During a CPD session I often involve participants in a simulated classroom situation in order to model and explore a range technique and learning issues. My favourite question is this, posed in this slide:
In theory I could ask any question but I love this one because I’ve found it works so well in demonstrating the issues I want to explore. In the session, I show the slide, give people time in pairs to discuss their ideas, knowing they will be cold-called afterwards, suggesting they imagine explaining it to a younger person or someone who doesn’t know, in a few key bullet points, not just a one-line response. The resulting discussion is always so interesting.
Assumptions about prior knowledge:
I chose a question that relates to everyone’s experience – in theory. The sun rises every day and then moves across the sky. The knowledge is within reach for everyone. Everyone knows the term ‘sunrise’ and, having been to school, you’d expect people to know how it works. But, actually, across a room of adults, the level of confidence with this is hugely varied. Some people can give a virtuoso response while others sometimes say ‘we’re not sure…we were really stuck’, struggling to find a way to explain it.
The reason is often that people have a general sense of the Earth moving around the sun and that we have day and night every 24hours – but they haven’t really thought hard about its direction of rotation and how the sun appears to us taking account of the relative size and distance from the Earth. Not everyone has seen a sunrise on a distant horizon – they are imagining it, not recounting something they’ve observed. Not everyone has experience of explaining the phenomenon and has a level of fluency with the language.
Implication: Starting points vary. The more I know about students’ prior knowledge and experience, the more precise I can be about what to teach them and how. It pays not to assume either that all students will know something or that nobody knows. It pays to find out. It might be that I have to plan some additional experiential aspects of the learning process as well as the instructional elements.
Understanding this phenomenon is a great example of schema-building as a model for learning. Everyone in a group has a schema that explains why the sun rises – a mental model of some kind. The challenge is that, as a teacher, I have my schema for it but I can’t just give you mine; I need you to build your own. And I can’t see what you built – I have to create mechanisms for you to reveal it – to yourself and to me. Understanding sunrise requires connecting various different spatial representations of the Earth at different scales – communicated to us via diagrams, photos and our life experience. Even if a student has seen the sunrise, they don’t necessarily relate that horizontal horizon to their model of the Earth rotating on its axis. Also, they may have just forgotten how to explain something they once could through lack of practice.
The major focus of this teaching episode is to activate each student’s knowledge – to get them to revisit their schema for the ideas – then to explore gaps and compare their partial schema with what might be considered a more complete or accurate model. The interesting thing is how complicated this is even with something that is objectively definable. It’s fun to watch as pairs of adults in the CPD session spontaneously start making physical models, rotating their fist or a cup to explore the Earth’s movement, or sketching out diagrams. That need to create models is strong – especially as people are trying to communicate ideas to each other. (If you need one, a good to-scale model is to place a 2mm Earth-bead of blue-tack 23 metres from a football-sun).
A particular feature of the diagram I use is that it teases us to be distracted by the Earth’s tilt – which leads us to discuss misconceptions and selecting information. The tilt explains seasons and how high the sun rises in the sky but not the ‘rising in the East’ question.
Implication: For any given phenomenon or concept, thought has to be to how a secure schema is formed linking diagrams and other models to experiential knowledge. If, as in this case, we’re reviewing prior knowledge, we need ways to activate that knowledge, involving all students in thinking. However, if it’s new knowledge for most, then the instructional inputs need to take account of how student form their schema – not focus solely on a teacher’s exposition of theirs.
It’s an explicit element in all learning of this type that students need words to explain the phenomena they see or imagine. Even if, mentally, you can more or less visualise how the sun rises, peeping over the horizon at dawn, it’s less obvious how to explain this in the neat sequence that might constitute a good explanation- even with a diagram at hand. I find it endlessly fascinating how people capture the same phenomenon in different ways – all of which might legitimately form part of an explanation:
- We sort of come into the sun’s light, in the morning
- It’s dark but then the sun pops up over the horizon
- The sun’s light hits us as we turn to face it.
- The sun is hidden but then comes into view as we rotate towards the East
- We: spin, turn, rotate, revolve, move around…. to the left, anticlockwise, that way (pointing), Eastwards, away from the West, right to left, West to East…
Implication: Sometimes the vocabulary is the barrier; a limiting factor. It pays to explore how we can describe something in multiple ways in our heads but then agree what might be the most accurate or appropriate terms to use in a particular context.
Perhaps the most obvious element of the CPD session is that I am using to model all of these questioning techniques. I usually narrate this as I’m doing it to explore why the technique is useful and what would happen if I didn’t use it.
- I use pair-share so that every person is involved in thinking and rehearsing their explanation. I make a point of only allowing threes as a last resort – no fours.
- I make it clear that I will cold call individuals after the pair discussion – so they all expect to be asked and commit to the task. I always follow through with this highlighting that, if I just said ‘so, who thinks they’ve got a good answer?’, taking volunteers, I’ve set up an expectation that I don’t really mean what I say and, next time, they’ll think engagement is optional. I always ask the question in friendly safe manner: ‘So, what were you saying, how far did you get, what were you thinking?’
- For each person I ask I follow up with process and probing questions to the same person to find out more about what they know, beyond what they say initially. Sometimes I ask them to reframe their answer – to say it again better. I model that I want to have rich dialogues, not bite-size quick responses.
- Then, I check for understanding from someone else. I don’t want to assume one person’s answer is enough to go on. I compare the answers and extract further learning points and discussion.
It’s all there. Very often people surprise you with a new way to explain the phenomenon – they use language or a model in a particular way. Good questioning allows these ideas to surface and then, by comparing answers, we arrive at a deeper understanding; a richer schema. Crucially, you need to make decisions in response to what people say – probing more deeply, providing more conceptual support, helping less confident people to express their ideas without making them feel stupid..
Implication. It pays to have a strong repertoire of questioning techniques. It’s the way they work together that gives them power ensuring everyone has time to think and explore their own knowledge and that you select a good sample in order to respond and adapt, deciding what to do next. The accountability secured by cold calling is very significant – but you need to build students’ confidence at the same time.
When people are talking through their answer in pairs and listening to each other afterwards, they are being given the opportunity to evaluate their own knowledge. This is the most important part – creating conditions that maximise the likelihood that every student is doing this, rather than focusing on the answers you hear directly, which can only be a sample. You want students to develop habits around self-assessment: Do I know this? How well do I know it? How well can I explain it? What bits do I struggle to understand?
Sometimes I use this question imagining that I’d taught the whole thing recently – so that students are checking their understanding of my instructional input. Sometimes I imagine it is a longer-run retrieval task – as if we’d covered it in class several months ago. Either way, the question allows us to explore a range of formative assessment processes: questioning, elaborative interrogation, peer-quizzing, self-quizzing etc. In order to support that, it helps hugely to have a definitive answer so that, beyond the answers we hear shared in the public space of the lesson, every student can evaluate their understanding or their partner’s.
I usually show this slide, unless we have lots of time when I might generate these answers during the session. The point is to provide a definitive response that can be studied and discussed; it’s not just a set of transient ideas aired verbally – which some students latch onto and others don’t. The question is: how does your answer compare to this? Which parts did you get, which parts did you miss out? How does this fit the diagram? And so on…
Having shared this, we can then engage in a second round – asking people to explain the phenomenon more accurately. By doing this, rehearsing the model and the language needed to describe it, students are more likely to retain the ideas later. In a CPD session, we normally assume there isn’t time for this but it’s important to consider the value of rehearsing explanations in lessons so students practise doing them well rather than always doing them at a mediocre standard and then hearing some feedback in the hope that the feedback will land.
I like to link this activity to the Wiliam/Leahy ‘five’:
It’s possible to map each one to an aspect of the task. (I’ll leave that to readers – but it’s quite straightforward).
Implication: If we approach a teaching episode with the intentionality implied in these five strategies, you increase the ratio students thinking, learning, forming secure schema. It starts with clarity of purpose: what do I want students to know? Then we need engage them all in the thinking process, building their capacity to self-assess and peer-assess, with feedback that pushes them forward.
What this all throws up is a whole raft of questions about how we teach new material – ie imagine we are teaching ‘sunrise’ at the beginning versus reviewing the learning several years later – and how we manage time in a lesson and time in a unit of work. I’m a firm believer in the principle that time spent building firm foundations pays off in the long run. Equally, we need to recognise the value of a spiral curriculum – having confidence that ideas will be revisited later; people’s schema can form over different timeframes.