As I greeted students after their first GCSE exam, I couldn’t help but be a little proud as the majority eagerly exchanged tales of success, literally bouncing in their shoes. The exam had thrown a slight curve ball with one of the main questions, but students had been able to, as advised, take a moment to make connections with what they knew, and then proceed with confidence. But as I stood there, so happy for the students, I also became mightily relieved that a curriculum experiment I had placed a considerable amount of faith in had clearly worked.
Focusing on students knowing their stuff!
Having absorbed lots of research into memory, ironically begun by stumbling across some wonderful posts by Joe Kirby (ironic because I was unsure about The Michaela School’s approach to education), I, albeit slowly because of the lack of evidenced transferability of cognitive science into school settings, set the wheels in motion for fine tuning my practice to account for how students’ brains best receive information and how they best retain it.
When I designed our GCSE curriculum, I began with a core channel of knowledge that formed the baseline content that every student would need to know. The expectations were relatively high (based on previous years), with the baseline including high level vocabulary and some precise details from each text. This core channel of knowledge had to be communicated with clarity to the students, and so, was designed in the form of an amalgamation of two powerful teaching tools: a knowledge organiser that served as a retrieval resource.
Embedding continuous retrieval practice into lesson sequence, making multiple links between learning sequences, developing depth of understanding through contextual exploration and incrementally designing assessment and learning became stock standard strategies I employed. I spent far more time being pragmatic about the realities of the course, and specifically prepared students for exams (here, and here), which incorporated redefining effective revision approaches. I concluded that I wasn’t going to take risks on handing the process over solely to the students, knowing that no matter how many times I talked about effective strategies, without modelling it explicitly the whole thing became akin to simply talking about a new concept in class and not modelling it for students to see things in action.
The focus on modelling became a priority, and this has had a large impact on eliminating gaps in student knowledge. Consequently, I set up a one-stop revision website for my students providing lots of students’ examples of successful writing, amongst other things, including a focus on writing and punctuation, particularly grammar knowledge development.
One of the most enjoyable things I’ve done this year was to spend time writing lots of essays on texts I was teaching. It reconnected me with a love of writing. Whilst in a style not enjoyed by some, and weirdly made known, it served a valuable purpose: I wanted to put my money where my mouth was, to see just how best to go about writing about the texts, to see how much time was a factor, and to offer and invite several high flying students in my class access to higher level thinking and discussions about themes and characters.
This led to them writing lots of high quality essays, and led to the development of Cloud 9 Writing, initially a platform for my students to read other class essays without the awkward moment of having to seek them out. The success of this got me thinking it could benefit lots of students by opening it up to the country, and then, the world. The idea, initially enthusiastically ascribed too, was tainted by a discussion about the inability of anyone to accurately say an essay was of grade 9 standard, a point that ironically missed the premise of the platform: to inspire students to think more about texts and to therefore write better essays. The distraction unquestionably and unfortunately deterred prominent teachers who have students of such calibre from contributing to the site, but nonetheless, some wonderful essays have been uploaded, and I sincerely thank teachers who have contributed their students’ work, and some of their own. The fact that the site has had thousands of views proves it to be a valuable resource, and I am determined that it will grow.
The real indicator of success?
For my lower set students, the consistent focus on retrieval through quizzing and class discussion and modelling how to transcribe their knowledge has certainly paid off. I know it’s early days in the exam season, but if only you could have seen their faces (I am sure you did see many like this too). Students who were usually destined to fail these types of exams because of the heavy reliance on content were experiencing the joys of success in being able to participate in the occasion. The final result, a lottery due to nebulous grade boundaries, will almost not matter – they have most certainly achieved something else. They could write about the texts, even when initially thrown, because they knew enough about them to participate. This is crucial: they could participate because the curriculum had been designed to incrementally breed success.
SUCCESS BREEDS SUCCESS!
By eliminating as many gaps as possible, students who would normally run from challenge because of a lack of resilience or being able to sustain focus, were motivated to continue the next sequence of learning because they experienced success in the last. They could participate because they were practised (still not even nearly enough for what I wanted, but baseline level at least) in writing responses. They knew the layout of the exams (except the 4 who wrote about the wrong text – arrrgggghhhh – attendance issues), and they knew how to react whilst sitting in the exam hall.
Taking a chance of investing in explicit teaching based on understandings of cognitive science and common sense may just have been the best decision I’ve ever made in teaching. The approach’s obvious success this year will feed into subsequent years, and fortunately for those who will come into my future classrooms, is only going to become even more fine tuned and more precise.
I’m Paul Moss. Follow me on Twitter @edmerger, and follow this blog for more English teaching resources and education discussions.