In a previous post, I outlined some key ideas from research that teachers should know about: Evidence-Informed Ideas Every Teacher Should Know About.
A lot of the ideas can be found by reading some of these research summaries: Teaching and Learning Research Summaries: A collection for easy access. You could also find further ideas in the recent Impact magazine as I describe here: Impact! Superb College of Teachers journal made me think – a lot!
So, once you’ve read, engaged and started to assimilate these ideas into something coherent, what might it all start looking like in practice? To begin with, you might be more likely to think more explicitly about the learning mechanisms at hand. You’ll want to:
- Conspicuously enable each student to build a stronger, more extensive schema for the ideas you are focusing on.
- Conspicuously support students to embed knowledge in long-term memory
- Be very aware that learning is invisible, short-term performance can mask real learning and each student has their ‘hidden lives’.
Let’s assume you want to teach a specific element of knowledge that you have reason to assume will be new for most students. You need to enable them to connect this to prior learning. However, it’s very likely they’ll need prompting to activate the prior learning – so you might engage in some activity to stimulate retrieval of related ideas they might have encountered before. You’ll ask multiple questions to establish what students already know. You’ll test out whether some known misconceptions are held within the class.
Next you will want to explain the next level of ideas, slowly and clearly, taking care not to overload students. This requires breaking down the concepts into ideas they can grapple with piece by piece in a sensible sequence. It’s sensible to check for understanding at multiple stages – asking several students to give an account of their understanding, not simply assuming that one or two students represent everyone else.
Modelling will be key. With complex, multi-stage ideas, it will pay to produce several worked examples yourself to illustrate the methods, ideas and steps in logic. This will minimise cognitive load, will build confidence and provide a secure platform for subsequent practice. Multiple examples will help students to see common patterns and important variations within a method.
It will be useful to discuss the idea of standards in order to set some goals. Ideally you will have some exemplars to show students what excellence will look like – and perhaps something less good as a comparison. This will help to highlight what we mean by standards in the detail of the subject at hand, helping to bring any success criteria alive, away from the semantics of any written descriptors.
It will help to engage in a level of metacognitive exposition and questioning. Why do we do what we do? How do we know what we know? What steps do we take when things seem unknown or challenging? What routines can we fall back on to guide our thinking?
You will want to be very deliberate in moving onto a practice phase of the lesson – students will need to think about the material in hand in order to really learn it. That will require direct engagement and repeated practice. However, at first, close guidance from you will be really important – to nip in the bud any emerging misconceptions or stumbles, to redirect to higher standards and to build confidence. Once students seem confident and competent enough to go it alone, you then need to let them practise with the skills and applications of the particular knowledge independently.
Again some checking for understanding will help here. Where possible, this should engage multiple students and, with each one, ask multiple probing questions – ensuring other students are ready to follow-up any other student’s response.
Feedback will be important throughout – making sure that you tap into your knowledge of your students to provide the optimum combination of technical feedback for improvement and motivational encouragement. Ideally this will focus on strategies for long term success, not merely improving the particular piece of work they are doing.
Next, it might be important to consider longer-term recall. It’s no good them just doing it today. So – let’s consolidate the learning so far. What are the key points? The key elements of the method? The things to avoid? The things to make sure we include? Can we agree a list of things everyone must know? This can form the basis of subsequent retrieval practice activities. You want all students to know all the key facts – so let’s invest time in spelling out what these facts are.
It’s hard to get to everyone, to involve everyone yourself directly from the front, so typically you will want to use students as resources for each other. Some peer assessment tasks might help to check work against success criteria or mark schemes; it might provide some practice opportunities. In general, through a range of formative assessment activities, you want to get feedback from your students about the extent of their learning of the material at hand, as dynamically as possible during the lesson so your teaching is responsive; so you can add emphasis, re-explain, give further examples or issue further practice tasks.
As you approach the end, you might want to run through some kind of mental review:
- Do I know that every student understood the key ideas? What do I know about the extent of their understanding – individually and collectively.
- Did they spend the maximum time thinking about what I wanted them to think about this lesson?
- Did we specify the key knowledge required for future retrieval practice?
- Did we identify and explore the common misconceptions sufficiently well?
- Did I tackle the peer-to-peer influences appropriately, minimising any negative over-ride effects relative to my expert instruction?
- Did students do enough practice of the right things or do they need more?
- As a class are we ready to go further along the concept and knowledge sequence next time?
- Do those students who are struggling perhaps need to go back to practise applying more of the previous foundational knowledge in order to build their confidence?
- Did we probe and challenge enough so that the more confident students are still being challenged by the material and not simply playing safe?
It sounds complicated -but, over time, this thinking becomes more organic, more habitual; it forms part of the day-to-day wisdom that informs your practice as a matter of routine. To begin with, it might need to be more of a conscious process, especially if any of this line of thinking represents a change from the way you’ve gone about things before.