Grit vs Flow – what’s better for learning? : March 4, 2013
Having just put up a new classroom display exhorting the benefits of ‘flow’ and using the idea in training materials, I have just had this thrust in front of my slack jawed face by my new bête noire, Alex Quigley! (NB: this is not true – Alex is a thoroughly decent chap and a man I admire greatly.)
I’ve been fascinated by the idea of ‘flow’ since reading Mihály Csíkszentmihályi‘s book some years ago. The idea is that if you’re totally immersed in the experience of performing a task you will perform it to a higher standard. It’s has been billed as ”the ultimate experience in harnessing the emotions in the service of performing and learning.” Who wouldn’t want to feel “a feeling of spontaneous joy, even rapture, while performing a task”? Sounds good, right? Maybe too good.
With arch educational myth buster, Tom Bennett’s warning against being an ideas magpie rattling round in my poor over burdened brain, the sense of wounded pride at being so easily gulled is an almost physical thing. I should have known better. As he says, “75% of the educational research … seems to believe that science, like Adam, sprung ex nihilo, and can be invented in a day.”
Cal Newport’s rather wonderful blog Study Hacks sets out the following very interesting advice for budding concert pianists to counter the feel good molasses that is flow:
Avoid Flow. Do What Does Not Come Easy.
“The mistake most weak pianists make is playing, not practicing. If you walk into a music hall at a local university, you’ll hear people ‘playing’ by running through their pieces. This is a huge mistake. Strong pianists drill the most difficult parts of their music, rarely, if ever playing through their pieces in entirety.”
To Master a Skill, Master Something Harder.
“Strong pianists find clever ways to ‘complicate’ the difficult parts of their music. If we have problem playing something with clarity, we complicate by playing the passage with alternating accent patterns. If we have problems with speed, we confound the rhythms.”
Systematically Eliminate Weakness.
“Strong pianists know our weaknesses and use them to create strength. I have sharp ears, but I am not as in touch with the physical component of piano playing. So, I practice on a mute keyboard.”
Create Beauty, Don’t Avoid Ugliness.
“Weak pianists make music a reactive task, not a creative task. They start, and react to their performance, fixing problems as they go along. Strong pianists, on the other hand, have an image of what a perfect performance should be like that includes all of the relevant senses. Before we sit down, we know what the piece needs to feel, sound, and even look like in excruciating detail. In performance, weak pianists try to reactively move away from mistakes, while strong pianists move towards a perfect mental image.”
And this advice seems equally pertinent for teachers as well as our students. I love the idea that practice should seek to ‘create beauty’. And as me old ma always said, you ‘ave to suffer to be bootiful!
I made this point in a post on deliberate practice last year:
Hattie says in Visible Learning for Teachers, “Sometimes learning is not fun. Instead, it is just hard work; it is deliberate practice; it is simply doing some things many times over.”
This idea has been knocking around for quite a while. Way back in 1898 Bryan & Harter were apparently telling us that it takes 10 years to become an expert in whatever field you choose to pursue. This was picked up more recently by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers and has since become something of an industry with books like Bounce and The Talent Code dominating best seller lists. The current thinking is that it takes 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to achieve mastery of anything. It’s worth noting here that practice does not mean rote learning or repetitive ‘skill and drill’.
Guess what? Turns out Gladwell’s 10,000 hours rule is guff too. But, fortunately (else my self-respect might be entirely shredded) Erikson’s theory of deliberate practice still appears to hold up. Just to recap, deliberate practice is intentional, aimed at improving performance, pitched just beyond your current skill level, combined with immediate feedback and repetitious. When these conditions are met, practice improves accuracy and speed of performance on cognitive, perceptual, and motor tasks.
Angela Duckworth (no relation to Vera) has looked at deliberate practice in relation to success at Spelling Bees and explored the concept of ‘grit’. She reports that,
With each year of additional preparation, spellers devoted an increasing proportion of their preparation time to deliberate practice, despite rating the experience of such activities as more effortful and less enjoyable than the alternative preparation activities. Grittier spellers engaged in deliberate practice more so than their less gritty counterparts, and hours of deliberate practice fully mediated the prospective association between grit and spelling performance. Contrary to our prediction, we did not find evidence that the inverse association between the trait of openness to experience and spelling performance was mediated by any of the three preparation activities measured in this study.
So what can we learn from all this?
Well, firstly, there’s no substitute for hard work. And, perhaps, without that feeling that what you’re doing is actually a bit of a slog you won’t ever achieve real mastery. And secondly, sometimes the hard work is checking your facts. Mea culpa. I’m not yet sure whether ‘flow’ is completely blown out of the water as a state to aspire to; possibly this might come down to the difference between learning and performance. Flow looks great, but grit results in learning; flow is the end, and grit is the means.
Is this a false dichotomy? Maybe. But I still have to rethink my display, and my presentation for TLA Berkhamsted!
With the help of Roo Stenning (see comment below) and Pete Jones (on graphic design) we have arrived at a Grand Unified Theory of the Grit/Flow cycle:
And for an even more coherent explanation of deliberate pactice as it relates to teacher development, read this wonderful post from Alex Quigley
The problem with progress Part 2: Designing a curriculum for learning : February 14, 2013
Can progress be both rapid and sustained?
We start out with the aim of making the important measurable and end up making only the measurable important.
‘Rapid and sustained progress’ is Ofsted’s key indictor for success. Schools across the land chase this chimera like demented puppies chasing their own tails. But just when when you think you’ve gripped it firmly between your slavering jaws, the damn thing changes and slips away.
You see, the more I look into it, the more I’m convinced that progress cannot be both rapid and sustained. You cannot eat your cake and have it: we either focus on the long term goal of learning, or give in to the short term pressures of performance.
This last week has been a watershed. Over the past year or so I have become increasingly certain that making progress in lessons is a nonsense and any attempt to get students to demonstrate their progress is a meaningless pantomime that benefits no one. The past few days have seen any remaining doubts shattered.
The arguments laid out here should be adequate to convince even the most entrenched and wrongheaded champions of ‘progress in lessons’.
But there’s a further problem. Basically, slowing down the speed at which students learn increases long term retention and transfer of knowledge. We know from the Hare and the Tortoise that travelling faster is not always better. And as in folklore, so in education; in our attempts to cover the curriculum we can sacrifice students’ learning. We’re all under increasing pressure to teach to the test and the idea of not cramming in the content is, frankly, a bit unnerving. We’re caught between a rock and a hard place: slow down and risk lack of coverage, or speed up and sacrifice depth of learning.
Relying on direct instruction would seem more efficient and predictable than messing around with enquiry and discovery learning and, unsurprisingly perhaps, this is borne out by research. In our efforts to make sure we cover the course engaging students in time-consuming, cognitively demanding activities that nurture deep understanding appears an unaffordable luxury. In GCSE English courses, reading and analysing an entire book has become a relic of a half forgotten and happier past. Breadth trumps depth. And the more pressure you’re under, the more you’re likely to skip.
The idea of pacing, asks us to plan our programmes of study so that learning is chunked and topics are arranged coherently, with a clear sense of how long different elements will take to teach. Obviously, we also need to allow for some unpredictability depending on the particular mix of kids in front of us: as teachers we need to keep our expectations high but keep a weather eye on areas in which our students struggle. In this way we can arrive at the most efficient way of rigorously covering our content while still allowing time for the experimentation and inquiry which which is so vital for long term retention. This is something Maurice Holt and the Slow Education gang have been bandying about for some time but I was fascinated to discover the work of cognitive psychologist, Robert Bjork which seems to bang the same drum.
Bjork describes conditions which slow the pace of learning but increase long term performance as ‘desirable difficulties’. Now in a world in which ‘rapid and sustained progress’ is sought we might have a problem: rapid progress may well be the enemy of sustained progress. And as such, techniques which favour sustaining progress at the expense of the speed at which this progress might well go unappreciated by a pitiless inspection regime.
But, as ever, we need to do what is right, hold our nerve and be ready to explain our thinking. Here’s an outline of some of the techniques we can use to concentrate on sustaining progress:
Variation - As we’re all aware, variety is the spice of life; a steady diet of the same-old same-old, no matter how delicious, is enough to put off anyone. So it should come as no surprise that using the same lesson structures will, eventually start to pall. The research on variation in lesson design looks specifically at mixing up deep and surface learning strategies rather than trying to cram in as much deep learning as students can stomach. This may at first seem counter intuitive; surely we’re better off prompting students to make profound connections between the things they know and challenging them to make increasing abstract generalisations and hypothesises? No, apparently not. The theory suggests that getting students to remember facts and expand their knowledge base is just as important as getting them to creatively manipulate all the stuff they’re digesting.
The point is that if we are more interested in long term retention and processing we need to provide students with a balanced diet of deep and superficial knowledge. This may be less exciting in the short term, and certainly, messing about with hexagons can look really impressive to an observer in a way that learning facts doesn’t but we need to keep our eyes on the prize and remember that being able to perform spectacularly in a lesson is not the same as being able to perform well independently in an exam.
Spacing - The concept of designing your schemes of learning so that new concepts and important information is regularly revisited is nothing new. I first came across it several years ago and, ironically, promptly forget about it. I was reminded of it when reading Nuthall’s essential The Hidden Lives of Learners and stumbled across his insight that new information has be encountered on at least three different occasions in order to be retained. Bjork contends that spacing “is one of the most robust results in all of cognitive psychology and has been shown to be effective over a large range of stimuli and retention intervals from nonsense syllables to foreign language learning across many months.” And if we increase the spacing between reminding students about new information this “enhances learning because it decreases accessibility of the to-be-learned information” Or, in other words, the harder you work at having to call something, the more likely you are to remember it in the future.
Here’s another clip of Bjork explaining the effects of spacing on retention:
So, we need to design our curriculum to cover and recover information. There are various competing theories on the optimum spacing of learning but as long as we work out in advance when and how we’re going to revisit what we want students to retain we should be OK. One piece of home spun common sense is that we should ‘input less, output more’. What this means is that having encountered some facts we will learn far more if we try in some way to recreate this knowledge rather than just reviewing what we’ve learned. Writing this post is far better for my retention of all this cognitive psychology than simply reading it over and over. Although this is something every teacher knows instinctively, it’s nice to have some of our biases confirmed by the boffins.
Interleaving vs blocking – If we accept that spacing works, then interleaving is a great way to design your scheme of learning. If we’re just hanging around for a few days waiting for the optimum time to have elapsed before reteaching what will we fill the intervening lessons with? Happily, interleaving provides the answer.
Traditionally we ‘block’ learning. This means that students exhaustively focus on one particular concept or type of problem until they are considered to have mastered it and then they move on to another, related topic and so until they have studied all the components of a course in discrete blocks. Interleaving, on the other hand, involves doing a bit of everything at the same time so that students might tackle several concepts or try to solves several different kinds of problems at once. Here’s the kicker: when students’ learning is ‘blocked’ they perform much better during lessons – it looks like their learning. But when they’ve finished studying all their blocks of knowledge and are tested at the end of a course, their score decrease fairly dramatically. When teaching interleaves knowledge students perform worse during lessons but their retention at the end of a couse appears to be dramatically better.
The observant among you will have highlighted a couple of problems: if we observe lessons looking for evidence of progress, we will encourage teachers to block learning so that students perform better at the time of the observation. But is a system which (increasingly) relies on terminal exams, teachers who interleave learning (an their students) should come out on top. If the research is accurate, this really is a no-brainer.
Here’s Bjork again:
Feedback- Apparently, delaying and reducing feedback promotes learning. But this can’t be right, can it? Surely feedback is the most effective thing a teacher can be doing? Well, yes it is, but sometimes less is more.
I recently signed up to Dr Will Thalheimer’s subscription service on feedback and he has this to say:
Feedback (in most learning situations) tends to be more effective if it is delayed. It works the same way as spaced repetitions. In general, the longer the delay the better, up to a point where the delay can reduce learning.
In addition, some research shows that reducing the frequency of feedback can actually increase learning. Giving feedback after only half of all activities had more impact on long term retention than giving feedback on all of them. There are three reasons for this this:
1. Frequent feedback makes students too dependent on external validation and prevents students from developing an ability to rely on their own judgement.
2. Feedback works by “facilitating next-response planning and retrieval. In this sense, frequent feedback might provide too much facilitation in the planning of the subsequent response, thereby reducing the participant’s need to perform memory retrieval operations thought to be critical for learning”.
I’d advise taking all this with a large pinch of common sense but it’s worth considering whether the way we give feedback might be preventing students from becoming sufficiently resilient and independent.
It seems that many of the things we’re told to do in lessons because they’re great for demonstrating progress may actually be getting in the way of deep learning. If we accept that performance is not a reliable indicator of learning then we may have a problem. Most current educational thinking is all about checking students’ performance in lessons to judge their learning so that we know what to teach them next lesson. We’ve been labouring under the misapprehension that we need to check progress in lessons otherwise we’ll have no idea what students have learned. But real learning takes time. As Nuthall points out, “learning is invisible and cannot be seen in the activities of the teacher or students”. The fact that learning and forgetting can happen simultaneously mean that it is “impossible for teachers to judge what their students are learning without much more detail and individually differentiated data than they have available in the classroom.”
So, instead of setting up activities which test students’ current performance to use as evidence of progress and then acting on this to plan future lessons in the belief that we know what our students have learned we should instead listen to cognitive psychologists about how the brain works and how learning happens and design curricula and lesson accordingly.
Let’s focus on learning rather then performance, and let’s focus on progress which is sustained rather than that which is rapid.
Next post: strategies for designing lessons based on what cognitive psychology tells us: lessons for learning
The problem with progress Part 1: learning vs performance : February 12, 2013
What’s more important? Learning or progress?
I was going to make that question rhetorical, but scratch that: let’s get interactive:
We’ve known since the publication of Ofsted’s Moving English Forward in March last year that demonstrating progress is not the be all and end all of an inspector’s judgments, but just in case anyone was in any doubt, Kev Bartle has forensically scoured Ofsted’s Inspection Handbook and come to these damning conclusions.
He unequivocally states that,”There is no such thing as progress within lessons. There is only learning” before going on to say:
Even Ofsted (the big organisation but sadly not always the individual inspectors or inspection teams) realise that ‘progress’ is simply a numerical measurement of the distance between a start point and an end point and therefore CANNOT IN ITSELF BE OBSERVED IN LESSONS other than through assessing how much students have learned. ‘Progress in lessons’ is the very definition of a black box into which we, as teachers and leaders, need to shine a light.
As often seems to happen, I encounter new information when I’m ready to process it and yesterday I came across this (thanks to the prodding of the hugely knowledgeable Cristina Milos) from Robert Bjork:
Bjork says that learning and performance should be seen as distinct and should be disassociated in the minds of teachers. Performance is measurable but learning must be inferred from performance: it cannot be observed directly. That is to say, performance is easy to observe whereas learning is not. You can tick a box to show that students’ performance has moved from x to y but you can’t tell sometimes whether learning has taken place. There are many instances where learning occurs but performance in the short term doesn’t improve, and there are instances where performance improves, but little learning seems to happen in the long term.
Learning is, as Wiliam said, “a liminal process, at the boundary between control and chaos”*. And the problem is compounded by the fact that current performance is an unreliable indicator of learning. Performance can be propped up by predictability and current cues that are present during the lesson but won’t be present when the information is needed later. This can make it seem that a student is making rapid progress but there may not actually be any learning happening.
This is the Monkey Dance, and is a fairly accurate description of what goes on in far too many observed lessons. Teachers are primed to demonstrate their students performance and their observer can nod, smile and tick away to their embittered heart’s content. But there may be little or no learning taking place.
So clearly the problem is: if we’re going to disassociate learning and performance (as we so obviously need to do) what strategies will promote learning? Well, very helpfully in the final 30 seconds, Bjork says the following:
When you introduce things like variability, spacing, reducing the feedback, interleaving things to be learned rather than blocking the things to be learned; that appears to slow down the learning process and poses challenges but enhances long term retention and transfer.
Each of these ideas deserves their own blog post and this is something that I’ll beaver away at over half term. Any suggestions on excellent ways to embed pedagogy that promotes learning rather than progress will be very gratefully received.
As ever, Darren Mead got there first and makes the same points, but more amusingly, here:
Post script: You will of course have noticed that I’m using progress and performance interchangeably; I think this is because they’re the same, but please do feel free to dissent.
*Liminality is a fascinating subject and one worth reading more about. You could do worse than start here.
Knowledge is power : October 21, 2012
I’ve been having a bit of think this week.
Firstly I read Daisy Christodoulou’s post on Hirsch’s Core Knowledge curriculum. She points out that Hirsch, oft-condemned for being the darling of ideologues like Mickey Gove is, in his own words ‘a quasi socialist’ and big mates with Diane Ravitch (who is nobody’s fool.)
Then I listened to the hugely entertaining Jonathan Lear give an excellent presentation at Independent Thinking’s Big Day Out in Bristol on Friday and like any speaker worth their salt he got me thinking. His point, if I may make so bold as to attempt a precis, is that we limit children’s learning if we set out to teach them a concept in a clear and focussed way. His rallying cry is… vagueness.
Like Jim Smith’s redefinition of ‘lazy’, Jonathan wants us to unpick and unpack the benefits of being ambiguous, a bit ill-defined and somewhat nebulous. Got it? He illustrated with the use of Little Miss Sunshine who, when both her hands were held, completed an electrical circuit and lit up. When this phenomenon is demonstrated to children, particularly primary school children, they want to know how. What on earth, they wonder, is going on? His point was that had he simply said, ‘right boys and girls, today we’re going to learn about electrical circuits,’ something would have been lost. The nascent curiosity of their young minds would have been, if not crushed, certainly restricted.
So far so good. I’m all for harnessing students’ curiosity and tricking them, á la Hywel Roberts, into learning accidentally. But then he asked us to consider why students seem to become less curious and excited about learning as they trudge their way through the education system. Is it, as Ken Robinson suggests that we teachers flatten it out of them with our dull, quotidian lessons and our soulless reliance on text books? Jonathan referenced a study of divergent thinking (The ability to interpret a question in many different ways and the ability to see many different answers to a question.) undertaken by NASA and used by SKR to make his point in Out of Their Minds. It goes a little something like this: Most people are able to come up with 10 to 15 uses for a paperclip. People who are good at divergent thinking would come up with around 200. Unfortunately, our capacity for divergent thinking deteriorates with age. This longitudinal study of kindergarten children measured 98% of them at genius level in divergent thinking. Five years later, when they were aged 8 to 10 years, those at genius level had dropped to 50%. After another five years, the number of divergent thinking geniuses had fallen further still. Robinson argues that the main intervention that these children have had is education, a conveyor-belt education that tells them that there is one answer at the back of the book but don’t look and don’t copy.
But is this really true? Have a look at this:
Correlation is not causation
Clearly, the decline in piracy is to blame for the problems we’re experiencing with climate change. Any right thinking human being can see that the only viable solution to the likely annihilation of the planet is to finance privateers to harry world shipping. Those pesky Somalians are actually doing us a favour.
Except, of course, that this is nonsense. It should be obvious that any link between piracy and global warming is the most arrant and wrongheaded pap. Correlation does not mean causation.
So, could Ken be equally wrong about what NASA’s data reveals? Could it not perhaps reveal that as we get older we dismiss the idea of a giant 50 foot paper clip as ridiculous. How could it ever be used to clip paper? And it would be hopeless for getting the battery out of your iPhone! The less we know, the wilder our misconceptions about the world. As we know more we restrict ourselves to the most likely solutions to problems because this is the most efficient way of using our brains. Our divergent thinking happens in microseconds allowing us to converge on sensible, useful solutions. Or maybe I’m wrong: maybe pirates did keep the temperature down.
And then Jonathan demonstrated the uselessness of teaching children knowledge by asking us to look up the date of Mozart’s birth. Predictably, an audience member was able to retrieve this information from the internet in a little over 5 seconds. You see? Why bother knowing anything – you can always look it up. Or, as ED Hirsch asks, can you? Now, I can’t speak for cognitive science but some things just make sense: the more you know, the easier it is to fit new concepts and information into your mental map. Hirsch makes the point that “Any teacher of science who fails to offer concrete experiences that manifest the feel and heft of things is missing a big opportunity for helping students gain conceptual insight. Any teacher of early math who doesn’t challenge students with real-world problems that require a translation back and forth between the physical world and the abstract relations of math is leaving out an essential element of good math teaching.” Or to put it another way, “The best teaching methods do not have to be coupled with an anti-fact or anti-academic mentality.”
The only way you can use the internet to substitute for learning knowledge is if you have massively low expectations. Try looking up this one : what would have happened if Mozart had been born in 1450? Or, Is Mozart better than Picasso? Why does the the Dies Irae movement of the “Requiem Mass in D Minor make me feel a bit tingly?
So, why can’t we bring together the awe and wonder of some of the marvellous progressive thinkers with a bit of old fashioned academic rigour? Why have the two come to be seem (from both sides of the gulf) as mutually exclusive? The current vogue for SOLO taxonomy is, in my mind, representative of this division. I gave a seminar at the Big Day Out (which after a conversation with Phil Beadle I wished I’d retitled as SOLO – shit or not?) which tried to bridge the divide. If you don’t believe in the fundamental importancve of knowledge then SOLO just ain’t gonna work! SOLO, more than anything else has got me to reconsider the importance of knowledge within our curriculum. In my haste to take students on a journey to becoming extended abstract thinkers I neglected to concentrate on the quality of what students knew. One of the delegates at Friday’s event pointed out that this taxonomy of educational outcomes while conceived to improve the quality of thinking at the post-graduate level is equally applicable to the National Curriculum levels of Key Stage 2. You would however hope that students had acquired a bit of knowledge in the intervening years and it is these ‘mere facts’ which improve the quality of our thinking. Quite simply, if I know more than you in a particular area then my thinking on that topic is more refined and nuanced than yours. I’m sorry but it just is.
As Sir Francis Bacon said back in 1597 (Get me – I looked it up!) , ‘Knowledge is power.’
Jonathan finished his presentation by asking whether the world would be a better place if it were run by five year olds. My first thought was that it would be a lot messier and more concerned with cake and Ribena. But having watched the last in the latest series of The Thick Of It, I’m not so surely they could make it any worse!
Outstanding teaching & learning: missed opportunities and marginal gains : October 14, 2012
I work at an ‘outstanding’ school where the teaching and learning is ‘good’. As such we are squarely in Wilshaw’s sights and almost certainly due an inspection at some point this year. We were last inspected in November 2011 but a lot of goal post moving has gone on in the intervening months. The new inspection framework is widely seen as a ravening beast out to devour schools that are not delivering to the lofty standards of our hero, the saviour of Mossbourne Academy.
In essence, what this means is that if we want to retain the right to put ‘outstanding’ on our headed paper we’d better be able to demonstrate that our T&L has improved since last year. Has it? Well, there’s plenty of wonderful teachers who preside over fantastic lessons every day but, like most schools there’s also several other groups. Most significantly there are those teachers who are currently ‘good’ but aren’t sure how to further improve and those who ‘require improvement’ but not for want of trying. The gulf between good and outstanding appears daunting and insurmountable; small wonder then that many teachers are happy to settle for ‘good’ as being good enough.
Clearly this needs to be challenged but not by wielding a stick or telling teachers to try harder. In some of the lessons I’ve recently observed teachers are busting a gut – more effort is not the solution. What’s characterised most of these lessons are missed opportunities: learning that could so easily have happened if the teacher had been in a position to notice what their students were doing and able to intervene.
In an outstanding lesson a lot of this ‘noticing’ happens at the point of planning. I encourage teachers to try to ‘break’ their lessons = to look for the weak spots where students won’t get a tricky concept, or where they won’t do what we expect because of something which could have been anticipated. These potential stumbling blocks are often the difference between good and understanding and sometimes all that’s required is to have considered is ‘what will I do when…?’
How do you go about broaching this with staff? There’s absolutely no point telling teachers to change everything they do: even if they could do it it wouldn’t work. But what about making one small change? Or two? Or a whole list of tiny tweaks?
Having read Zoë Elder‘s recent output on the aggregation of marginal gains for learning based on the winning strategy of Team GB Cycling Performance Director, Dave Brailsford, it seems clear that there is huge potential in the idea of making lots of tiny tweaks in our teaching can result in massive improvements in students’ learning. Alex Quigley has even designed a bicycle wheel to help students select and monitor the marginal gains they will make in their work. This is great and a useful addition in our panoply of tools to further reine students’ ability to assess and improve their work. However, it also seems a ready made opportunity to help teachers reflect on the micro improvements they could make to their teaching.
Here are some suggested micro improvements which would certainly have made a difference to some of the lessons I’ve recently observed:
- Design learning objectives so that they have a tighter focus on why students are learning. Zoë has already written a terrifically useful post on this here
- And then ask yourself whether assessment tasks, however small, align with planned outcomes? (via @damianainscough)
- Meet and great students at the door (@OldAndrew recommends wedging it open to get them in faster) and have clear routines for distributing books resources
- Learn students’ names and use them
- Bell work: learning should begin as soon as students enter the room – make sure you have something for them to do that doesn’t require them to wait until their tardier classmates have arrived
- Read their books at least once per fortnight – you don’t have to mark everything but they do need to know that you look in their books regularly
- Build in time for students to act on feedback. Most of the feedback we give students is never acted on – if we give students directed improvement and reflection time they’ll be forced to act on feedback
- Consider ways to reduce teacher talk – ask how else could I give instructions so that more students will receive the information rather than just the keeners at the front
- Plan 3 questions to stretch the most able student in the room and 3 questions to support the least able student in the room (if that doesn’t sound marginal enough then just one of each would do)
- Use language which reflects your amazingly high expectations for all students – I hate the ‘all must, most will, some could’ differentiated outcome which gives ‘some’ students permission not to try as hard as others. If I expect students to achieve A*s they may well surprise themselves.
- Give students time to answer questions. Get them to discuss first or write down 5 possible answers or whatever. Never allow them to get away with ‘I don’t know’. I always respond with, ‘I know you don’t, but what do you think?‘ and give them time and space to answer. This works especially well if you’re not just asking students to guess the answer you have in your head.
- Get way from IRE (Initiation, response, evaluation) type questioing. Have a look at Pose Pause Pounce Bounce or Basketball not table tennis for some suggestion on how to manage questioning well.
- Give very clear time limits and stick to them – buy an egg timer! Also, be aware that group work expands to fill the time you give it – allow students 5 mins less than you think they need.
- After students have completed an activity, ask them what it assessed and how it might have met the learning objective
- Ask students what they have learned during the lesson – maybe they could suggest 2 or 3 things they now know and 1 or 2 things they still have questions about.
- A lot of classroom activities involve reading and writing. Make sure you are taking opportunities to explicitly teach literacy skills – see my post on The Matthew Effect for details.
This list is by no means exhaustive and none of these strategies are ‘right’. In fact you may strongly disagree with some of them. As long as you’re clear about why I have no problem with that: Ofsted make the point in the School Inspection Handbook (Sept 2012) that “The key objective of lesson observations is to evaluate the quality of teaching and its contribution to learning, particularly in the core subjects. Inspectors will not look for a preferred methodology but must identify ways in which teaching and learning can be improved.” In addition, Sir Mike’s gone out his way to assure us that there is no single model for outstanding teaching. (What Ofsted say they want). Which is nice.
No, this list is just a sample of some of the micro improvements we could make to ensure that lessons are less likely to miss opportunities for learning. No single item will shift good teaching to outstanding but if we focus on enough of them we might just do enough to tip the balance. As teachers we will improve our practice by overturning the ill-considered stones in our teaching and having a good look at what crawls out. David Weston (@informed_edu) suggests videoing yourself and watching it back with a trusted colleague. This could be an excellent way to make a start on compiling your own list of marginal gains.
Find your own lights
An actor friend of mine once told me a lovely story about meeting Sir John Gielgud. The ageing thespian took my friend on to the stage of whatever theatre they were performing in and gestured up at the lights. “Do you see those lights?” he rasped. “And those lights?” My friend nodded and waited expectantly for the pearl of wisdom about to fall from his ancient mentor’s lips. “Those are my lights. You must find your own lights.”
Many thanks to all the lovely people on Twitter who suggested their own marginal gains. I’m sorry that I’ve not included everything but that’s the point: this is my list. You must find your own list.
Myths: what Ofsted want : March 17, 2012
With galling hypocrisy and seemingly no sense of irony, Ofsted have released their latest subject report for English snappily titled, Moving English Forward. The report is a step by step guide on how to suck eggs. Apparently, teachers should concentrate on engendering a passion for learning instead of worrying about all the waggle of passing exams! Who knew?
Apart from its obvious interest to English specialists, there’s stuff in here that all teachers will benefit from knowing.
Lessons need to be packed with a range of activities Not so. Many of us have been told lies such as ‘activities should last no longer than 10 minutes’. Yes this will keep students busy, but cramming activities into your lesson will not result in them learning more. In fact they’re likely to learn less due to the lack of time available for consolidation. Instead lessons should have a clear focus on what it is that students need to learn and provide them with the opportunity to make progress in whatever this is. Ofsted’s advice is that an activity “needs to last only as long as is needed to ensure effective learning”.
Lessons plans need to be massively detailed Most schools insist on planning pro formas being completed for observed lessons. This is not in itself a ‘bad thing’, but if lessons are planned in excessive detail it’s easy to lose sight of what it is students are meant to be learning. The report talks about lesson plans of over 500 words where every minute of the lesson is accounted for in meticulous detail. The advice from Ofsted is clear: a simple straightforward plan that is easy to understand and follow is always best. The report states that, “excessive detail within plans causes teachers to lose sight of the central focus on pupils’ learning.” So there.
You should not deviate from your plan A rigid plan is not a good one. Whilst the three or part lesson structure may be a useful starting point, we need have the confidence to change and adapt our plans if students’ progress is better or worse than anticipated. An inspector will always be please to see teachers going ‘off piste’ if it means that students are given more opportunity to learn and make progress. Osted say, “The key consideration should be the development of pupils‟ learning rather than sticking rigidly to a plan.”
Learning needs to be reviewed every few minutes Students need time if they are going to produce anything worthwhile. The temptation is to rush the ‘actual work’ so that we can get on with assessing progress. The belief that learning needs to be reviewed every few minutes is actually getting in the way of learning. This myth is particularly unhelpful because we knowit’s wrong but feel pressured to make it part of the ‘Ofsted show’. The report is very clear on this: “significant periods of time were spent by teachers on getting pupils to articulate their learning, even where this limited their time to complete activities and thereby interrupted their learning!”
Of all the pieces of wisdom about Ofsted that is often bandied about, the only one to be explicitly confirmed is that teachers shouldn’t talk too much. Inspectors want to see lessons where students are given time to work independently for extended periods with teachers working less hard than their students. The report mentions that inspectors criticise the fact “that pupils rarely had extended periods to read, write or discuss issues in class.” One of the difficulties with lesson observations is that teachers feel that they are being observed and therefore have to been seen doing something purposeful. The reality is that although the teacher is being judged, the inspector will be observing what the students are doing. As long as they’re seen to be learning it doesn’t matter too much what the teacher does.
My advice for teachers is to spend the observation showing off their immaculately marked books and pointing out students who have made especially impressive progress whilst the students get on with some independent learning.
Just in case you might have been tempted to read all this as encouragement to kick back and relax we’re told:
These points should not be seen as a plea for teachers to skimp on planning, teach slow-paced lessons, or leave pupils unsupported for long periods. However, given the positive impact of recent guidance and training on lesson methodology, there are good opportunities now for teachers to be more flexible in their approach to teaching and planning lessons. This should include a greater readiness to respond to the unexpected in lessons and to change the direction of lessons as they develop. Teachers should also be encouraged to be creative and adventurous in their teaching, and to vary approaches depending on the nature of the learning planned for the lesson. Above all, this is a plea for teachers to focus on the key actions that affect pupils’ learning and progress within lessons.
Point 19 pp 14-15
The other general point that all teachers would benefit from being aware of is the criticism of teachers placing ‘inappropriate emphasis on tests and exams’. Ofsted seem to feel, as most teachers do, that the high stakes nature of the the examination system means that all the fun is sucked out of lessons in order to concentrate on how to pass tests. The report also makes the point that teachers don’t spend class time doing stuff that doesn’t get rewarded directly in exams. Quel surprise!
This is without doubt true, but the pressure placed on schools by Ofsted make it very difficult for all but the most confident and courageous of teachers to ignore the stark fact that in a world where Gove is threatening teachers with the sack if students aren’t seen to be making termly progress doing stuff for the sake of enrichment or because it’s interesting just don’t cut the mustard.
I for one am only to happy to embrace fun lessons and enrich students’ lives with all the wonders of the universe. I’ll get right on it just as soon as I’ve got my Year 11s through that pesky GCSE.
Amusingly, the report does not mention the fact that all these myths have come about due to the terror schools have of Ofsted.
The problem with praise : January 27, 2012
Doubts about Dweck?
Back in 2010 I was introduced to Carol Dweck’s research into fixed and growth mindsets and the scales feel from my eyes. It was an epiphany. A veritable Damascene conversion. And like Saul before me, I quickly became an evangelist.
The basic theory is that folk with growth mindsets will make effort for its own sake and when they encounter setbacks will see them as opportunities for learning. Your fixed mindset is all about success. Failure at a task is seen as evidence of personal failure. Struggle is seen as evidence of lack of ability. This is particularly toxic as hard work is the only real route to mastery, and if hard work is seen as something only losers have to dirty theirs hands with, well, why would you bother?
All this seemed very reasonable and I could see the benefits to teaching students about these mindsets and how to move from fixed to growth. One of the key strategies for ecouraging this move is to praise effort rather than ability. Dweck says, “when students were praised for effort, 90 percent of them wanted challenging new tasks they could learn from. ” This is pretty clear, isn’t it? She goes on to say that in contrast to ability praised students who gave up at tasks as they got difficult, ‘The effort-praised students still loved the problems, and many of them said that the hard problems were the most fun.”
There it is in black and white: if you praise students’ effort it will increase their likelihood of persevering at challenging tasks.
So, like a goodun’ that’s what I’ve been training myself to do. I try to make sure my praise of students is always specific to the task they are engaged in and is focused on bigging them up for sticking with the hard stuff and mastering difficult concepts. And it seemed to be working (although it’s impossible to say for sure as having a control group seemed unethical!) Students seem to have genuinely moved from having a fixed view of their ability to accepting failure and difficulty as part of the normal cycle of learning. I have posters all round my room exhorting them to, “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”
Imagine my surprise when I read this yesterday:
There is now increasing evidence for [the] dilution effect of praise on learning. Kessels, Warnet, Holle & Hannover (2008) provided students with feedback with and without praise; praise led to lower engagement and effort, Kamins and Dweck (1999) compared the effects of praising a person as a whole (for example, “You’re a clever girl”) with the effect of prasing a person’s efforts (“You’re excellent in putting in the effort”). Both led to zero or negative effects on achievement. The effects of praise are particularly not when students succeed, but when they begin to fail or not to understand the lesson. Hyland and Hyland (2006) noted that almost half of teachers’ feedback was praise, and that premature and gratuitous praise confused students and discouraged revisions. Perhaps the most deleterious effect of praise is that it supports learned helplessness: students come to depend on the presence of praise to be involved in their schoolwork. At best, praising effort has a nuetral or no efffect when students are successful, but is likely to be negative when students are not successful, because this leads to a more ‘helpless or hopeless’ reaction (Skipper & Douglas, 2011).
John Hattie, Visible Learning for Teachers p 121
Well. What are we to make of that?
Is it just me or do Dweck’s earlier research findings directly contradict the claims made in her 2006 book Mindset, the New Psychology of Success? It certainly looks that way, doesn’t it?
If anyone can cast an light on this troubling piece of information, I’d be glad to hear it.
Before anyone tells me otherwise, Hattie does allow that praise is important in making students feel like they ‘belong’ and for there to be a high level of trust between teachers and students. His point is that, “for feedback to be effective in the act of learning, praise dissipates the message.”
The ‘practice’ of teaching : January 16, 2012
Fewer (activities); Deeper (learning); Better (student outcomes).
John Tomsett, Headteacher
This is not a blog post proper, just some notes on Hattie’s introduction to Visible Learning for Teachers. Hattie says what we all know: there is no scientific recipe for effective teaching and learning and “no set of principles that can be applied to all students”.
That said, I’ve been engaging in some gentle elbow-digging about Learning Styles again today. For those of you who haven’t read my views, I will summarise them by saying I think Learning Styles are deeply unhelpful. If anyone is interested in the dissenting view then please skim through Doug Wood’s blog here.
The point I wanted to make and that Hattie puts so eloquently is this:
[T]here are practices that we know are effective and many practices that we know are not. Theories have a purpose as tools for synthesizing notions, but too often teachers believe that theories dictate action, even when the evidence of impact does not support their particular theories (and then maintaining their theories becomes almost a religion). This rush by teachers to infer is a major obstacle to many students enhancing their learning. Instead, evidence of impact or not may mean that teachers need to modify or dramatically change their theories of action.”
Or, as Dylan Wiliam put it, we should stop teachers doing ‘good things‘. We all want to do good things because obviously no teacher is deliberately trying to be an obstacle to students’ learning, but without considering the impact of the way we teach we can waste time which could be spent doing better things.
It’s no good saying that what we do is better than nothing. Of course it is. Hattie says that we need to measure the effects of what we do against a ‘hinge point’ of 0.4. If a strategy has an effect size of at least 0.4 then it worth doing. We have no right to be routinely using methods that do not reach this hinge point. Ignorance is not can excuse either: it’s our professional duty to be aware of what works.
And that’s the point. It’s not that I think Learning Styles is utterly without benefit, (if it encourages varied teacher approaches to learning strategies) it’s just that there are many more useful things we can be spending our time practising.
And the argument that by catering to Learning Styles we are more in tune with our students’ needs? Hogwash! Hattie says, ‘labelling students in terms of how they (the teachers) think the students think, and thus overlooking the fact that students can change, can learn new ways of thinking’ is harmful. Case closed? I hope so.
For those who’ve already waded through Visible Learning, I can assure that the “for teachers” version is markedly more useful and I recommend you read it with alacrity.
Some thoughts on Learning Styles : December 5, 2011
The rusting can of worms that is Learning Styles has been prised open again and the wriggling mess is crawling all over the educational twittersphere. And on that note I will stop extending the metaphor.
Last week Ian Gilbert wrote Learning Styles are dead, long live Learning Styles. He said:
I have been in too many situations where young people who weren’t ‘getting it’ one way then started ‘getting it’ when we tried a different way, to dismiss the whole learning styles thing as a fad.
As a teacher, I don’t care what the different learning styles a class of children have (although knowing such things when working with individual learners can be useful in my experience) and I don’t care what you call it. All I know is that a variety of learning approaches (you can call it VAK, you can call it multi-sensory learning, you can call it the application of the Dunn and Dunn Learning Styles Model, you can call it whatever you want) makes a difference and helps me as a teacher and them as learners.
An understanding of learning styles was a big move forward in the push to ensure classrooms were places where children learned not just where teachers taught. Retreating to the ivory tower and insisting you aren’t going to countenance learning styles until there is irrefutable academic evidence to prove they exist, other than the fact they do, could simply prove a backward step when it comes to 21st century learning.
This was later echoed by Bill Boyd who attacks Daniel Wilingham’s proposition that Learning Styles don’t exist and drags Gardner and his theory of Multiple Intelligences into the mix. Poor old Gardner can’t seem to extricate himself from Learning Styles and has clearly stated that any link between the two ought to be regarded as a myth.
I’m not really interested into getting into a dispute about this but I will point you in the direction of Old Anderw’s searing criticism of Learning Styles here and you can make up your own mind.
So why am I getting involved? What’s rattled my cage? I want the opportunity to set out my stall on Learning Styles and clarify for myself onece and for all exactly what my own views are. So, please bear with me as I grope my way towards coherence.
Firstly, it would appear that no one is seriously claiming that people actually possess a preferred learning style in which they must be taught else their ability to learn will be severely impaired. If I’m wrong on this and there is anyone out who does believe this then please let me know.
There is however some disagreement over whether children sometimes prefer to learn in a particular style. To take myself as an example, I prefer not to be talked at for an entire hour without being given the opportunity to do anything to explore or consolidate what I’m being told. I get bored. As teachers we’ve all experienced bad INSET and I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s fallen asleep or gotten a little leary when subjected to an excess of nonsense. This does not mean that I am incapable of retaining information delivered in this way, just that I would prefer not to have to and would find it a lot easier if I was also give something to look at and something to do.
Similarly, being asked to do stuff for too long would be confusing and pointless. I’d very much like to be told why I was doing it and if the teller could manage to inject a modicum of warmth and wit into their telling then I’ll always be exceedingly grateful.
D’you see the point? I can learn in any way but attempting to force me into learning in any one way will make the process a lot more difficult. What I want, and what my students seem to like also, is variety. It’s the spice of life, don’t you know?
As an English teacher I’m always banging on (interspersed with showing pictures and providing engaging activities) about variety. Varied punctuation, varied paragraphing, varied sentence structure, varied vocabulary etc. It seems somewhat hypocritical to refuse to vary the manner of my banging.
That said, it strikes me as remarkable and misguided that someone like Daniel Wilingham should to go to the trouble of producing this:
It’s so self evident.
But it’s even more astonishing that anyone would take issue with it. The idea that the best way for a so called auditory learner to learn a shape is to describe it to them instead of showing them a picture or that a visual learner will best learn to serve a tennis ball my watching the movement instead of practising it is patent nonsense. As teachers what we want students to learn are meanings. In my classroom it’s rare that I want students to learn sounds, pictures or movements. So the idea that I need to use visual, auditory or kinaesthetic (VAK) teaching methods to ensure every child has the opportunity to learn is ridiculous and offensive.
But, before you start clapping me on the back for my clear sightedness I don’t for a moment think that having a range of VAK activities in my classroom is bad idea. In fact I think it would be a bit on the rubbish side not to include VAK elements in my lesson. Not because I think students need them in order to learn but because they need them to minimise the likelihood of them nodding off.
So, the debate seems to over the muddied no man’s land of semantics. Most teachers would agree that serving up the same old same old ad nauseum isn’t a great way of connecting with young minds. It would appear unassailable that it behoves us to vary the way we deliver out lessons. And on that basis I’m more then happy to embrace, and perhaps even fondly fondle, teaching styles.
The learning style, on the other hand, would appear to be a bit of a lame duck. A sick parrot. A dead dog etc. You see, it’s been thoroughly tarred with the brush of scorn and derision. It spawns confusion and misunderstanding. It gets people talking about stuff which doesn’t matter instead of focussing on what does. And what matters, what’s really worth focussing on is making sure every lesson contains solid formative assessment that is more then merely fooling around with mini whiteboards and lolly sticks but is predicated on the fact that assessment for learning is only assessment for learning if it impacts on tomorrow’s lesson and helps learners make progress.
Let’s agree to abandon learning styles and start referring to teaching approaches instead. We’re less likely to confuse each other and more likely to deliver a decent lesson. If the learning style isn’t dead it really should be. Let’s kill it off and call it something else.
The Learning Pyramid : October 8, 2011
From previous posts you may have noticed that I’m pretty keen on getting students to work collaboratively. My experience of working with students in the classroom has born out that, for me at least, this is the most effective way to get the tykes to learn the complex stuff they need to know to pass exams as well as having an incidental but nonetheless powerful impact on their ability to be decent human beings. I’m a believer, a convert; I don’t need much convincing.
Now, I had some professional development on Friday which I had been eagerly anticipating for some time. I had an expectation of being forced to reflect on my current practice and see how much more I could be doing. I was looking forward to being pushed out of my comfort zone and trying something new.
What I got was this:
It looks plausible and it fits with my ideological stance on how I think students learn best, but one of the things I have learnt recently is to have a healthy scepticism towards this kind of neat dovetailing of what I think and the evidence base to support it. Let’s face it, I’m not the only one who been caught out by the nonsense we know as learning styles. My new found scepticism says it all looks a bit too good to be true. I mean, c’mon: all the percentages are multiples of 5. I’m no statistician, but what’s the likelihood of that?
My first port of call was the marvellous James Atherton’s Learning & Teaching website.
And guess what? It is too good to be true. The National Training Laboratories based in Bethel Maine who are cited as having conducted the research apparently have no real idea of its provenance despite having claimed to have done it sometime in the 1960s. “NTL believes it to be accurate but says that it can no longer trace the original research that supports the numbers.” Magennis and Farrell
Does this matter? Has it changed how I think I should teach or how I think students learn? No, it hasn’t. But I do wish that people responsible for training teachers were more considered about what they tout as fact. This whiffed of snake oil and I resent having the stuff palmed off on me because really, there’s no need.
If I needed it, Hattie provides plenty of evidence that we shouldn’t just talk at kids and I know from my own experience that this is not only this gruel to feed the children in my classes if I want to fatten them up with knowledge but is also an extremely effective way to turn a lively classroom into a battleground with the teacher forlornly attempting to make themselves heard against a backdrop of boredom and bad behaviour. I don’t need to be pedalled any so-called scientific research. All this does is undermine the efforts of teachers trying to drag education kicking and screaming out of the darkness and into the light.
It’s not that I think the Learning Pyramid does any harm, it just feels a bit desperate and, as Will Thalheimer says
People do NOT remember 10% of what they read, 20% of what they see, 30% of what they hear, etc. That information, and similar pronouncements are fraudulent. Moreover, general statements on the effectiveness of learning methods are not credible—learning results depend on too many variables to enable such precision. Unfortunately, this bogus information has been floating around our field for decades, crafted by many different authors and presented in many different configurations
This kind of oversimplification is dangerous and stupid. There are times when it may be right to convey information in each of the ways mentioned in the pyramid and their efficacy will depend on the skill of the teacher and the receptiveness of the students, the time of day, the weather and loads of other imponderables. There’s a time and a place for everything.
Interestingly, people who deliver CPD seem quite happy to expect teachers to sit and listen for long periods. Why would they do it if they believed we would only retain 5% of what they say?