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:


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.


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.


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.


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.


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). 

ResearchEdFE – Oliver and me

Last week (03.12.16), Oliver and I delivered our ‘Choose Science, Not Myths’ presentation at the first ResearchEd devoted to Further Education.

Below are the slides from the presentation and Oliver kindly put together the presentation notes in his blog here and here.

The first part of the presentation explored a range of myths and while it is acknowledged that the jury is still out on some of these, it is important to remember that we were attempting to be contentious in order to spark debate. The second part of the presentation explored a range of effective learning strategies which are supported by both classroom experiments and cognitive science.

Why use visuals?

Along with the other half a dozen books I am working my way through, I am coming to the end of Ruth Clarke and Chopete Lyons’ book on Graphics for Learning. My fascination for this sort of thing is borne out of admiration for my good friend, Oliver Caviglioli’s work (if you haven’t seen this, you’re missing out). For information, in this post I will be using graphics and visuals synonymously.
In their book, Clarke and Lyons spend a chapter (4) exploring how learning happens and how graphics can be effective in supporting this. Here is a graphic they use to show human cognitive architecture which aligns with Baddeley and Hitch’s Working Memory Model.


They note that because of the importance of long term memory, those with little domain knowledge (novices) suffer when information is not presented effectively to them, as their working memory (WM) becomes overloaded. Using visuals with auditory information during instruction can work to reduce this burden on WM however, as two pathways into WM are distinctly separate – one visual and one auditory.

Essentially, the working memory is like a bottle neck. If we pour too much into the bottle neck, much is lost… now imagine having two bottle necks into the same bottle, we’d keep much more information (yes a very simplistic way of looking at it). Better still, imagine if the same information went in both visually and auditory… this is what Paivio calls dual coding – a really useful approach to providing new information to learners.

Dual coding in action?
Using graphics benefits learners in numerable ways, not just the above. Here I will discuss some of the reasons outlined by Clarke and Lyons:

1. Graphics help to direct attention

They suggest that almost any ‘visual will attract attention’. Attention is key to learning anything new, but in a typical classroom, in addition to the information being taught, there are other stimuli which can distract learners. Having a visual for learners can provide the focus of attention, however, they should be used with caution:

  • The visual should not be irrelevant to what information is being shared (random clip art images should be avoided).
  • The visual, if complex, should also have signals to direct attention to component parts such as small circles or arrows.
  • Simple visuals are better for more novice learners.


2. Graphics help to activate prior knowledge

Learners ‘know stuff’ already, but it will be in the abyss of long term memory and it is important for us to draw it (no pun intended) into the working memory in order to link new knowledge. Clarke and Lyons tell us that ‘a visual provided before the main lesson content can help to build an effective base knowledge structure. This skeleton structure provides a frame on which the learner can attach additional lesson details.’ This is corroborated by Marzano’s work on classroom based instruction, whereby non-linguistic teaching methods such as graphic organisers have a startling effect on achievement (0.75 Ave. ES)

In spite of this, a graphic that activates inappropriate prior knowledge will depress learning according to Clarke and Lyons, so there is a need to ensure clarity and order with the graphic that is used.


3. Graphics help to manage mental load

‘Since working memory is the site of active processing, good instructional materials must preserve its limited capacity for learning.’ I have blogged before about the use of storyboards to assist with delivery of new information. This is one example of how to manage the mental load. Simple visuals (line drawings) are said to be better than more complex visuals. For instance, when drawing the heart, for novice learners it would help to draw a simple boxed line drawing as opposed to a cross section of the heart, which is often seen. As learners become more competent with the content, visuals can increase in complexity.


4. Graphics help to build mental models

Where Clarke and Lyons refer to mental models, they basically mean ‘schema’, or patterns of knowledge and skills in the long term memory. The more expert one becomes, the more complex and organised our mental models become. We learn by linking new information to existing mental models and in using graphics, abstract information can be made more clear with how new information links to current knowledge.


5. Graphics help with transfer

Clarke and Lyons argue that with all the knowledge in the world, unless we can retrieve it and bring it back to WM, we won’t be able to transfer it to alternative situations. They distinguish between near and far-transfer in their book, both requiring different types of graphic to maximise the type of transfer.

Near-transfer is the type of thing we will do more frequently, like a following a process for sending an email – the difference being that there will be different content to include.


Far-transfer requires the use of concrete and abstract examples – Clarke and Lyons inform us that in developing far-transfer, ‘graphic illustrations that build mental models, use varied context, transition from concrete to abstract, and provide a work context for immersive learning environments’. I feel that this warrants an entirely separate blog post, so will look at this further in the new year.


6. Graphics can optimise motivation

Clarke and Lyons highlight motivation as the key to effective learning and that visuals can play a huge role in motivating learners. They recommend using visuals that help learners see the relevance and value in the learning and trigger interest for learners. It is important to note that while visuals can interest learners in the learning material, the ‘edutainment’ that often comes with instruction can actually impede learning (guilty of this your honour). So try to avoid eye candy and instead focus on relevant graphics.

In addition to this, a recent post by Greg Ashman caught my eye, arguing that by reducing cognitive load, we increase the motivation of our learners. If we look back at the purpose of using the visual pathway to WM – to reduce load, then we find additional benefits to using graphics.


So that’s it, six reasons why we should consider using more visuals in our instruction. If you do use them though, please heed the advice of Clarke and Lyons.


Strictly deliberate practice

Okay, I admit it, I’m an avid Strictly Come Dancing watcher and my Saturday evenings are just not the same at the minute…


One of the many things I enjoy about the show is the progress made by the celebrity dancers over the course of the programme; in many cases, it’s phenomenal. What I find even more amazing is the work of the professionals aka the experts.

The professionals have been selected due to their expertise in a repertoire of dance disciplines. Each week, not only are they required to train a novice (celebrity) how to dance a particular routine, but they are also involved in at least one other routine during the show, which they perform with gusto and grace. In order to reach this standard, they have acquired thousands of hours of practice over a number of years and, as a result, have highly organised and fine tuned schema in their long term memories, which allows them to access new routines with efficiency and ease (I’ve discussed cognitive architecture in previous posts, so don’t intend to dwell on it here).

The work of Ericson and colleagues found that for individuals to become experts in their respective domains, it generally takes about 10 years of deliberate practice.

‘Simon and Chase (1973) observed that nobody had attained the level of an international chess master (grandmaster) “with less than about a decade’s intense preparation with the game”.’

They found similar results when reviewing other domains (teaching not included of course) and concluded that:

‘the differences between expert performers and normal adults reflect a life-long period of deliberate effort to improve performance in a specific domain.’

What does an expert teacher look like?

Whilst it is acknowledged that there is currently little consensus as to what constitutes an expert teacher, one could argue that as it currently stands, it is one that gains the highest value added achievement that is likely to be considered an expert. The often discredited work of Hattie and Marzano, along with studies in the domain of cognitive science provide us with many examples of methods and approaches that have greater impact on achievement. For example, we know that feedback which looks forward and is task-centred is more effective than no feedback or ego-centred feedback. We know that testing learners on material supports their ability to retain and retrieve knowledge. We know that spacing practice supports retention better than massed practice.

Using these (and the many other research informed approaches) as a barometer for expertise is arguably a starting point for all teachers in their deliberate practice towards expertise.

What is the difference between deliberate practice and normal practice then?

Ericsson et al inform us that ‘deliberate practice includes activities that have been specifically designed to improve the current level of performance’. They go on to state that key conditions for deliberate practice include: intrinsic motivation, feedback, and focused practice on specific areas of weakness. Unlike deliberate practice, normal practice is generally unstructured and feedback-free.

As a teacher, what can I do with this information?

This blog is timely in light of the recent Deans for Impact – Practice with Purpose release for teacher educators, and using the framework suggested will provide trainees with a good foundation for deliberate practice. For those already teaching, there are many aspects of this report that you might use, but as Ericsson et al point out, practice is not inherently motivating, requires time and is effortful. Therefore, it might be something you discuss with colleagues in order to cooperatively agree targets, structure practice opportunities, and monitor and provide feedback to one another to make progress towards ‘expertise’, or rather,  a 10 from Len!

Own your room

Not all teachers have the luxury of their own classroom; many have to move from room to room for their lessons, but regardless, one of the biggest pieces of advice that I give to teachers when managing classroom behaviour is to OWN YOUR ROOM.

When I started out teaching, I would often arrive at my classroom 2 minutes before the lesson to find students already in the room, sometimes eating/drinking, on phones, generally treating the place as a common room, rather than place of learning. This put me on the back foot as a teacher. I couldn’t arrange the tables as I saw fit, so would try to involve the learners in moving the room around (mayhem). Then trying to get them to sit where I needed them became even more of an issue. I had to start negatively by enforcing rules that learners should have been following; “put your drink in your bag”, “put your phones away”, so getting learners focussed on the lesson became difficult. Basically, I was taking part in unnecessary battles, when I should have been inspiring learners to learn about my subject. So after a terrible first year, here’s what I started to do – I owned my room. Below I have put some simple strategies that can help you to do the same:

  1. Where possible, arrive at your room before your learners and if they are in the room before you for whatever reason, ask them to leave whilst you set up. Do not work around them in your classroom – even if it means delaying the lesson start by a few minutes until you are ready.
  2. Where possible, set the room layout differently to last time (or try to vary at least a little with a different seating plan). Learners get comfortable very quickly and as soon as they take control of a seat, it’s very difficult for a teacher to gain your classroom control back. In addition to this, research by Smith (1985) has demonstrated the benefits of multiple learning environments on memory. Whilst not a completely different environment, the variation in position in the room, may result in less environmental cues used for memory.
  3. Welcome every student at the door. This not only sets a positive tone for the session, but it also allows you to prevent any misdemeanours prior to them entering your classroom. At this point, you can also start to direct them to where you want them to sit. “Morning Kye, please sit there” (Note: I have not asked Kye if he would mind sitting there, but have told him politely).
  4. In most instances, I’d suggest that you begin the class swiftly with an overview of the expectations for the session. That way, there will be no surprises along the way. “Here is what we are doing today and this is what I expect from you”. Further to this, according to Marzano (2003, cited in Petty), the use of ‘reminders’ has a 0.64 effect-size on achievement and is a useful strategy for developing student-teacher relationships in the classroom. This sense of clarity with expectations for learning is supported further by the work of Wiliam on formative assessment. Thus starting most sessions in this way is desirable.
  5. Recap prior learning so that students can draw upon what they already know about the topic. Supported by a wealth of cognitive psychology research, low stakes testing offers a multitude of benefits. Not only does it allow for initial assessment to take place (if done properly*), but it also allows for learners to take part in retrieval practice. This is a low-cost, high impact strategy to support learner acquisition of knowledge, which can be built upon as the lesson progresses. In terms of behaviour, this will provide a routine for learners and even the most challenging like routine.
  6. Try to avoid large group work. When it comes to group work, then anything more than groups of 3 and I start to worry about the benefit to all involved. Slavin, Hurley and Chamberlain offer two key features of effective group work (working towards the same goal and having accountability for one another’s learning), but even so, it becomes very difficult for a teacher to manage large groups. I tend to stick to paired activities in the main, but that’s my preference. If you can be confident that all members are participating fully and are getting the most from their experience in the group (and I’m not talking ‘soft skill’ nonsense), then fine, but larger group size does create the conditions for behaviour to go awry. My ‘go-to’ strategy is think, pair, share. A great post on the strategy by HeadGuruTeacher can be found here and in using it well, the teacher maintains their control, thus their ownership of the room.


There are many more ways of owning your classroom, but I generally offer the above 6 tips for my trainees to enable them to then make decisions based upon their own contexts. I haven’t discussed classroom rules, rewards or punishments, because there’s a whole blog post in that, but these are just simple strategies that can be adopted with relative ease. If you find learner behaviour a struggle, then perhaps try owning your classroom.


* For effective initial assessment, consider using multiple choice questions, along with a whole group answer approach, whereby mini-white boards, individual hand held devices, or simply fingers up, is used to determine each learner’s starting point. Do not resort to the ‘asking an open question and only the most confident shout out’ approach.

Songs of Memory

A few weeks ago whilst teaching about Ebbinghaus’ forgetting curve and distributed practice*, one of my trainees was able to conceptualise it by way of learning songs… Here we go, I thought…


“You know when you hear a song for the first time, you can only remember a little of it, but the more you listen to it, the more you remember of the song?”


Well, yes. I suppose there may be a point to this. I thought about some examples that I could use to explain the forgetting curve and distributed practice via the ‘learning a song’ approach and here are my thoughts:


Twenty years ago, Puff Daddy (AKA P Diddy, AKA Sean Coombs, AKA whatever the latest is) and Faith Evans released ‘Missing you’ a song in memory of the Notorious BIG – Notorious! My summer was spent with the CD on loop, playing it over and over again. A 5 minute song turned into 5 weeks, until I became sick of it. To this day, I can still spit bars like the 13 year old me – word.


But was this distributed practice I thought? I mean, my whole summer was blocked with that song – I had overlearned it. Whilst I could use this to discuss the forgetting curve, I suppose frequent visiting over a long period wasn’t the best example to use for distributed practice…


I then thought about a song that I hadn’t heard as much, but with sufficient space between listening… aha! Christmas songs!


A yearly dose of Maria, George, The Pogues et al and… wait, I can’t say that I know all of the words to any of those songs… there’s bits I mumble my way through in an attempt to appear like I know, but I really don’t. Is it because I almost completely forget with such a long period between listening? Maybe.


So what could I use as an example? Well, I have struggled with this one. Would I have remembered ‘missing you’ if I hadn’t listened to it intensely for such a long time and overlearned it? Maybe I could have been more efficient with my time and had I thought about improving my memory of the song, would have listened to it a couple of times every week? Then I might have remembered a few other songs from that summer.


I can’t think of an example to demonstrate distributed practice, but I’m going to conduct a little experiment on myself and listen to the pogues twice a week up to Christmas in an attempt to get the words… then I might have a decent example to use in future. I’ll keep you posted! 

*For those of you that have no idea what I have just been on about, a summary of the forgetting curve and distributed practice can be read by clicking the links.

Do we need to know about learning theory or not?

Yes… well kind of…

Learning theory provides us with a why for the what. When we teach learners, we expect them to know the why for the what, so why wouldn’t we expect the same of teachers?

Link to image source
The problem that many practitioners face is that they probably haven’t studied learning theory since their teacher training, and I’m certain that in some cases, much of that was ‘guff’ (Gardners MI, learning styles, learning pyramids etc etc). Much of the theory that I was taught has been debunked and I don’t even know if what I was doing as a result of learning the theory was particularly useful or not. Aside from this, there are so many theories (see above image) that it becomes difficult to determine what is useful to know and what isn’t.


For this reason, I recommend that the minimum that all teachers should be armed with is some objective evidence of how students learn best. I have previously written about the different types of evidence you might use to determine how students learn (here). If we know that the reason we are doing something in our classroom is because there is some objective evidence to show that it works, then we should have confidence that we are likely doing the best for our learners. If on the other hand, there is no objective evidence, or evidence that refutes something we are doing, then perhaps we need to consider what we can do better for our learners (I’m not saying that the more subjective evidence is wrong, but there might be something we can do that will be more effective). So where can we get the more objective stuff?


Below you will find a range of the more objective evidence that I use. I have summarised each and given a subjective rating out of 5. My rating is based on the security of evidence and how useful it is for a classroom practitioner.


Article/ Research Summary My Rating
Dunlosky et al (2013): What works, what doesn’t


This document ranks some of the more effective study strategies from cognitive and educational psychology, specifically with HE learners. It’s a very accessible and a go-to document. *****
Rosenshine (2012): Principles of Instruction


An overview of 10 key principles of instruction, informed by research on master teachers and cognitive science. Gives the reader classroom application and the research base. ****
Deans for Impact (2015): The Science of Learning


Based on the research of cognitive scientists, this is another go-to article for my trainees. The content is clear and accessible with great classroom application. Informed by *****
The Learning Scientists (2016):

Six Strategies for Effective Learning


Six of the most effective learning strategies from cognitive science are simplified and visualised. Highly accessible and available in a variety of formats for teachers and learners. *****
Hattie (2012):

Visible Learning


This isn’t a link to the book, but a pretty good review. There is a wealth of research informed strategies covered in the book. Despite a lot of criticism for his methods, this is a good starting point for understanding what is typically more effective in the classroom. ***
Marzano et al (2001): Classroom Instruction that Works


This is a link to the complete book. The work summarises a wealth of classroom based research. 9 research-based strategies are explored with a thorough coverage of the research and a range of applications for the classroom. A big read, but great book. ***
Education Endowment Foundation Toolkit


This toolkit for practitioners summarises classroom based research into 3 key elements – cost, research security and months impact on achievement. Some of the research methods used by the foundation have been scrutinised, but certainly worth exploring as a starting point. **
Coalition for Psychology in Schools and Education (2015):

Top 20 Principles from Psychology for PreK-12 Teaching and Learning

This offers twenty key principles for teaching and learning based on psychology. It is accessible, but a huge document. Each principle is explained with relevance to teaching. *****


A ’21st Century FE College’

This blog post is in response to a TES FE article that has been promoted widely this week – How FE can transform the workforce of tomorrow


On the face of it, the points made in the post might sound like grand ideas, but with all due respect, I disagree with some of the points made and am concerned that there is no evidence to support an argument being made by a senior leader in the sector. For this reason, I want to break the article down to highlight the problems.
Firstly, there are many assumptions and no evidence to back up some of the statements. For example:

‘It falls to the FE sector to provide the core of the nations workforce of the future. And I would hazard a guess that these workers will need to be natural collaborators, problem solvers and out-of-the-box thinkers.’


‘In the future, chefs will probably need to work hand-in-hand with software developers to create apps to promote their restaurant…’

Making radical changes to a college based on assumptions is dangerous.


The article includes a series of sub-headings followed by a rationale for each. Let’s examine each one:


The author wants to ‘move away from classrooms that have not progressed since the days of chalk and talk – with a desk at the front, where teaching remains in the hands of teachers and students are passive recipients of information, rather than active learners.’

Seriously? Teaching in the hands of teachers is a bad thing? Let’s not have experts in the room then. Let’s just hire someone with no experience, knowledge or skills in the subject and pass the control to learners to find out for themselves. In fact, why even have a college building at all? The above comment undermines the fantastic knowledge, skills and experiences of the FE workforce and would put learners at a complete disadvantage (cue evidence to support sweeping statement): Kirschner, Sweller and Clark (2006) inform us that:

‘based on our current knowledge of human cognitive architecture, minimally guided instruction is likely to be ineffective. The past half-century of empirical research on this issue has provided overwhelming and unambiguous evidence that minimal guidance during instruction is significantly less effective and efficient than guidance specifically designed to support the cognitive processing necessary for learning.’

There’s no disputing that learners should engage in ‘active learning’, but I do wonder whether my understanding of active learning differs to what the authors is, particularly if they’re suggesting the complete removal of guided instruction. A wealth of well researched learning strategies can be found here to support learners in becoming ‘active learners’, fortunately for us teachers, there is still a large role to play.



Apparently, ‘to get students ready to compete in the global market and thrive in the sharing economy, we need to move towards self-directed learning’. Teachers as facilitators to develop independent learners of the future. To achieve this, the author advocates ‘skills-based learning’, which I am broadly in favour of, that is, if we are talking about domain specific skills. However, it isn’t clear whether the author is only talking about these skills, as littered throughout the article is reference to generic/soft, transferable skills. Despite how lovely it would be to be able to teach a learner generic skills such as problem solving, critical thinking and creativity (out-of-the-box thinking), I’m yet to see a framework for the effective teaching of these ‘generic’ skills. Whilst there’s no disputing how important these skills are, current research shows that these skills are tied to a domain and that it is very difficult to explicitly teach them. A recent blog from Carl Hendrick articulates this far better than I ever could.


As a side note, why all of a sudden are these skills more important than they’ve been previously? We are quite good at being creative and problem solving… you only have to look at advancements in the last 100 years. Have we all of a sudden lost creativity, problem solving and communication skills?


I can’t argue with this. Collaboration is a key characteristic that we should find in any learning environment. Slavin, Hurley and Chamberlain (2003) have demonstrated that cooperative learning has the potential to be highly effective, particularly if two conditions are met – firstly that learners work as a team, not just in a team and secondly, all individuals should be accountable for the learning.


Project based learning is suggested by the author as a pedagogical approach to bridge different domains. Sure. But not at first and not for all learning activities. Perhaps once students have acquired sufficient knowledge to participate as a group and be accountable for one another’s learning. Perhaps when they are on their way to mastering a topic. Research has demonstrated that experts benefit from less guidance (expertise reversal effect), whereby guided methods of instruction become less effective as learners become more experienced and knowledgeable. However, those that begin a vocational course at 16 have arguably got little experience/knowledge/skills in that domain and are therefore novices, thus a guided approach to instruction is a necessity.

With the above in mind, if we adopt ‘facilitator’ roles in a vocational education and training with novice learners, are we at risk of widening the skills gap, not narrowing it?



I’m a technology advocate, I sure am, but rather than adopting an alternative paradigm, why don’t we align it to current paradigm? (Blog to follow). The whole changing spaces idea can still work with current ‘effective’ instructional approaches, so if we must, let’s go for it.


Whilst I agree that colleges need to evolve, fundamentally, the instruction isn’t the problem, it is doing things without a sufficient evidence base that is. Influential leaders in the sector need to be careful what they wish for.