Teaching Fundamentals 2: Be precise about what you want to be learned.


This is the second instalment in a series on teaching fundamentals: aspects of teaching that are vital to get right, but are often areas for improvement.

Something that I see quite often when observing lessons is that teachers throw a lot of ideas up into the air during their exposition or questioning without being clear enough about which elements matter most; without spelling out what is essential knowledge and what is background. This leaves students to pick up bits and pieces rather than having something very secure on which to base subsequent learning – especially those students who already have the weakest foundations.

Here are some examples of what I mean:

An extended discussion about a section of a literature text throws up numerous ideas: connotations for words, aspects of symbolism, plot nuances, character developments, sub-plots, contextual references…. scattered like dandelion seeds on the wind, into the ether of the classroom.  Students leave the room, heads buzzing.  But the next lesson comes: what did we learn last lesson? Who can remember – it’s a mess. Some students have great recall – but of different things to each other; others are left dredging up fragmented memories of the discussion – but nothing solid or coherent seems to be there.

A science lesson involves a demonstration of the fabulous ‘carbon column’ where concentrated sulphuric acid is added to sugar.  The reaction essentially takes the H and O out of the sugar to dilute the acid, leaving the C.  An impressive black column rises from the beaker; it’s highly exothermic so there is a lot of heat.  It’s mainly a demonstration of the carbon content of carbohydrates; it reinforces their CHO constituents and shows the dehydrating effect of the acid. The demo is one of those ‘wow/cool/awesome’ demos you remember – but why?  Next week what was learned? We poured that acid stuff into a beaker and some black stuff came out?  It’s possible for this demo to be wasted – a memorable event without securing substantive learning of chemistry.

A geography lesson explores the environmental issues around building a hydro-power station in a valley leading to flooding.  There’s an extended brainstorm on the advantages and disadvantages of hydroelectric power.  It’s really interesting with some great case study references.  A large list is shared in discussion. Students are asked to make notes in a table listing advantages and disadvantages.  Some do this beautifully; some are slower; their table is incomplete by the end of the lesson.  Next lesson, the teacher checks: Name some disadvantages of a hydro-station: They damage the environment.  Big sigh. The teacher thought she’d taught them some specific negative environmental impacts related to flooding and habitat loss but that was never made clear.  Each student has a rough approximation to what was ‘taught’ in their notes – but none has a definitive list.

In a history lesson, a teacher tells a series of  interesting stories as an introduction to the medicine through time unit. One is about the use of leeches in the middle ages.  Students find it interesting but, when asked next lesson, they can only remember that Sir said something about leeches and blood.  It wasn’t clear if this was just a juicy bit of Horrible Histories background or an actual bit of factual information they should know in order to tell the overall story in a logical sequence.  It was out of context from other linking information – for example, the general concept of blood-letting; there were no dates given or information about the underlying rationale.  ‘Leeches’ were more or less tossed into the muddle of ‘the olden days’ in a rather confusing way.

In each case, the teacher is focusing on getting ideas out, off the page and into the open without thinking about making them land in any particular concrete fashion.   There are either too many ideas leaving each one seeming rather arbitrary – or there are no clear links to other learning areas to enable students to make connections.

The solution to this is to be specific about what is meant to be learned: To sum up; to capture; to consolidate very clearly the key learning points that students should retain – even if there is much more besides.  Students should either have the capacity to record this themselves accurately within the time allowed – or it should be given to them.  Otherwise you’re just introducing another gap-widening device.  Spell it out and record it for everyone:

  • The key elements of symbolism in that passage where a, b, c.  The quote you should all know – amongst others – is “………” because is demonstrates “……..” 
  • The main learning point from that demonstration is that sugar contains carbon, hydrogen and oxygen. C – the black column, H and O dilute the conc. sulphuric. H and O make water. 
  • The main environmental impact of a hydro-plant is extensive habitat loss. There is also Y and Z.  These are the main effects. The main  benefits are: Renewable source; no greenhouse emissions.  Economic cost factors are  – etc.  Specific examples in sections. Every student has these recorded and available to learn by heart. 
  • That gruesome story about the leeches in one you should all remember.  Leeches were still used in middle ages (dates  X- Y) as a form of ‘balancing humours’; the belief in ‘humours’ was still strong. Other examples include bleeding and purging by vomiting.

If you make this routine, spelling out the key things that all students must know, then the process of checking for recall and understanding explored in Part 1 of this series is also much easier. Of course this does not have to be reductive: it’s a foundation on which more extended knowledge can be built more organically.  Always watch for those who are most vulnerable. Have you seen their notes? If you couldn’t learn from them, then they almost certainly can’t – so give them what they need. Clear hand-outs or knowledge organisers that can form the basis for good revision and deeper understanding with everyone on an equal footing.



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