If You Don’t Model, Learning’s a Lottery

The video below is a perfect demonstration of why it’s so important to model learning for students.

What it highlights is what most motivated people do when not instructed properly: we improvise. Sometimes it works for us. Lots of times, unfortunately, it doesn’t. Oh, how much easier it would have been, all those hundreds of times opening the stock packet to have known how to do it as it was intended to be done. Oh the time we could have saved; how much better our cooking may have been with the stock evenly distributed. Oh the lament thinking of the times when the stock didn’t completely dissolve: the looks of disdain not even nearly disguised on my kids’ strained faces.

I use the 1st person plural pronouns deliberately, because actually when we teach a class, there is collective learning, learning that is taken out into the world by our students and disseminated. If it’s incorrect, or just not as good as it could be, lots of people can be affected.

Careful and precise modelling of the learning we want our students to engage in is crucial. Andy Tharby discusses ‘live modelling’ and ‘worked examples here, as does Tom Needham here. If we don’t, success in the task is only possible by passing through several hoops.

  • The first is the student’s level of motivation. Joe Kirby explores motivation wonderfully well in this post citing a Willingham hypothesis of what drives motivation: it is not so much the relevance of the content as the challenge of the task. ‘Curiosity has staying power if we judge that the mental work will pay off – we quickly evaluate the mental work it will take to solve the problem’. In other words, when students are finding the task difficult to do in the absence of effective modelling with incremental steps and appropriate amounts of practice, if the perceived chance of success is 50% or less, which includes social success, most will give up.
  • Despite this probability, if students are able to hang on through this and attempt the second hoop, they are now at the mercy of having to hope that their efforts do not expend too much cognitive load in processing the task. Again, if this overload renders perceptions of success low, students will give up.
  • However, some students will show remarkable resilience, which can be trained, and persist in tackling the task and producing learning. But the learning is a lottery, sometimes producing success, often not. The proof is in the OXO example.

If we want students to learn what we want them to learn, we have to show them what it is we want them to learn.

I’m Paul Moss. Follow me on Twitter @edmerger, and follow this blog for more on educational discussions and English teaching.

How to swing a cricket ball…oh, and teach

When I used to play cricket in the backyard with my brother we would try all sorts of things to make it harder to bat. We both were batters. We couldn’t use a cricket ball because the ball slamming into the window behind the stumps was already loud and bad enough, my dad’s frequent yelling testament to that. To improvise, we decided to try make our tennis ball more like a cricket ball, and put masking tape around its centre to act as a seam – like on a cricket ball. Possibly by mistake, or maybe with somebody’s advice, we realised that if we covered one side of the ball completely in tape, the ball would swing quite wildly when bowled, causing the batsmen all sorts of difficulty.

This was a revelation. Depending on how you held the ball, you could make it move either towards the batsmen, or away from him/her (my poor much younger sister didn’t stand a chance). If you held the ball upright (along the seam), if the covered side was facing to the right, the ball would swing inwards towards the batter, and if the covered side was on the left, the ball would swing away. And then we realised, that the more tape you put on it, the more radical the movement. This was so much fun. You could aim the ball quite a distance from where it would end up. It really improved my batting, because you had to really pay attention, and react quickly. The only downside was the tape would eventually keep coming off when the batsmen hit it – so annoying having to continually re-tape the ball.

The key though was to keep holding the ball differently to vary the amount of swing, otherwise the batter would anticipate the movement every time. I think the physics of it all is that the covered side, being much smoother than the rougher uncovered side, would move through the air faster causing the ball to lean one way or the other. The same principle applies to the cricket ball, which is why you’ll see players furiously rubbing the ball on their trousers, and not as my cynical first girlfriend said, to get their jollies. They are trying to make one side shinier than the other. But getting the same degree of movement is infinitely harder with a real cricket ball, and as a young cricketer I simply couldn’t emulate the swing.

From here

At no point was I ever taught how to swing the ball in cricket. Despite the fact that I was an avid cricketer, albeit as a batter, and quite successful too, making a First 11 hundred, and invited to play for an A-grade club in South Australia, no one took me aside and gave me explicit training in how to make that damn ball swing. I must have bowled thousands upon thousands of balls in the nets too. Yes, I tried to copy what I was doing in the backyard, but it didn’t seem to translate, and so I didn’t continue the line of inquiry. What I needed was an expert to show me how to hold the ball better, that each slight adjustment made a big difference, to keep correcting me till I got it mastered, to make me practice again and again a particular grip, all the while explaining to me why each error was an error. Needless to say, I never made it as a successful bowler. In fact, if I ever was used as one of those ‘let’s try this as a last resort’ type bowler, like Joe Root (😉), I was punished quite mercilessly by the grinning and wide eyed batsmen.

This is a lot like teaching. All students have the potential to learn what we are teaching them. But if we don’t teach students bit by bit in an incremental approach, diligently and assiduously model thinking and writing, give them time to practice again and again until they achieve mastery, ascertain where a student is on the learning path, give precise feedback and help them realise why things are happening, they will miss opportunities to develop and strengthen particular knowledge and skill. Yes, some will stumble onto a discovery and run with it; some bowlers did emulate their backyard knowledge on their own. But many won’t, and I don’t want to play those odds with my students.

This was my first beloved bat – Stuart Surridge, signed by West Indian Gordon Greenidge

I’m Paul Moss. Follow me on Twitter @edmerger, and follow this blog for more educational and English teaching discussions.

Should I get my students exams remarked? YES

Marking exams is hard. Cross referencing a student’s work to a criteria is wrought with difficulty, can be plagued by subjectivity, a lack of training, and tiredness. Perhaps of the greatest concern however for a literature student is the potential for the examiner to be inexperienced in knowledge of the text written about. The consequences are significant, and upsetting, and highlight the need for further discussions about the need for a different approach.

Here is a script I requested from a recent examination.

The question was marked out of 25, with 5 marks awarded to VSSPS. This student was awarded 10 out 20 for content, and 3 out of 5 for VSSPS.

To put the grading into context, it is being graded at a 4, achieving a score of 50%, a score that suggests this student, at GCSE level, has just, by the skin of their teeth, just grasped the content and ability to express it.

Yes, it is a little short, and misses exploration of the change in the Macbeths’ relationship in Act 3 and 4, excluding the response from the top band, but the discussion is also dense, concise and most certainly demonstrates a strong knowledge of the character and her purpose in the play. There is plenty of insightful response. The beginning statement immediately shows a strong awareness of the question, which was to discuss the change in Lady Macbeth in the play. The last paragraph in particular is wonderfully handled, seamlessly and intelligently weaving language discussion into the analysis of the character.

Here is the examiner’s report:

Higher achieving responses were often distinguishable by their discussion of the Macbeths’ relationship breakdown in Act 3. Some impressive responses discussed Lady Macbeth asking the servant for a chance to see Macbeth in Act 3 Scene 2,  covering when Macbeth sees Banquo’s ghost and the change in Macbeth’s language to Lady Macbeth (from “partner of greatness” to “dearest chuck”) was well noted – as was the change in her own language in the sleepwalking scene.

Weaker responses tended to leap from Act 2 to Act 5 without mentioning the intervening events or offering only passing reference to the changing dynamics within Lady Macbeth’s relationship with her husband. A lack of AO2 was responsible for limiting some candidates, as was some unnecessary exploration of contextual details.

EDUQAS Examiner’s report

It is clear from the examiner’s report that this examiner has been very literal with the awarding of marks, perhaps overly persuaded by the first two words in the second paragraph: ‘Weaker responses’, but considering the time given, and complexity of the response to the beginning and end of the play, how this is not a band 4 response I will never know. Maybe the examiner doesn’t know the text sufficiently, as it’s not a requirement to know all of the texts to be an examiner. Maybe the examiner is not skilled in understanding the subtleties of the text, again not tested before an examiner is deemed to be qualified.

In terms of VSSPS, again, I am stumped as to how the just passing grade again is relevant. The sentence structure is very strong, with vocabulary used to present the response with sophistication. There are some spelling mistakes, but look at where they are: in attempts at high level vocabulary.

You may disagree with my belief this deserves a higher grade. You may believe that this student has in fact only just presented enough evidence of knowledge of the character and the text overall to pass, placing them in a category of average with ‘some reference to meaning’ and that the presentation and structure of the argument again only justifies an average score. But I disagree, and I am an examiner.

My point is that which of us is correct actually isn’t important. The fact that such a large discrepancy between two examiners’ grading is.

Bigger than Ben Hur

When attending examiner training, consisting of an entire 1 day, and even that paltry allocation is usually cut short with people eager to get off early to catch their train, examiners are actively told that they will get stopped in the marking, but not to worry, as it happens to all, even the head marker. So let’s explore that for a moment. 300 examiners. Each examiner will be stopped at least once, probably twice, possibly 3 or 4 times. We could safely assume that surrounding the stopped scripts, the examiner has got 2 or 3 wrong also, due to reasons stated above. Being conservative, let’s say an examiner is only stopped once. Statistically, there would have to be an error in a preceding script somewhere along the line. That means there are 300 responses (questions) incorrectly marked. If we assume 2 stops, and 3 errors around them, the number balloons to 1800 scripts. In reality, an examiner is likely to make at least 10 errors (compared to what is deemed acceptable by head examiner) with their quota. That means that there would be at least 3000 scripts that have inaccurate grades, without doubt affecting students’ final overall grades.

Please take a moment to let that number sink in. And think whether one of your students is likely to be affected by that figure.

So, should you have your students work remarked? God yes!

I’m Paul Moss. Follow me on Twitter @edmerger, and follow this blog for more educational and English teaching discussions

Should examiners be expert in the subject they mark? Duh!

I know what you’re thinking. This is obvious. Well, think again.

An examiner has to provide evidence they are teaching in their field, but they don’t have to show they are any good at it.

Take the recruitment of English examiners for example. So desperate are boards to attract markers, rather than make it an attractive proposition financially to attract the very best people, they accept teachers who have been teaching for a minimum of 3 years. They literally advertise the positions as excellent CPD – in other words, you’ll be training and making all kinds of mistakes whilst students’ grades are on the line.

Examiners do not have to have read a certain text to be able to mark an exam on it. For example, the Shakespeare component offers students a range of Shakespeare plays to write about, but at no point are teachers allocated to specific texts to match their expertise in a particular play. Consequently, there is a strong chance that an examiner may have marked a script in the last GCSE exams on Othello, or The Merchant of Venice, or Much Ado About Nothing without any real knowledge of the play.

Even if they do know the play, if a student provides a quite nuanced response, is the unread or inexperienced teacher/examiner going to be able to appreciate the insight? I doubt it. Is the student’s grade going to be compromised as a result? Of course.

As teachers, we spend a considerable amount of time trying to push our brightest students to explore the subtleties of these great texts. What a shame that some of that won’t be recognised in exams.

I’m Paul Moss. Follow me on Twitter @edmerger, and follow this blog for more discussions about education and English teaching


We’re all in this together

One of the most pernicious forces that creates fraction between secondary and primary sectors is the implicit understanding, perpetuated by the current accountability system, that the buck stops with the last teacher. The pressure with the need to succeed creates a defensive front, and instils the notion in secondary teachers that what has come before is not as important as what’s happening now, and that the most important stage is the current one. This is particularly the case for those teaching GCSE, A-level and SACE classes, where examination is looming large, and the pressure to produce results similarly so.

But ask any teacher in these years, and they will tell you emphatically that one year of education doesn’t maketh the student, and that expectations placed solely on the shoulders of those teaching the last year are unrealistic, unfair and damaging. Of course it works both ways, with a successful examination period rendering the last teacher the hero of the day, but it’s a short sighted ephemeral position to take, one that will come back to bite you at a future date.

Important then is the need for secondary teachers to honour the work done by those who have taught the students before them. And to take a real interest in what is being taught, and support and get behind those in primary when they face cuts in budgets and curriculum time in certain subjects, or any obstacles whatsoever to delivering a quality education, because it inevitably affects all of us.

Essential primary

Things that primary teachers do benefit secondary teachers enormously. Take the teaching of reading for example. Secondary teachers can’t teach unless reading is secure, so secondary should have a very large interest and understanding in how it is done. Jennifer Buckingham is forthright in her claim that it’s nothing ground-breaking in claiming that every teacher should know how to teach reading, but I would hasten to guess that lots of secondary teachers wouldn’t know how to do it. That’s not an indictment on secondary teachers, more on the aggregation of misguided pedagogies including insufficient training in reading in initial teacher training, assuming students would be proficient in reading and concentrating on subject disciplines, and it being believed to be the job of someone else. Reading blogs on phonics and reading best practice should be a priority of all secondary teachers, and primary teachers offer plenty of resources and discussions on reading, like here, and here, here and here.

Or take the teaching of art in primary, and it potentially being squeezed out of significance with increased time dedicated to English and numeracy to satisfy SATS and NAPLAN examinations. Secondary teachers are unlikely to be too aware of this issue or to be frank, care too much about it as it doesn’t directly affect their situations; the greater the workload the greater the need to focus on yourself increases. But think of some of the benefits of our students coming through into secondary with excellent art skills. Students will have excellent fine motor skill, will be better trained at paying attention to detail, and thus have better attention spans, have greater capacity in taking their thinking from the local to the global perspective, better able to persevere through a series of processes, can become more comfortable using image as metaphor, and can use image as an effective dual coding exercise when note taking and revising. Add to this the affective benefits of art to young people’s development.

A generation on of course would mean the teacher herself would be a competent drawer and can incorporate dual coding frequently, and use images as metaphor to deepen understanding of themes and characters and contexts, and model application of knowledge by representing and symbolising content in creative ways, an ultimate goal of building knowledge.

So we need to take notice of any proposed changes, contribute to discussions regarding its implementation, and most importantly, defend the importance of art in primary school with primary colleagues, because if we lose it, not only will our teaching potential be significantly diminished, but our cultural literacy endangered.     

Noble primary

One of the main goals of teaching is to be able to take pride in the knowledge that you have contributed to society by producing knowledgeable emotionally competent well-adjusted people. It’s a noble profession. It’s a job that few could claim such an outcome, and it almost compensates for the disproportionate pay. Primary school teachers get lots more opportunity to practice this nobility because their teaching is such a long way from the final year of education, and the selfless nature of the role is furthered when primary teachers think about the bigger picture of where a student will be in 5 years time, and give the student the tools that are going to help them succeed in further learning. For example, it’s going to be pretty certain that a student in 5 years time is going to have to know about Victorian times, so teaching that in primary school is going to help the secondary students have an excellent grasp on the context of a Victorian novel, which not only would make the reading of that novel or poem significantly more meaningful and therefore pleasurable, but would also free up working memory, increasing the opportunity for students to engage in discussions and critical thinking about the text, and explore interpretations in essays and other assessment activities in a deeper more productive way. If you are primary and want to speak to someone in secondary to ask about later stage requirements, there are lots and lots of secondary teachers who could provide information about secondary curricula, like @ensermark (geography), @xris (English), @MrThorntonteach (history), @mathsmrgordan (maths), @adamboxer1 (science), @teachartdesign (art).

Barriers to collaboration

One of the main reasons why there potentially isn’t a greater link between two sectors is the unpredictability of curriculum and expectations/standards that students need to have mastered by the end of school. It’s hard for primary school teachers to have a five-year future in their minds when planning curriculum because it’s changed so many times over the years, and potentially could again. However, it would also be hard to imagine that any current teaching based on what students are presently doing at the end of their schooling careers would be wasted. Learning about contexts of Victorian times or Jacobean times or Elizabethan times or colonial times et cetera is all valuable knowledge in terms of cultural literacy and reading comprehension at later stages.

With this in mind, it is certainly quite a admirable undertaking for a primary school teacher to base a curriculum on where a student will be in five years time, considering that very little praise or recognition would be awarded to that teacher. How many secondary teachers with the latest exam results have thanked primary school teachers for the ground work they established? Of course it’s not practical for a secondary teacher to have awareness of every single teacher that the students have had throughout their schooling careers, but it’s not about specific acknowledgement, it’s about a general acknowledgement and recognition of how crucial the work of primary school teachers is. It’s just as important as the secondary, and confirms that we’re all in this together.

I’m Paul Moss. Follow me on Twitter @edmerger, and follow this blog for more educational and English teaching discussions

The Necessary

One of the most uncomfortable truths about society is that it needs a necessary proportion of people to fail. It is a condition when we subsume a capitalist ideology. When competition is the ethos of survival, those who thrive are at the expense of those who don’t. Fortunately for most, because of the size of the population, the middle ground, where people are able to comfortably reside, is vast. It is whilst in this middle ground or class that the curse of knowledge can be rife, embodied and entrenched through comfortableness and security. It is the place where lofty assertions are made about morality, what it takes to be successful, and ironically, equality.

Education, whilst claiming to be, is NOT immune to this axiom of society. Whilst the overwhelming majority of educators involved in education want to believe it isn’t true, that their endeavors will eventually result in the success of ALL their students, the reality is unforgiving. The reason is due to the way success is measured.

Summative testing is essential to fairly assess from a domain of knowledge. However, designing summative tests that are reliably consistent from year to year is not easy to do, and to compensate for possible errors in design, examination boards moderate the results: if more than the average number of students have done overly well in the exams, it could be that the exams were easier than last year, and so the grade boundaries are raised. Conversely, if more than the average number of students don’t do well on the exam the grade boundaries are lowered, to compensate for the possibility that the exam was designed poorly. The key word is average. The average is ascertained from a very large sample of students over many years. A norm is established, and all results are referenced to it. When there is deviation from this norm, statistically it is assumed that there must be an error in the design of the assessment.

The issues with this are several: if teachers work harder to ensure that more of their students improve, it won’t be reflected in grades, as the grade boundaries will rise. If teachers share resources to assist others achieve, the grade boundaries will rise. When teachers learn from books how to improve practice, grade boundaries will rise. But perhaps the most pernicious reality of the norm referenced system, is that effectively your success in your students passing is at the expense of another colleague having students fail.

So when teachers quite rightly effuse with successful results, and by God I’ve done that, it’s important we demonstrate humility with the knowledge that it couldn’t have been possible without students who:

  • couldn’t access the curriculum
  • didn’t revise
  • had information processing difficulties
  • were badly taught
  • were excluded from school
  • had poor attendance
  • panicked in exams
  • have dyslexia
  • have little cultural capital
  • weren’t flagged to receive exam access arrangements
  • disengaged during KS3
  • had emotional issues that obfuscated attention to academic content
  • have low IQ

The illusion that education is equitable is considerably evident when we discuss vocation with our students. How many of us suggest students should aspire to be cleaners, rubbish-truck drivers, or work in low paid jobs? Yet, by statistical definition, some of our students are destined to do them – and society needs them. No matter how much we try to inspire with high expectations, it simply isn’t possible that everyone wins. There is no middle class without a lower class.

This has implications for the way schools communicate their successes. The recent euphoric correlation made between academic success and zero tolerance needs further context: excluding students facilitates the conditions for a cohort of below average students, somewhere else, someone else’s problem. I’m not suggesting that this is the motivation for the exclusions; understanding of the ideology is discussed here, but it is most certainly a by-product. The same can be said of any selective school – if you weed out the cohort destined to fail, those who remain will always be statistically better off. So I ask you, is that something to sing and dance about?

I’m Paul Moss. Follow me on Twitter @edmerger and follow this blog for more discussions about education.

Wise men, and rushing behaviour policy

Once upon a time, in a small isolated village of just 2000 people in the south of Utopia, there existed a single school, and in this school they decided that enough was enough with poor behaviour. They were fed up with the loss of learning caused by recalcitrants simply not following the school’s expectations, and their disruptive behaviours impinging upon others who either wanted to learn, or at least had some sense of it being good for them, if not now, but for their future. It was reflecting in poor results, which seemed to entrench a self-fulfilling prophecy plaguing the town that it would never amount to much, but it also just wasn’t fair to those who deserved a good education. This school, unbeknown to the general community, had an epiphany: it would implement a utilitarian policy, and weed out the negative influence, brand it as ‘operation engage’, aware of the obvious ironic possibilities with such a title, and follow the policy unwaveringly to its natural conclusion when students refused to cooperate with it. Contentedly, and assuredly, the school believed it had found the solution to its behavioural problems.  

Suddenly, in a short amount of time, the village found itself with 5 students who had been excluded from the school. This was a shock to the villagers, who had never witnessed such a situation before. A community meeting was urgently called, and at the beginning of the meeting residents expressed a wave of near hysteric concern: what would these students now do? Who would educate them? What would be the price for the community in terms of what these students wouldn’t be able to contribute to the village considering their now lack of education? Who would look after them during school hours? Who would counsel them in coming to terms with the blatant message that they were now different from the rest of the village, and who would be there to guide and monitor the inevitable emotional fallout from this awareness? Why were they behaving as they were to result in the exclusion? Why did they react to the enforcement of the rules differently to the other children? And how did a relatively minor infraction escalate so quickly to an expulsion for 2 of the students?   

Some in the community then turned their discussion to more philosophical considerations, and about what it meant to be an educator. They inquired whether the village was happy enough to believe that the children, who by definition required learning in every context, were mature enough to truly understand the consequences of their behaviours? or whether they had the skills or indeed capacity to modify and reflect on that behaviour when it was challenged? and whether the popularity of a progression model of curriculum to assist academic learning seemed contradictory when not being applied to behavioural and emotional learning, especially considering the contexts and family life of the 5 excluded children? They enquired as to whether the exclusion would create a culture of cyclical deviance, with the child likely to seek other forms of deviance or people stigmatised with the same label, and if so, what measures would then have to be put in place to prevent, or worse, manage those subsequent behaviours? And finally they wondered whether such an inflexible approach to infraction would produce a happy community in the long run?

When these questions were put to the school, the principal looked up with sincerity, and explained that even though the decision to implement their policy seemed harsh, that providing firm and consistent boundaries was a necessary strategy for all children, but especially for those children with the most troubling of behaviours. In fact, he suggested it was the most effective strategy to prevent this type of student from falling further into deviance, because what many of the students who have behavioural issues have in common is a lack of control of their emotions and a lack of experience and exposure to the application of consistent boundaries, boundaries that he hoped everyone would agree were important in raising a child. He said that the repeated behaviourist approach to ensuring rules were followed was in fact incrementally training students to take more responsibility for their own behaviours, the ultimate and collectively understood goal of citizens in the town.

He said that since the exclusions the school’s results had improved. In terms of the 5 who were excluded, the principal explained that after attempts to bring the students into line with expectations had failed, the school simply didn’t have the necessary resources to assign to the explicit and substantive training the handful of students, who for some reason or another couldn’t emotionally engage with what the school was offering, realistically needed. In terms of what the excluded students would now do during regular school time, again, the principal highlighted the need for him to be pragmatic, that the exclusions had resulted in substantial benefits to the majority of students now learning more, and reiterated that it was not in his capacity to be able to manage the outcomes in what now eventuated for the 5.

In terms of the philosophical concerns, he added that it was a utilitarian society by nature, in how capitalist ideology naturally excluded villagers from certain privileges and opportunities, and how exam grade boundaries reinforce this natural division and in fact require certain percentages of children to fail for it to work, and that as a corollary school life could be no different.  When one of the villagers rebutted about the cyclical deviance, the principal highlighted the notion of having high expectations, and that if you tolerate and thereby accept the deviant behaviour of the few, the whole suffers. He also said again that it was beyond his remit and that prospective offenders would be a matter for the law.

The principal’s message was assertive, and charismatic, and ostensibly logical, and the crowd of villages found themselves eventually acquiescent to it. Except one. Seated in the middle of the now encouraged and practically effusive group, she rose to signal their attention. Whilst respectful and understanding of the points presented, she had several queries: she was unsure as to why it hadn’t been a community decision to implement the utilitarian policy, and why the school had taken it on without consultation since it most certainly had ramifications to the community having 5 uneducated children wondering around; she wondered why the exclusions had been made before any significant researched remediation process had been designed; she wondered why preparations had not been made before exclusions were carried out as to what provision was on offer and how these children would now be educated, as it being a small village, the children couldn’t be passed off somewhere else; she wondered why, despite the acknowledgement of the utilitarian ideology, why people were content with it, and whether their complaisance would alter if they indeed found themselves to be one of the necessary few who missed the positive boundary, and what long term psychological effects this sense of failure may have for those subsequently branded; she wondered how proactive the school had been in ‘teaching’ behaviour, and whether school staff suffered from the curse of knowledge, unaware of the challenges that some students, and most likely the excluded 5, face in conforming to the expectations when they haven’t had sufficient practice in learning them; she wondered whether staff in the school had been given sufficient training to handle contexts where students were presenting behavioural cognitive overload, and whether they were adequately skilled in de-escalating those contexts and not exacerbating them, which usually resulted in the (unintended) entrapment of the child, pushing them into an emotional corner, and ultimately affecting the ramping up and accumulation of misdemeanours when reacting to that overload.    

To her there seemed a great many unanswered questions that made her surprised at the assertiveness of the principal.

The principal retorted that ideally he would be able to provide a mediation phase for students who were struggling for one reason or another to follow the school’s rules, a phase that was supported by trained counsellors who could help the student unpick where behaviours have emanated from and provide appropriate strategies to help students negotiate the feelings that have previously caused deviant reactions. He would love to able to provide several teachers who could assist students to catch up with missed content, so when they returned back to class they didn’t feel overwhelmed by their lack of knowledge and understandably feel inadequate, often resulting in a negative, almost defence-like reaction that often perpetuated the behaviour cycle. The reality was, according to the principal, that he simply didn’t have the funds to create such a pathway, a restorative pathway that would ultimately prevent exclusions from occurring. He also added that sometimes that within a school context the restorative path was in fact untenable, with some students, blighted by family context, essentially needing one to one counselling for extended periods of time, especially if homelife behaviours were continuously deleterious. And how could you only have one or two teachers working full time as ‘gap’ fillers? Would they be trained in every subject for every year level, and how would they know what has been missed, and what if there are 10 students out of classes at any one time?   

The woman, initially immovable at the seemingly rash direction the school had taken, now, with more information, felt a greater understanding of where the principal was coming from, but was still not completely convinced. She too conceded that the situation was not straightforward, understood the need for pragmatism and that there were no easy answers, but that this only reinforced her concerns that the policy had actually been enacted. Because of this, she wanted to reiterate again that the school should have thought a great deal more about the mechanics and logistics and responsibilities involved in implementing a radical behaviour policy. It would need to think considerably more about training teachers and students to engage with it. It would need to think considerably more about the amount of time needed to train teachers how to minimise behavioural cognitive overload. It would need to think considerably more about providing students with sufficient opportunity to learn and practice what is learnt in how to react to behavioural challenge, and especially how to react when faced with behavioural cognitive overload. It would need to think considerably more about what would then happen if a student still couldn’t respond to these learning opportunities, and have provision in place that facilitated that learning with the goal of getting the student back to mainstream education as soon as possible, where appropriate. After all, in such a small town there was no brushing the issue under the carpet.

The principal conceded that possibly the decision had been a little rushed, and vowed to adjust the current approach and initiate more training for both teachers and students. The community conceded that more funding HAD to go into the school to support such an initiative, and that it would need to design the necessary infrastructure for the students who were excluded. The meeting adjourned, and the folk of Utopia went home satisfied.

I’m Paul Moss. Follow me on Twitter @edmerger and follow this blog for more discussions about education.

MEMORABLE TEACHING – more important than we think?

A hypothesis: because of the relative ease of retrieval of episodic memory and its ability to facilitate elaborative retrieval of semantic knowledge, creating memorable episodic moments in a sequence of learning could reduce the amount of time needed to be spent on practising retrieval of the desirable semantic content in that sequence.

As discussed in the last post, the more we know about how information is encoded and then retrieved from our memories the more we can have faith in our teaching methods. The central focus of the post was ‘engagement’, and in this post, I will examine the function of episodic memory and use this knowledge to explore the theoretical foundation of the above hypothesis.


As defined here, episodic memory is ‘the memory of autobiographical events or ‘episodes’ (times, places, associated emotions and other contextual knowledge) that can be explicitly stated. Together with semantic memory it forms a larger category of memory called declarative memory, but where semantic memory concerns itself with facts and knowledge within an experience, episodic memory concerns itself with the contexts in which the facts and knowledge are experienced. To state it another way, episodic memory is the context semantic memories come from: semantic memories are the specific elements of a larger context.

In terms of encoding, an important characteristic of episodic memory is the fact that the stronger the emotional connection to an event the more likely the event will be remembered. This logically follows when considering Willingham’s now iconic supposition: ‘you remember what you think about’, because the emotion increases the level of attention given to the content. Providing students with emotional hooks when teaching content then potentially facilitates the efficient encoding of that content. However, the important caveat here is ‘potential’.

As discussed in the previous post, the limitations of working memory play a part in how much of an experience is encoded, with optimal encoding possible when the working memory isn’t overloaded. Clare Sealy beautifully articulates the central ‘drawbacks’ of episodic memory here, that the contextual tags are often undesirably remembered without the semantic desired content, and that the episodic memories aren’t transferable and therefore useful in assisting working memory because they are locked into the specific context they occurred in. We all remember moments of our schooling that seem to be disconnected to what the teacher was probably trying to teach us, like a fun English lesson making a sculpture, or having a lesson outside on a sunny day, or an embarrassing experience that happened in a class, or getting locked in a cupboard (actually happened to me), or as David Didau cites on pg. 161 in his excellent book, ‘Making Kids Cleverer’, only vague recollections of learning about topics such as the Vikings.

But I wonder if these outcomes are not the result of shortcomings of episodic memory. I wonder if the outcomes are the result of a poor design of the learning sequence*, a design not considering cognitive overload, and that when the new content was contextualised with emotion, the teacher failed to negotiate the usurpation of working memory capacity by being conscious of where initial attention is focused, and re/direct attention to the more salient content once the emotion subsided? If true, incremental design with mastery at its core needs then to be considered on more than just the paper and design level, it needs to consider the real context of the lesson and anticipate episodic encoding.

I wonder if the episodic memories survive and not the desired semantic content because of a lack of dedicated retrieval of the semantic content? With retrieval practice a relatively recent phenomenon in teaching, this is certainly likely. I wonder if the lack of transferability has nothing to do with episodic memory, but is again actually due to a lack of mastery of the semantic content, a lack of retrieval practice preventing the semantic content from moving towards automaticity, and detaching itself from the episodic? If knowledge is mastered, and thereby not negatively affecting the working memory, say for example mastery of your 6 times tables, why would remembering the two weeks spent with your uncle helping you learn them get in the way of using the learnt semantic knowledge?

Ostensibly, it would be far easier to avoid such lurking dubiety and control the learning environment by reducing or even eliminating episodic influence on the working memory. Presently, with this insight, and with a better understanding of the important chiasmus: learning can’t happen without engagement, but engagement doesn’t automatically imply learning, many teachers have begun to tread cautiously in lesson design, fearful of conflating episodic experiences with cognitive overload, and the deleterious, ‘fun’. This is the motivation for removing distractions in PowerPoints and on walls, but particularly in removing distractions in the delivery of content, in an attempt to refine pedagogy to concentrate more on the science of teaching and less about its artform.

However, this refinement and removing episodic encoding has its detractors, with opponents frightened of teaching becoming a soulless and robotic profession. It is certainly an important conversation to be having, but concomitant with the above counters to episodic drawbacks, there may be a more poignant reason as to why the removing of episodic encoding may not be in a teacher’s best interest, and it has to do with the retrieval of the encoded content.


Retrieving content is imperative in order to strengthen the neural pathways the information flows through. The stronger the pathways, the more automatic the information can be drawn from the long term memory to assist the working memory. Everything we’ve attended to and thought about in experiences in our lives is stored somewhere in our long-term memory (Kirschner); the trick is in successfully retrieving it when our working memory needs it. Undeniably, the less time (and pain) it takes to master and thus automaticise knowledge the better: mastery is an elusive concept, but for all intents and purposes, a reasonable demarcation of mastery would be when a student is able to draw on previous learnt content to assist in encoding new content without it affecting the current working memory. With time being the ultimate malevolence, teachers naturally want to streamline methods to achieve this mastery: the nature of the forming of episodic memories presents an interesting time saving possibility.


‘ While episodic memory and semantic memory require a similar encoding process, semantic memory mainly activates the frontal and temporal cortexes, whereas episodic memory activity is concentrated in the hippocampus, at least initially. Once processed in the hippocampus, episodic memories are then consolidated and stored in the neocortex. The memories of the different elements of a particular event are distributed in the various visual, olfactory and auditory areas of the brain, but they are all connected together by the hippocampus to form an episode, rather than remaining a collection of separate memories. But significantly, by repeatedly reactivating or “playing back” this particular activity pattern in the various regions of the cortex, they become so strongly linked with one another that they no longer need the hippocampus to act as their link. For example, memories of people’s faces, the taste of the wine, the music that was playing, etc, might all be part of the memory of a particular dinner with friends. The memory of the music that was playing that night, for example, can act as an index entry and may be enough to bring back the entire scene of the dinner party. ‘ (1)

This ability of our brain to trigger other memories from a single cue is called elaborative retrieval, and if we consider the fact that episodic memory can be so easily remembered, invariably without any retrieval at all, evidenced by the fact that semantic elements of a scene need to be ‘worked on’ to be remembered, we are presented with a possibility that these memories could be exploited to expedite the retrieval of semantic content. If these episodic memories could be used to serve the building of schemata about topics and be positioned as triggers or cues for desirable but harder to reach semantic content, they would in fact be instrumentally useful in a sequence of learning.


Where the information being learned has a framework or structure that can be used to organise both the learning and the retrieval then memory is often considerably improved.

Michael Eysenck (ed) The Blackwell Dictionary of Cognitive Psychology 1994

Schema is an important concept in education. Rather than information in our brains being stored like a library, a better analogy would be that of an interconnected web of information, with ideas being linked in multiple ways. It is the interconnected web of knowledge that our brain draws on to help make sense of new information. The web of knowledge assists in reducing cognitive load as the multiple sub-surface associations, from prior knowledge, are able to be rapidly assimilated to interpret the new. Eventually the new information, rather than just being bolted on to the existing schema, becomes understood and accommodated to be a part of it.

In Christine Counsell’s writing on curriculum as narrative, the building of schemata is not just about the core facts of a disciplinary unit of work, rather it is the ‘hinterland’ or associations surrounding those core elements that help connect ideas and develop overall understanding, and at the same time preventing the curriculum and delivery of essential semantic content from becoming, as Adam Boxer writes, denuded of wider meaning and majesty where it ceases to be one thread of the epic story of humanity and becomes a sterile and sanitised exam-ready product. Neil Almond’s wonderful analogy of curriculum as a box set similarly captures the imperative of this interconnected web.

When Adam Boxer describes his difference in delivery method when distinguishing between core and hinterland material in his lessons, he articulates a context for episodic memories to be created. ‘Quite the opposite tends to be the case when I walk in the hinterland. I move around the class more, I become physically animated and visibly excited. I vary my intonation and use poetic and emotive language. I can often talk for a long time without pause, without asking questions and without students taking notes or doing drill questions. I draw on my personal feelings and experiences in a way that I rarely do in my other interactions with students, I give just a little bit more of myself.’  The hinterland content, behaving essentially as episodic in nature by generating emotional responses from the students, not only beautifully sets up the delivery of the core semantic content, but because it can be effortlessly retrieved, now serves as potential ‘head’ cues for retrieving the core content.

For many teachers, with awareness of how to successfully sequence the episodic content as described above, this may serve as good news, affirming an intuitive type of delivery in lessons that is their bread and butter, an intuition that can now be articulated it in terms of cognitive science.


In the above sequence of diagrams, utilising the benefits of a progression model of curriculum, the episodic memory, carefully delivered in class as to avoid cognitive overload, is in a different colour and is represented as larger in the schema. This is to suggest that it is serving as a ‘head’ cue which can also be more easily retrieved and thereby helps facilitate more efficient elaborative retrieval of the desired semantic content. As a corollary, the bar graph below would illustrate the reduced time students would need to spend on retrieving the new addition to the schema to consolidate mastery.

It could be argued that even if the time saved was minimal, the increased engagement such episodic delivery potentiates and the incidental yet palpable building of schema would still serve to make it a useful strategy.

While Kahana and Howard tell us that semantic memories work best when accompanied with episodic memories, and Tulving’s encoding specificity principle has shown that we tend to more easily recall semantic memories when they are connected to episodic memories, there is no research I can find that explores the possibility that because of the relative ease of retrieval of episodic memories, the amount of time needed to be spent on building retrieval of semantic memory could be significantly reduced. The hypothesis though could be tested.

In the next post I will discuss approaches that incorporate episodic type sequences in their design, their efficacy, and the their validity.

*a design failing to thoughtfully consider what learning is actually resulting from the memorable experiences.

I’m Paul Moss. Follow me on Twitter @edmerger and follow this blog for more posts on education and English teaching



The more we know about how information is encoded and then retrieved from our memories the more we can have faith in our teaching methods.

Teaching is a complex and incredibly difficult thing to do. Just look at how much discussion is generated by practically every single aspect of it, and how often these turn into heated debates. In the next 3 posts I will attempt to delineate my understanding behind existing pedagogical positions, positions that have certainly been mercurial over the past few years because new ideas about the encoding of information and how those encodings are retrieved have entered the mainstream. This new awareness of research into encoding, through its logic, makes for an ineluctable argument for teachers to carefully consider curriculum design more than ever before.

The more we know about how information is encoded and then retrieved from our memories the more we can have faith in our teaching methods. I will posit in the next 3 posts that there are 3 central aspects related to encoding and retrieval that should occupy every teacher’s mind: Engagement, episodic memory and semantic memory.



An important chiasmus: learning can’t happen without engagement, but engagement doesn’t automatically imply learning.

Learning can’t take place unless a student is engaged in some way with the content. It’s simply impossible – like being asked to give details about an event that you weren’t at. With this ostensibly modern epiphany, the notion of engagement then became education’s silver bullet, the antidote to traditional, stifling teaching that was diagnosed as the root cause of poor behaviour and poor academic performance. However, what constituted engagement became arguable, contentious and indeed polarising. 

Some educators took the term engagement to imply that students needed to be having fun, or that the curriculum needed to be less about the past and its outdated motivations for learning (the factory style model) and more comprehensively relevant to students’ lives. This deduction was then expanded to focus on skills that would be desirable for the future, a future conceptualised as an unknown that would demand adaptability and skills considered to be of the 21st century. Few could see the irony of criticising the past motivation and simply replacing it with another. For those who could, Ben Newmark mitigated and appeased the frustration in this excellent post about the purpose of learning, delineating the notion that learning is simply just good for the soul and needn’t have an extrinsic practical motivation.

In Deci, Jang and Reeve’s 2010 article, engagement is considered from two perspectives: STUDENT AND TEACHER PERCEPTIONS.

  • Students who felt their teacher was interested in their needs reported as being more engaged.
  • If they felt the teacher was interested in their success, they became more engaged behaviourally and emotionally.
  • Students who felt that their teacher was an expert in their field and knew what they were doing were more likely to be engaged in lessons.
  • Coercive engagement was not ideal but was still a form of engagement.
  • Teachers who thought students were engaged tended to give them more attention, and perpetuate a circle of engagement, but crucially, vice versa: teachers who thought students weren’t engaged gave less attention. 
  • Ideally a balance of structure and autonomy works best. If students felt they had some freedoms in what they were learning they self-reported as being engaged. (Further studies have provided a better understanding of this intellection and are discussed below)

Proponents of the 21st century model wanted to exploit this last notion of engagement being linked to autonomy, predominantly by placing the student at the centre of knowledge building as opposed to the teacher leading and directing the learning. The ‘guide on the side’ and ‘sage on the stage’ tropes became mantras. Technology found its niche as a conduit for such independent learning, and technology companies sprang up in the education environment, as ubiquitous forces, menacingly assertive, but inevitably pernicious in guise, inventing problems to suit solutions and dragging education into the competitive and lurid world of sales. Of course, not all technology companies were to be painted with the same brush, and not all acted so scrupulously. But while there have been many advances that have indeed made teaching and school administration easier, significant damage has been done.

A focus on independent autonomous learning also sprouted a strong constructivist approach to pedagogy, where students engaged in discovery or inquiry learning, predominantly through projects. Project based learning was designed to utilise the new understandings of what defined 21st century learning: an imperative on providing open-ended opportunities for students to develop skills that promoted independent adaptability above a range of other soft skills, such as cooperative learning, problem solving and creativity. The intention to create independent learners is admirable and understandable; few could argue with this aspiration, and when combined with visible student engagement, emanating from well-designed projects that appeal to students’ interests and usually involve a multiple sensory approach to learning, proponents of the practice appear validated.

Critics of the approach however, worry that teachers can be beguiled by levels of engagement and see them as proxies for learning. They cite research into working memory suggesting ‘inquiry’, ‘discovery’ or ‘constructivist’ learning is incompatible with the brain’s architecture, primarily because when a student searches for new knowledge (the chief characteristic of problem solving pedagogy) they effectively usurp the entire working memory capacity, rendering it physically impossible to problem solve at the same time. The push for engagement by passing over responsibility for instruction to the students places far too much stress on working memory, and then ironically becomes detrimental to learning. As discussed here, the number of interacting elements you need to process in working memory depends both upon the learning materials and the expertise of the learner. The distinction then between the expert and novice is critical in designing learning sequences.

Also of paramountcy in challenging the belief that engagement solely can be a proxy for learning is the research work done into storage strength and retrieval strength by Bjork, elucidated beautifully for the classroom context here by Joe Kirby. It is another aspect of encoding and retrieving that has significant implications for curriculum design, instructing teachers, and especially progress obsessed classroom observers not to ‘fall’ for the trap of assuming enthusiastic hard working students are doing any learning at all. Mark Enser brings to attention the notion that encoding of information and retrieving go hand in hand, and so whether the encoding is completed and indeed useful can really only be determined at a later stage in the learning process.  

It would seem apparent then that sequences that ignore the brain’s architecture potentially disadvantage all students but particularly those from backgrounds with low cultural capital, exacerbating the Matthew effect significantly. To determine your own position on how much autonomy versus structure you provide in your classroom it is vital that you learn as much as you can about the processes involved in the encoding and retrieval of information.          

And that takes us into the next section: episodic memory.

I’m Paul Moss. Follow me on Twitter @edmerger and follow this blog for more discussions about education and English teaching.