Having the opportunity to speak at ResearchED Rugby was a real honour, and the event was simply a wonderful occasion. I met lots of incredibly friendly people, and I was incredibly inspired by their passion and willingness to improve the educational landscape, a passion I certainly share. A huge thanks goes to Jude Hunton for asking me to speak, and organising a superb event.
The rough transcript of my talk is below, and a link to the slideshow here. Please let me know if you can’t access it.
Teaching English is simply wondrous. But it’s hard too. There’s so much at stake, so much to do. Getting the pedagogical balance between the art of teaching and the science of teaching is difficult, imperative, but also EXCITING.
In my practice, I was too heavy on the art – and not enough on the science, which ironically obstructed and even obfuscated the curriculum from shining through.
We know what the art of teaching English includes: the purposeful curation and presentation of incredible texts, texts that become windows to the soul, texts that teach us so much about the word, but perhaps more poignantly, teach us about ourselves. We know how powerful the art of expression can be, to be able to express oneself with clarity, precision and insight. And we know how useful it can be to become artful in connecting with students as much as possible, to know the best way to keep them motivated, to become a part of their learning journey, and become inspiration that they never forget. But when I don’t consider the processes that enable students to learn or consider how to make the delivery of content as efficient as possible to assist understanding and retainment of that content, I create an imbalance.
I know that this imbalance between the art of teaching and the science leads to learning gaps – leads to the Matthew effect taking over. The Matthew effect is exacerbated when students with culturally rich background knowledge are able to absorb and withstand poor instruction whereas those without the background can’t. This is because the culturally rich background allows students to feed off the reserves of cultural fat, whereas those without it emaciate with insipid instruction.
We know this is a blight in modern schooling – which we must address in the limited time our students spend in front of us.
So, in today’s session, I want to go through what I believe have been barriers to better teaching and thus better learning by my students, with the largest, and one I’ll spend the most time on, incremental design, taking up much of the focus.
One of the first significant barriers was a lack of understanding about cognition. Fortunately, research has provided us with what could only be referred to as a game changer – by Sweller – and I’m not only saying that because he’s a fellow Australian. Understanding cognitive load in designing sequences of learning is crucial. Awareness of working memory and its function and poignantly its limitations in learning should ultimately be driving all curriculum decisions.
This leads onto the next game changer – memory. Prehension of how to assist students retaining information has guided my lessons, with quizzing prevalent in most lessons, and me consciously interweaving concepts and using elaborative retrieval to help students make connections and strengthen memory. I’ve written about various strategies to assist the retainment of content, from creating a story around the curriculum to allow or greater connections between texts and themes, as well as varying retrieval exercises, and finally, utilising the notion of elaborative retrieval, which again , via making connections through storytelling facilitates the triggering of multiple neural paths to arrive at a desired memory.
The learning scientists are the go to people for discussing memory, with good explanations offered for students themselves to assist their metacognition.
The 3rd aspect of cognition is dual coding. I would recommend you see Oliver Cavliogli talk about this, but… he is speaking next door right now, so I guess I have to tell you. Well actually let me use another of the greats to explain it: the brain has 2 channels for learning: auditory (listening and reading) and visual (images). What Chris has done here is to help students remember the entire story of Romeo and Juliet, almost using images as a trigger for retrieval – it essentially becomes an elaboration method, where there is now another possible neural path for the memory to travel.
This is most definitely the next wave of teaching and learning.
So now I have a better understanding of these, I remove a barrier to learning.
The next hurdle was a pandemic plague on education – the obsession with observation and progress. Bjork points out that learning can’t really be measured or observed in a single session – and it’s because of again the understanding of cognition – retrieval strength vs storage – if information was just delivered, it’s going to be fresh, and able to be recalled easily – seeing progress then in a lesson is a false claim. Better off coming back a few days later. I discuss this here in this post about smashing observation – if you have to go through it – show off what your students have been learning over time – deliver lessons that demonstrate learning over time.
Another one bites the dust!
Teaching to the test. A pernicious beast! Understandable with accountability. Daisy Christodoulou obliterates the notion, explaining that it actually doesn’t make any logical sense anyway. What is assessed is taken from a domain, and we if assume a certain section, and another comes up in the exam, then we’ve done a huge disservice to our students. A better idea is to teach the domain.
A concomitant to this is understanding the domain. Taking the time to work it out is crucial – but also being pragmatic. You can’t teach everything, and I think this is a trap for teachers, wanting, with good intention, to teach the world. For example, it’s probably better to teach KS3 story writing as a 45 minute story – to match the GCSE task – this is because it takes a long time to develop writing skills, and narrowing the scope of style will help ensure mastery, or allow us to get closer to it at least. Of course, this tends to run counter to the ideal of English, the romance of it all, freedom of expression and open ended creativity, but it’s not practical – we can’t have it all, and if we try, we might end up with nothing.
Adapting teaching based on progress of students is a seminal idea by Dylan Wiliam. Far be it for me to add anything to it, but I wander if teachers would be better advised in ensuring delivery of content is incremental so as to avoid moments where pivoting is needed?
Again, we get closer to where we want to be.
The final, rather large barrier, is poorly designed curriculum that either isn’t progressive, or doesn’t have the precision to ensure mastery is possible.
I want to discuss this in 3 contexts: a pragmatic approach, with teachers walking into lessons tomorrow, designing a unit of work, and designing a whole curriculum.
For teachers considering adapting practice tomorrow, which of course is all of us at some point, I’m going to zoom in on these 3 ideas:
Modelling: I’ve learnt a great deal from these 3 educators, with Andy Tharby illustrating the usefulness of the I, We, You approach – an apprenticeship approach very much in line with Rosenshine’s principles of Instruction.
I have added to this concept with the notion of the 4th dimension: the student model – based on the idea that a good student model may be of more use to other students than my model – the curse of knowledge playing a part, but also the register and vernacular may be better suited –especially for struggling students.
Sarah Barker’s assiduous approach is brilliant – not even allowing any writing to happen until students have absorbed multiple views of the process.
And tom Needham’s worked example approach, enormously beneficial in reducing cognitive load and in assisting strengthening of writing.
I’ve been working on the design of a creative writing unit with a very pragmatic approach incorporating the strategies above.
My view is that at GCSE level, students must know how to write for the 45 minutes. As a base, I have students follow a structure design – with no exceptions. I want to avoid common complaints of lack of creativity = no writing. The structure helps build connections to the main character, and provides a relatively simple plan to develop a decent story. There are 4 sections: which you can read here: a part of a portfolio type assessment, with 2 stories needed to be written before the closed book assessment.
*Go through sections and comprehension activity and individual sentence design.
The findings of this approach have been very positive: Very weak students copied model – which is fine, because now they at least have an embedded structure to work from, whereas previsously they would have ended the unit with nothing. Some made minor adjustments to plot; Some were able to use prompts to write an alternative story; Those who chose different structure for second story could evaluate. It led to the development of exam length stories for students to read and become inspired by stories, and to see models of what is required/possible.
The second consideration to improve teaching overnight is loosely linked to modelling: direct instruction – Tom’s blog again is worth a read in learning about this, based on work by Engelmann.
Follow through project: monitored the progress of at risk students using multiple models of learning. What the results showed was that for basic skills like reading and maths and language, direct instruction outperformed compared to most other models. Interesting, and poignantly, DI outperformed other models in cognitive abilities: higher order thinking particularly, including against models that explicitly try to develop these skills: open education, discovery learning.
I’ll allow you to read this:
As you can see, it’s all about mastery before the next stage is introduced.
It’s certainly going to dominate things from here I believe.
The 3rd immediate improvement I have made is to write. Stemming from a request by a high-level student for some reading on particular topic, I observed that learners really didn’t have anything to read – there wasn’t anything bespoke for GCSE length.
So, I started the ball rolling – having a blast along the way, and gaining valuable insight into how themes etc can be discussed, in timed conditions, and developing points in a response. It’s also been amazing fun. It led to developing CLOUD 9 WRITING, where students from around the globe could submit essays of high quality – to read, to learn. Please help me by adding submissions to the platform.
The second context for avoiding incremental design flaws is in planning a unit of work. I want to approach this from an assessment angle.
Let’s take a poetry unit in KS3. What I want to demonstrate here is that each assessed component is an individual thing, a component that can be isolated when giving feedback. As soon as you start adding multiple assessable aspects it makes it harder to isolate issues and intervene.
*go through each phase of the assessment cycle.
The final element is designing a whole curriculum, and I want to focus on what is an intrinsic part of what we do: grammar.
Originally, this arose from a state of apoplexy with the pervasive crime of comma splicing.
I used Daisy Christodoulou’s thinking from the seminal Making good Progress and considered that issues need to be unravelled, and the key components taught in isolation.
But I realised that it’s not as simple as it seems. There are huge barriers to students becoming really comfortable with components of a main clause, critical knowledge in deciding how to punctuate clauses.
The 2 main issues are a lack of sequenced schemes of learning in working from the basics. Of course, there are immeasurable numbers of grammar lessons online and in books, but nothing that suitably goes through bit by bit, and written for a secondary level student. So, I have decided to design it:
*play animation of design
What it needs of course is for students to master each stage before moving on – another aspect severely lacking in current offerings. This means taking each section and providing activities that ensure mastery, with each new section building and consolidating.
Here, I’ve designed the sequence of activities. Notice that the activity is carefully planned so as not to include other word classes that could confuse this section – for example, including gerunds or anomalies. There is a mix of correct and incorrect examples to ensure guessing isn’t a successful strategy, and each type of word class has a summative section that tests each specific type in combination.
Mastery of each is crucial, as the next stage builds on this one.
So I have a plan – I have the scheme designed already, and lots of activities. I want to include videos to enhance the learning of specific knowledge (dual coding) AND I WANT TO UTILISE ADAPTIVE TECHNOLOGIES TO help students achieve mastery –this can then be done as intervention, in tutoring, at home etc.
There might be other ways of teaching grammar, but for me it has helped students with punctuation, because I can discuss with them why the comma shouldn’t be there.
It’s also opened up the opportunity for me to deliver much more precise feedback in writing. It’s allowed me to discuss language much more in class, with comfort. It’s empowered students, helping them gain confidence in understanding more about the language they use every day, and opens their abilities in using language for effect.
So when attention is paid to incremental design flaws, in fact, when we pay attention to all of these barriers to learning, we eliminate them, and we restore the balance – we provide opportunity for the art of what we do to flourish.
So, in summary,
- English teaching can become more of a science
- We can eliminate learning gaps by considering research
- INCREMENTAL DESIGN IS ESSENTIAL
I’m Paul Moss. Follow me @edmerger and follow this blog for more English teaching resources.