Featured

What does learning look like?

td-deep-learning

I’ve written before about learning and performance orientations in schools and the cultures they might produce. In turn, this has also directed me towards the difference in learning and performance right at the chalk face. I ask myself, how can I recognise the difference in my own pupils? How do I know children aren’t just performing; how do I know they’ve really learnt anything at all?

This has always troubled me as a teacher. How do any of us know whether children are learning, particularly in short observations? I’ve watched lessons with colleagues and during our subsequent discussions it seems hard to unravel the real difference between engagement, performance and actual learning. There are a range of poor proxies for learning that stump people into thinking they are witnessing it. Hives of activity, quiet focus, task completion, careful presentation or pages of correct answers can all look like learning.  Most people would agree that engagement is not learning; you can put a class of six-year olds in front of a mickey mouse cartoon and they are engaged, but not necessarily learning anything. Attention and focus maybe prerequisites for learning but can never be learning itself.

Recently, while researching further into the difference between learning and performance, I came across the work of Prof. Robert Bjork. He finds that it is very easy to mistake the two and that education has mixed up learning and performance in all sorts of ways for a long time and with negative consequences for learners and learning.

To begin with, we have to start by distinguishing learning and performance which doesn’t often happen in busy schools where teachers feel the need to ‘get through stuff’ and ‘produce results’. While learning refers to changes in long-term memory as a result of a task, performance merely shows how well pupils do in that task, and these are not the same thing. Learning itself is a hidden phenomenon; it is invisible, but its effects thankfully are not, therefore we can at least infer it has occurred, but the trouble is, not in the ways we might assume we can.

Bjork describes how learning and performance can act as inverse to one another so that when pupils perform particularly well in a task, the transfer of learning to long-term memory might actually be less than if they hadn’t performed as well as they did. Confused? Yes, doesn’t this just run contrary to how most people think about learning. Surely correct answers are a sign of learning?  Well, no. And this counters our intuitive conception of learning if it is possible to get pages of calculations correct, but not learn anything.  We confuse learning and performance in education all the time because as long as there is no change in long-term memory then there is no learning. There might have been recall of items stored in the long- term memory that were then processed in the working memory, hence lots of correct answers, but as long as no new connections have been made – it’s not learning. This is the problem: performance is  not the same as learning. One is showing, demonstrating, revealing what you already know while the other is the real-time creation of knowledge which can only be achieved through breaking through a period of ‘not knowing,’ otherwise known as confusion, misunderstanding, inaccurate thinking or what happens when kids look up frowning and say, ‘I don’t get it.’

No change in long- term memory = no learning.

Recall is not learning

Learning follows on from confusion

We find it hard to accept that struggling to succeed in a task is more likely to result in learning, rather than the straight forward successful completion of that task.  While this might seem obvious to seasoned teachers, it is not obvious to many and especially not children, who will usually avoid making mistakes at all cost. Yet, how many times do we look through books, ticking, tick, ticking away and interpret this as a sign of learning? ‘Oh good, they’ve learnt loads today?’  Except, it seems maybe not – it could be that they just performed the task and learned nothing at all?

Like this, Bjok refers to what he calls ‘desirable difficulties’ in that a task needs to be hard enough to trigger the level of processing that has the potential to shift new knowledge to the long-term memory, but not so hard that the pupil is unable to make any links at all. Just as Goldilocks’ needed it to be ‘just right’ so do learners need tasks to be just right too.  And has Daniel Willingham notes in his new and wonderful book (link below): ‘memory is the residue of thought’ so when learners have to think their way to success rather than just ‘do,’ or recall, then it is more likely that learning takes place.  The tricky task for teachers is  designing tasks that will make children think and as Willingham says, think about the right things! No doubt teachers will wince at those times they set up engaging hook activities only to find that all the children thought about was what people were wearing, or the types of animals in the background instead of the history or geography that was the focus!  I recall opening a fossil topic by burying little plastic dinosaurs in plaster of Paris, believing that this would help the children understand how fossils are formed, but all they talked about afterwards was who had the best dinosaurs with the best colours, not once thinking about the fossilisation process.  This is an example of not thinking carefully about what children are likely to think about when engaged in an activity. Perhaps I would have been better off demonstrating how remains become fossilised first, then let them make their own with less conspicuous dinosaurs? It all says a lot about what we use to hook children into learning and whether this is always necessary or effective.

“Memory is the residue of thought”

We learn what we think about

Design tasks that make children think specifically about what they need to learn

So, is this all just about pitch and putting the right task in front of the right child? Well, that in itself is hard enough; any teacher sat before thirty children will tell you that, but even then how do we know that learning really takes place? As Bjork notes, a teacher can teach something and the pupil seems to understand it, they can talk about it there and then, but then the next time that topic comes up the children appear to have learned nothing at all. Is this not the bane of all teachers and the cause of many a deep sigh while marking books? To our frustration as teachers, we know that learning might look like learning when it isn’t.

We can see and measure performance, but unfortunately current performance is not a reliable indicator that learning has happened and knowledge has been embedded in long-term memory. Conversely there can be considerable learning without much performance at all. Worryingly, performances can dramatically improve with no real effect on learning because with things like mass practice and cramming, pupils can appear to acquire knowledge, but later on it’s as if nothing ever actually happened. It seems that if we don’t get children thinking about the stuff we want them to for long enough and in the right way  knowledge doesn’t fix itself into long-term memory.  When this happens, it’s like writing your name in the air with a sparkler on bonfire night- you see it and you can read it, it’s real, but it quickly disappears. What we need is to write with indelible marker into the memories of our children!

Unless information is thought about enough and in different ways it will never move into the long-term memory. 

Bjork also talks about inadvertantly ‘priming’ pupils so that they appear to get better at tasks because their performance improves. Here, conditions are usually constant and pupils are in effect just repeating brain activity rather than making new connections. If teachers aren’t careful they can trick themselves into thinking children are learning because they mistakenly create an environment that doesn’t disturb this repeated brain activity hence it looks like good, solid learning. However, disrupt this and it soon becomes apparent it’s not. For example, change classrooms, have a supply teacher, use a different presentation format and suddenly this repeated brain activity has to shift, process this other information and that performance you thought was learning is interrupted; all of sudden they appear to have forgotten everything!

For example, you show your pupils how to find fractions by dividing the denominator and multiplying the numerator. You give them a page of fractions sums. At first a few pupils find it a bit tricky so you go back a few times and show them again. Perhaps use concrete resources and images to help them grasp the concept. Then they go ahead and complete a page of sums, getting seemingly more and more proficient. You think, ‘great, my pupils can find fractions of amounts!’  A few days later, someone else takes your class and you  leave them fraction sums to do again as you feel it would be good to consolidate their knowledge while you’re out of class.  When you meet the supply teacher later, they look flustered; no one seemed to understand how to find a fraction. He says he decided to use fractions of money instead but otherwise introduced it just the same way. How perplexing?  What happened when they did all those sheets of sums the first time? Well, not much it seems. With every calculation, the pupils only had to repeat an initial  process rather than do much thinking at all: ‘do this, do this and then you get that,’ but there was little opportunity for links to be created by putting finding fractions into a context or providing some cognitive variation to the process such as a trying it with different units of measurement.   This is why schemes like White Rose are so effective, because they build on variation so that pupils can’t just get into a rut with the fluency of repeated, mass practice. And this is why sheets of sums are not a good way to learn, only perform.

Repeat performances can look like improvements in learning.

Variation in the ways a concept can be thought about help avoid this.

So, it seems we can only know if learning has happened later when we can see evidence of transfer – such as being able to take finding a fraction of an amount and using that to find fractions of other things and in different ways.  It seems that mass practice leads to short-term performance but poor long-term retention. You might feel very pleased that pupils can complete pages of sums , but we need to ask whether this helps to create those links, the changes in long-term memory that mean learning as happened.  As Bjork notes, ‘the more things are massed together, the more you will see apparent benefits in the short term’, like the sheets of correct sums or repeated spellings that are correct. However, the more the learning of a specific things is spaced apart, the more benefit to long- term memory. This means that teachers need to think carefully about the latest craze for ‘slow learning’ where we stay with one block of for example fractions for several weeks. This is fine if we’re providing lots of variation in the fraction learning, but we should also come back to other areas and be deliberate about how we space them into learning cycles.

Bjork speaks extensively about the ‘power of forgetting’ so that when the brain forgets but is then triggered to remember a powerful link is created. In turn, there is benefit from allowing pupils to take a look at difficult material they don’t understand before you give direct instruction on it. There is something about that first moment of confusion and puzzlement that seems to prepare the brain for learning in that area. We have to understand that the brain is hungry to make links – those synapses are like bare wires waiting to zap the first thing they meet so puzzlement is like turning up the electricity a bit just before you make the connection – then whiz the lights come on! So there is real benefit in giving children a short pre-assessment of an area before you teach it, plus if you do that in a dialogic way and listen to them discuss it with their peers you can then pick up on the misconceptions you need to give direct instruction on.

That first moment of confusion and puzzlement prepares the brain for learning in that area.

Children need to feel this often and understand it leads to learning.

Bjork’s work also highlights the very positive effect of interleaving, so setting up learning so that the brain has to switch sometimes to another topic then come back. It’s almost like when you read a tricky paragraph in a paper and you can’t understand it, then you go and do a cross word (or in my case watch a soap opera), then you come back to the paper and somehow, it makes more sense.  It’s as if the connection you started to make around the tricky paper benefited from having that space. As Bjork suggests, for any given retention interval there will be an optimal spacing interval and this will probably be the hard part to gauge as too much spacing and interleaving will start to have a negative effect. This is where the relationship a teacher has with their pupils is integral – a good teacher will intuitively know when it’s right as they get to know  their pupils’ processing levels.  In essence, the conditions that actively produce forgetting like spacing, variation or introducing things in different contexts are the things that enhance learning, but the process needs careful planning and timing – all achieved by knowing pupils well. This also comes from the tactic knowledge of an experienced teacher – so let’s value them! It also tells us that teachers really do need time to plan their lessons and less time taken up with marking, admin and meetings about meetings!

To finish, if education is about anything it is about learning, but what a muddle it finds itself in because of the huge emphasis on accountability which relies so heavily on performances.  Ironically, those performances we need in order to prove that we’re any good will always be fine if we just focus on learning. Educators need to clarify the difference between learning and performance  in their minds and everywhere in schools. When schools openly value learning over performance – they do really well. They are fantastic places to learn and teach in. Teachers and children are focused. Less ticks, more head scratching makes an authentic place of learning.  Pupils should be hungry for confusion and puzzlement, but revel in the solutions they find; this makes learning addictive.  As teachers, we need to design and plan for puzzlement. Then we are really teaching!

Read and hear all about this from the experts:

Robert Bjork’s on line talks

Daniel Willingham’s fabulous book!

 

Running between tables in restaurants…

While on holiday recently, Mr B and I were enjoying dinner together. As some couples do when married for nearly twenty years, we tend to do more people watching than gazing into each other’s eyes over the fois gras (although we never order that as it’s downright cruel – ask a duck). On this particular evening, Mr B spotted a family behind me and became quickly fixated by what he observed.

Being a candid kind of man, he was quick to show his disapproval and incredulity at what he considered ‘diabolicial parenting’ on the table behind me.  I turned discreetly to see a mother and father with two children all eating their supper. The father held a mobile phone in one hand, while using a folk to feed himself with the other. His wife stared into space and his two sons twiddled pasta into their mouths while entranced by an iPad propped up between them.

Knowing my husband’s propensity for expressions of ferocity in the face of many of life’s seeming injustices, both small and large, I attempted to rationalise their behaviour to him.

“Well, don’t worry. Perhaps dad had to do an urgent business email or something…and you never know they might have been talking all day!”  But he was insistent.

“I doubt it – I bet they have those things on in the car instead of looking out the window too. Kids should be enjoying conversation with their parents, that’s what coming to the table is for!”  He was adamant and I had to agree. We have seen this pacification of children many times before in recent years and almost always during  occasions when we had some of the most memorable conversations with our own children.

We tried to continue our meal while Mr B gave me a running commentary of ‘that family behind you’.  After some time, the family finished their silent supper and their plates were cleared.  To his continued annoyance, another iPad appeared allowing both children to have one each. The older boy had previously made several attempts to engage his parents in conversation, even walking around the table a few times, but being offered an iPad to himself  was the pacification his parents sought.

The family then settled down for the rest of their stultified meal, engrossed in their own electronic worlds. Kicking my husband another thirty times under table while asking him to keep his voice down, he reminded me, in as loud a voice as he could, that when our children were little and out with us at a restaurant, they would have been running around now between the tables, or rolling around underneath them, and above all – talking to us!

Yet none of this seemed to reach them, not least I expect because of the language barrier of which I am thankful. Perhaps Mr B’s furrowed brow and piercing looks were considered merely the characteristics of  ‘that uptight English bloke over there….after all, his wife kicks him all the time and tells him to be quiet’.

In a last-ditch attempt to find some solace, Mr B took a surreptitious snap of the family and said, “write about this, you have to.” And so here I am, and here is that photo.

French family 'together'_LI (2)

Seeing as I know nothing about this family, I feel it only fair to say that I can only comment on about an hour and a half of their lives together. It could well be that they have talked and talked all day and this is a rare occurrence for them. Yet I can’t help feel, as Mr B said, that being together and talking ‘is what coming to the table is for’.

The photograph makes me feel sad. Was this a missed opportunity to be together and learn about all the wondrous things those two, lovely boys had in their heads, all the questions they might have asked given the chance, all the anecdotes that could have been shared with them to help shape their ideas and make sense of the world?  This seemed to be made plain by the family a few tables away with two young girls, who were engaged in hearty laughter, loving banter and yes, a few laps between the tables.

And how many times do I witness parents picking their children up from school, leading their child away while transfixed by their phones – emitting only short, stunted answers to their child’s questions, with no urge to interrogate them about their day, let alone point out a different kind of tree and wonder how old it might be, or why lines in the road are yellow and not pink, or why clouds are different shapes, or why soil is always brown. Surely no text is more important than this? No post? No Whatsapp message?  Surely?

Today, we hear that since 1997 the amount of girls self-harming due to severe mental illness has doubled. We know that more and more children need help to navigate themselves through the often problematic psychological expedition of being human. Mental health problems have never been so prevalent in young children. In my experience too as a class teacher, more children find it harder to focus in class for even short periods of time.  How much worse this journey through life must be, if our young children grow up deficient in that closeness that comes  about through those seemingly mundane conversations while sat around sucking up spaghetti together, or walking home hand in hand after a long day at school. These were to me the gold dust of parenthood. They are the crown jewels of memories I carry with me from mothering my two children when they were young. They’re not perfect now. Like all young adults they are arrogant at times, egotistical, vehement in their views (which I adore), naïve too,  and always, always messy (yes, I failed there), but also often wise, thoughtful and inquisitive, and competent communicators. Like all young people they have their moments, their crises and trip ups, but somehow, they know who they are and how to help themselves.

Who can say that this was down to not having mobile phones or iPads at mealtimes, or me not actually owning a mobile phone when I used to pick them up from primary school. I’m sure there’s more to it than that. There are many reasons why children turn out alright or not.  But there is something to this; there is something truly awful about that photograph and what went on around that dinner table. People are losing their children to screens and I’m sure this can’t end well.

I’m sure I will never ever see that family again in my entire life. It’s likely those two boys will grow up into healthy, productive and responsible adults; I hope so. But that evening will stay etched in my mind as a warning that humans need to take great care here. We are a species of  communicators who have broken bread over ancient fires, while telling tales and sharing stories for thousands of years. The young have always tugged at our heels and asked why? and how? And we have learnt about being human by looking into each other’s faces and talking for a while here and there…

Why Hattie’s effect sizes miss the bigger picture…

I am a big Hattie fan. I like him because he’s not afraid to call us all out on the strange things we teachers get up to because ‘that’s the way it’s always been done’. Whether we are teachers or school leaders, we need people like John Hattie in education to remind us to focus on evidence and impact rather than rhetoric or hyperbole. However, his latest comments on  the value of teaching assistants to pupils’ learning is missing something.

Evidence suggests that teaching assistants add little value to pupil achievement and that often in schools the pupils who struggle the most are taught by the least qualified, the teaching assistants. On the face of it, yes this was once a problem and may still be a problem in some schools, but many schools have acted on this mistake and now ensure that children further behind  have the best teaching. It still surprises me that educated people allowed otherwise, but times have changed.  For example, in our school we have switched timetabling and rotas so that teachers themselves do most of the interventions with the children who need to catch up while teaching assistants do more playground duties and supervising classes during assemblies etc. We have prioritised teachers having one to one or small group time with pupils who will benefit from that expertise, rather than as Hattie put it, leaving it to the ‘amateurs’ (which really sounds rather rude, but is technically correct). This has meant teachers have more time targeting those pupils with the greatest need and the impact in evident.

Certainly this proves Hattie’s point that needier pupils require ‘expert’ rather than ‘amateur’ attention, who could possibly argue with this, but this belies the fact that this is often only possible because of teaching assistants covering those other non-teaching activities. Hattie’s condemnation of teaching assistants working with the neediest children is right, but he ignores the extra bandwidth given to teachers who have teaching assistants. For example, having a teaching assistant might mean the difference between it taking two hours on your own to change a display, to half an hour designing material then your TA changing the display while you put that time to marking books and providing detailed feedback to move pupils on. Without that time, perhaps your marking would have been rushed and not as effective – so then what’s the effect size there of not having a teaching assistant? The support teaching assistants give teachers in time by taking care of those peripheral activities cannot be ignored here. We have to acknowledge that time is like gold dust to teachers yet the system is asking more and more of their time.

Lately all  we hear about is the deficit in graduates applying to be teachers; it is likely that sooner or later we will face an critical national shortage in teachers. And why is this? Because we are overloading teachers with  paper work and record keeping because in turn, school leaders are burdened by an accountability and compliance agenda that is literally suffocating schools. Teachers now have more paper work and record keeping demands than ever before. Give them an assistant to tidy the classroom and re-arrange that display thats been ignored for weeks, but kept them awake at night, then we are supporting teachers in coping with workload. It is short sighted in this climate to consider teaching assistants as ineffective without considering the time they give back to teachers. Yes, teachers didn’t have teaching assistants when I started teaching, that’s what all leaders say when they have to take them away from teachers, but then when I started teaching they didn’t have emails, class do jo messages or the kind of paper trails we have now.  Teachers can spend anywhere up to an hour or more a day answering emails or messages from parents, let alone all the other things we weren’t expected to do fifteen years ago. We forget just how the job has changed and why teachers need all the help they can get.

So while I agree wholeheartedly that untrained people should not be assigned to the most needy pupils, I don’t agree with the research rhetoric that teaching assistants don’t add value to a school and this is because no one could measure the effect of a teaching assistant sorting out all my resources while I work with a child at playtime who is a year behind in writing, or the time that might give me to design and create support resources for that child. Some might say that teachers just have to do both, and yes they do need to, and they do, a lot, but if we squeeze teachers any harder, then what?

So, while it’s important to think about impact and how schools use their resources, and ever more so with all the budget cuts, we should also think carefully about those factors that are hard to measure but that everyone knows are valuable. We may very well have to do away with teaching assistants if school budgets are squeezed further, but then we have re-evaluate what we are asking of teachers otherwise we might be faced with having to measure the effect size of a dwindling, worn out teacher workforce.

A ‘bad girl’ reminisces on behaviour management…

Dickens_characters

(Many people reading this will certainly know about effective behaviour management strategies and my ramblings will seem like old hat – apologies,  but…well, what are blogs for if not to cogitate out loud.)

I met up with an old teaching pal in the holidays, and we got into a discussion about children’s behaviour. It wasn’t long before my old friend poured out her frustration about what was going on at her school detailing how challenging the behaviour had become in this first term. Not an unusual story from any teacher working in an inner- city school. However, it wasn’t long before I realised that her main problem seemed to be the behaviour of some of the adults, and perhaps more so than the children.

It was clear to me that many of the support staff she described were stuck in the belief that behaviour management is about giving out punishments and exacting revenge on poorly behaved children with a view to this improving behaviour? My friend described support staff, and also teachers, who escalated challenging behaviour through their short-sighted belief that consequences for poor behaviour needed to be immediate, publicly humiliating and a very negative experience for the perpetrator.  I recognised this because I have experienced this myself and to an extent that I describe it as toxic.

It all came flooding back to me as I recalled the routinely angry, frowning faces of teachers at my secondary school when children sort their attention in any way they could, fulfilling their teachers’ short-sighted prophesies that these were bad kids destined for bad things. And while this might sound like a Dickensian scene from Hard Times, with one Gradgrind welding his cane high above small heads, this toxic attitude to children displaying challenging behaviour only needs to be held by a few adults for it to ignite into a spiral of negativity that gets worse and worse. This can reach a level so low that the relationship between pupils and adults is so toxic that even being together in the same room becomes a catalyst for poor behaviour.

I know this because I was that pupil who could enter a classroom, register the expectant expression on the teacher’s grim face and know that whatever happened, I would live up to his expectations, threats and humiliations with whatever disruption I could create. Yet, when I walked into another lesson, I could see a smile and experience a shower of positively that would refuse to let my negativity take over. They would not rise to my bait, (which might have been anything from tapping the desk repeatedly, flicking things at neighbours, humming, giggling and sighing so loudly they could hear it next door), but instead they met every cry for attention, every demonstration of insecurity disguised as nonchalance, with an attitude that although firm, clear and decisive was highly positive and positive about me.  This was because teachers like this didn’t make my behaviour about them. Whatever they thought inside, and I’ve no doubt they were intensely annoyed by my antics, they exuded care, calmness and strength. I could not get under their skin.

Challenging behaviour is frustrating and sometimes even frightening. I’m not saying that underneath we don’t feel deep irritation and annoyance when children disrupt lessons, we do, we’re human, but most of the time it serves no one well to show this emotionally. Teaching is as much about the image you bring to the classroom as it is the skills and knowledge you teach. If the image pupils have of you is of someone who is unruffled by challenging behaviour and who really does care how pupils feel then you will get a very different response from even the most angry, unruly children.

I once taught in a school where one boy regularly stood and turned the whole table over before kicking his chair across the room. What I learnt, and I think intuitively knew from my own more low-level behaviour as a pupil, was that meeting that kind of explosion with yet another explosion only creates one big blast! At that school, I learnt that while all behaviour must have consequences, and we need to teach that to children, consequences don’t need to be given immediately and often when they are they only serve to escalate already heightened emotions, when far better to calm things down, then talk about penalties when everyone is cooler. I’ve watched people get themselves into such a knot by listing the consequences to a child, while the child is getting angrier and angrier and more out of control:

“Right, do that again and you’ll have no play today!”

“Ok, right no play!”

“Carry on and you’ll go to Mr Jones!”

“And you’ll have no golden time…. It’s going to be a great one this week as we’re making biscuits too…”

“How dare you act like this is class. And if you break that pencil your parents will pay for it”. 

“Don’t you shrug your shoulders or roll your eyes  at me either!”

 This kind of response to challenging behaviour is just a ridiculous tit-for-tat approach to the situation. The adult here is actually encouraging the child to carry on. Go on, I dare you! It’s like a duel of who can do the worst to each other, and the picking up of the secondary behaviour like breaking a pencil or shrugging shoulders is the icing on the cake. It’s just foolish.  Sadly, over my years of teaching, and visiting  different schools, I’ve seen quite a few seemingly sensible adults take this approach when children are losing it. I’ve also seen adults get right up into pupils’ faces when issuing these kinds of threats and then they wonder why suddenly pupils are tipped over into a whirlwind. It’s as if some adults have watched too many episodes of Prisoner Cell Block H. Think about it, would you do anything for anyone if they threatened you and from a distance two inches from your face? It’s never going to end well, is it?

I remember at this one school; a teaching assistant would regularly come and find me in the staff room to report on what so and so had done. Straight away she would list his crimes and all the rude things he’d said, clearly wanting a reaction from me at the severity of the child’s misdemeanours. Every word was full of sensation, desperate for me to be shocked and outraged and for me to come back with a list of punishments that would follow. In my head, I would say to myself – ‘he’s got to you and now you want to get him back’. And who would deny that this isn’t a natural feeling that anyone would have when a child has been really rude, refused to do what you ask and ruined your lesson. The trouble is – it never works if you come at behaviour from that place. Whereas if you come at it wanting to help that child learn from the situation, learn to manage their emotions then something different happens. Adults dealing with challenging behaviour need to put all their focus on the child, helping them to understand where they’ve gone wrong and how they can make things right again. I wish someone had done that to me much more when I was that agitated young kid.

So, it was with sadness that my friend described all this when talking about her new school.

“It’s as if some of the adults are children themselves,” she lamented. “It’s like they seem to think managing behaviour is about being victorious!” And she was right.

What some people forget is that all behaviour is a form of communication. It’s important to think to yourself, ‘what is this child trying to tell me?’ Sometimes, it might be that they are saving their own self-esteem because it would be better to cause a stink and get sent out than to sit, struggle and fail at yet another learning activity. Sometimes, it might be that they are still holding onto the fact that Fred pushed them while coming into class and no one noticed and now Fred is smiling to himself.  Sometimes they just don’t know how to sit in their own skin and need attention in any way they can get it. Other times, it’s more straight forward, they had no breakfast and they’re too hungry to focus so all they can do it kick out, or it could be they had two hours sleep because of the noisy neighbours or parents arguing. All too often, you will find that there is a reason other then just ‘being naughty’ when children display behaviour above and beyond usual classroom antics. It might seem an insignificant trigger too sometimes, but will mean everything to that child: “You told us to line up in order and Joe didn’t, then when I tried to tell you, you told me to be quiet and you didn’t do anything, then Joe laughed at me.”  Things can seem so meaningless to us, but it’s everything to them – it’s their day, their world. Some children have the resilience to let things go, some haven’t learnt to do that yet and they need to learn what to do when they feel an injustice as happened. What is the they right thing to do when you feel something isn’t fair? What is the right thing to do when you feel bored? When you feel anxious or stressed? What about learning to recognise when you are starting to feel stressed in the first place? I wish someone had helped me like that at school.

Above all though, whatever they throw at us (literally and figuratively) it’s vital we show them that we care and we want them to thrive and succeed at school… and at life.

And they can miss their playtime later…

 

Lightening the load – how to make big gains in learning by doing less.

load

There’s so much snake oil in education that when something with the potential to really help learners comes along, there’s a chance it’s overlooked; this mustn’t be the case with cognitive load theory. The evidence to support this theory is compelling and educators should take note. Like much research in education, cognitive load theory has been around quite a while, but has only recently come to the surface for many teachers like me. What strikes me most about the theory is the hard evidence that supports the common-sense idea this theory asserts, which is that often less is more when teaching.

The evidence to support cognitive load theory tells us that we often make two distinct errors in teaching. Firstly, we frequently stifle learning because we overload children’s cognitive processing capacity so that little of what we teach sticks. Secondly, we give children problem solving activities prematurely, before content or skills are properly learnt, which slows down learning, or even prevents it altogether. These two points are driven firstly by mistaken ideas about the distinction between engagement and learning and then how children learn the kind of information we need to teach in school.

To begin with, we need to understand that  learning involves the processing of information in the working memory enough times that it transfers to long-term memory where it becomes unconscious or, what lead theorist John Sweller calls, automatic. Here information is imprinted onto the unconscious mind rather like a foot print pressing into fresh cement which then dries and remains. Information processing in the working memory is more like a foot print in very wet mud which soon disappears.

Another good analogy for the process of transferring from working to long-term memory is learning to drive a car. At first, we have to practice very deliberately, in a very controlled, clunky manner so we process each action and we have to do this a number of times (more for some people as we know).  Then eventually, our driving becomes unconscious and automatic, so much so that we often have that feeling that we have driven a whole journey without thinking about driving once. Usually, this doesn’t mean we were out of control, but rather our unconscious long-term memory was in charge.  This development in how information is processed is the transfer of information from controlled processing to automatic procedure. This is how learning sticks.

Cogntive load diagram

Now we experience distraction, engagement and learning (hopefully) in the classroom, but teachers are not routinely trained in understanding cognitive capacity. We recognise when children don’t learn, but it’s always hard to pin point why. Sweller asserts that working memory in most healthy humans can process around 3 to 4 ‘elements’ for around 20 seconds. This means that working memory is small and information doesn’t hang around in it for long at all, like that foot print in the soggy mud.

Cognitive elements are not the same for each person or for each set of information and they will change as learners develop, but essentially elements are chunks of information the mind processes. A very basic example might be the word frog. This might comprise of one element for an experienced reader, but f-r-o-g might then be comprised of four elements for a beginner reader. However, the working memory can only hold around four of these in a short period of time before that information is lost.

Now, when giving instruction to pupils there are two factors we teachers have misunderstood, or simply never thought about. Firstly, the limitation in the working memory and secondly the breadth of extraneous auditory and visual cognitive information created through either poor instruction, or an overloaded classroom environment. Put simply, when we create for example, an all singing, all dancing power point  to teach say column addition, it’s likely that the juicy information on how to actually add in columns doesn’t stick because the working memory of those pupils looking at that PowerPoint is overloaded with extraneous visual elements, or what Sweller refers to as ‘redundant information’ (Sweller calls this the redundancy effect).

Below is an example of the kind of power point page or flip chart I have seen many times in primary classrooms (in fact, I’ve seen many more that are even busier!) Now, clearly the maker of the page has gone to quite a bit of trouble to make it appealing to young children and help support pupils learning how to add in columns. However, it is likely that there is too much visual information to process here. In addition, the teacher will probably be talking at the same time to explain each part; they might even have music on to supposedly ‘settle’ the children – all adding more auditory information to the cognitive load.

busy powerpoint.png

The mind processes large amounts of information without us realising it, so while a child might try hard to take in the main points (adding units and then tens) their cognitive capacity will be bursting at the seams with two sets of basic instructions, a colourful bee character, leaves, grass, arrows, boxes… and so on.  It’s no wonder children might go back to their tables to add numbers and be unclear on what to do.

Cognitive load theory suggests that when we cut out the extraneous, ‘redundant’ information it will be easier to process. We cannot say for certain how many cognitive elements are on that page for each pupil, but cutting down visual and auditory extras will help pupils process the content we want them to. According to cognitive load theory, we are less likely to overload the working memory when instruction is pared down, such as with the page below for example.

Pared down powerpoint

Then the right information is more likely to be held in the working memory ready to be applied to repeated practice so that all important imprinting takes place and information is transferred to the long-term memory.

Learning through problem solving

Often as teachers we like to give children problem solving activities. We like these because they promote collaboration, dialogue and we believe they help children to develop their thinking skills. Learning through enquiry or discovery learning has come about through considering how children learn for example, how to speak and walk. In these situations, children aren’t given direct instructions from others on how to speak or walk, but rather they seem to learn by soaking up the skills and knowledge and simply ‘having a go’. This seemingly natural process of learning has been thought to also work when giving children problem solving activities. This is in the hope that by solving problems children learn how to solve problems.

However, according to Sweller, the information we want children to learn in schools isn’t the same as speaking or walking because humans have evolved to learn to walk and speak. This is, as Sweller asserts, ‘knowledge through instinctive acquisition’.  However, humans have not, for example, evolved to learn how to add in columns – this is what Sweller refers to as ‘non-instinctive knowledge’. In essence, some information we are pre-programmed to soak up and other information we aren’t born with the programming for, but only the capacity to learn it from others in a deliberate way.  Sweller calls this type of information, ‘knowledge absent from the natural world’.  Put simply, leave a bunch of homo sapiens on their own and they won’t learn algebra, but they will learn to communicate and walk about.

Essentially, this type of non-instinctive knowledge is learnt more efficiently from a more knowledgeable other who instructs or ‘teaches’ that information. According to Sweller, it is in this way that society or communities of people might remain illiterate or innumerate unless another human intervenes and teaches.  Because of this, it is very difficult to learn non- instinctive knowledge through problem solving. Children look busy and engaged when problem solving, but not much is being transferred from the working to the long-term memory because all that processing capacity is involved in lots of extraneous content outside the specific knowledge to be learned, as well as simply finding a means to an end rather than processing content information.

This is not to say that human beings can’t learn through problem solving at all, it’s just a slower, less efficient kind of learning. For example, a human being could get in a car for the first time (with the key in the ignition) and after much trial and error work out how to drive the car; many people won’t ever work out how to drive it though. However, we all know that having direct instruction from another will dramatically change this. This is why we have driving instructors… and teachers for that matter.  Like this, when it comes to the knowledge outside our natural evolutionary instinct, this is the best way to learn. Obtaining information from another is more efficient than learning through problem solving.  As Sweller notes, problem solving remains a ‘secondary option.’ Personally, when it comes to my son learning to drive, I’m glad I took the first option even though it cost an arm and a leg!
For example, a teacher might use this problem below in an attempt to help children learn their number bonds to ten:

NUmber bonds to 10.png

A child might spend a while with a set of 10 pencils and finally work out the answer is 7, but it’s likely they won’t have learnt about number bonds or how to solve missing number problems either. This would be much more appropriate to give to children who have learned their number bonds and how to solve missing number problems, then they can retrieve that information from their long-term memory and apply it to the problem. This retrieval of information back from the long-term memory to use in processing within the working memory also embeds information further into long-term memory. This is why returning to topics once they are learned is important.

In summary, cognitive load theory gives us the evidence that we need to cut down extraneous material when teaching and this might include doing away with busy displays too close to the area where the teacher gives instruction, cutting out background music and certainly reducing the redundant information in instruction materials like power ponuts  or flip charts. We must not be side tracked by wanting to engage children at the expense of learning. In addition, we also need to avoid using problem solving as a teaching tool, but rather use it as an ‘embedder’ when content and the problem-solving skills required have been learned.

The good news is that I now have a great excuse to cut down the time I spend making power points and displays! At last a theory about ‘load’ that cuts down load! What more do you want!

My grateful thanks to John Sweller for his generosity and advice. John Sweller is Emeritus Professor at the School of Education, University of New South Wales, Australia.

Reference: Sweller. J (1994) COGNITIVE LOAD THEORY, LEARNING DIFFICULTY, AND INSTRUCTIONAL DESIGN. Laming and Insbuction, Vol. 4, pp. 293-312, 199 available here 

Another useful paper by John Sweller and Paul Chandler

More to say on mixed ability…

sand

Having written an article for TES on how to teach mixed ability, and now looking through the messages and tweets  responding to it, I thought I should respond myself.

It’s always hard cramming everything you need to say into 600 words, let alone a tweet. There were certainly many things I would have liked to have expanded on in the article and I hope I can here.

Firstly, we have to begin with drawing a line in the sand. What do we all agree on? I think we all agree that we want a fairer society where the avenues for social mobility are well oiled and being poor doesn’t preclude children from  the same opportunities as more affluent children. Surely in fact, no self respecting teacher doesn’t agree? And this is not the same as saying ‘everyone is a winner’ either, or that any middle class aspiration for ‘the best for my child’ is a negative thing. It isn’t.  Let’s not allow tabloid sensationalism in here. Certainly, in this era of post truth, we need truths.

I will also add that yes, for some schools this question of mixed ability teaching and choice for pupils are old hat; ‘been there, done that’. Well good! I want to hear people say they’ve arrived here and get it, but sadly this is not the case for most schools, so I will continue to bang on about it until it is, and so should the TES.

Here are some key facts on social mobility and inequality in case anyone was in doubt it is an issue:

The UK has one of the worst records for social mobility among OECD nations (OECD, 2010c; Cabinet Office, 2011; Hinds et al, 2012).

70 % of High Court Judges, and over half of senior medical consultants, FTSE chief executives and top journalists went to public schools, though only 7% of the total population do so (Sutton Trust, 2009). Those educated in private schools are disproportionately represented in the most powerful and well-remunerated jobs (BBC, 2011; Cabinet Office, 2011)

 Private school pupils are over 22 times more likely to enter a selective university than are state school pupils entitled to free school meals, and are 55 times more likely than free school meals pupils to gain a place at Oxbridge. At the 25 most selective universities in England, only 2% of the yearly student intake was made up for free school meals pupils (Sutton Trust, 2010c).

(What’s preventing social mobility? A review of the evidence, 2013:3)

 There are of course many reasons why less affluent children don’t do as well and many of these factors are outside the control of schools. We already act as social service outreach much of the time and if your pastoral care manager is anything like ours, caring for and propping up families is now a huge aspect of their daily remit. However, we cannot escape that education at present, in this country is far from enhancing social mobility:

The evidence shows that in the UK, education at best replicates, and at worst exacerbates, existing inequality. Statistics highlight that British children’s educational attainment is overwhelmingly linked to parental occupation, income, and qualifications (EPPE, 2004; Lupton et al, 2009; National Equality Panel, 2010; EPPSE, 2012). Hinds et al (2011) observe that education has the potential to ‘break the cycle’ of disadvantage, and some schools are of course demonstrating that socio-economic gaps can be narrowed (Allen, 2012). However, in the case of the English education system overall, rather than the socio-economic gap for achievement shrinking as young people progress through it, the gap widens . Lindley & Machin’s (2012) recent work shows that, as educational opportunities have grown, so has inequality.

(What’s preventing social mobility? A review of the evidence, 2013:3)

 Now, there is no doubt that educational inequalities begin before school; however, schools should be places where these inequalities are wholeheartedly and very deliberately readdressed via pedagogy, except they are so often not.

In fact, as my article outlined, for a long time, and to my utter shame as a member of the educational community, these inequalities have been enabled and enhanced by a system that has turned a blind eye to years of the same kind of children, sitting in the same kind of groups, given the same kind of second rate education. Granted, things might have moved on somewhat from a decade ago, but far from readdressing these disparate starts in life, education continues now, today in England to widen inequality.

Now, what do we then do with the over whelming evidence that streaming, setting and ability grouping benefit more affluent children and sustain the achievement gap?

Look at some of the data from 2007 regarding less affluent children in ability groupings:

FSM data

(What’s preventing social mobility? A review of the evidence, 2013:17)

I’m not sure data from today regarding FSM and ability grouping is any better; if anyone has any please share it. (Or fund my PhD and I’ll share it after that!) But have no doubt,  lower sets or groups are more often than not populated by less affluent children.

So, what do we do with this evidence then? Some people have simply chosen to shout louder in their unwavering conviction that ability grouping is best, perhaps hoping that all this evidence will disappear if they keep shouting. Well, it won’t.  Is it then OK to say that mixed ability teaching is just too impractical so let’s just keep doing what we’re doing? Should we not even try something different? How can we ignore such compelling evidence:

Boaler & Wiliam (2001) summarise, “The various studies that have been conducted in the UK provide conclusive evidence that setting and streaming create and perpetuate social class divisions among students. They have also shown that students of similar ability are frequently placed in different sets or streams according to their social class….” (p. 177).

(What’s preventing social mobility? A review of the evidence, 2013:17)

We have to face the fact that we are not dealing with this issue in education unless we begin to make change regarding selection and grouping by ability. It will not be solved overnight and it will not always run smoothly, but these are not good enough reasons not to try.

I hear all the worries and objections to mixed ability teaching, but like all things in education: some things work most the time, most things work some of the time, but not all things work all the time. Mixed ability teaching might not work all the time, but on the whole it narrows the achievement gap and works better for less affluent children and those children deserve a chance; they deserve us putting everything we’ve got into redressing the imbalance.

Here are the main benefits from mixed ability teaching that I have witnessed:

  • Raised self esteem of pupils who are no longer defined by being in a labelled group. This is highly significant as the ‘self fulfilling prophesy’ that often dogs under privileged children cannot be ignored.
  • Expectations held by teachers are modified as children, who might present as ‘low achievers’, are no longer restricted to groups with specific tasks, but instead can try anything anyone else can. Teachers certainly need shaking up here; expectation is more powerful than many of us think.
  • Huge improvements in the oracy of some less affluent children as they learn shoulder to shoulder with children often modelling better use of language and articulation. Let’s not forget, learning is highly social and when less experienced learners are in groups with more experienced learners they will often try to converge speech patterns.
  • Improvements in thinking skills of some less affluent children as they collaborate with more able children who are often more experienced in verbalising their thinking skills and thus model these to others.
  • Improvements in whole class ethos as children learn to work together and support each other rather than sit in separate groups.
  • More under privileged children catching up with the attainment of the more affluent children over time.

Now, I have no doubt that in some cases there are children who really need lots more intervention and direct instruction. Yes, it is impractical to put them on that fluency to ‘Blooms’ synthesis type journey. However, do they always need to sit in a separate group? Are they all called something like ‘the lowers,’ or the ‘blue group,’ so that they only identify as ‘that group’?  Can we lessen the ‘baggage of underachievement’ on them? How often are they able to learn alongside more experienced  children?  Small changes will have a big impact here.

Of course, there’s no denying children are well aware of who is behind and who is ahead; this is not about everyone being the same, but we are not helping to redress that imbalance by concretising identities via groups with labels. Remember, that line in the sand and what we want for children; education should not make life worse for children who need more of a helping hand.

If you want to read more from the meta-analysis referenced here you can find it here.

Mark smart – cheats on getting it done.

cheating-at-cards

Someone asked me the other day how I manage running a class full time plus phase leadership and assessment; this was on a week where I had long meetings on three out of the five days after school, plus I had lost a large chunk of PPA to a sick cover teacher. Just how do you get the marking done, let alone everything else?

Well, ‘I’m not gonna lie’ as they say, – it’s pretty damn hard, but I do look back and think ‘God! What did I do when I was just class teaching?’

Part of the trajectory to getting increasingly smart with your time as a teacher is experience. Remember being an NQT and marking thirty books took three hours? Well, those days are long gone – maybe an hour at the most these days. And, my marking is probably ten times better now. The trouble is that it’s easy giving tips and ideas, but it’s impossible to pass on years of experience. Teaching is like juggling and we know that takes a while to get good at and even then you still drop the ball.

However, when I sat thinking about just how much smarter I work than even five years ago, I can point to a few strategies that really help. Firstly, getting smarter with marking is essential and is one of the biggest obstacles to teachers feeling on top of things. It has to begin with following your school marking and feedback policy of course, but from what I can see, most schools are taking workload into account and not expecting in-depth marking of all children’s learning. So, step one: do you need to mark everything in detail? Is an acknowledgement tick OK for some pieces and if so can your TA help here drawing your attention later to any misconceptions found? Delegate any way you can – but always ensure you know what’s going on with your children and act on it – that’s the bottom line. No point in getting a TA to mark if you don’t share what he or she found out.

So, we agree that every piece of learning should be acknowledged and looked at by an adult – even if this is during the lesson, immediate feedback is the most effective of course. It is just not acceptable to have page after page of learning with no indication that an adult has ever seen it, even worse if the pages are full of errors and there is no evidence of the next lesson attending to these. It used to annoy me if I saw my children’s books like that – and I did quite often. Still, times have changed.

Whatever we think about accountability, we have to accept now that children’s books are pretty much public documents as well as their own workbooks. They are a record of a learning journey which includes the interaction between the child and their teacher and, whether we like it or not, showing learning and progress is how schools and teachers are judged now.  If teachers want to be judged on performance over time and not just on fleeting lesson observations then we need some tangible record of this. Sure, I could rant all day about the rights and wrongs of having to prove children’s learning to others rather than getting on with it all… Oh the frustrations of accountability swamping the endeavours of authentic education, but other people need to know children are learning and they need some form of evidence. Pick your battles – whether we should mark books isn’t one of them, but how you manage your marking might be.

So what about this in-depth marking? I know that lots of people debate whether the time spent on this is ever really worth it because some of the time you might as well just put all that into planning the next lesson.Yes, this is true, so that’s why in-depth marking everything is not productive- but careful planning is.  Also, if you open the books and everyone has made the same grievous error revealing a painful misconception then you’re better off teaching that concept again rather than wasting time marking all thirty books in the exact same way. However, in my experience that rarely happens – unless you mucked up the teaching in some way, then why didn’t you spot this common error during the lesson and change course then?

Mostly what happens in lessons is that 30% of pupils fly along with the concept and you’ll need to stretch their application of it (all that Blooms stuff), 50% will make the odd error, but just need deliberate and varied practice of the concept before applying it elsewhere and then there’s that 20% who just haven’t got the links to the concept yet and you need to deconstruct the process into smaller steps. I’d like to think that eventually everyone masters it – but hey, let’s get real – the spiralling curriculum and intervention groups have to apply now and then.) Hopefully, after a few sessions, that 20% have moved into the deliberate practice club and a lot of the 50% are ‘Blooming’ along synthesising and evaluating etc.

In this situation, in-depth marking, with each pupil spending time responding to it, does result in progress and, whether we like it or not, this interaction between you and  pupils needs to be evident to others. We’ve argued for years that it’s children’s learning that should be the focus rather than how teachers teach so now let’s try to make the most of it.  However, how we do this is what seems to be causing teachers problems.  So here are some ways to ‘mark smart’:

  • Mark while you teach – get those colour coded pens in your back pockets and after the children have got going, get round and dive into their books. Tick things that are on the right track, highlight things they need to spend more time on, then pop back to that child in a few minutes. This way you’re making your immediate feedback evident too. Why not write down a quick question for them to think about there and then – draw a fill-in bubble next to it for them to show their response. If they respond to marking in a different colour, ask them to here.
  • Self marking during the lesson– for some maths and some SPAG focus lessons, half way through the lesson stick the answers on the board and get the kids to mark their own in response pens. Then when they go back – travel around and pick up those who tripped up. Why not get a peer who got it correct to explain how to a child who got it wrong?
  • Self marking at the end of the lesson – this will you save time so you can focus on the more in-depth responses rather than working out who got what. Even a correct answer can be in-depth marked remember.

Marking outside the lesson:

  • Story time marking – so you have a meeting after school and there is no time to mark. What are your priorities? How will you know what the pitch is tomorrow too? Don’t take books home – that’s madness, 7am – 5pm is enough of a working day thanks. So get your TA to read a story for half an hour while you mark. If you haven’t got a TA, then get some quality CD stories; stick them on while you mark. Any school leader who frowns on this then I ask why? Of course putting on a DVD of Mulan for the eighteenth time is wrong, but why not let Roald Dahl do a bit of the work and let him tell them a story while you prioritise? My children love listening to stories and drawing at the same time at the end of the day.
  • Mark during independent afternoon sessions – Sometimes you look around the room and everyone is merrily getting on with things. It might be an art lesson for example, the music is playing and the children are enthralled in cutting up bits and making a collage. Again, you have a meeting after school (or something you need to leave early for) and it’s time for some in-depth marking. Grab five books and sit next to child who could do with a little support now and then. Multi-task and while you’re sat there mark those five books. Go back get another five books and move to another child if need be. This is like mum or dad helping with the homework while cooking dinner – nothing wrong with it now and then. Of course doing it every lesson wouldn’t be right at all– but use the children’s independence at times to help you manage things.

Now the next issue is which pieces should you in-depth mark then? As said, sensible marking and feedback policies won’t ask for every piece to be marked in detail, so which to choose? Well, here your knowledge and intuition as a teacher comes into play. Sometimes it’s a good idea to in-depth mark at the start of an area of learning so that misconceptions are hammered out, although often this isn’t the best place because the start is often the messy stage with errors all over the place that can be ‘quick ticked’ and fed into the next lesson. The middle part is a good place when children are getting to grips with a concept and right in that zone of proximal development  so some in-depth feedback and marking might drag them across to the that place they would have not otherwise got to. Then again, this might be at the end of unit or area too. Only you can really know the answer to this from the feel you have for the learning that’s going on. One thing is for sure – in-depth marking say ‘every Wednesday’ kind of loses the point – in-depth mark when it’s going to help children go further, not because it’s Wednesday.

Also – remember that writing long messages is a waste of time. Research has shown that children don’t read it all and the time it takes to do that doesn’t match the learning gain. I’d say never write much more than one or two sentences and think about effective marking: focus on the learning intention and don’t fall into the trap of marking every error, less is more. Also think about the range of types of marking: scaffold, inform, prompt etc.

So – I do think teachers can get smarter with marking and there are ways they can help themselves, not just with the colour codes and brightly coloured pens, but also with the physical plate spinning of it all. School leaders should support this too.  I expect some of this is deeply patronising and will cause some teachers to roll their eyes, but some teachers I know need to give themselves permission to get smarter and it will serve them and the children better if they do.