Sunday, 23 October 2016
Friday, 21 October 2016
Noam Chomsky/ technology/ behaviour management/ art education/ Power of reading/ Howard Gardner and James Beane...
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Monday, 17 October 2016
I define learning as the long-term retention of knowledge and skills and the ability to transfer between contexts. The retention bit is fairly straightforward and uncontroversial: if you can’t remember something tomorrow, can you really be said to have learned it? As Kirschner, Sweller & Clark put it, “If nothing has changed in long-term memory, nothing has been learned.”
Transfer though is a bit trickier. In essence it’s the quality flexibility; can what you know in one context be applied in another? As Daniel Willingham says, “Knowledge is flexible when it can be accessed out of the context in which it was learned and applied in new contexts.”
Memory is context dependent. Because transfer from one context to another is affected by the context of original learning, students can learn in one context, yet fail to transfer to other contexts. One study found that street children could perform complex mathematics when making sales in the street but were unable to answer equivalent problems presented in a school context. In another study, subjects did very well at making supermarket best-buy calculations despite doing poorly on similar paper-and-pencil mathematics problems. What we remember depends, to a greater or lesser extent, on the context in which we both learn and retrieve information as these studies by Weingartner & Smith indicate.
So-called ‘far transfer’ between different subject domains – the idea that you could learn the skill of analysis in history and then apply it physics – is much more difficult than is often supposed. Experts (those who know a lot about a particular subject domain) find it far easier to transfer their knowledge to new contexts than novices (those who know little within a subject domain). This is not to claim that an expert physicist is more able than a physics novice to apply what they have learned in physics to history, just that they will find it more straightforward to transfer their knowledge to other areas of physics. As we’ll see in the next chapter, expertise is highly specific and experts and novices think in qualitatively different ways.
Susan Barnett and Stephen Ceci’s research has laid the building blocks for us to begin to understand the processes involved in transferring material learned from one context to another. In their 2002 paper When and Where Do We Apply What We Learn? A Taxonomy for Far Transfer they identified several factors that affect transfer.
The first three are concerned with the type of content being transferred: whether it is a learned skill, a change in performance or a feat of memory.
The other six are connected with the context in which the transfer takes place: the knowledge domain (whether learning can be transferred between the domains of say, history and biology), the physical context (from one place to another), temporal contexts (from one time to another), the functional context (between the academic and non-academic settings) and social contexts (between group situations and individual situations) and the modality (whether material can be transferred between speech and writing). In school, students may be able to transfer what they have learned from a history classroom to the examination hall but be unable to transfer the skill of analysing historical source material to analysing literary texts.
Barnett and Ceci conclude that instances of far transfer are rare, but under the right conditions can happen, and may even turn out to be predictable. However, it is probably more productive for teachers to consider the possibilities of ‘near transfer’. Transfer from one problem to another within a course, from one year in school to another, from the classroom to the examination hall, between school and home, and from school to workplace.
As we’ve seen, our ability to retrieve information is heavily context dependent – we link what we know to related subject matter, times, places, people and feelings. These contextual links provide cues or prompts which helps us to retrieve what we need when we need it. The trouble is, when we learn a thing in one context we rely on environmental cues in order to recall it, when we change the context the absence of those cues can cause us to be unable to retrieve what may have been secure in another location.
Some kinds of near transfer appear quite straightforward. When subjects are asked questions which are closely related to material they have previously exposed to, they are able to transfer what they’ve learned, (Butler, 2010) but transfer does not seem to occur when subjects are asked questions on related material taken from the same section of a textbook. The finding seems to be that students have little difficulty in transferring learning when the exact information on which they are quizzed is used in a new situation, but quizzing on related information doesn’t help students to transfer information, even between closely related topics. Unfortunately, what we learn does not spontaneously or automatically generalise to new contexts and so teachers need to facilitate this process.
When students were prompted that they would need to transfer related information to novel situations they were far more likely to successfully apply what they had learned in a new context. It seems that prompting students may be a necessary condition for transfer to occur (Wooldridge et al, 2014).
While we cannot, of course, predict every conceivable context in which students will need to apply the knowledge and skills they teach, we can prepare students by explicitly informing them that the material being studied will need to be applied to a new context and then provide practice opportunities where they have to apply prior knowledge to novel situations. With luck, this will help students to recognise situations where they can apply what they know when they come up in the future.
We also need to recognise that the transfer of knowledge or skills to a novel problem requires both knowledge of the problem’s context and a deep understanding of the problem’s underlying structure. Experts and novices think in qualitatively different ways and what may be obvious to an expert may make little sense to a novice. Seeing underlying structures can be facilitated by using concrete examples. For instance, it’s hard to understand the structure of this problem because it’s so abstract:
But, when the problem is presented differently, with a more familiar context, it’s much easier to understand:
The lesson for teachers is that the abstract example which makes perfect sense to us, may be meaningless for our students. We can, however, help students to see the underlying structures by presenting them with a concrete example that shares similar features.
Transfer between contexts is hard and, as I’ve explained before, students might not necessarily be able to transfer from the context of one seat to another seat in the same classroom! It’s worth knowing that we can weaken students’ dependency on context by varying the conditions in which ideas are encoded and retrieved. We can also facilitate transfer by explicitly telling students that they will need to retrieve what they’re studying in a new context. Using concrete examples will also help. But probably the most important thing for teachers to know is that the more you know, the easier it is to transfer what you know to new contexts.
The post The trouble with transfer: How can we make learning more flexible? appeared first on David Didau: The Learning Spy.
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Sunday, 16 October 2016
In one of my early posts, ‘How do I know how good my teachers are?’ I discuss the three main sources of information that inform my evaluation of the performance of my teaching staff: Data, Observation and ‘Knowledge’. The first two are obvious enough; the last one refers to the collection of informal, ephemeral information that builds up over time from multiple sources. The post highlights the necessity to triangulate between all three sources of information in order to make informed judgements that than then be used to support the improvement process.
At the level of individuals, departments or a whole school, the same combination of soft and hard data is available. I’ve tried to suggest in this post that we need to give greater weight to ‘soft cycle’ data in order to judge a school, focusing more on processes than outcomes if we’re trying to measure what we value. This is hard to do in practice when so much weight is placed on data outcomes in our accountability system. (See Progress 8 discussion here.) Averaging out all the complexity to produce simple numerical measures is a major flaw in our system.
Taking all of the triangulated complexity by the horns, at Highbury Grove, in common with most schools I would imagine, we’ve been deeply immersed in a range of self-evaluation processes this half-term. There are various elements to this that form part of an on-going cycle.
- Examination outcomes – slicing and dicing the data every which way at whole-school and departmental levels and comparing ourselves to similar schools and exploring trends over time.
- Departmental Reviews – strengths and areas for development, as captured in the diagram below.
- Writing our SEF – lining ourselves up against the OfSTED criteria.
- Analysing parent and student survey responses – making sense of all those ‘strongly disagree, agree…’ responses, filtering out anything that is actionable.
- Conducting our annual Professional Review process which involves every member of staff evaluating the extent to which they met the professional targets set last year. The review cycle also encompasses tackling any ‘significant concerns’ that emerge across the year, with individual action plans for anyone who needs one.
- The Headteacher’s 360º review – a blend of people saying nice things and telling some home-truths.
- Exploring last year’s Exit Interviews – weeding out the constructive feedback from the whinges and moans.
With all of this information and analysis, we hope to get to some kind of truth about our performance – as a school, as subject departments and as individuals. It’s always multi-layered; complex. There are high points and low points; a matrix of strengths, successes, frustrations, disappointments -and, yes, failures.
The challenge we all face is to absorb all of this and to do something about it. At every level, we need to face the truth. It’s just as important to explore why we’ve succeeded where we have as to establish the causes of our failures. But looking your failures in the face is the most important and the most difficult thing to do.
Of course not all reasons for failures are excuses – but, if you are going to attack the problems effectively, you do need to feel that improvement is possible whilst also confronting the realities. I often ask the question: with the same students and same staff, could we have done better? The same applies to a teaching group: with all the issues, exam changes, student needs, mitigating circumstances, could they have gained higher grades? Usually the answer is yes – so we can focus on ‘how’ we could have done better. In fact, I’m deeply worried if anyone says no; if they suggest that we did the best we could.
In my experience, there are numerous barriers to facing the truth that need to be overcome:
Insecurity: If people are persistently on the defensive, you don’t get a good outcome. They don’t admit mistakes or accept openly that their own performance could improve. The spirit of shared accountabilty is important here, balancing that with individual responsibility. Very often, a key task in getting people to face the truth is to deal with their insecurities and perceived threats; to reassure, encourage and support whilst mapping out a course to do better.
Over-confidence: This has been a big historical factor in my school. Arriving to HGS in 2014, the governors had been talking in hubristic terms about ‘moving beyond Outstanding to World Class’. There was institutional confusion about getting an Outstanding grade from OfSTED (years ago) instead of being outstanding today. The previous exam regime offered rich pickings from Speaking and Listening in English and coursework in various subjects leading to inflated value-added scores that allowed everyone to think things were fine. The sharp fall in results that I inherited in the summer of 2014 was a shock to everyone. Changes to exams eliminating the gaming possibilities and three Heads in three years exposed the truth about the depth of learning.
The desire to be World Class turned out to be a damaging delusion – fuelled by a false sense of standards generated within the school and some positive parental feedback: the very positive experience of a cohort of high achieving students with vocal, supportive parents was taken to apply across the school; it turns out that this was a mistake.
Personal investment: It’s hard to accept your ideas didn’t work. For example, at HGS we are still turning things around from some pretty disastrous legacy structures that, evidently, did not work in the long run:
- Hard-streaming into two bands fuelled complacency about the top band (Don’t worry about them, they’ll be fine) and low expectations of the bottom band (Oh god they’re a nightmare).
- Friday afternoon enrichment meant that most of our most vulnerable learners had a four and a half day week for five years. Most didn’t even do the enrichment.
- An over-reaching Specialist Schools model led to 80 or so low-literacy students playing football all morning on Fridays in Year 7 and then going home at lunch.
- A KS3 curriculum which gave less time for MFL to the lowest ability band and had a deeply ineffective Humanities carousel instead of proper discrete History and Geography lessons.
We’ve eliminated all of these things – but it took some people a while to accept just how damaging they had been. They left their mark. Even though various people had harboured serious concerns, personal investment in these ideas from the top had inhibited discussion. It required a pretty determined effort during my first year to tackle the sacred cows. Fortunately, some of the governors could see what needed to be done.
Feeling overworked: If you feel you slogged your guts out at the expense of your personal life or your health and you still didn’t get the rewards you feel you deserve in examination outcomes, it’s disheartening. How could we have done more? The point here is to reconsider what was being done, not simply suggest doing more. If you’re going the extra mile in the wrong direction, you need to turn around and re-think! Still, the ‘doing all we can’ psychology is hard to overcome.
Inexperience with high standards: With staff that have either only worked in one place for a long time and/or are inexperienced in general, their sense of what is possible or of what excellence might look like can be diminished. Some people I’ve encountered over the years have given the impression that serial mediocrity is more or less inevitable and normal; it’s ceased to be disappointing. e.g. being ‘really pleased’ with A level results despite getting very low ALPS scores. The challenge here is show them that, elsewhere, higher standards exist and are possible to achieve.
I can see parallels in all of this between how a teacher is supported in the face of disappointing results and how a Head is supported in the face of a disappointing Progress 8 score or OfSTED judgement. The data or grading doesn’t define us; it’s part of the picture but the best thing to do is to stare it in the face; to brush the excuses aside, to embrace the challenge, remind yourself of all your strengths and successes and the team you have around you and get down to the nitty-gritty of solving the problems.
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Back in January, I wrote about a method for improving pupils’ writing, coined as the ‘Show Sentence’. The method was simple: model sentence construction, using synonyms for words that come up often in analytical writing. Instead of ‘Shakespeare uses tricolon to show’, pupils had a number of different options in their armoury, such as highlight, emphasise, underline, imply, reveal, explore, among others.
We supply pupils with academic vocabulary for other parts of the analytical writing process, too. For example, when discussing characters (here, the witches in ‘Macbeth’), pupils were given a large bank of words to use, such as sinister, devilish, satanic, diabolical, fiendish, demonic, abominable, odious, nefarious, malevolent, and so on. Facts on pupils’ knowledge organisers, which were frequently tested and drilled, were used to link their analysis directly to the quotations and Shakespeare’s use of language. Again, they had a number of words available to them to use, e.g. ‘this would have horrified, yet fascinated/ terrified, yet intrigued/ alarmed, yet captivated the Jacobean audience’.
This, combined with a detailed, specified knowledge curriculum, enabled my bottom set year 8 class to write some fantastic sentences. For example:
Shakespeare amalgamates alliteration and chiasmus to reveal the witches’ demonic, satanic characters.
Shakespeare fuses alliteration with repetition and rhyme to demonstrate the malevolent sorcery of the devilish witches who would have horrified, yet fascinated the Jacobean audience. James I was petrified of witchcraft and wrote a book called Demonology in 1597.
Merging chiasmus with alliteration, Shakespeare cleverley implies that the witches are demonic, conniving and fiendish, and perhaps also they are determined to get Macbeth to commit abominable things.
The purpose of this exercise is to attempt to overcome some of the drawbacks of the PEE model. Whilst it is useful for pupils to have an overarching structure, a sequence of questions to respond to, and a number of sentence openers, this doesn’t really get to the heart of what pupils find difficult. Telling the class to start their sentence with ‘This demonstrates….’, is one thing, but many pupils (particularly the weakest) will struggle to know what to say next. A small part of me dies inside every time a kid puts their hand up to ask: “But Miss, what does it actually demonstrate?”.
The Show Sentence approach was designed with precisely this problem in mind. In the past I had assumed that my pupils had all the ideas, but just needed a structure to help them to write it down, but I now believe that it’s about much more than that. Pupils need clearer guidance on exactly what to say, not just how to say it.
This approach enables me to drill pupils in the hardest part of the analytical writing process every single day. I will often start a lesson with a quotation on the board, and ask pupils to annotate it in their books, looking specifically at striking vocabulary and techniques. Once they have done that, I then ask them to write a Show Sentence about the quotation. In the early stages, I need to model and give them guidance, and remind them of the vocabulary they could use, but eventually, they get into the habit and don’t require much help at all. After about 5 minutes or so, every child has written a lovely, analytical sentence about the quotation.
One legitimate challenge people made of the Show Sentence previously was that it would result in 30 identikit sentences, all containing the same words and ideas. Critics argued that the approach would hinder creativity and diversity of interpretation, that pupils were being too heavily spoon-fed and dictated to.
I’ll admit that in the beginning, this is a fairly accurate depiction of what happens, particularly with less able pupils. Over time, however, as they become more confident, they branch out and make it their own. In the early stages, they need this support because they are novices who would otherwise struggle. But in the long run, this is far better for their writing. Creativity in any form is simply the result of a happy union of converging bits of knowledge, and writing is no different.
Drilling pupils in this approach for months on end has really helped to improve their essays. Last week, the same class (now in year 9) wrote an essay on Shylock in The Merchant of Venice. Now that they have really embedded their understanding of the Show Sentence, and have automated including academic vocabulary and contextual links, paragraph writing becomes very straightforward.
When asking them to consider how Shylock’s character is developed throughout the play, I tell them to construct their paragraphs in this way:
- Write a sentence about Shylock’s characteristics in the scene.
- Show Sentence including context.
- Show Sentence including context and/or stagecraft.
Each pupil wrote three paragraphs using this structure, and some also managed to write a conclusion. They all had an hour and a half to write it, with only a page of brief notes to help them.
Whilst they still have a long way to go – particularly in terms of improving their written accuracy- their writing has improved enormously, and whilst there are some things that many essays have in common, no two essays are identical. Below are a few extracts from some of their essays.
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