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Building Understanding: supporting students to assemble their own schema.

Recently, as I’ve engaged with numerous curriculum webinars (eg EduGiveUK) and continued working with schools and colleges, observing and discussing teachers’ practice, I’ve been thinking that much greater weight needs to be placed on exploring what our students have actually understood during a teaching sequence: the depth of their understanding relative to the teacher intentions; the students’ own sense of their understanding – recognising their own areas of strength and where the gaps lie; their confidence and fluency explaining their understanding. It’s the curriculum experienced and assimilated by each student that matters – not the one we have on paper or in our minds.

Too often I feel that students have had ideas broken down for them into small explainable steps – packets of factual knowledge, words and concepts, some tacit experiential moments – but then insufficient time is given for students to assimilate them into something coherent, allowing them to make sense of it all in relation to their prior knowledge. For our least confident learners, there’s a sense of them being surrounded by a clutter of scattered (metaphorical) materials and tools without yet having managed to build something of substance with them. There’s an implicit hope that this will all happen later…. but then later comes and goes and it hasn’t happened.

There are lots of reasons for students not managing to build a secure schema for ideas – and this is where I find the cognitive science memory model useful:

Each of these simple labels needs unpacking but the main barrier to understanding – as Nuthall reports in his work – is when new knowledge doesn’t have sufficient grounding in students’ existing knowledge. It’s a massive issue – the assumptions we make about students’ concrete/life experience, background knowledge, vocabulary, fluency of recall. That ‘building on sand’ issue is huge – as I explore here. The major challenge of teaching is to support a group of individual students to each construct secure schema for a curriculum area in parallel with each other – when we can’t readily see how well that’s going at any given point. And yet that is what we have to do: each student has to make sense of the ideas themselves – in their own heads. We can’t just zap them with knowledge; they can’t just down load it!

But of course there is plenty we can do to increase our chances of success:

Implications for Teaching

I return to Willingham, Wiliam and Rosenshine for their analysis and solutions time and time again. Each of them stress the need for instructional teaching to be highly responsive- harnessing a range of formative assessment and instructional techniques to engage all students, ensuring they are all actively thinking about the meaning of the material, using existing knowledge as a platform for new knowledge; eliciting evidence of learning form the widest possible sample, to inform the dynamic teacher decision-making that should happen over the course of a learning sequence, adapting explanatory inputs and practice tasks accordingly to deepen students’ understanding from wherever they begin.

Here are some specific things to consider:

Checking for concrete foundations: What have students seen, felt, touched, experienced, witnessed or even read about the ideas in hand before? e.g If you’re teaching Year 7 about ‘alluvial plains’ – do they have any concrete real-world knowledge for that to have any meaning to them? Do they have a concrete real-world sense of how big one third is compared to one quarter?

Using stories or narrative structures: Are the ideas introduced through the sequencing and components characteristic of stories? ( See The Power of Stories. ) – a linear causal narrative, one thing leading to another, to another; conflicts, complications and characters?

Checking for Understanding Can students tell the stories themselves? It’s so important to hear how students express ideas, using the language and concepts they can generate – in order to fully appreciate what they do and not understand. You can’t just tell them; you have to hear them tell you.

Responsive, probing, inclusive questioning. Beyond simple factual recall responses, probing questions that involve all students – mixing cold call and pair-share- allow the exchanges to get below the surface; to find the edges of clarity, providing rich material for more subtle explanations. In particular, I think we need to see a lot more dialogic work in lessons with teachers switching from whole-class cold calling to the lively discussions of pair-share. Talk is vital – and everyone needs to be involved in a planned manner. I set out a range of ideas here.

Generative Activities: It’s vital for students to be given opportunities to select and organise information, to search their schema for answers – rather than relying on external supports. The Fiorella-Mayer work on this is superb, as highlighted by Mark and Zoe Enser’s brilliant In Action book. Key among them in this context , I would suggest:

  • Summarising – condensing a web of ideas into key points. What, in summary, happens to Macbeth after he kills Duncan?
  • Imagining – which includes ‘visualising’. How do the molecules of water change their behaviour as a puddle evaporates? Can you visualise them? How does a perfume smell travel – what are the molecules doing?
  • Self-Explaining and teaching: mentally rehearsing the sequence of ideas or delivering an explanation to someone else, trying to link concepts, vocabulary and visual models together.

Each of these needs to involve all students – not just some volunteers.

Practising Explaining: As with any activity, we can improve it if we engage in loops of practice and feedback. Explain it. Generate or listen to feedback. Explain it again, better.

Guided practice and scaffolding: Support students to succeed, to feel what it is like to complete the task, write a full-marks essay, produce successful solutions – with help. Then, reduce the help so that they can do it more independently. This is different to simply limiting students to the mediocre answers they can generate on their own… help them to excel before you then remove scaffolds so they can try on their own.

Peer Assessment: Training students to undertake paired quizzing or elaborative interrogation. In doing so they formulate a better understanding of the learning goals and the degree of their own understanding – so they can then focus their energies in the areas they need to, more accurately.


Implications for Curriculum Design

Building in a rich array of knowledge elements: We need to understand how schema build in a given areas of learning. We can’t only tell students things; they also need to experience things, see things, find things. That should be an explicit component of curriculum design as I explore here and here.

Plan connections to students’ experience. The extent to which ideas make sense in students’ heads, will depend on how well they connect concrete and abstract ideas in their own schema. We can’t assume all students will have had the necessary experiences – so often we need to provide them with opportunities to have them, first hand. This is a key role of science experiences, demonstrations, field trips and museum/gallery visits. However video resources and hands-on artefacts can play a significant role in making ideas more vivid for students.

At a fairly basic level, knowledge has to have some resonance with students in their world even as we seek to expand their horizons. Narrative hooks and big questions can do this. How have we come to be and survive on this planet in space? What does Shakespeare (and literature more generally) tell us about love, jealousy, loyalty, fear of death, loss, guilt and loneliness? How have empires and dynasties shaped human society over the centuries and is this still happening? Where does your electricity come from and why does it matter? What was life like 100, 300, 1000, 10,000 years ago for people like you? How have people expressed their ideas through art and music – and how can you do the same?

It has to matter to them somehow.

Longitudinal planning:

The curriculum building analogy

Each floor you build – representing a unit within a vertical curriculum spanning many years – contributes to the whole. It doesn’t stand alone. If we teach knowing how things fit into a whole – with threads of accumulating disciplinary knowledge that all the unit-specific knowledge hang from and contribute to – then we can pace things more successfully. We don’t get bogged down in excess detail, we focus on the long-term goals. Some details matter more than others – and we teach knowing which they are, always with our eyes on the big picture. Jon Hutchison reflected this in his EduGive talk, telling us how he’s thinking hard about how to track knowledge that links topics together year to year, perhaps focusing lesson on the knowledge organisers and booklets that support each separate unit and more on the way they need to be woven together, not seen as separate.

Less is more: An important consideration – beautifully illustrated by Rich Kennett in his EduGive talk – is that sometimes we do better to teach less content in more depth, giving students the time to dive more deeply, to make more connections, to rehearse explanations, to explore their personal connection to the ideas. Stripping a few things out and doing the rest more thoroughly could be an important move.

Sequencing Examples: In the detailed planning of our curriculum, we need to ensure that the order of concepts and examples supports successful schema building. For example in teaching about an event in history or how to add fractions, the choices we make about where to start and where to go next will be very important for our novice learners. An excellent example is Engelmann’s ideas about examples and non-examples as explained brilliantly by Tom Needham in this blog post.

A spiral curriculum.

We need to make sure that key ideas are revisited over and over again over the years. Students mature; their understanding matures, deepening and widening. With each new insight, their previous knowledge has new light shed on it. A well planned curriculum will explicitly revisit ideas so that students continually review and revise their schema; their world view shifts. You may do ‘living things’ as a topic in Year 3, but by the time we’ve reached Year 9, we can explain that concept in huge detail in multiple dimensions because we’ve spiralled around several times.


I know. There’s a lot to consider. One step at a time. But it’s worthwhile. You can’t zap that knowledge into their heads- but you can create a curriculum and enact classroom routines so that you’re doing the best you can to help every student build a deep, expansive schema that they feel secure with and inspired by.

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