Mastery Learning – getting the foundations right

In the 12th Century, construction of a bell tower behind the Pisa Cathedral began. Due to it being built upon soft soil with only 3m of foundations, the tower began to subside on one side during the construction phase. Despite this, the bell tower was eventually completed nearly 200 years after starting. However, each year the tower increased its tilt by 1mm, until in 2001 it got to the point of no return. Had work not been carried out to correct the foundations, the tower would have collapsed under the immense pressure being exerted on it. Although it has now been corrected (to an extent), engineers believe that in a couple of centuries, it will likely be at a point where correction will need to be made again.

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Isn’t this interesting? Due to building upon poor foundations, the building will never last without regular intervention…

Reminds me a bit of education. Before I make the link more explicit, let me digress to a term that is bandied around a lot in education – MASTERY LEARNING. Sounds pretty awesome, indeed I imagine you’ve heard a consultant, manager or colleague throw the term around in an attempt to sound awesome and you’ve no doubt thought to yourself… they’re awesome! For those of you that don’t know what it is, here are a couple of definitions:

The Wikipedia definition cites:

‘Mastery learning (or, as it was initially called, “learning for mastery”) is an instructional strategy and educational philosophy, first formally proposed by Benjamin Bloom in 1968. Mastery learning maintains that students must achieve a level of mastery (e.g., 90% on a knowledge test) in prerequisite knowledge before moving forward to learn subsequent information. If a student does not achieve mastery on the test, they are given additional support in learning and reviewing the information and then tested again. This cycle continues until the learner accomplishes mastery, and they may then move on to the next stage.’

Slavin defined mastery learning as:

‘The principal defining characteristic of mastery learning methods is the establishment of a criterion level of performance held to represent “mastery” of a given skill or concept, frequent assessment of student progress toward the mastery criterion, and provision of corrective instruction to enable students who do not initially meet the mastery criterion to do so on later parallel assessment.’

Isn’t this just good teaching?

In maths, would I allow learners to move onto percentages if they can’t perform division and multiplication?

In anatomy and physiology, would I allow learners to move onto the energy systems if they didn’t understand the structure and functions of the respiratory system?

Of course not. Without sufficient underpinning of the foundation knowledge, then I’d be setting them up to fail by introducing new concepts.

Let me go back to the leaning tower – had the builders established it upon a solid layer of soil and with much deeper foundations, it is unlikely that their successors would be required to save the damn thing every couple of hundred years. So with teaching, if we spend time getting the basics right before moving on to more advanced things, perhaps our successors won’t need to go back over the foundations.
For all their faults (according to others, not me), the EEF actually inform us that mastery learning can improve achievement by 5 months. They state that:

  1. Overall, mastery learning is a learning strategy with good potential, particularly for low attaining students

  2. Implementing mastery learning effectively is not straightforward, however, requiring a number of complex components and a significant investment in terms of design and preparation

  3. Setting clear objectives and providing feedback from a variety of sources so that learners understand their progress appear to be key features of using mastery learning effectively. A high level of success, at least 80%, should be required before pupils move on

  4. Incorporating group and team approaches where pupils take responsibility for helping each other within mastery learning appears to be effective.

Whilst I understood points 1, 3 and 4 (features of good teaching), I was a little perplexed by point 2, so investigated this further. In one of the cited articles looking at the impact of a mastery maths programme, the following was stated:

‘Typically, mastery approaches involve breaking down subject matter and learning content into discrete units with clear objectives and pursuing these objectives until they are achieved before moving on to the next unit. Students are generally required to show high levels of achievement before progressing to master new content. This approach differs from conventional approaches, which often cover a specified curriculum at a particular pre-determined pace.’

I’m not convinced that this is dissimilar to conventional approaches. Sure, there is often a lot of content to cover in most qualifications, but good teachers know how important it is to master the basics before moving on. The EEF go on to add that:

‘In addition to the ‘mastery curriculum’, other features of the approach include a systematic approach to mathematical language (see Hoyles, 1985; Lee, 1998), frequent use of objects and pictures to represent mathematical concepts (see Heddens, 1986; Sowell, 1989), and an emphasis on high expectations (see Dweck, 2006; Boaler, 2010).’ 

Hang on… so what was being measured in this study? Was it the impact of mastery learning, language use, dual coding or high expectations, or…all of the above? At this point I was confused, but I did note that these are, what I would call, characteristics of good teaching.

 

As can be seen, mastery learning is a bit of an en-vogue concept with, in some cases, a lack of clarity. In reality, it is a sign of good teaching – ensuring that the foundations are right before moving on.

Cognitive Load Theory

It was around 18 months ago that I first came across Cognitive Load Theory (CLT) and shortly after, I blogged about its application in my practice. Recently CLT has gained a lot of traction on social media; helped by the fact that Dylan Wiliam cited it as the most important thing for teachers to know earlier this year:

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Oliver Caviglioli also recently created one of his fantastic illustrative summaries on Sweller’s book and this reignited the CLT flame for me. A few weeks ago I posted about CLT on the Society for Education and Training’s Blog, in an attempt to further promote what I and many others consider to be an essential learning theory. I thought I’d share it on my blog in an attempt to reach a few more practitioners, so here it is:

 

What is the one learning theory that I feel all teachers should be made aware of?

Cognitive Load Theory (CLT) – Coined in 1988 by John Sweller, this theory posits that our working memory is only able to hold a small amount of information at any one time and that instructional methods should avoid overloading it in order to maximise learning (Sweller, 1988).

 

Why have I chosen this theory?

We’ve all been in learning sessions where the teacher has whizzed through the content, leaving us with little to remember. We’ve also been in those sessions where the content is so complex that we leave more confused than when we entered. CLT goes some way to explaining why this happens and what we, as teachers, can do to maximise the learning of individuals within our classrooms.
Building on the work of Baddeley and Hitch (1974), CLT views human cognitive architecture as the working memory and long term memory. Put simply, the working memory has a limited capacity and consists of multiple components that are responsible for directing attention and coordinating cognitive processes. Long term memory on the other hand, has an endless capacity for storage and works with working memory to retrieve information (Baddeley, 2003).

What can teachers do to reduce cognitive load?

  • Activate prior knowledge before sharing new information with students – Our long term memory is said to have a number of organised patterns of knowledge (known as schema). Each schema acts as a single item in working memory, so can be handled easier than having lots of new, isolated information. Through retrieving information from the long term memory via quizzes, visual aids and discussions, students can bring crucial information to working memory (see image 1) and assimilate new information to build upon what they already know (Baddeley, 2003). Activating prior knowledge is also supported in the work of Marzano, Gaddy and Dean (2000), who found a substantial improvement in achievement (0.59ES). Furthermore, retrieval practice has shown to strengthen our retention of the information (Wenger, Thompson and Bartling, 1980) – a win win!

 

  • Use visual and verbal information to present information to students – This has nothing to do with the infamous ‘learning styles’, rather empirical research suggests that our working memory has two points of entry (Chandler and Sweller, 1992). One accepts auditory information, whilst the other visual. If the auditory and visual information correspond to one another, then the burden on working memory is far less than using one pathway alone. Image 1 shows the effect of using one pathway to working memory, whereas image 2 shows the use of both. However, please note that if the text and visual information are not clearly integrated, then it could have adverse effects on learning (Chandler and Sweller, 1992).

 

  • Use worked examples and models to support learning – There are a wealth of studies that have shown the positive impact of using worked examples to enhance learning (Chandler and Sweller, 1991). According to Clark, Nguyen and Sweller (2006, p.190), ‘a worked example is a step-by-step demonstration of how to perform a task or how to solve a problem’. These steps provide learners with direction and support to create mental models of how to tackle a problem/task, or what ‘good’ looks like. Discovery or problem-based learning on the other hand can be burdensome to working memory due to learners having insufficient prior knowledge to draw upon to support their learning. Moreover, the vast amount of information they have to consider in completing work independently can result in a struggle to direct their attention. As learners develop a greater understanding of the topic, elements of the worked or modelled examples can be ‘faded’ (removed) to foster greater independence.

Worked Example

 

In summary, regardless of one’s philosophical predisposition, I argue that all teachers need to have an awareness of the potential benefits and limitations of the ways in which they present learning opportunities for learners. CLT and the associated empirical research provides us with an understanding of how we process, organise and store information most effectively and for this reason, all teachers should acquire a basic understanding of the premise.

References
Baddeley, A.D. (2003). Working memory: looking back and looking forward. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 4, p.829-839.

Baddeley, A.D. and Hitch, G. (1974). Working Memory. Psychology of Learning and Motivation, 8, p.47-89.

Chandler, P. and Sweller, J. (1991). Cognitive Load Theory and the Format of Instruction. Cognition and Instruction, 8 (4), p. 293-332.

Chandler, P. and Sweller, J. (1992). The split-attention effect as a factor in the design of instruction. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 62 (2), p.233–246.

Clark, R.C., Nguyen, F. and Sweller, J. (2006). Efficiency in learning: evidence-based guidelines to manage cognitive load. San Francisco: Pfeiffer.

Marzano, R.J., Gaddy, B.B. and Dean, C. (2000). What works in classroom instruction. Aurora, CO: Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning.

Sweller, J. (1988). Cognitive Load during Problem Solving: Effects on Learning. Cognitive Science, 12, p.257-285.

Wenger, S.K., Thompson, P. and Bartling, C.A. (1980). Recall facilitates subsequent recognition. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Learning and Memory, 6 (2), p.135-144.

5 Diamonds

There are several blog posts knocking around at the minute regarding 5 things that individuals wish they’d have known when they started teaching (here and here). I like to follow the trend, so here are the five absolute diamonds that I wish I’d have known before I started teaching:

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1. If we don’t have an understanding of how information is received, processed and stored, then we don’t really understand learning.

It’s only in recent years with the ‘online cognitive science revolution’ that I’ve really acquired an understanding of how memory works and how to best support long term retention. You’d be a fool to ignore Cognitive Science. Whilst we can’t prove anything about memory, there’s a wealth of empirical research to support our understanding of it. Cognitive Load Theory is in vogue at the moment, but despite its popularity, unlike other fads, there is a compelling evidence base for its application. I actually wrote a blog post for the Society for Education and Training about CLT recently, which I shall share on here soon – stay tuned.

2. You’re not a bad teacher if you tell your learners stuff.

When I started teaching, everything had to be active. If you didn’t have active learning in your lessons, then you’d be chastised by observers and the like. Back then, being a sports lecturer, I thought active learning actually involved learners being ‘active’. For this reason, I would often get learners moving around the room doing star jumps (OK, I exaggerate, but why ruin a good story by telling the truth?). Anyway, my point here is that explicit instruction is actually really effective, particularly with novice learners. They need to know stuff and expecting them to figure it out for themselves is frankly absurd.

3. You really should assess learners at the start of every lesson

When I started teaching all the other teachers used to read objectives off before rolling into their lesson, so that’s what I did. Regardless of where learners started with prior knowledge, they were all doing this lesson at my pace. If I actually took the time to identify gaps in knowledge and diagnose misconceptions, I would have known where to focus my attention – I didn’t get this for a long time.

4. Being cool and relaxed is not a good way to manage 16 year olds.

I’ve written before about my erroneous ways with behaviour management. When learners arrive at college, they often don’t know what to expect. If we set the expectations high and be consistent with these, it will save a whole load of bother over the year. If you try to be the cool cat, there’s only one way that it’s going to end.

5. Doing group work is often more hassle than it’s worth.

I believe that working cooperatively is really important, after all, we are social creatures. The thing is, most group work is ineffective due to the fact that it doesn’t meet the fundamentals of effective cooperative learning (individual accountability and working towards a common goal), as identified by Slavin, Hurley and Chamberlain. I’ve observed so many sessions where the group work has actually been one learner’s work, with 4+ other learners piggy backing. Effective group work is something that is carefully crafted and in all honesty, I prefer paired work as it addresses the key features of cooperative learning. A previous blog on group work explains my thoughts in greater detail.

 

So that is my 5, what are yours?

Remove your headphones!

It’s revision season. Exams are nearly upon us and learners up and down the country are locked away in their rooms revising (I hope they took on board my advice with the do’s and don’ts of revision).

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When I was revising for my GCSE’s back in the late 90’s, we only had one television in the house and I didn’t have a mobile phone, so I’d be in my room testing myself against the OCR revision guides for each subject. This didn’t prove very fruitful in all honesty, but I would dread to be revising in the modern world – Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, Whatsapp, Phones, TVs, Laptops, iPads and iPods. You name it, there are so many distractions that face young people today.

 

What’s the problem?

Due to the problems associated with memory, and the subsequent distractions students face, this can limit the cognitive resources that can be allocated during the learning process. Salame and Baddeley found that the auditory pathway (phonological loop) is susceptible to negative effects of speech and other sounds. In other words, when there are noises in the room, beeps from the phone, the TV on in the background, the music etc, it increases the cognitive load, thus impeding the ability of working memory. What’s worse, when we are reading, we aren’t using the visual pathway (visuospatial sketchpad), we are actually using our auditory pathway as a result of ‘self-talk’. This is largely corroborated by the work of Alley and Greene who also found that individuals are pretty rubbish at judging just how much their working memory is impaired by irrelevant sounds. So when learners are telling you that having their headphone in is helping them to concentrate, they’re likely to be wrong.

 

What does this mean for teachers?

There is a real need for teachers to promote effective study strategies to learners and this starts in the classroom.

  • Learners should be encouraged to work in silence during independent practice – this includes removing phones, tablets, or anything else with a sound… even peers.
  • I recommend strongly that learners are not allowed to use headphones when working independently – even if they think it helps them.
  • Encourage learners to follow the ‘dos’ on my revision guide, and of course, ignore the ‘don’ts’.
  • When at home, learners should be encouraged to revise in a ‘distraction free zone’. TV off, phone in another room.

 

 

Why I do PowerPoint

There’s been a bit of a hoo-hah on Twitter today about PowerPoint (PPt). I think it began following this post from Jo Facer, which makes some fair comments. This led to a share of a previously written, more balanced argument by Robert Peal. I certainly agree with points in both, but not all. Here’s why I think we shouldn’t be so hasty in dismissing the use PPt:

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1. It provides a structure for lessons – note the term lessons. I often have a PPt that spans more than one lesson and based on the content that needs to be taught. I don’t see a problem with planning via PPt, so as long as the time spent is on thinking about the order/structure of content. Taking the time to think about the structure helps to organise my thoughts and enables me to move information around to suit the needs of the class. It’s as if I am putting my schema to paper (figuratively speaking). I could use other means to do this, but the PPt serves as a prompt during the session and means that the risk of learners missing out on crucial information is minimised.

2. The ‘visual’ argument – there’s no denying the vast body of research supporting Paivio’s Dual Coding Theory. I used to be guilty of putting reams of text on slides, which I proceeded to read to my learners and wondered why they never remembered anything. The issue was that whilst I read aloud and learners read the text (self talking), all information was entering working memory via the verbal pathway. Having developed a (basic) understanding of the theory, I began to change my approach, ensuring that more visuals were used to support explanations rather than text. Where visual information can’t be used, I keep text to a minimum, emphasising key points only. Having the visual means that the two pathways to working memory are being used, thus less of of burden for the learners (as shown below). PPt is a platform that enables me to quickly create or add visuals, meaning that all I have to concentrate on is explaining it clearly.

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3. Animations – I’m not talking the swirling and whirling of individual letters which take ages to create sentences. No, I’m talking animations to grab learners attention, to direct them to important components of visuals as they are being discussed. I have blogged about this here, but the Clark and Lyons research is a much more comprehensive read on this. Whilst there are many other ways to direct attention, PPt can be used really effectively to do so.


4. Everything in one place – Another benefit of PPt is that I can place my quiz, my content, links to reading, learner task instructions etc all in one single place. I can upload this to the Virtual Learning Environment and if learners wish to access anything, it’s all there for them. The fact that everything is in one place also helps keep my OCD in check.


5. Aesthetics – I must admit, I am guilty of putting too much time into the aesthetics of my PPts. I have got better at making the information less of a burden on the working memory; gone are the GIFs, the tenuously linked images, and text heavy slides. In spite of this, I still like to have clear, crisp, well designed slides. The fact that I put effort into making my resources look nice probably won’t get me any thanks from anyone, but with the care I place, I know that the spellings will be correct, the animations will support the learners at the right time and (I’m going to throw this out there) it’ll probably engage the learners a little more (by engage, I mean grab their attention). Whilst this probably makes no odds to the learning, it’s far better than my handwriting on a white board.


To summarise, bad PPts are bad. Similarly, bad teachers are bad; as are bad pens, bad textbooks and bad technology. There is another way and I strive to be at the opposite end of the continuum.

Questioning questioning 

Since Geoff Petty shared his ‘which questioning‘ strategy with me around 6 years ago, I have been on a mission to hone my questioning. It is a great little activity that really gets you thinking about making effective use of questions. To this day, I use an adapted version of the activity with my own trainees. Indeed, I often focus observation feedback on the development of questioning as an essential formative assessment approach.

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It’s easy to see why this is the focus of many teachers up and down the country. Hattie’s synthesis of classroom experiments (2015) found questioning to have a modest, but positive effect size of 0.48 and the resulting classroom discussion a huge 0.82.

The thing is, I’ve found more and more that trainees are focusing too much on questioning individuals (they do it well), and less time on the instructing or allowing learners to practise. It seems that ‘the question’ has taken precedent over ‘the answer’.

I observed a session recently where the teacher insisted on working their way around the class with questions, yet many of the learners didn’t have sufficient prior knowledge to allow them to explore understanding through discussions. It appeared that the opportunity cost of such a strategy was not as fruitful as one might have thought. Due to questioning being a strategy held in high regard, I can understand why they persisted, but it just didn’t help the learners. Instead, the group lost interest rather quickly and low level disruption ensued.

Were the teacher to use questioning more efficiently (second time I’ve used this term in as many posts), through a selection of multiple choice questions which can be answered by all in a short time, the teacher may have realised that the learners required some input/guidance to increase knowledge and enable greater participation in discussions.

Arguably a good starting point for thinking about questioning in the classroom is to ask yourself what the purpose is. Is it to assess learner knowledge/understanding, or is it to teach learners something through discussion? Perhaps it is both, but the main reason should influence the type of questions used. Personally, I use questioning as an assessment tool and the quicker I am able to assess ALL learners the better, so that I can identify gaps in knowledge that need filling. I’m not dismissing questioning as a means to generate good class discussion, but appreciate that time is of the essence with our learners and we should aim to maximise every last drop of it.

Journey

I’ve been fortunate to work in the three great cities of the East Midlands – Leicester, Nottingham and Derby. My first 29 years of life were spent in Leicester. As a result of hundreds of trips to family and friends, I was able to develop an extensive knowledge of the area. Despite no longer living there, I often visit, and when traffic is bad I benefit from knowing most of the rat runs to ensure a timely arrival at my destination. Having this knowledge means that I can be creative with the journey I take. I can make sound judgements about where the traffic is likely to be bad and where I can save time by going alternative routes.

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After much of my life in Leicester, I spent 3 years working in Nottingham in a role which required a lot of travel around the city. During this time, I developed a reasonably good knowledge of the city, getting to grips with most areas. Today I visited an area of Nottingham that I hadn’t previously, so as I neared my destination I needed to switch the sat nav on to guide me in. As I left the area to go to another part of the city, I started to recognise where I was and so the sat nav could be put away. Some knowledge of the area meant that I didn’t need to rely on the sat nav for too long.

 

I’ve been working in Derby for the last few months and prior to that, had only visited on a few occasions. Much like my previous role, my current position  involves a lot of travel. Today I made it out of Derby to Nottingham and back to Derby without my sat nav – the first time I have managed such a feat! Usually I am reliant on my sat nav to direct me everywhere in Derby.

 

On my travels, I started to think about learning, specifically knowledge of new areas. You see, when I drive around a new city, I use my sat nav as it tells me exactly where to go and on most occasions, I get to my destination in the most time efficient manner. Were I to try getting to a destination without the sat nav, I’d lose much of my day trying to figure out where I needed to go. Until I have developed a sufficient knowledge base which allows me to recognise that I’m on the correct route, the sat nav is my guide. Once I have a wealth of knowledge, the sat nav becomes redundant.

 

This is analogous to learning. Teacher = sat nav. If we want to learn anything, it is far more efficient and effective to be told by the teacher in the first instance. It is no good trying to figure out things for ourselves – it is not an efficient or effective way of proceeding. When we have more knowledge, we can begin to remove the teacher, until we become fluent. When we are fluent, we are able to do the ‘higher order’ stuff independent of the teacher.

 

I have blogged previously about the need to adopt different instructional methods for different learners (no this is nothing to do with learning styles!). The different methods of instruction are more/less effective based upon the prior knowledge of the learners.  For example, there is a body of research (Kirschner et al) which shows that direct instruction is more efficient and effective with novice learners. Essentially, they need to be told what to do, due to having insufficient knowledge to allow them to think for themselves (much like me trying to find my way around a new city – Derby). When sufficient knowledge is accrued, then the guidance can become less. Much like me driving around Nottingham. When learners acquire expertise in a subject, they are actually impeded by direct instruction according to Sweller et al (expertise reversal effect blog). This I suspect, is much like a sat nav telling me where I should go in Leicester. Sure it will send me the quickest route, but it won’t know where there is likely to be more traffic, like me. It will probably add more time to my journey.

 

In summary, the more we know, the less support we need; the less we know, the more support we need. How do you know what they know… initial assessment of course!

 

Some points I am aware of:

  • The post is a bit of tongue in cheek. We all know that learning isn’t quite as simple as I have made it out to be.
  • I know there is a danger of becoming over reliant on the teacher (sat nav). 
  • Bad teacher instruction is bad – much like a bad sat nav (I’ve hit a few dead ends in my time). 

Initial Assessment – Start as you mean to go

It wasn’t until well into my teaching career that I realised I needed to do something more than read the objectives to my learners at the start of lessons. I used to plan my lessons in the way that I wanted to teach it and I would stick to the plan rigidly. In fact, one of my first PGCE observations commented on my ‘uncanny ability to stick to the scheduled timings of activities’. These days, I’m not so convinced that this is a strength…

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Sure, I’d get through my lessons and learners would probably make some progress with their understanding, but it wasn’t as effective as it might have been. After a few years of teaching, I had somewhat of a ‘light-bulb’ moment – it was only when I initially assessed that I could redress misconceptions quickly and truly appreciate where I needed to spend more time instructing/guiding learners. I felt so stupid…

 

I have been guilty of and witnessed, many poor attempts at initial assessment over the years. The open question to the whole group, where only the confident answer; the quizzes with easy questions, or with implausible incorrect answers. Neither of which provide the teacher with anything useful. There really is little point doing initial assessment unless the assessment is broad enough to include most of the learners and challenging enough to provide valid and reliable results (but not too challenging).

 

A few simple methods that I have found useful include:

  1. Multiple Choice Quiz (MCQ): A quick MCQ to recap previous learning and assess understanding of intended learning can be a really useful way to build a picture of what the class know and where any misconceptions lie. Sure, it has its draw backs and it can be difficult to design good questions (see previous blog), but a small number of well thought through questions, along with answers that make it difficult to discern the correct response, can be very useful. A little tip – make sure all learners respond at the same time. Give them the opportunity to think about the answers and countdown from 3 to reveal, using either mini white boards, fingers, or hold-up cards. 
  2. Teacher Questioning: As mentioned above. It is too easy to throw out questions and only a minority of learners answer. This tells us very little. A really useful way to check all learners and rectify misconceptions as you go is the ‘think, pair, square, share’ approach. Pose a question and ask everyone in the room to think about a response. Learners then pair to discuss and reach a consensus, before partnering with another pair to reach a final consensus. The teacher randomly targets learners to share their answers with the whole class. All participate and therefore, a few answers to the question can reveal a lot about the group.
  3. Self-Assessment Know: Want, Learn (KWL) – This is something I came across a few years ago and as a tool to monitor progress throughout the session and I find it really useful. At the start of the session, the teacher introduces the learning intentions. Learners then write down everything they know (K) about a topic in the first column and put any questions they want (W) answering in the second column. As this is happening, the teacher circulates the room, checking answers and questions. It provides learners with plenty of time to think about their current knowledge around the topic and also allows the teacher to probe and cajole learners to explore their understanding.
  4. Self-Assessment Audit: For me, this trumps the KWL in a sense that explicit success criteria is given and learners rate themselves against it. For example: I can name 5 long bones – yes or no? The teacher then gains a much quicker idea as to what learners know/can do, in order to determine where more of their instruction/guidance should be directed. 
  5. Visual Mapping Activities: Providing learners with advanced organisers with gaps to fill, can reveal alot. It can show whether they have an understanding of how concepts relate to one another and whether they know key facts about a subject. Get the learners to work independently or in pairs to complete a visual map of the topic and use this as a discussion point to explore understanding further. 

      All of these methods have limitations, but what I’m getting at with this post, is the fact that we need to find out what learners already know about something, rather than teaching blind. All methods provide the opportunity for retrieval practice (crucial for long term retention), moreover, activating learners’ prior knowledge is pivotal to learning anything new (Marzano). Any activities that do this, provides learners with a great starting point for improving long term memory. As I continue to state, it also means that the teacher has a clear idea as to where extra instruction/guidance is required. Therefore, start lessons as you mean to go on, through well planned and effective initial assessment.

      That hand shake

      I’m sure the vast majority of those working in education have witnessed the amazing skills of Mr White, the elementary school teacher from the US (see video here). He has a personalised handshake for every student across three of his classes. 

      Image source: https://goo.gl/images/kcUVbY

      He says that it helps create trust and build relationships with his learners. Whilst this isn’t something that I would do, I like this isolated example (and hope it stays isolated), and have always valued positive working relationships with learners. Indeed, Hattie found, in his meta meta analysis, a high effect on achievement (0.72) when teacher-student relationships have respect, trust and care. Furthermore, the whole notion of routine adds to the effect of this approach to supporting learning. I’m an advocate of behaviour management strategies which create positive habits, as can be seen in my previous post on owning your room.


      So all is good, right? We should encourage all teachers to do something similar in their practice? 


      Perhaps not. Firstly, relationships are important, but if you’re not doing the learning stuff right, then it doesn’t matter how much the kids like you. I argue that teachers should focus their attention on effective learning strategies.
       
      Secondly, I do wonder how much practice the 50+ different handshakes took the teacher and learners to master? Rather, how much this impeded the learning of the curriculum? Sure the whole idea may have just evolved over a period of months and the curriculum wasn’t impeded too much, but still, time is precious.
       
      Finally, at what point does being the fun, exciting, cool teacher lose the authority that may be required to manage the learner that is disruptive, or the learner that oversteps the teacher-student boundary? I really struggled with behaviour management when I started out teaching, all because I wanted to be the cool teacher that the students liked. Suffice to say that learner behaviour was pretty poor and I learnt an awful lot from this mistake. I had a job to do, and it wasn’t to be their mate.
       
      I don’t mean to rubbish an idea, because in this isolated case, it may work wonders, but remember folks, there are hundreds of thousands of teachers doing great things every day – great things without the ‘innovation’, or being the cool, hip teacher. They’re changing lives. 

      Bringing the outside in…

      In a Technology Enhanced Learning Showcase led by my PGCE trainees last week, I was reminded of the use of Skype in the classroom as a means of bringing experts in for our learners.*

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      Those of you that read my blog regularly will be aware of my appreciation for teacher expertise in subject content knowledge. Not only should teachers be experts in their content knowledge (CK), more importantly, they should aspire to be experts with pedagogical content knowledge (PCK) (I have written about this in a previous post, if interested). To acquire expertise in PCK takes years, however,  it could be asserted that there are many situations where abstract concepts can be made more concrete by experts in particular fields of a domain; those that can share ‘real world’ experiences with learners, as opposed to a teacher’s ‘text book’ understanding.

       

      I have used Skype myself with learners and found it invaluable. Just a couple of examples include:

      • When teaching Foundation Degree teaching and learning students about professionalism, specifically in FE, I was able to organise a Skype call with David Russell, CEO of the Education and Training Foundation to answer trainees’ questions about how the organisation supports practitioners with their development. My understanding in this regard was limited at the time.
      • When delivering a module on inclusion with trainee teachers, I was able to invite Amjad Ali and Nancy Gedge into the room to.share their views with trainees and answer their specific questions about the subject – something that both have vast experience in.

      The opportunity to engage with the depth and breadth of knowledge, skills and experiences is something that I alone could never offer to learners.  I am by no means a pioneer in using Skype to bring experts into the room, but in using it, found that my learners thrived.

       

      There are many ways in which you might engage with experts in your subject. Below I have listed a few ideas which might inspire you to try it for yourself in your subject:

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      The list is not extensive; the only limitation to how you might use Skype is your imagination.

       

      Using Skype or similar packages does not come without problems from time to time, however. For example, trying to download Skype software onto college systems was like asking the IT technicians to work on Christmas day – a bit of a chore. Moreover, you have to rely on a reasonably good internet connection and of course have a microphone and camera, which not all school/college computers have. Putting this to one side, I’d say from time to time, the opportunity outweighs the cost.

       

      *Thanks to the three trainees that shared their use of Skype – it provided inspiration for this post. There are other packages that can be used e.g. Google Hangouts, so you do not have to limit yourself to Skype.