Are Rosenshine’s Principles “just common sense”? #rED19

In my work supporting teacher development, I always refer to Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction as a major go-to source of ideas, linking findings from cognitive science and other research to classroom practice.  There are lots of reasons for these ten principles gaining a wide audience, one of which is that, to many teachers, they feel like common sense.  They are familiar and teachers trust them.   The trustworthiness and familiarity can be important elements in penetrating teachers’ defences,  shifting some of the (often significant) inertia that exists in some teams in some schools.

However, there are major dangers with the notion of common sense.  All too often, when people say ‘it’s just common sense’ – they’re using that as a defence against being told what to do.  It’s a kind of brush-off.  It means “why are you telling me to do really obvious things that I do already and have done for years”.  Sometimes the same reaction is given by someone scoffing “It’s just ‘Teaching'” – as if ‘teaching’ is an obvious, straight-forward, universally known and understood process that everyone performs well.  Here, ‘common-sense’ is problematic.

Quite often, the same people who put the defences will add in:

It’s nothing new:  No, of course it’s not.  Rosenshine was researching in the 1970s and published an early paper ‘Teaching Functions’ that was first drafted in 1982.  To me, the value in Rosenshine’s principles is not they are new – it’s that they stand the test of time.

It’s not the be all and end all.  No, of course not.  Rosenshine didn’t sit down to write a universal guide to teaching including relationships, behaviour management, collaborative learning, oracy and guided play in the early years.   He was focused on ‘instruction’. It’s in the title!

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The big issue with all of this is that, across the system – and certainly in any school I have ever visited and observed lessons in – there are teachers who could improve their practice by applying Rosenshine’s principles.  They might be using them all to an extent but could still be using them even better, even more intensively, even more consistently.   In fact, nearly every teacher I’ve met could probably use the principles as a menu for guiding some aspect of their professional development.

Let’s look at the four strands that I usually use to explore the 10 principles:

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In my experience this is not remotely common sense. It’s really hard and requires a great deal of thought. How do I teach children to write creatively, to add fractions, to understand osmosis or analyse Ted Hughes. How do I show students what excellence looks like and how to reach it?  Common sense?  I don’t think so…. I see all kinds of lessons where greater thought is needed around the sequence of concepts and the form of the scaffolding.  Where teams spend time exploring these issues in their subject contexts, precisely because they don’t assume it’s all common sense, the practice is usually much better.

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I see very wide-ranging practice here. Rosenshine suggests that more effective teachers ask more questions to more people, in a more probing style, including process questions.  They check for understanding.  The aim of this is partly to receive feedback as the teacher as to how well the learning process is going in order to adapt and respond.

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Common sense? Maybe in principle.. but not in the delivery.  For a great many teachers the default mode is to ask a question to a whole class and take the first answer offered or even called out. It’s deeply ingrained habit.   It’s all too common to hear rhetorical, dead-end questions like “have you all understood, is everyone ok with that?” instead of the more effective “Michael, tell me what you’ve understood”.   Anyone putting the defences up on behalf of the Universal Teacher isn’t helping.  In my experience, a lot of teachers could improve their questioning very significantly.

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Retrieval practice and the use of resources to support retention of a specified curriculum  – knowledge organisers are just one example-  is gaining attention, which is great to see.  Attending to the problems of forgetting is a key teacher function.  However, whilst the general principle might be obvious or common sense to some, a sound understanding of a model such as this the one below – where we think of learning requiring a change in long-term memory – leading to implementing the kind of activities that are required in lessons is not common sense at all.  A lot of teaching is ‘wasted’ because teachers do not always create a system for review that supports longer-term learning.  Again, these systems need careful design and a degree of persistence to ensure that they involve all learners learning all the material, not just some students learning some of it.  brain image

I’ve written about various issues around retrieval practice here:

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Finally, the issue of moving from guided practice to independent practice, providing models and scaffolds,  identifying early errors and misconceptions but then ensuring students practice by themselves with scaffolds removed, is a lot easier said than done.  We’re kidding ourselves if we push back here with the ‘common sense’ defence.  The nominal sweet-spot of 80% success rate is really hard to engineer across a whole class.  How much time we give to guided practice and then independent practice is a continuous juggling process requiring significant teacher wisdom – that blend of experience and expertise – and it pays to bring this to the fore as a challenge we all face rather than assuming we’ve got it all sorted in the lazy catch-all brush-off of  ‘it’s just teaching’.

My final message on this is a loud reminder to teachers and their leaders and managers.  The principles can lift  us up; they’re not there to tie us down:

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Don’t be one of the reductive robots that turns this into a set of ‘non-negotiables’ that must be evidenced every lesson.  Use it as a framework for professional learning that supports teachers to answer some of these questions for themselves:

Teachers can only improve themselves

Thanks to everyone who came to my #rEd19 talk at Chobham Academy..




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