How can we get students to write more? Part 2

The first part of this blog can be found here

Procedural Knowledge and Scaffolding

Students often struggle with extended writing because they lose sight of the plan or fail to consider that an essay is more than a list of sentences. Explicitly telling students the plan (along with what each section requires) is crucial here. Assuming the plan has a transferable structure (and it probably should do if you are spending time teaching it!), then students can be asked to recreate it from memory across a number of lessons until they have retained it. Initial plans should be as detailed as possible so that students know exactly what is expected at each point. As students become more proficient, these details can be removed.

In the example below, the plan is simple as students understand what ‘detail’ means. The green bracketed sentence is further modelling of how to start a section as many of my students were writing repetitive paragraphs filled with He says.’………’, meaning, He also says ‘………’, meaning.

It can be useful to add in prompts or questions so that students know what to write. Again, if these questions are generalisable and applicable to a range of texts, then they are even more useful as, if given enough practice retrieving and applying them, students will realise that these are the kind of questions that experts may be asking themselves as they write in response to texts.

Here are some possible questions:

  1. Why do people do/say this?
  2. How does the writer feel and how do you know that?
  3. Can you Zoom in on a word?
  4. How does the reader feel?

Understanding the Text

Writing is a vehicle for ideas. Sometimes students struggle to write not because they don’t know how to write, but because they don’t know what to write. Unsurprisingly, if students lack the required knowledge, then we need to teach it. If students are to select the correct information, combine it in a coherent structure in working memory and integrate it with their prior knowledge (one way of conceiving of the process of learning), they will often need some support with each of these stages. The sweet spot of instruction is offering the minimal amount of support that results in success. Too much support can result in a lack of useful processing by the students as they realise that the teacher will do it for them- too little support and students will flounder. So how can we support students when they read difficult texts? Here are a few scaffolding strategies that might help:

  1. Briefly explaining what the text is about before you start reading

This is what the source summary does at the top of the AQA GCSE language papers. If students have an idea of what they are about to read, they are more likely to understand the details.

2. Annotating, notes and Checking for Understanding

Stopping to make notes, annotate or explain difficult vocabulary can help to unlock difficult texts for students. Focussing on and discussing the important parts (the bits they will need for the writing task) is essential if we want students to succeed when they write their response. Students should make the same annotations as the teacher: I normally tell them ‘You can add extra notes but your annotations need to look, at a minimum, like mine.’ Students often struggle to write because they lose focus when reading the source material. If they haven’t annotated or made sufficient notes, the text will remain incomprehensible, precluding them from writing about it.

Effective teachers will ensure that they ask students questions about the text and the extra annotations to check for understanding. Think-Pair-Share can be really useful here.

3. Selecting Evidence

After reading, discussing and annotating a text or extract, students can then find evidence that fits whatever task they are attempting. Assuming that your initial reading and discussion was thorough enough, then students will hopefully be successful here as if there is one thing that will prevent them from writing, it is the fact that they cannot find anything to write about. To prevent this from happening, the teacher can then ask students for what they found, underlining the text under the camera so that those students who struggled can then add the chosen evidence to their text.

Expectations and Motivation

All of the strategies above form a purposive or deliberate practice approach to writing. Splitting up a complex task into manageable and achievable practice activities, combined with a gradual increase in difficulty can be hugely motivating for students as they can experience regular and consistent success. The satisfaction of seeing themselves improve at something is a powerful motivational force: students change from thinking ‘I can’t write essays’ to ‘I am a successful writer.’

As well as the burgeoning intrinsic motivation that can develop from effective instruction, the teacher can also do a number of other things to ensure student work is of a good standard and that they continue to be motivated to work harder:

  1. Praising good work

Showing and deconstructing good student work under the visualiser can be really powerful in terms of motivation. Before showing it, the teacher can tell the students what they should be looking for-further reinforcing the success criteria and helping students see how these things look in final pieces. If there are lots of good bits in lots of student’s book, you can draw a star next to the good bit and then make a note. The student can then be asked to read out that section when you give feedback. Tactically varying the chosen work is worthwhile here: there will always be a few students whose work is the best, but choosing a range of students (as long as it is not disingenuous) can be really helpful.

Praising how the student has achieved something is also important-some students may not realise what focussed, hard work looks like; others can benefit from learning that some behaviours will have a negative effect on their performance.

Look at this…Rachel has written 1.5 pages and this is because she focussed for the entire time-I rarely saw her face as she was concentrating on her work throughout. She didn’t take a break after the introduction, nor did she spend anytime looking out of the window. She also began straight away. Look-here is her booklet, it is filled with useful annotations and this meant that it was really easy for her to write as she has worked hard to build her knowledge of the text.

2. Expectations

Set precise expectations as to what you expect. Do you want 1 page? 2 pages? If your instructional sequence has provided enough practice on the components, has had a gradual yet consistently achievable increase in difficulty and has asked students to slowly combine and apply the components then you can expect all students to meet your expectations. If students are able to write a page, then you need to insist on them doing so.

However, even if they have engaged in sufficient purposive practice, some students will still prefer to produce the bare minimum because they think that they can get away with it. This may be entirely rational: why work hard if you don’t have to? Attaching a consequence to your expectations can help here as there are always some students who are only motivated by the desire to avoid this. However, assuming that your teaching has allowed for consistent student success, a student’s motivation may well change from a desire to avoid a consequence to a desire to do the work. This doesn’t mean that the consequence should be removed, only that it will slowly be no longer needed as the primary motivating factor.

How can we get students to write more? Part 1

We have all taught classes where students struggle to write at length or develop their ideas in sufficient detail. But why is this? Why do students produce work that is closer to the bare minimum than the image of excellence in the teacher’s head? Why do students struggle to write at length, often giving up half way or significantly reducing their effort levels as they slip into a ‘that’ll do; that’s enough’ type attitude where mediocrity is seen as an acceptable outcome? Why do some students approach extended writing like a race as if finishing as fast as possible is the ultimate goal, as if writing is a laborious and unpleasant pursuit that is best completed quickly, as if stopping means the discomfort will finally end?

Like most of us, students would rather avoid doing things that are difficult or unpleasant: the child who stares out of the window or gets lost in their own thoughts instead of writing may well be doing exactly this. Like most of us, students would rather take a short term benefit (relaxing instead of working) instead of working hard in pursuit of a long term goal that may seem distant or even unachievable: the child who routinely completes the bare minimum may be thinking like this. Like most of us, students can produce work that they think is of a good standard when it is not, their mental model of quality being unsatisfactory and inadequate: the student who produces mediocre work yet believes it to be acceptable may well be behaving like this.

If you were training for a marathon (and extended writing can seem like one to some students), it would be tortuous and absurd to try to run 26 miles at the start of training. Instead, efficient training programmes will involve small increases in difficulty for each session-starting with really short runs-as well as isolating and practising the component parts of the final performance. Effective instructional sequences should do exactly the same thing: each session should have an incremental increase in challenge (whilst still ensuring that all students can be successful) as well as opportunities to practice, combine and apply the sub skills that make up the final performance. Adopting such a deliberate practice approach will probably be more efficient as well as being far more motivating for students as they are more likely to be consistently successful.

So how can we get them to write better and write more? The ideas below are focused on text response tasks where students have to write analytically using evidence.

Modelling and Practice

Writing involves synthesising a number of different skills and areas of knowledge, each of which needs to be accessible and automatized if students are to write fluently, freeing up their attention so that they can focus on sequencing ideas, paragraphing and the crafting of arguments. If students are not accurate and fluent in the components, then they will more than likely stumble when trying to assemble them into an extended piece.

Here are some strategies that may help:

  1. Lots and lots and lots of practice with embedding quotations

This is the gateway to writing in response to texts: without this ability, students cannot respond effectively.

Some initial, simple structures to practice are:

Agard writes ‘blind me to my own identity’, meaning…

Agard repeats ‘dem tell me’ because…

Boxer says ‘I will work harder’, conveying

Once they have mastered these, you can move onto more complex embedding structures. Modelling these orally, over and over again is a good approach, narrating the punctuation: When the Landlady says QUOTE MARKS HOW DARK QUOTE MARKS COMMA she demonstrates her ignorance and prejudice. In the early stages, writing the evidence at the top of a page (so that everyone is embedding the same quotations) allows practice to be more efficient because it is then easier to give corrective feedback.

2. Finding evidence

Like the live modelling of writing, students can also benefit from watching a teacher live model the process of finding evidence. Students often underline far too much, selecting multiple sentences when they really only need to explore a few words and modelling the concise selection of evidence can be really useful. This also allows further practice with embedding as the teacher can initially give oral examples of how to embed the evidence that they have chosen, then ask students to do it, applying the constructions that they have been taught.

3. Practicing components so they are accurate and fluent

Practising components, initially in restrictive drill type activities, can help students become accurate and fluent before they are asked to use them in extended writing. This will often take much longer than you think and students will need frequent, distributed practice in order to become fluent. The time spent here is worth it though: extended writing is made up of sentences and proficient writers deliberately choose, combine and adapt specific constructions so that the end result is well written and well-argued final pieces. If the writing contains incoherent sentences, then it will be a badly written piece. If the sentences contain poorly spelled words or unclear vocabulary, then they will not make sense either. Each level depends on the strength of the level below (essay-paragraph-sentence-word) and each level requires modelling and practice.

3. Lots of live modelling of paragraphs and specific sections of writing

Writing on the board or under the camera and explaining your choices as you do allows students to see what the process of writing looks like. It can help to have a prepared model next to you instead of making it up on the fly-this way you are less likely to make errors. Combined with effective questioning, live modelling can help students to understand how they should approach the task. For modelling to be truly effective, the model needs to exemplify transferable things that the students can then apply in later tasks. The more transferable something is, the more useful it is to students and the more important it is to teach. These may be analytical components, specific sentence constructions or whatever else makes up a quality response. These can be highlighted in the model and then used as success criteria for student writing so that they are clear as to what is expected. Using clear success criteria-things like you must zoom in on a word or you must include an analytical appositive sentence is far clearer than vague comments like you must develop your ideas. Clarity not only sets the standard but it also helps to hold those students who may prefer to avoid work to account.

Here’s an example of a model introduction. The Both/While sentences are the transferable constructions that I want students to use in their answers. Before I asked them to use them in extended writing, they had done lots of practice activities to build accuracy and fluency:

The purpose of this model is to demonstrate to students how they can combine and apply the two constructions in extended writing.

In the next post, I will explore:

  1. Procedural knowledge and scaffolding
  2. How to build knowledge and help students understand the text
  3. Expectations and motivation

Experts and Novices: is that all there is?

When teaching something new, what should be the goal of instruction? What kind of measures can be used to indicate proficiency or expertise? While a student’s prior knowledge is important when choosing an instructional approach (worked examples for novices and problems for experts), is there anything else that teachers can use to help them make judgments about student proficiency, choose the optimal instructional approach or decide upon the next steps in learning? Is background knowledge the only measure of expertise? The Novice-Expert continuum is often described as if it is a dichotomy-is there any way of adding further nuance to what can often seem like a simplistic polarization?

One possible approach is the ‘Instructional Hierarchy’ (Haring et al 1978). This framework splits learning into five distinct stages (although some adaptations reduce this to 4), each with distinct goals, broad descriptors of competence and suggested instructional approaches.

The five stages:

  1. Acquisition
  2. Fluency
  3. Retention
  4. Generalisation
  5. Adaptation

Describing the incremental development of expertise, the stages also focus on a number of the important aspects of learning, including transfer, the change from inflexible to flexible knowledge and memory. Some object to ‘a change in long term memory’ being used as the definition of learning because it only seems concerned with retention and focusing solely upon memory can seem like a reductive and narrow conception of learning. However, the objection is often not about the importance of retention, but is instead concerned with the absence of anything else in the definition. Learning is a complex and multifaceted process and the Instructional Hierarchy could help teachers think about more than mere retention.

As well as potentially fleshing out the bit in between novice and expert, the stages of learning can help teachers make more precise decisions regarding instructional choices. Teaching is clearly not as simple as choosing between worked examples and problems, and learners are often somewhere in between the absolute descriptors of novice and expert.

Each of the stages may span many lessons and students will be at different stages with different skills. While the end goal of most instruction will always be creative, generalized performance where students deftly choose, adapt and refine what they have learnt in a way that fits whatever context they are presented with, the most efficient way of achieving this will involve multi-lesson instructional sequences that move students through the preceding stages. It is probably impossible to be a fluent performer in a particular discipline if you are inaccurate. Similarly, if you haven’t even acquired whatever it is you are learning-perhaps because you failed to select the correct information, then accuracy cannot be developed either. While experts have better organized and more developed knowledge at their disposal, it is how they are able to apply that knowledge that also sets them apart from novices. If learning is merely about retention, then this can sometimes be forgotten.

Stage 1: Acquisition

This stage of learning refers to students who are learning a skill for the first time. The objective at this stage is for students to learn how to complete the skill accurately and repeatedly. Following Engelmann’s guidance, initial teaching should span at least two lessons-although it may span more-and will probably involve some initial massed practice of the skill to reinforce the salient points.

Acquisition should always begin with modelling where students are shown exactly what they are expected to do before attempting the skill themselves. Students can then use these models as exemplars to consult when attempting to produce their own versions. Teachers should make their thought process explicit when writing live models, discussing their choices and the reasons why they are doing what they are doing. Initial practice activities must allow the teacher to give instant corrective feedback so that errors do not become ingrained and restrictive activities are an efficient way of doing this.

The goal of this stage of learning is for students to be able to accurately perform the skill without any form of support. While tasks will begin with lots of scaffolding, support and prompts, these should be faded out as quickly as possible.

Stage 2: Fluency

Fluency is an important part of expertise in any domain. Expert performance is rapid, smooth and accurate, and seems almost effortless and automatic to an observer. Once students have demonstrated the ability to perform accurately, the next focus for instruction will probably be fluency. Fluency, defined here as accuracy+speed, can be built by engaging in regular, short, practice activities that include a specific focus on speed by setting time limits or counting the number of successful completed trials within a specific time limit. Feedback should be focused on speed and accuracy and students should be praised for increased fluency. Like in the preceding stage, corrective feedback should be instant in order to make sure that students don’t ingrain errors.

Asking students to write 5 specific sentence constructions can be a useful fluency starter.

At this stage, students can be also be asked to combine skills together in practice activities.

EXAMPLE 1:  Ask students to combine embedded evidence with appositive phrases like this: The writer describes where the giraffes live as ‘nine small puddles’, a metaphor that hints at their vulnerability and the fact that their habitats are slowly being destroyed.

EXAMPLE 2: Ask students to combine present participles, multiple interpretations and tentative language like this: Upon hearing the witches’ prophecies, Macbeth says ‘cannot be ill, cannot be good’ as if he is not only intrigued and fascinated by their predictions, but is also slightly horrified by the possible ramifications of usurping King Duncan.

With these combinatory practice activities, it is important for students to have demonstrated accurate performance in each of the separate components before they are asked to combine them.

Stage 3: Retention

To ensure that students retain the skill, practice should be distributed over weeks, months and even years. Like with fluency practice, periodic review does not need to make up an entire lesson: distributed practice activities make ideal starters to lessons.

Stage 4 Generalisation

An important aim for instruction is for students to gain a generalized understanding of what is being taught and this is a core aim of Direct Instruction programmes. The first step in the development of DI programmes is a rigorous analysis of content to identify things that are generalizable as if these things were taught, they would provide the greatest benefit to students due to their wide applicability. In English, sentence constructions and analytical components are two examples of generalizable concepts and strategies. The ability to generalize is quite similar to the idea of transfer and transfer is the goal of this stage: if you have a generalized understanding of how to use noun appositives, you will be able use them in descriptive, rhetorical and analytical writing.

Distributed and varied practice across the widest possible range of relevant contexts can go some way towards helping students achieve near transfer. Initially, prompts or success criteria can help remind students to apply what they have learned to new contexts. Students can also be asked to underline the required skill within a new context, helping to remind them to use it; for example, if you are teaching not only….but as a means of writing multiple interpretations, and you want students to use this sentence construction in a rhetorical piece in order to build arguments-thereby widening its usage and asking students to generalize-then this step can help prompt them. As a final reminder, you can ask student to check for a specific thing after they have finished. Instead of check your work, ask them have you included 2 not only…but. Like with any form of scaffolding, these reminders should be removed as fast as possible so that students are expected to work independently.

Stage 5 Adaptation

The adaptation stage builds upon the generalisation stage: at this point students can typically apply the skill in novel situations without prompting from the teacher. Being the final stage in the hierarchy, this stage doesn’t end and will typically see students making small modifications and adaptations to the skill, widening its applicability even further and seeking out new creative ways of using it. This stage represents independence and true proficiency- students will be accurate, fluent and able to use the skill with flair and originality.

Is Explicit Instruction the Right Approach?

Let’s start by defining ‘explicit instruction’ as highly structured, interactive teaching where students are explicitly taught everything that they need before being asked to apply it in gradually wider and freer contexts. It can also be understood as the I-We-You model where responsibility is gradually shifted from teacher to student. In even simpler terms: tell them stuff, ask them questions about it and ask them to apply it.

To some, this approach can seem ill-suited to the more complex, higher-order aspects of learning (in English, these are the things like creative writing, essay writing and textual analysis) and it may seem that explicit instruction is more suited to the teaching of basic, fundamental concepts and skills like sentence constructions or vocabulary. There is a certain allure to this mode of thinking: the restrictive nature of explicit instruction seems to clang against the desired features of freer and open-ended tasks. We want students to write with flair, to make perceptive and nuanced arguments and to craft beautiful, creative pieces of work that shimmer with originality and imaginative ideas. Will excessive structure stifle this process? Is explicit instruction the wrong approach here? Should we instead adopt a less structured approach that is more aligned with discovery and inquiry?

I would argue that we are making a form of category error here. The nature of the task or content should not be the determining factor as to which broad instructional approach to use; instead, we should choose our instructional approach based upon the level of expertise of the student.

Let’s look at some evidence in support of the idea that explicit instruction is entirely suitable for complex, higher-order tasks:

Process-Product Research

In the 1970s, researchers set out to ascertain what it was that made teachers effective. They visited classrooms in an attempt to draw correlations between the teacher’s actions and the resulting academic outcomes. The findings were collated by Brophy and Good in this paper and the now ubiquitous Principles of Instruction is perhaps the most famous summary of this research. The ‘Principles of Instruction’ are seen by many as a list of common, explicit teaching strategies. When summing up their findings towards the end of the paper, Brophy and Good explain:

‘At least two common themes cut across the findings, despite the need for limitations and qualifications. One is that academic learning is influenced by the amount of time that students spend engaged in appropriate academic tasks.’

Perhaps unsurprisingly, we should consistently deliver efficient lessons where students spend maximal time thinking about content. Open ended group work can make this difficult to achieve as the potential for-off task behaviour is greater than classic whole class teaching.

The second is that students learn more efficiently when their teachers first structure new information for them and then help them relate it to what they already know, then monitor performance and provide corrective feedback during recitation, drill, practice or application activities.

This statement seems to implicitly describe how to ensure students engage in Fiorelli and Mayer’s three stages of cognitive processing from Learning as a Generative Activity:

  1. Select information to attend to.
  2. Organise the material into a coherent cognitive structure in working memory
  3. Integrating it with relevant prior knowledge activated from long term memory

In the absence of explicit instruction, a possible concern is that students will fail to ‘select’ the correct information, effectively precluding them from engaging in the second two elements of cognitive processing.

Brophy and Good then continue:

‘For a time, these generalisations seemed confined to the early grades or to basic rather than more advanced skills. However, it now appears that they apply to any body of knowledge or set of skills that has sufficiently well organized and analysed so that it can be presented (explained, modelled) systematically and then practiced or applied during activities that call for student performance that can be evaluated for quality and (when incorrect or imperfect) given corrective feedback.’

So can explicit instruction be used to teach creative writing or analytical essays? If the statement above is to be believed, then yes it can. Extended writing can be explained, modelled and practiced; it can also be evaluated and feedback can be given. In fact, I’m struggling to think of a skill-whether complex or not-that falls outside of this description. Is this because the description is so wide and vague that it is meaningless? Perhaps it is because ‘explicit instruction’ includes so many broad principles, many of which would also be claimed by pedagogical approaches that see themselves in opposition to this school of thought. Perhaps when we say ‘explicit instruction’, it is understood by some in the pejorative sense of being a robotic and excessively didactic approach, instead of an approach that contains many elements of ‘common sense teaching’ and things that most good teachers probably do, whether they proudly label their practice with a specific pedagogical flavour or swear no allegiance to a particular school of thought? All of these questions are worth asking: concepts in education can be nebulous and professionals often seem to be talking past each other, lost in a fog of indeterminate signifiers.

Despite the conceptual wooliness and obvious overlap between supposedly separate pedagogical approaches, the issue remains that the complexity of the task should not be the defining consideration when choosing an instructional approach. If instead, we accept that an instructional approach should be chosen based upon the level of expertise of the learner, then explicit instruction is suitable for teaching complex tasks like extended writing.

Research into Cognitive Strategies

Successful extended writing is difficult to define and proficiency will take many guises. An essay will be made up of many different sub-components that, when coherently combined, will result in the perceived proficiency of the final piece. Added to this, judgements of quality will be inherently subjective; after all, the aesthetic and personal nature of writing is what makes it interesting and enjoyable. So does this mean that we cannot explicitly teach extended writing? If there are myriad ways of writing a good essay, then how are we to help students get better at this important skill?

One solution is through ‘cognitive strategies’

In The Use of Scaffolds for Teaching Higher-Level Cognitive Strategies’, cognitive strategies are defined as being  ‘more like supports or suggestions than actual step-by-step directives.’

Here’s a summary of how to teach these:

These suggestions share many of the conceptions mentioned by Brophy and Good (modelling, practice etc), and this is unsurprising given the fact that cognitive strategies research is one of the three sources of research that underpin Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction. You will notice that independent practice is the final stage here, preceded by a gradual shift from teacher to student, and through a clear process of backwards fading, from models to completion problems to the removal of all support when they finally do it for themselves. Again, this is I-We-You.

In the final section of ‘‘The Use of Scaffolds for Teaching Higher-Level Cognitive Strategies’, Rosenshine and Meister explain:

‘Such concepts as modelling, thinking aloud, using cue cards, anticipating errors, and providing expert models, can also be applied to the teaching of well-structured skills’

So cognitive strategies can be used for both basic and more complex skills, lending further support to the idea that the type of content should not be the determining factor in choosing between direct instruction or inquiry methods.

They then continue:

‘This suggests that instead of a dichotomy, there is a continuum from well-structured, explicit skills to cognitive strategies. At all points in the continuum, some instructional practices, such as presenting information in small steps and providing guided practice, are important. Yet, as one moves from well-structured skills to cognitive strategies, the value of providing students with scaffolds-models, concrete prompts, think-alouds, simplified problems, suggestions and hints-increases.

 ‘The tools that we refer to as scaffolds are at a middle level of specificity. That is they provide support for the student, but they do not specify each and every step to be taken. There is something appealing about this middle level. It lies somewhere beteween the specificity of behavioural objectives that seemed overly demanding to some, and the lack of instruction that many criticized in discovery learning settings. Perhaps it is the beginning of a new synthesis.

And this is where we return to the problem of fuzzy concepts and talking past each other. For those who see direct/explicit instruction as being ‘behavioural objectives that seemed overly demanding’, scaffolding will probably still feature in their practice; equally, for those who see ‘the lack of instruction’ in ‘discovery learning’ as a problem, scaffolding will also almost certainly be a strategy that they use.

Cognitive Load Theory

According to Clark et al, ‘prior knowledge is the one individual difference that has been consistently shown to interact with different instructional methods’. The ‘Worked Example Effect’ and the ‘Expertise Reversal Effect’ would point to the fact that, irrespective of whether the content is simple or ill-structured, novice learners would benefit more from studying worked examples whereas experts would be better attempting to apply their knowledge by solving problems. Sweller et al maintain that ‘we should provide learners with as much relevant information as we are able’  and that ‘assisting learners to obtain needed information during problem solving should be beneficial’ as well as positing that ‘Providing them with that information directly and explicitly should be even more beneficial.’, statements that seem like explicit teaching to me!

So where does this leave us?

Instructional choices should be made based upon the expertise of the student, expertise here referring to their level of prior knowledge:

There is an important addition though. Prior knowledge here should not, however, be read as something akin to ‘general proficiency’. Let me explain what I mean. Even if a student is a phenomenal writer who can skillfully apply a wide range of sentence constructions, analytical components and different essay structures, if you want to teach them something new, the most efficient way of doing this will probably be through explicit instruction. While they may be proficient at lots of useful stuff, if they know nothing about Absolute Phrases, asking them to work them out for themselves or succeed with minimal guidance is probably not the right approach.

When you teach something new to someone, you should begin with explicit instruction. The complexity or structure of the task is probably irrelevant, the important variable being the level of expertise of the student in that specific thing.

In this sense, teaching reminds me of a fractal. If you zoom into an essay, whatever component you zoom into should have been initially taught via explicit instruction before support was gradually removed and students were asked to practice it independently. The structure of an efficient instructional sequence will look almost identical for teaching essay construction, paragraph composition, sentence creation or vocabulary acquisition: I-We-Yous all the way down.

Strategies to Increase Pace

In the early stages of my teaching career I was sometimes told by observers that I should work on my pace. The feedback was almost always about increasing the pace of my lesson but this was rarely explained any further. I knew that being ‘pacey’ was good; I had little idea as to how this translated into good practice.

I’ve come to realise that a ‘pacey’ lesson is an efficient lesson: the time spent in class will be maximally productive with little to no time wasted at all.

What follows is a list of advice and approaches that I’ve picked up over the years:

  1. Plan your lessons by focusing on what students will be thinking hard about at all times

If we accept that ‘learning happens when people have to think hard and that memory is the residue of thought‘, then it is worthwhile trying to ensure that students think deeply for as much of the lesson as possible. Equally, there should be no unnecessary gaps, waiting or general faffing about. Cutting things out and sticking them to other things is often a good example of faffing about. Time is a precious, finite resource and we need to maximise every minute.

2. Have an open ended task on the board as students enter.

Whole class instruction in my lessons usually begins in one of three ways:

a) Some form of retrieval practice

b) Deliberate practice of sentences or vocabulary

c) Whole Class Feedback

Typically, some students arrive at class a bit earlier than others and the time gap between the first and last student to arrive can sometimes be a few minutes. Because of this, I start most lessons with an open-ended task up on the board so that students can begin working as soon as they enter. The tasks are deliberately open ended-I often give them a 5 minute limit- so that low and high attainers can attempt them successfully, the differentiation here being by the depth and complexity of the outcome.

Here’s a few examples:

a) How is Romeo presented in Act 1?

b) How do you know that Jonas lives in a dystopian society?

c) What kind of man is Utterson?

3. Know where the lesson fits into a sequence of learning

A lesson is almost always part of a longer instructional sequence. Sometimes a lesson will focus on building knowledge as you explain, discuss and question new concepts or ideas; sometimes it will involve modelling and practising a specific type of writing, sentence construction or analytical component. Effective instructional sequences often span multiple lessons and the tasks and approaches within them should undergo a number of changes as student competence develops. One way of describing this transformation is the I-We-You continuum as the responsibility for learning gradually shifts from teacher to student. So what does all this have to do with pace? If you know where a lesson fits within a wider sequence, it is often easier to judge exactly what needs to be achieved within the lesson in question. This then allows you to make better informed decisions as to the variety of examples that you need to present, how much practice may be necessary at a particular stage of a sequence and when it may be appropriate to move from guided to freer practice.

4. Equipment and Resources

Ensure that students have everything that they need for the lesson. Well-planned booklets can be really helpful here as they should contain everything that a student will need for the entire unit. Printing off a booklet at the start of a unit for each student means that I rarely have to rush around and print additional resources. If you do need to hand out resources during a lesson, do this when students are working individually in silence, not when they have finished a task. This means there is no wait time and you can check what they are working on as you move around the class.

At my school, the expectation is that all students are responsible for bringing the equipment they need for class and if they don’t, they receive a consequence. Having also worked in schools where teachers hand out pens freely with no consequence for ill-prepared students, my current situation is a thousand times better-less time is wasted and students rarely appear in class without a pen anymore.

5.Content takes priority

Students should be able to instantly grasp what they have to do in a learning activity, allowing them to focus all of their concentration on the content that is being learned. If we are to teach challenging and unashamedly academic content, then we should not be adding to the cognitive load by creating complicated methods of delivering that content: tasks should be procedurally simple; if they are not, then students will need to simultaneously work out how to approach the task as well as getting their heads around the content within it. Time spent working out the rules of a convoluted activity is time not spent thinking about what they are meant to be learning

6. Repetition isn’t boring

If you want to master anything-including all aspects of teaching-you will probably need to engage in repetitive, deliberate practice. The more familiar you are with a specific routine or approach, the faster and more fluently you can implement it. Pacey lessons often involve procedures and tasks that have been done many times by the teacher and the students, both being so familiar with the instructions that the teacher is able to devote maximal concentration to behaviour management, misconceptions and questioning, while the student can devote maximal attention to what it is they are learning.

Here are just some of the things that can be approached in the same way almost all of the time, instead varying the content, level of support or extent and scope of the practice:

  1. Using a booklet and annotating.
  2. Vocabulary Practice
  3. Sentence Practice
  4. Retrieval Practice
  5. Modelling extended writing.

Once you have worked out the most efficient and procedurally simple way of teaching a specific piece of content, then repeat this method over and over again until it becomes honed, speedy and automatic. Not only will this make lessons pacier, but it will allow you to concentrate on dealing with misconceptions and behaviour so you can focus on the content and students, not whether you have explained the task properly

7. Set precise expectations for everything.

Set precise time limits for tasks-some teachers use timers for this but I usually make it up, telling them ‘you’ve got three minutes left’. The advantage of making it up is that you can speed up or slow down the time they have left based upon what you see the students are doing: if they are struggling, you can stretch the minutes; if they are whipping through it, you can speed up the time.

It is also worth ensuring students know exactly what you expect in terms of output: One page? A paragraph? Six lines? The inclusion of authorial intent?

With regards to behaviour, having relentlessly high expectations of all kids at all times will ensure that distractions are kept to the minimum. Explain what you expect, why you expect it and then give consequences to those who deliberately choose to ignore your requests. Assuming what you have asked is reasonable and following your behaviour policy and it is clear that the student has still chosen to misbehave, you shouldn’t need to engage in any argument, debate or negotiation.  

8. Scripting explanations and preplanning questions

Writing out exactly what you will say when explaining something (particularly when you are new to teaching it) is a really good way of ensuring you are precise and concise; it will also help to prevent the inclusion of unnecessary synonyms and hopefully stop you going off on an unnecessary tangent, both of which could confuse students.

If you teach from booklets, a good way to plan your lesson is by completing the tasks yourself so you know exactly what the students need to understand from the booklet. This will then help direct your annotations and questions. Here’s a step by step approach:

  1. Complete the task yourself so you understand what is required.
  2. Go through your own copy of the booklet, annotating the parts that you will elaborate on and ask students about: these will be focussed on what is needed to complete the questions. Doing this in advance gives you time to think of the most apt, succinct and useful annotation to add: this can be hard if you try to do it live in class for the first time. Also add in questions that you want to ask.
  3. When you teach the lesson, have your annotated booklet next to the blank one you will be using live under the visualiser in class. The prepared one can then act as an aide memoire for the lesson.

The key thing here is knowing your stuff in as greater depth as possible-the better you know the content and what you will focus on, the less likely you will be thrown off track by the myriad unexpected events that may happen during class

9. Don’t play ‘Guess what’s in my head’.

Asking questions is an important part of teaching but if questions are to be useful, we need to think about why we are asking them. Questions can be asked to check understanding, to push students to develop their answer, to consider alternative viewpoints or to help them make links between ideas. Kris Boulton argues that we should never ask a question to which they have not already been told the answer and I broadly agree: most of the time it is far more efficient to teach stuff, then ask them questions about it. Beginning with eliciting questions like ‘Who knows what The Great Chain of Being is?’  or ‘What do you think ‘hubris’ means?’  before teaching them anything is probably not that useful.

The worst example of this is ‘guess what’s in my head’ where a teacher asks a question with a specific answer in mind, hoping to elicit that specific answer from the class. This guessing game can go on for ages and is almost certainly a waste of time. Reeves and Mortimer used to play this game in the final round of Shooting Stars:

Q: Name a hairy dog.

A: St Bernard?’

Q: Nope it was a Golden Retriever.

This list is certainly not exhaustive and I would be interested in any other tips that people have!

Insights from Learning as a Generative Activity part 4: Learning by Mapping

You can find the first three posts in this series here: one, two, three.

Learning by mapping involves students transforming text based information into ‘a spatial arrangement’ and while there are many different types and sub-types of graphic organisers (there is a good poster looking at 12 types here) that can be used, Fiorella and Mayer focus on just three: concept maps, knowledge maps and matrix graphic organisers.

Mapping is seen as a generative learning activity because students engage in all three cognitive processes. Firstly, they need to select which concepts to focus on; secondly, they need to organise the information into a spatial arrangement, paying attention to positioning and the links between ideas; thirdly, students integrate the information with their prior knowledge by transforming it from one mode of representation into another as well as connecting it with logical principles from their long term memory like compare and contrast.

Like summarisation, mapping can be used as a form of structured retrieval practice-very much like Extended Quizzing. Teachers can also help learners by supplementing text based materials with mapped information, helping to simplify complex information and demonstrating relationships, connections, differences and hierarchies. This blog, however, will focus solely on student generated mapping when they have full access to the materials that they are learning from.

General Boundary Conditions for Learning by Mapping

Mapping is most effective with low ability students. Some of the studies into mapping report negligible or even negative effects when this strategy is used with high ability students. But why is this? Perhaps it can be explained through the lens of cognitive load theory. The ‘redundancy effect’ predicts that ‘when multiple sources of information can be understood separately without the need for mental integration’ then this may be ‘detrimental to learning by imposing an extraneous cognitive load’. Presenting information via text as well as a supplementary spatial arrangement of some kind may be unnecessary or even detrimental to learning as one of the mediums may well be superfluous. There is, however, an important distinction to be made here. While the ‘redundancy effect’ looks at how information is presented in learning resources, learning by mapping is a strategy used by students in order to make sense of information. Learning by mapping involves students creating the supplementary spatial arrangement themselves. Despite this difference, it may be that for higher ability students, the creation of a concept map of some kind yields a similar kind of redundancy effect: if they can already make sense of a text without the need for mapping it, then once they have completed their map, could it be that they then feel the need to mentally integrate two representations of the same information, thereby increasing their cognitive load? Perhaps this goes someway to explain the negative effects seen with higher ability students?

For lower ability students, concept maps may be a crucial strategy to help them make sense of complicated texts. With higher ability students however, it may be that creating concept maps is unnecessary. If a student is spending time thinking about creating an unnecessary concept map, they will have less time to think about what they are reading or to devote to crafting a sophisticated written response. Curriculum time is finite and we should ensure that our students use it as efficiently as possible: poor instructional choices result in inefficient learning.

Fiorella and Mayer maintain that as long as students are sufficiently trained in mapping, it can be a really effective learning strategy. The authors suggest that several hours of training should be enough. Like with all instructional choices, one of the concerns with using mapping as a learning strategy is that it can be a time consuming process.

They call for further research into exactly which conditions make mapping most effective, pointing out that it would be useful to be clearer as to how much training is required for students as well as how much of this training then transfers to reading new texts with students.

Concept Maps and Knowledge Maps

Concept maps are visual representations that consist of nodes (shapes that contain a concept or idea) and lines that signify connections and relationships that are often labelled. Here are two examples taken from Learning as a Generative Activity:

Knowledge maps are a subset of concept maps although they are more prescriptive: the relationship between nodes are predetermined and follow common organisational principles like hierarchy and exemplification.

Graphic Organisers

Out of the three types of mapping that are explored, graphic organisers demonstrate the strongest average effect size in the studies that are referenced. While there are lots of different types of graphic organisers that use predetermined spatial structures, the studies referenced in Fiorella and Mayer focus on matrix style organisers that involved a compare and contrast type structure. Here is an example taken from Learning as A Generative Activity:

In a 2014 study involving a historical passage about steamboats, students who filled in a matrix style organiser like the one above performed better on a subsequent comprehension test than those students who merely took notes or simply read the passage. The theoretical explanation for this superior performance is that students who filled in the matrix engaged in the processes of selecting, organising and integrating the information which allowed them to make greater sense of the material.

How can Mapping be used in English?

All three types of mapping are best suited to lower ability students, helping them to make sense of dense or more complex texts. For lower ability students, completing a mapping task can be a useful preparatory stage before writing in response to a text. With higher ability students, I tend to avoid using them as a sense making process, instead asking students to either annotate, discuss or write in response to material that they have read.

Let’s look at an example:

Imagine at the end of a Jekyll and Hyde unit, you are reading a non-fiction article about the conventions of Gothic fiction and you want students to understand how Stevenson uses, adapts or rejects them in The Strange Case of Dr.Jekyll and Mr.Hyde so that they can write a response to this question:

‘Jekyll and Hyde is the archetypal Gothic text’ How far would you agree with this statement?

Each student has a copy of the article, the teacher has a visualizer and projector and everyone follows when someone is reading.

With a higher ability class, you could probably just read the text together, stopping whenever a gothic convention is explored in order to help students make the links between gothic element and the novella.

With a class who are struggling, you could do something like this:

  1. Read the non-fiction article, adding annotations (all students do the same on their copy) to explain vocabulary and asking lots of questions to check for understanding.
  2. Ask them to reread the article and underline the conventions of the Gothic that are mentioned
  3. Ask a student for feedback and underline your text under the visualizer, allowing students who did not find the answer to find it on theirs.
  4. Ask lots of questions about the answer to check for understanding and give further annotations and elaborations about what is being underlined.
  5. Ask all students to check that they have the same underlined answer and annotations as you.

At this point, the whole class will have selected the relevant conventions that they will be discussing in their extended writing.

6. The teacher can then draw a matrix graphic organiser like this:

When we teach a literature text, we carefully choose a set of high utility quotations that we want students to use, apply and memorise. You can see our knowledge organiser for Jekyll and Hyde here. By the end of the Jekyll and Hyde unit, through a combination of repeated usage, manipulation and low stakes quizzing, students will already have memorised many of these quotations meaning that this task is asking them to apply what they already know rather than searching for quotations using the book or an extract. Filling in this table should hopefully be about organising the two sources of information-gothic conventions from the article and knowledge of the text itself-into a spatial representation so that connections and links are made more apparent.

7. The teacher should then demonstrate exactly how to fill in the table, perhaps by completing two rows themselves under the camera:

8. Students can then fill in their table, firstly copying the teachers example rows, then continuing individually.

Like most other learning tasks, feedback to the teacher here can be really useful. Because the table asks students to organise information into columns, it can be easier for the teacher to draw inferences about areas of weakness. If students are struggling with ‘uses in the novella’, then perhaps they would benefit from more work on plot. If students cannot fill in the ‘quotation’ column, then it seems likely that they need to do more work on memorising and applying textual evidence. Asking students to break down a complex task into sequential steps like this not only makes it more manageable for students but it also makes it easier for teachers to diagnose problems, gaps or misconceptions.

9. The teacher should then ask students for feedback, filling in their table under the visualiser, asking lots of questions to check for understanding and adding additional ideas, examples and elaborations.

10. Students can now use their matrix graphic organiser to write their answer to the question.

Next Post: Insights from Learning as Generative Activity part 5

Insights from Learning as a Generative Activity Part 3: Learning by Summarising

You can find the first two posts in this series here: one, two.

In the last post, I explored the three different stages of cognitive processing that constitute ‘generative Learning’ and how each one is an essential part of the learning process.

Taken from ‘Learning as a Generative Activity’, the diagram and table below demonstrate how the three stages of processing fit into a model of cognition. The ‘SOI’ in Figure 1.1 refers to ‘Select, Organise and Integrate’.

SOI model of gen learning

SOI table

Each of the eight learning strategies within ‘Learning as a Generative Activity’ involve all three cognitive processes.

Boundary Conditions

One of the strengths of Fiorella and Mayer’s work is that, instead of treating their eight strategies as universally applicable and akin to educational silver bullets, each strategy is discussed in terms of the boundary conditions under which it is most effective. Cognitive Load Theory predicts that instructional choices should be made according to the level of expertise of the student: explicit instruction is almost certainly the correct approach when teaching novices; problem solving and more independent learning is better suited to those with more expertise. This distinction is also recognized in Learning as a Generative Activity. Other boundary conditions include the subject matter that is being learnt-some strategies lend themselves better to specific domains- and whether or not students require a period training or instruction before the strategy is deemed to be effective.

Strategy 1: Learning by Summarising

Creating a summary involves ‘restating the main ideas of a lesson in one’s own words’ and encourages learners to engage with all three cognitive processes. In a summary, students have to select the most important information, organize it into a coherent representation in their working memory, then finally integrate it with their prior knowledge by expressing the information using their own words. Additionally, the summary must be more concise and succinct than the original. Like ‘because, but so’ , writing a summary involves combining language skills with content knowledge, a combination that makes it a particularly powerful strategy for the classroom.

Although creating a summary can be used as a useful retrieval activity, here it refers to the process of generating summaries during learning when the student has full access to the materials that they are learning from.

Boundary Conditions of Learning by Summarising

Learning by summarizing is most effective when students are learning from text based materials and less so when the information being learnt contains complex spatial relations such as concepts in physics or chemistry.

Writing an effective summary is hard and when I taught IGCSE, students would always find it amongst the most difficult skills that they had to learn. As a result of this, summarisation is most effective when students receive training on how to do it.

According to this American Educator article, reading strategy programs-including teaching students how to summarise-that were relatively short (around six sessions) were no more or less effective than longer programs that included as many as 50 sessions. There are diminishing returns to teaching them; they are ‘a low-cost way to give developing readers a boost, but it should be a small part of a teacher’s job. Acquiring a broad vocabulary and a rich base of background knowledge will yield more substantial and longer-term benefits.’

Willingham draws an analogy between comprehension strategies and the need to check your workings in Maths. Firstly, checking your workings and comprehension strategies are tricks that are easy to learn and use, the only difficulty being the need to remember to consistently apply them. Secondly, while checking your work in Maths makes it more likely that you will get a problem right, it won’t tell you how to solve the problem. This applies equally to comprehension strategies like summarisation: strategies don’t achieve comprehension they encourage a student to apply a process. If you are summarizing, you still need to understand enough about the text-which will come from background knowledge-to summarise successfully.

Two types of Summarisation

Summaries can be split into two distinct categories: writer based summaries and reader based summaries. A ‘reader based summary’ is one produced for other people, for example completing a summary question in an IGCSE exam. These summaries require students to use accurate, precise and concise language and they often have to be written using specific sentence constructions.

A ‘writer based’ summary is one that students write for themselves as a study tool and, while both types of summary involve all three stages of cognitive processing required for generative learning, this second type is easier for students to learn as they don’t need to pay so much attention to the concision of their sentences; instead, they can devote their entire attention to making sense of the text that they are summarising.

How can you teach summarisation?

Students often find summaries difficult. Firstly, selecting the correct information from a text can be difficult if the text is lengthy, has low coherence or if students have low prior knowledge. Secondly, organizing the selected information in working memory can also be difficult, especially if the text is complex and lengthy because students will need to manipulate and organize disparate information from different text locations, perhaps spanning paragraphs, section and pages. Thirdly, integrating the information with relevant prior knowledge can be difficult if the content is complex or if there is the additional requirement-as in ‘reader based summaries’-that the student uses specific grammatical constructions and writes with accuracy  and concision.

Here are a few things that can help when teaching students how to summmarise:

Start with ‘writer based summaries’

Because this type does not require the same level of grammatical precision and technical proficiency as a ‘reader based summary’, they are much easier to master. They also provide a useful foundation if you then want to go on to teach students how to do reader based summaries.

Start with simple, short excerpts

Students should experience consistently high success rates and this can be achieved if they begin by using simpler, shorter texts.

Begin with ‘targeted summaries.’

Instead of asking student to summarise a text in a general sense, ask them to focus on something specific thereby increasing the chance that they will select the correct information. Instead of ‘Summarise the writer’s thoughts on nostalgia’, you could ask students to ‘summarise the writer’s thoughts on how nostalgia helps him to overcome homesickness.’ The more specific the task here, the more likely the student will be able to select the correct information. One of the key difficulties when producing summaries is deciding which information is important or not and using targeted summaries with more novice students can help overcome this.

Model and practice each stage of the process initially in isolation before combining the stages into a routine.

Writing a summary is what Engelmann would call a ‘cognitive routine’: it is a process that involves ‘a series of steps that lead to a solution’ where the learner is ‘logically required to process a series of concepts, details or discriminations to arrive at the appropriate solution.’ By initially modelling and practicing each stage of the process in isolation before combining them into a complete process, errors can be more precisely diagnosed and corrected, ensuring that students experience high levels of success from the outset. Asking students to attempt the entire summary writing process from the beginning will almost certainly result in poor output. Not only that, it will be difficult to ascertain exactly why performance has been poor because writing a summary can involve a number of individual steps, each of which can prove difficult for students. These steps include:

  1. Delete trivial information
  2. Delete redundant information
  3. Substitute superordinate terms for lists
  4. Substitute superordinate terms for series of events
  5. Select a topic sentence
  6. Invent a topic sentence (if the text doesn’t include one)

Although some of these are more suited to ‘reader based summaries’ (numbers 5 and 6), it would be useful to model and practice each step in isolation before combining steps and then finally asking students to practice the entire process. Teachers should use example problem pairs and follow a sequence that gradually fades out support to ensure that a consistently high success rate is achieved by all students.

Prevent common misconceptions and errors

Students often include information that they have directly copied from the text into their summary. While they may have selected the correct information and expressed it in a logical order, failing to use their own words may prevent them from integrating it with their prior knowledge. When students are challenged about this, they will often reply that they understand what they have copied or that the author has expressed it in the best way possible using words that have no viable synonyms. Although these replies are often justified, if we want the summary writing to be an effective learning process, students need to transform the words from the text into their own language, thereby integrating the information with their prior knowledge. There are a number of things that we can do to ensure that they do not merely copy:

a) Rewrite short sections of copied text

When teaching students how to summarise for the first time, the teacher can present a sentence or two of copied text and demonstrate how to transform it into their own words under a visualizer. Following the I-We-You continuum, they can then ask students to assist them with the next example before asking the class to attempt a few of their own.

b) Oral questions about the written summary

Many pieces of vocabulary have no suitable or precise synonyms and it is often difficult or impossible to express them in your own words: the more abstract and technical the text, the more likely that a summary will contain words that have been directly taken from it. If this is the case, then the teacher can mitigate the potential lack of thought involved in copying technical terms by asking students what they mean.

c) Annotating vocabulary and paraphrasing definitions before summarising

When reading a text in class, a teacher can provide elaboration and annotation, stopping to explain difficult vocabulary, ask questions and provide additional examples to ensure that students understand what they are reading. Pre-teaching some of the trickier content makes it more likely that students will be able to successfully summarise it.

We often provide definitions for students, choosing words that are hopefully not only new to them but also have high utility and can be used across texts, contexts and domains. Here is an example from an article on nostalgia:

vocab table nostalgia

In order to help students integrate these words with their prior knowledge, the teacher can ask students to read the definition before offering their own paraphrased version of it. This can then lead into a series of questions designed to help students make connections:

Example:

Teacher: What does alienated mean?

Student: It means being left out, being alone

Teacher: According to the article, how can nostalgia mitigate feelings of alienation?

Student: It can help you feel optimistic and connected to others.

Teacher: We learnt a similar word when we looked at Exposure that also means being excluded?

Student: Ostracised

Teacher: Why did the soldiers feel ostracised in Exposure?

d) Elaboration

Although writing a summary is about concision (especially when writing ‘reader based summaries’), if it is to be used as a generative learning activity, there is potentially less requirement to be as succinct as possible as the main aim is successful engagement with all three stages of cognitive processing. To prevent students from copying important technical terminology without thought, the teacher could ask them to initially include noun appositives to ensure that they integrate the new vocabulary with their prior knowledge.

Example:

Original Text: Is it healthy to dwell in the past? Up until about 15 years ago most psychologists would have suggested probably not. The habit of living in memory rather than the present, of comparing how things once were with how things are now, was for several centuries thought at best a trait to avoid and at worst a root cause of depressive illness. Nostalgia was the soldiers’ malady – a state of mind that made life in the here and now a debilitating process of yearning for that which had been lost: rose-tinted peace, happiness, loved ones. It had been considered a psychological disorder ever since the term was coined by a 17th-century Swiss army physician who attributed the fragile mental and physical health of some troops to their longing to return home.

Targeted summary question 1: Summarise what people used to think about nostalgia.

Summary Example 1: Nostalgia used to be considered a mental illness

Summary Example 2: Nostalgia, a feeling of affection for the past, used to be considered as a mental illness.

While clearly less concise, the second example demonstrates that all three stages of cognitive processing have been engaged with by the student, making it more of a generative activity.

If you want to read more about summarisation, Timothy Shannahan has written two blogs, the first of which is available here.

Additionally, this article gives a helpful overview of how to teach students to summarise.

Next post: Learning as a Generative Activity part 4-Concept Mapping

Insights from Learning as a Generative Activity: What is Learning? Part 2

In the last post, I explored different definitions of learning and how the ability to transfer or achieve generalized understanding will often be the end goal of an instructional sequence. This table provides a helpful summary:

kirchner vs fiorella and Mayer

What is Generative Learning?

generative

Fiorella and Mayer’s book explores a number of effective learning techniques, each of which are intended to produce meaningful learning. They express concern about the ‘passive experience’ of reading books, watching videos and attending lectures, all of which may result in ‘suboptimal learning’. The medium in which the content is being presented is not the issue here, instead the concern seems aimed at a failure to combine the medium with a sense making process of some kind where the content is manipulated and processed effectively by the learner.

Asking a student to read a text will not necessarily result in learning: it is how they process the content that matters.

Let’s take reading a book as an example: text is often the most efficient way of presenting complex, abstract information and a school that asks students to read frequently and widely is clearly doing the right thing. However, reading in order to learn is qualitatively different from reading for pleasure. When we read for pleasure, reading is about escapism, joy, inspiration and imagination and while we may learn much from the experience, often learning is not the primary goal of the activity.

other minds

As an example, I recently read Other Minds: The Octopus, The Sea and The Deep Origins of Consciousness by Peter Godfrey Smith, a fascinating book that explores the evolution and intelligence of cephalopods, and while I enjoyed it immensely and thought that I was learning a lot whilst reading it (I knew next to nothing about cephalopods before picking the book up), I’m sure that the experience was a suboptimal learning experience.

Even though I would have employed many of the strategies that are seen as the hallmark of skilled reading-and I’m sure that these would have helped me to understand the content whilst I was reading it-I didn’t deliberately accompany my reading with any of the effective learning techniques that Fiorella and Mayer explore. In this sense, my experience of reading it could be described as ‘passive’.

When a text is used as focal point of a learning situation (and for many subjects this should be the norm), the actual reading part should be accompanied by specific tasks as directed by the teacher. These tasks will ask students to engage in sense making and will involve all three stages of cognitive processing that Learning as a Generative Activity explores:

  1. Selecting relevant information to attend to
  2. Organising the material into a coherent cognitive structure in working memory
  3. Integrating it with relevant prior knowledge activated from long term memory

All three stages of cognitive processing are essential to generative learning and the absence of a particular stage will almost certainly preclude engagement with another. At one level, the stages can be seen as hierarchical as each depends upon the other in a sequence: the process of learning may begin with ‘selecting’ and proceed towards ‘integrating’ the new content with long term memory. Expressed using synonymous terms, learning begins with encoding, then becomes consolidated and is then stored.

However, this does not mean that the three stages occur in a strict, fixed sequence as each process will inevitably influence another. For example, your prior knowledge-a concept mentioned in the ‘integrating’ stage-will directly influence what you pay attention to when dealing with new information, thereby having an influence over the ‘selecting’ stage. If, as an expert, you are reading an extract from Macbeth, you are far more likely to notice and select the salient information than someone who has never studied Shakespeare before.

Let’s look at each stage in turn:

  1. Selecting relevant information to attend to

Ensuring that students pay attention to what is being taught is a fundamental aspect of teaching and learning: if students don’t pay attention, then no learning will happen at all.

As Samuel Johnson pointed out: ‘The true art of memory is the art of attention. If the mind is employed on the past or the future, the book will be held before the eyes in vain.’

The idea of attention is wide ranging. At one level, it is used to refer to general motivation and behaviour and whether a student is engaging-in a general sense-with the lesson. At another, it refers to the precise interaction between teacher, content and learner and whether the learner is focusing on the exact things that the teacher intends.

What happens if students fail to ‘select’ the relevant information?

If students fail to ‘select’ the relevant information, then this will effectively preclude them from engaging in the second two stages of cognitive processing: you cannot organize information into a coherent cognitive structure in working memory or integrate it with prior knowledge if ‘it’ is absent.

If students select the wrong information and use this information within a sense making process, then this will potentially be even worse: unlearning or unpicking misconceptions will often take far longer than learning things for the first time.

What can we do to ensure that students select the relevant information?

If we accept that the first stage of Fiorella and Mayer’s conception of learning is crucial and that failure to select the correct information will hinder or completely prevent learning from happening, then teachers need to ensure that all students-not just the high attainers-are able to do so.

In Direct Instruction programmes, all details of instruction are controlled  in order to minimise student misinterpretation and to maximise learning. This ensures that students always select the relevant information to attend to. DI programmes are based upon ‘faultless communication’, a state that is achieved through a number of techniques, approaches and processes. Firstly, lessons are scripted in order to prevent instructional and conceptual confusion; secondly, examples and non-examples  are carefully sequenced and thirdly, learning tasks are atomised and overtised so that learners pretty much cannot fail to select and practice what is relevant.

Although most normal lessons do not use DI schemes, if the principles mentioned above are considered and adhered to when planning sequences of learning, then students are far more likely to ‘select’ what is relevant and pay attention to what is important.

The optimal instructional procedure for ensuring that students will select the relevant information will also depend upon the prior knowledge of the student.  This is why the three stages of learning should probably not be seen as strictly sequential: they influence and depend upon each other. Students with less prior knowledge will benefit from a more directed and scaffolded approach to their more knowledgeable peers.

Let’s look at an example:

Imagine you are reading a two page non-fiction article about nostalgia as a preparation for reading the poem Émigrée. Each student has a copy of the article, the teacher has a visualizer and projector and everyone follows when someone is reading. At the end of the article there are two text-dependent questions that you want students to answer:

1) From the first page, list five psychological benefits of nostalgia

2) From the second page, explain the effects of nostalgia. Your answer should contain at least 3 effects

Assuming that motivation and behaviour are good and that your class contains students with sufficient prior knowledge, you could merely ask them to read it in silence and then answer the questions, safe in the knowledge that the breadth of their vocabulary and reading proficiency will mean that they will (hopefully) select the information required to answer the questions.

With a class of students who might struggle, you could do something like this:

  1. Read the whole text out loud to them, adding annotations (all students do the same on their copy) to explain vocabulary and asking lots of questions to check for understanding.
  2. Read the text again, stopping just past where the first psychological benefit can be found.
  3. Ask a student to read the question: ‘From the first page, list five psychological benefits of nostalgia.
  4. Check that everyone understands the question: add annotations to ‘psychology/benefit/nostalgia’
  5. Put red brackets around the section where the first benefit can be found
  6. Ask all students to reread the bracketed section in silence and underline the benefit
  7. Ask a student for feedback and underline your text under the visualizer.
  8. Ask lots of questions about the answer and give further annotations and elaborations about what is being underlined
  9. Ask all students to check that they have the same underlined answer and annotations as you.
  10. Repeat steps 2-9 for the next benefit.

By following this step by step approach, it is far more likely that all students will ‘select’ the relevant information than if you had adopted the same approach as the class with higher prior knowledge.

Successfully ‘selecting’ information is also dependent on being able to discriminate between ‘what is important from what is not.’ When learning a new concept, a student needs to understand its breadth and boundaries in order to fully understand it and this can be achieved through the careful sequencing and manipulation of examples and non-examples.

The intention of both the step by step approach and the manipulation of examples is to explicitly teach students what they need to do in order to successfully select information. Once this has been taught, the instructional support should be faded so that students eventually have to determine what is important and what is not without assistance.

What happens if students fail to ‘organise the material into a coherent cognitive structure in working memory’?

If students fail to organise the material in their working memory, then they will be unable to make any sense of it as they will quickly become confused or give up. When this happens, the incoming information will not be processed properly, effectively preventing it from being integrated with the relevant prior knowledge activated from long-term memory.

As teachers, we often forget what it is like to be confused by complex content but being overwhelmed by too much information is a common experience for many students.

Here is an example of something confusing, try reading it:

In mathematical terms, Derrida’s observation relates to the invariance of the Einstein field equation under nonlinear space-time diffeomorphisms (self-mappings of the space-time manifold which are infinitely differentiable but not necessarily analytic). The key point is that this invariance group “acts transitively”: this means that any space-time point, if it exists at all, can be transformed into any other. In this way the infinite-dimensional invariance group erodes the distinction between observer and observed; the Pi of Euclid and the G of Newton, formerly thought to be constant and universal, are now perceived in their ineluctable historicity; and the putative observer becomes fatally de-centered, disconnected from any epistemic link to a space-time point that can no longer be defined by geometry alone.

When reading this, I become deeply confused before the end of the first sentence as there are multiple concepts that I do not understand. Because I cannot retrieve these concepts from long term memory, I quickly reach the limits of my working memory and become cognitively overloaded.

What can we do to ensure that students organise the material?

Effective teachers will take a number of steps to ensure that students are not overwhelmed by new material. Content should be broken down into manageable chunks and introduced at a rate that does not cause cognitive overload. Teachers should use worked examples as ‘schema substitutes’ so that novices are better able to solve problems. A teaching sequence should progress through a process of backwards fading where initial learning is modelled and scaffolded by the teacher, allowing the student to focus on one or fewer elements of a problem or task and preventing them from becoming confused by a task that has high element interactivity.

What happens if students fail to integrate information with relevant prior knowledge activated from long term memory?

If the new material is not integrated properly into long term memory, then it is unlikely to be retained by a student. If we accept that ‘learning is a change in long-term memory’, then a failure to integrate equates to a failure to learn.

What can we do to ensure that students integrate the material?

In order for new information to be successfully integrated into long term memory, a student needs to already possess the relevant prior knowledge to connect it to. To understand complex and abstract ideas, a learner often needs to understand the concepts that underpin them: if these subordinate concepts are not understood, it is likely that the higher order concept will not be fully understood.

feynman-blackboard

There is a good example of this problem in this video clip. Upon being asked what it is that we feel when we hold two magnets that repel each other, Richard Feynman tells the reporter that he cannot explain the answer any further as his explanation would involve nothing at all that connects to the reporter’s prior knowledge: it would be at a level of complexity and abstraction that would be incomprehensible.

As teachers, we should be spending much of our time building student background knowledge and teaching high-utility vocabulary, content and approaches to writing. If prior knowledge is lacking, then we need to teach it!

When teaching abstract ideas, teachers should ensure that they are exemplified through concrete examples.

Let’s look at an example:

Imagine you are teaching the concept of ‘ignominy’, a word that we teach in year 9 when students study the jingoistic poem ‘Fall In’ by Harold Begbie. In order for this to be successful, you will need to be able explain the term using words that the student already understands, thereby beginning the integration with relevant prior knowledge. It can be helpful to start with a definition and example which can then be questioned and annotated.

ignominy

Assuming that students understand the definition, the teacher could then ask questions like:

  1. What does shame and humiliation mean?
  2. Can you give me an example of something humiliating?
  3. What is the difference between public and private?
  4. ‘Funked’ means avoiding something because you’re scared. What do the onlookers think the character is scared of?
  5. Why is this seen as ignominious?
  6. Why does Begbie ask ‘where will you look.’?
  7. Orally complete these sentences from the start: Avoiding going to war would be seen as ignominious because…The poem suggests that cowardice will result in ignominy because…
  8. Complete these sentences in your books:  When Begbie says ‘where will you look’, he is hinting at ignominy because… The poem explores the ignominious consequences of cowardice so…

After this sequence, later lessons could then involve wider questions and practice to broaden student understanding above and beyond the initial context of the poem:

  1. Complete these sentences in your books: Liverpool’s defeat at Watford was ignominious because…Her mistakes were ignominiously announced to the whole class, so…

Understanding here refers to creating more meaningful connections between the new item (ignominy) and the student’s prior knowledge. The more connections that are made, the greater the depth of understanding.

If we want all students to succeed, then we should be explicitly teaching them the connections between different concepts and this can be done through extended quizzing, annotation  or elaboration

In the next post, I will look at Learning by Summarising, the first strategy that Fiorella and Mayer explore.

Insights from Learning as a Generative Activity Part 1: What is Learning?

Over the last few years, countless blogs, articles and books have been written, each one attempting to distill and describe the essence of good teaching. There has been a major shift in people’s opinions as explicit instruction has been lifted out of the shadows and placed at the centre of many school’s pedagogical frameworks. This shift is partly down to the massively increased interest in Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction, a framework that has become almost ubiquitous now, partly thanks to the work of Tom Sherrington and Oliver Caviglioli.

Rosenshine’s work is based upon three broad areas: research into cognitive science; research on the classroom practices of expert teachers and also research on cognitive supports like scaffolding and using models to help students learn complex tasks. This AFT article from Spring 2012 is a good starting point if you want an overview of Rosenshine’s ideas and research.

generative

While Rosenshine’s work can be seen as research-informed overview of the kind of approaches and techniques that effective teachers use, Learning as a Generative Activity outlines eight different ways to foster ‘generative learning’ in students. Much like Strengthening the Student Toolbox, Learning as a Generative Activity explores strategies that students can use in order to learn effectively. Mayer’s work should be seen as complementary to Rosenshine’s as the instructional choices of teachers will determine the approaches that students adopt. Effective instructional choices will be based upon a sound understanding of how students learn and effective teachers will direct students to interact with content in ways that help students ‘make sense of the material’.

What is Learning?

The authors of Learning as a Generative Activity, Mayer and Fiorelli, define ‘generative learning’ as ‘helping learners to actively make sense of the material so they can build meaningful learning activities to transfer what they have learned to solving new problems.’ This definition is far more detailed than Kirschner’s proposition that ‘learning is a change in long term memory’ and the additional requirement of transfer means that many would reject it  as being too exacting. As Dylan Wiliam has pointed out, if transfer is a necessary condition of learning, then this would imply that memorising your social security number is not an example of learning.

Transfer is notoriously hard to achieve, even within the same domain and at best, we should be attempting to induce near transfer in our students so that their understanding moves from being inflexible and shallow to flexible and deep. David Didau gives a useful overview of the concept of transfer in this blog.

The tracks within DI schemes are planned in order to promote this increase in flexibility and the purpose of teaching to the general case-one of the main aims of DI-is to ensure that students can apply their knowledge to new but similar problems or applications. This can be achieved by manipulating sequences of examples or by making students aware of the similarities and differences between different contexts-essentially helping them to perceive the deep structure of a problem. A well planned instructional sequence will purposively facilitate this transition from inflexible to flexible knowledge as students move from restricted drills to freer application. The table at the end of this post demonstrates this transition. Initial tasks may look much like rote memorization where students merely respond to a cue-perhaps asking student to recall a specific date or fact; later tasks may ask students to develop their understanding-perhaps using elaborative interrogation; later still, tasks may require students to apply these component parts within a wider application-perhaps using the date or fact as part of a chain historical argument. 

So if transfer or flexible understanding are important aspects of learning, why has Kirschner’s definition become so widely accepted? I would argue that his definition has two main strengths. Firstly, its succinct nature encourages teachers to concentrate on the vital role of memory and retention in learning and, in an age where attainment is often judged via close books exams, this can be no bad thing. Secondly, its breadth allows it to encompass the entire continuum from inflexible to flexible knowledge. Both ends of this continuum have important roles to play in learning, and, while ‘flexible knowledge’ is the end goal of almost all instructional sequences, ‘inflexible knowledge’ almost always forms the foundations of understanding. If a definition of learning effectively excludes ‘inflexible knowledge’ by adding the additional requirement of transfer, then this may have adverse effects: teachers may come to believe that rote learning is undesirable or ineffective; equally, teachers might focus entirely on novel problem solving in the belief that the best way to improve this ability is to practice problem solving itself when, counterintuitively, it may be more effective to begin by building student background knowledge which will initially be inflexible. Under Kirschner’s definition, both the rote memorization of your social security number and the ability to solve novel algebraic problems would be defined as learning.

So if Kirschner’s definition has clear strengths, what else can we learn from Fiorella and Mayer’s? Their definition of ‘generative learning’ is ‘helping learners to actively make sense of the material so they can build meaningful learning activities to transfer what they have learned to solving new problems.’ This definition of learning seems aimed at the end goal of most instructional sequences: flexible knowledge and understanding in which students can achieve near transfer. This seems entirely uncontroversial: we want students to be able to flexibly apply their knowledge. When we first learn a concept, our understanding is shallow, especially if it is a concept unrelated to our existing background knowledge. As we begin to make sense of what we have learned, we make connections between the newly learnt concept and our existing knowledge.

In an attempt to further hone their conception of learning, the authors critique a number of others:

Conception 1: Learning works by engaging in hands-on activity, so it is better for you to learn by doing rather than by being told.

Mayer and Fiorelli dismiss this as being overly concerned with behavioural activity and the nature of the learning tasks that student attempt. They point out that this conception fails to focus ‘enough on cognitive activity’ as students could be busily engaged in an activity without purposively thinking about the content in a way that helps them make sense of it. This opinion is analogous to Rob Coe’s assertion that ‘learning happens when you think hard.’ When teachers focus on the activity rather than what students are thinking about, this often results in classrooms that seem busy and purposive but lack any real cognitive processing. A good piece of advice when planning lessons is to always think about what the students will be thinking about. Activities or tasks should be chosen so students can spend as much time as possible thinking as deeply as possible about the content. If seen through the lens of Cognitive Load Theory, tasks should be easy to explain to students with no irrelevant procedures or activities that can either cause confusion or distract students from thinking about the content that they need to ‘actively make sense of.’

Conception 2: Learning works by building association, so you should practice giving the right response over and over.

The authors dismiss this conception of learning as being too prohibitive and only really applying to situations where students are expected to ‘give the right response for a given stimulus’. They concede that this conception is not wrong, but that it is ‘just too limited’ as it in no way ‘deals with understanding’ which they define as when people are able to ‘take what they have learned and apply it in new situations.’ While there are many instances of learning that are described by associative learning (Dylan Wiliam’s social security example fits this well), if this conception were to be a catch all definition, it would fail to describe what is the end goal of most instructional sequences: generalized, flexible understanding.

As an aside, the very term ‘understanding’ seems to be contested: when Fiorellia and Mayer use it, they intend it to include near transfer; Willingham, however, gives a slightly more restrictive definition, defining it as ‘remembering in disguise…What do cognitive psychologists know about how students understand things? The answer is that they understand new ideas (things they don’t know) by relating them to old ideas (things they do know)’ Interestingly, this definition fits exactly with the three stages of cognitive processing that form the theoretical basis of ‘sense making’ and underpin all of the learning strategies that Learning as A Generative Activity explores:

  1. Selecting relevant information to attend to
  2. Organising the material into a coherent cognitive structure in working memory
  3. Integrating it with relevant prior knowledge activated from long term memory

Conception 3: Learning works by adding information to your memory, so you should work hard to find and memorise new information

The authors dismiss this conception because ‘humans do not work like computers’ and ‘we do not simply take in what was presented and put it in our memory’. They also posit that learning involves ‘changing what is presented from information (which is objective) into knowledge (which is subjective). I would argue that it is precisely because we are not ‘like computers’ that we need to adopt proven strategies like distributed practice and the testing effect in order to aid us with encoding and retaining information in our long term memories. While a computer reliably stores information without error as soon as it is asked to, our messy and fallible cognitive processes require the adoption of deliberate and specific learning strategies if we are to retain information. Cognitive Load Theory highlights the absolute importance of background knowledge, making the important point that ‘novices use thinking skills, experts use knowledge’ when attempting problems. Background knowledge also has a huge role in reading comprehension. Memorising or automatizing information can give a huge advantage to students. Times tables are a good example here: even simple algebraic problems are made impossible if students do not have reliable and rapid recall of multiplication facts. No-one, however, would argue that memorisation encompasses learning as a whole.

Conception 4: Learning is a social activity, so it is better for you to learn with others in a group than to learn alone.

Although the authors concede that ‘you can interact with others during the learning process’, and that social activities that promote meaningful learning can be effective, they dismiss this conception because group work is hard to manage and ‘research on group learning tends to show that all group interactions are not equally helpful’. Although group work can be useful if there are both group goals and individual accountability, it can result in social loafing and off-task behaviour. I tend to avoid group work for these very reasons although this does not mean that group work is a poor instructional strategy per se.

In the next post, I will continue to explore Fiorella and Mayer’s conception of learning.