Impact! Superb College of Teachers journal made me think – a lot!

After the establishment of the Chartered College of Teaching there was always going to be a period of waiting to see what it’s really about once actions have been taken beyond the promising vision and sound intentions.  Impact gives us a massive clue.  Evidence-informed teacher wisdom is Go!

Having ceased to be an active teacher, albeit working with teachers every day, I was (selfishly) delighted to learn that I could still register as an associate member.  This led to the magnificent Impact journal being delivered to my house last week.   As a tangible indicator of what the CoT is and could be, this could not be more encouraging.  It’s everything the journal for a profession should be – engaging and readable, evidence-informed and extensively referenced, intellectually demanding; broad in scope; a meeting place for academics and practitioners. It feels like it is written by teachers for teachers with the right level of input from research professionals.  Huge congratulations to everyone involved.

I rarely read the whole of any magazine but I have read Impact cover to cover – although not in order. It has made me think about new ideas, consolidated some existing ones – and challenged me on a few counts.  You should definitely get hold of a copy (every school will get one) and read it yourself but, for what it’s worth, here are snapshots of some of the ideas Impact has left me thinking about – hopefully serving as teasers rather than spoilers. You have to read the originals to do them any justice at all:

Ideas from Cognitive Science

Paul Howard-Jones et al on the learning process:   Introducing a three-part framework for categorising learning processes – engagement, building knowledge, consolidation.  It’s very strongly stated that this is not meant as a lesson structure; some activities involve all three. (I was especially delighted to see that ‘building knowledge’ is the phrase used as this is also the core of my three-part Learning Rainforest metaphor.)

Key insight:  Prior knowledge is required for new material.  But children’s prefrontal regions required for making connections with prior learning are developing more slowly than other parts of the brain – so, it’s not just a case of checking students have the required prior knowledge- it is important to prompt them to activate that knowledge by deliberate retrieval before presenting new information.  Implications for questioning and design of learning sequences.

Megan Sumeracki/ Yana Weinstein on retrieval practice –

Mostly this consolidated what I’d already learned but it’s always good to read ideas presented directly from the @acethattest Learning Scientists – you always learn something new.

Key Insight:  The format and timing of retrieval practice (eg quizzing as you go along vs at the end, multiple choice vs short answers)  do not matter too much; the point is to definitely do it (compared to not doing it) and to find the optimal balance between difficulty and success – quizzes should allow students to be ‘reasonably successful’ but not so easy so students don’t need to ‘think back’ and actually retrieve information.

Jonathan Firth: – the interation and differences between interleaving and spacing.  I thought I knew what these terms meant until I read this – and I have now realised that my understanding wasn’t quite right. This article explores the differences and interactions very clearly:

Key Insight:  Spaced practice is compared to massed practice; with spaced practice the time between practice sessions can be filled with unrelated material; its main impact is that it boosts memory; spacing works best after some prior experience; too much switching of material might be detrimental in assimilating complex material early on.  The suggestion is that a hybrid approach could be optimal: blocked learning of new material and then spaced practice.

Interleaving is compared to blocked study within a study session.  Rather than switching study areas radically, it works better if the differences between subject areas are subtle.  Interleaving applies to developing stronger connections between concepts within a particular topic.  The effect is to boost ‘inductive category learning’ and later transfer – a more subtle concept.

There are various interactions between spacing and interleaving – that I didn’t fully grasp (cognitive load theory kicking in!) but this was helpful to support future delves into deeper territory.

Putting Cognitive Science to work in practice:

Caroline Creaby et al –  how to spend an hour’s revision:  the memory clock.   It’s great to hear how schools are approaching the theory into practice journey.  If you teach students to structure their revision based on cognitive science, does it pay off?  Results to follow on this but a very interesting approach.

Seneca Learning – an article by this company’s ‘Science team’ – and it makes for compelling reading.  You always have to be cautious with product-linked research but this doesn’t have that feel to it at all.  It’s more about the underlying process.  They present the details of a study comparing using their (free) software to integrate spacing and interleaving with simple blocked practice and a no-tech paper-based spacing approach.  The software wins! It’s just better at forcing the degree of interleaving into the practice.  Selective and non-selective cohorts seem to benefit, even though the selective cohorts benefit the most.

This is another example of the promise for responsive assessment systems doing things teachers and students actually need; imagine if software helped students practise material more effectively than you could? It would be worth investing in… more to follow on this area, but fascinating.

Dominic Shibli and Rachel West – on Cognitive Load Theory.  This gives a very good overview of the essence of cognitive load theory including a nice summary of the concepts of intrinsic, extraneous and germane load – something I find I need to revisit quite often to fully understand in context.

Key Insight:  There are benefits in the idea of consciously/deliberately structuring problem sets to take account of cognitive load. I like the way an obvious, logical sounding sequence is supported so well by CTL ideas:  We should start with worked examples to build knowledge without overload, and only then start using partially solved problems and writing frames with decreasing levels of scaffolding before students have enough of their own knowledge/experience to minimise intrinsic cognitive load with independent problem solving.  It makes total sense; we may do this intuitively but it’s the rigour of the thinking here I like.

We should try this scaffolding sequencing whilst being careful of the reversal effect; once students can do things independently, the extra help can actually hold them up – it becomes extrinsic load.

Two fab articles by two fab science teachers:

Adam Boxer on rethinking KS3 science.  He describes an approach that tries to apply cognitive science in a forensic, detailed manner: ‘every explanation is supported by practice’– involving clear instructions, worked examples, extensive drill activity and high success rate; referencing prior learning as much as possible. A must-read; I can’t do it justice here.  I want to see more details… that’s a good article; leaves you hungry to know more.

Niki Kaiser’s exploration of threshold concepts.  She references the combination of conceptual understanding, mathematical processing and tacit knowledge in science – and why, therefore, an awareness of working memory and long-term memory is important. I like the way she thanks people for providing her with ‘concrete examples’ – nice meta level reinforcement of the issue students have in learning abstract ideas.

And a few more  – quickies:

Christian Bockhove’s article on myths and  myths about myths is great. The decimal point and the spinach-iron story is very good.  We need to challenge myths with compelling evidence and avoid over-simplication. Amen to that!

Glenn Whitman and Ian Kelleher explore a case study of ‘translation’ – the bridge between research and practice.  The development of MBE (Mind,Brain and Education) training teachers in a US school is offered as case study. Very interesting. The article contains another fabulous Dylan Wiliam quote – ‘it’s more important to change what teachers do than what they know’.  I hadn’t heard that before – it packs a punch in terms of designing CPD.

Carol Dweck et al’s ‘Challenging the myths of mindset’ is well worth reading. It begins with Dweck’s pain at thinking her work may have fuelled the self-esteem movement instead of challenging it. Basically, the focus on sustained ‘effort’ over a more multi-faceted, integrated concept has been a major issue with translation of the theory into practice.

Becky Francis and Becky Taylor’s article about their research into attainment grouping is good on the issues with setting research; there are so many factors and variables – plus values at play.  Their table summary and exploration of factors that might make setting problematic for lower attainers is useful. I’ll be interested in the future findings they allude to – even though they give sense that they are looking to show attainment grouping is wrong and doesn’t work, even if we control for teacher quality etc, for sociological reasons.  I feel a bias filter might be needed here; nevertheless it is fascinating work and important to engage with.

And’s not even half of it…. but I can’t cover it all.

Thanks again to the editor Sarah-Jayne Blakemore and team.  I’m already looking forward to the next issue.  The bar’s been set high!

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