to appear as if they’ve learnt something if we’ve only just finished teaching it.
The truth is that when teachers try to facilitate learning by making it as easy as possible they’re increasing the immediately observable short-term performance but that often comes at the expense of important long-term retention. In short, we often seek to eliminate difficulties to the detriment of long-term learning.
I think it’s important that I say here that I completely understand why, with certain in-school accountability measures, teachers do strive to make learning as easy as possible to increase perceived performance or perceived progress. School leaders need to understand that excessive data drops/captures/trawls are having a negative effect on learning. In seeking to measure performance, presumably to implement targeted intervention, they are actually making progress and learning LESS likely.
So how can we ensure that the time and effort put into lessons, by both students and teachers, is resulting in long-term learning and not just performance?
Well Bjork suggests introducing what he terms ‘desirable difficulties’. Bjork argues that by introducing these ‘desirable difficulties’ we can improve the long-term retention of what students are learning. As teachers, our goals should be long term and not about what a student has leant by the end of the lesson, unit or key stage.
To appreciate why difficulties might actually be desirable, we must first make a distinction between performance and actual learning itself.
Performance: Observable during learning and testing
Learning: A long-term process that is difficult to measure
We need to separate performance and learning and prioritise the latter in our classroom.
Bjork begs the question that ‘if the research picture is so clear, why then are massed practice, excessive feedback, fixed conditions of training, and limited opportunities for retrieval practice such common features’ in the classroom?
Claire then began to talk about the classroom application of this research about learning and desirable difficulties by talking about using multiple-choice tests to exploit the testing effect and to increase the durability, and students’ ability to recall, what they’ve learnt.
With the new linear specifications and the vast body of knowledge that needs to retained, it is no longer an option to teach a text or topic in September of year 10 and then only come back to this in the lead up to exams in year 11. It is little wonder that with this approach the period between January and May of year 11 is oftentimes filled with intervention and revision sessions because students have not revisited or revised half of the topics since year 10.
No revision happens every lesson through different forms of retrieval practice with students being pushed to retrieve knowledge from things they learnt in a previous topic, month, term or year. This retrieval practice is low stakes and can take many forms.
Multiple choice questions (MCQs), like those on the slide, not only allow for retrieval practice but also serve to give teachers an insight into which students still have misconceptions or misunderstandings. For example, if a student identifies that ‘lovely’ is an adverb because it ends in ‘ly’ then that’s a misconception that can be identified through MCQs and addressed. MCQs, once created, can be used, refined and used again. Your team can work together to generate these and, if you have a team with varying experience, your more experienced teachers can really inform the creation of these because they’ll know the misconceptions that students will likely make.
I spoke briefly about how providing students with a knowledge organiser is a powerful way to be explicit about the knowledge all students are expected to know. This knowledge can then easily be tested in the form of 5-a-Day Starters which include a mix of questions from topics covered so retrieval is distributed. They’re also a great way to establish a routine at the start of lessons where students are expected to ‘get in and get on’ with their learning.
Claire then shared the next step in creating retrieval practice questions which is to consider how these might be used to really extend students’ thinking and to include comparison and evaluation as well as recall. The example here is adapted from one used by Claire’s 2iC and this structure is now followed for a series of questions on different texts and for different year groups as a further development to her department’s work on retrieval practice. Creating a bank of these questions by dividing texts across members of the department has been a good way to save time and share workloads whilst also offering teachers the opportunity to really think about students’ possible misconceptions and ways to further interleave topics across the curriculum.
Reducing workload is at the centre of nearly every policy and practice Claire introduces. Claire has not marked a single piece of homework for over four years and never intends to again. This doesn’t mean that students in Claire’s school don’t do homework – they absolutely do and it is checked in lesson along with seeing just how well the homework has been completed. However, most homework is checked through retrieval practice in of the many forms already mentioned which does not require teacher marking.
However, essay homework is dealt with slightly differently. When students write an essay for homework, Claire will take it in and have a look over it but won’t give any feedback. The reason being that Claire is unable to control the conditions in which the homework has been completed – any feedback given on homework is not going to be as accurate or helpful as feedback on a timed piece written in lesson. Claire will, instead, mark their essays written in lesson and give feedback before asking students to use the feedback from the lesson essay to improve their homework essay thereby transferring the feedback to a new piece of work. The idea behind this is based on Dylan Wiliam’s assertion that the ‘main purpose of feedback is to improve the student [to help] the student do a better job next time’. By using this model, Claire can see that they are transferring their feedback to another piece of work and therefore they are more likely to be able to apply this to their next piece of work.
I then spoke about the best thing I’ve introduced for homework at both KS3 and KS4: self-quizzing. This idea was inspired by reading Joe Kirby’s chapter in ‘Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers: The Michaela Way’ entitled ‘Homework as Revision’. Not only does it complement my department’s approach to homework (activities which have high value but require no marking) but students’ knowledge has improved as well as their confidence.
Students are expected to spend 30 minutes every week self-quizzing on a section of their knowledge organiser. They do this by recalling, as accurately as they can, everything they can and, once finished, checking their work against the knowledge organiser and using a different coloured pen to fill in gaps and correct errors. This way, progress can easily be seen and it’s incredibly quick and easy as a class teacher to check that the homework has been completed by expecting students to have their books open on their desks and quickly walking around the room.
It’s also a great revision activity in the classroom to give students a blank knowledge organiser or a mostly blank knowledge organiser to fill in. Students really enjoy the challenge and it highlights very clearly to them where their gaps in knowledge are.
Students at KS3 an KS4 in my school also self-quiz on their ambitious vocabulary using the Quizlet App (or look, cover, write, check if they haven’t got access). Students are encouraged to spend a few minutes every day self-quizzing on their vocabulary.
In his New Theory of Disuse (1992), Bjork theorises that memories don’t decay. He suggests that it’s not that memories disappear but that we stop being able to retrieve them. You could liken this to having a shoe cupboard full of shoes and knowing there’s a certain pair in there but being unable to dig them out. The shoes still exist but you can’t find them under the mountain of other shoes!
What’s really exciting about Bjork’s ideas is that it suggests we have an infinite long term memory store – there’s potentially no limit to the amount of knowledge we could know but we need to get better at retrieving that information.
However, there’s a barrier to getting things into our long term memory: our working memory. Our working memory is limited and there’s research to suggest that our personal working memory limit is fixed and there’s not much we can do about that. We need to navigate the bottle neck of working memory to get more stuff into long term memory.
We need to reduced the extraneous cognitive load in lessons in order that students can manage the intrinsic cognitive load of what we’re trying to teach them. We can’t change the intrinsic challenge of a text like Jane Eyre (and we certainly shouldn’t avoid teaching it because it’s challenging) but we can change our lessons to reduce the extraneous cognitive load which will be taking up students’ working memory.
For example, we need to ensure that students can see the board easily e.g. by seating them in rows. We need to have periods of silence in lessons so that students can concentrate on their deliberate practice. We need to give students enough time to complete tasks. We also need to avoid flooding our PowerPoint slides with lots of text and then talking over it.
Dan Willingham argues that ‘memory is the residue of though’ and that students will remember what they think about. I shared an example of a lesson that almost certainly ensured students did not remember what they were meant to though they probably do remember spending an English lesson sticking their hands in kidney beans and mash potato… We must be mindful of what students are spending lesson time thinking about and directing that very carefully to what we want them to be thinking about.
All teachers can probably think of an example from their teaching career where they’ve done something similar – it speaks of a zeitgeist of teaching (circa 2006 onwards but perhaps earlier) where the primary goal of lessons seemed to be engagement and ‘wow’ moments. Outstanding gradings were awarded in lessons where poor proxies of learning were evident (e.g. minimal teacher talk) and questionable practices abounded such as discovery learning and group work (de Bono’s thinking hats anyone?).
We must work towards using the most effective methods in lessons such as modelling. There’s lots of evidence to suggest the power of metacognition and modelling. Spending time modelling though processes and showing students how to construct an answer is an extremely powerful lesson activity. Live modelling was a regular feature of lessons before PowerPoint (the temptation to show ‘one I made earlier’ is strong) and it’s something we need to do more of. We need to show students that it’s a complicated thing to construct an essay response but by modelling the process of working through that we are empowering students to do the same whilst also providing them with a model of excellence.
I’ve bought everybody in my team a visualiser and we use them all the time both to model and look at student work with the class.
Claire talked about the principles of designing a knowledge-led curriculum and distinguishing between disciplinary knowledge and substantive knowledge. A more detailed blog to follow on this…
When designing a curriculum it’s important not to see learning as discrete bundles that can be tied up at the end of a lesson or unit. We must also strive not to be dictated to by the calendar (where’s the logic in a six week unit of work other than because this is how the year is divided up because of holidays?) or by the data monster. Too often we distort the learning process by trying to meet certain deadlines throughout the year.
I talked briefly talked through my curriculum design. In KS3 students cover two main topics a year (a novel and a Shakespeare play) but this is interleaved with poetry lessons, weekly writing challenge lessons and analysis of unseen fiction and non-fiction. The rainbow strips across the top are threshold concepts which essentially represent the idea that that we are doing all of the things all of the time rather than massing practice into blocks.
At KS4, students sit their English Language exam at the end of year 10 but they study two of the Lit texts. In year 11, from September until Christmas the other two texts will be studied so that after Christmas, though commonly after February half term due to PPE disruption, all four texts are interleaved in the course of study.
Here’s a the beginning view weeks of a typical KS3 medium term plan. What you can see here is that students don’t have consecutive lessons on the same thing. Initially teachers found this a real challenge and we had to work towards not blocking lessons together but students have never found this difficult or even questioned why they’re studying Animal Farm one day and writing skills the next. This may be because they’re used to bouncing from subject to subject. In their day they might go from studying trigonometry lesson one and then the water cycle period two, running around playing hockey period three before coming to English. The other thing that’s been built into the curriculum is whole lessons for feedback.
I shared an example of the whole-class feedback approach which my department have adopted. Students receive a specific numbered target and a whole class feedback sheet (either printed and/or displayed) that includes praise, common spelling errors and exemplars of great work. It’s so much quicker to mark in this way then laboriously write out individual comments and litter students work with comments/questions. I simply jot down comments on a sheet of paper as I’m marking and then it takes me 5 minutes or so to create a whole class feedback slide with a set of numbered targets specific to that class and what I’ve seen from reading their books.
Feedback lessons are an opportunity for teachers to re-teach and model where necessary and then students spend the rest of the lesson completing a ‘DIRT Task’ that will be specific and actionable – an opportunity to act on their targets either by redrafting a piece of work or completing a new task where they can demonstrate that they’ve acted on the feedback and made progress. Students will then draw a yellow box around this.
Claire shared this extract from Carl Hendrick and Robin Macpherson’s book ‘What Does This Look Like In The Classroom’. The highlighted section clearly questions the common practice in school of writing lengthy summary comments at the end of a piece of work. Not only are these time-consuming but also largely ineffective.
Sharing WWWs for the whole class is far more effective, and efficient, than giving every student a WWW comment. Not only will one document save time in writing, but it also means every student can see the possible ideas they could have used and gives an opportunity to re-teach some of these ideas if not may students used them in their work.
In terms of teacher input, Claire will read through the work and add codes linked to EBI tasks, at first this will be next to where students need to include more detail or make changes, but later it will just be at the end of the work and students work out where their improvements would be best added. As suggested by Daisy Christodoulou, the tasks are ‘actionable’ and students have ‘something they can go away and do in response to it’. Therefore, instead of writing ‘EBI: Analyse in more detail’ for the 60-70% of the class you may need to use that comment for, you simply write one number and give students a specific task to complete i.e. ‘pick out key words such as ‘milk’ or ‘gall’ and analyse in more detail, considering the connotations of those words’. The next time a student completes a similar piece of work, ask them to prove that they will not need the same target as last time, by asking them to highlight evidence that they have met this target in their new piece of work.
We wanted to our presentation with the exciting news that we are working on a book together. Leading from the Middle: A Guide to Effective Middle Leadership will be published later this year by John Catt and is available to order now here.
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