More good proxies for learning

2016-11-28T22:40:07+00:00November 28th, 2016|learning|

A few days ago, I wrote about a brief online discussion I had with Dan Willingham on the importance of thinking hard. In the comments, Greg Ashman pointed out that thinking hard cannot be the only way in which learning happens, how else, he asks, would we explain the success of Zig Englemann's Direct Instruction programme? Although I'm not totally convinced that students receiving Direct Instruction don't have to think hard, it's certainly true to say that they're not expected to struggle. Think also about rote memorisation. Most people would probably agree that memorising your times tables doesn't requires thinking hard. [...]

Why what you teach matters

2016-11-05T15:11:11+00:00November 4th, 2016|curriculum, learning|

I'm going to go out on a limb and predict that within the next two years Ofsted will stop grading the quality of teaching, learning and assessment as part of their overall judgement on schools' effectiveness. This will probably be replaced with a judgement on a school's curriculum and assessment policies and practices. If I'm right, how a teacher teaches will become less and less important, instead, schools will be increasingly held to account for what they teach. Even if I'm wrong, I think it's still very important to think carefully about what we teach. Judgements on how teachers teach are primarily  concerned with whether children [...]

The trouble with transfer: How can we make learning more flexible?

2016-10-24T12:22:16+01:00October 17th, 2016|learning, psychology|

I define learning as the long-term retention of knowledge and skills and the ability to transfer between contexts. The retention bit is fairly straightforward and uncontroversial: if you can't remember something tomorrow, can you really be said to have learned it? As Kirschner, Sweller & Clark put it, "If nothing has changed in long-term memory, nothing has been learned.” Transfer though is a bit trickier. In essence it's the quality of flexibility; can what you know in one context be applied in another? As Daniel Willingham says, "Knowledge is flexible when it can be accessed out of the context in which it was [...]

The feedback continuum: why reducing feedback helps students learn

2016-11-21T23:27:50+00:00October 15th, 2016|learning|

The effects of feedback are more complex than we often realise. While expertise and mastery is unlikely to develop without feedback it's certainly not true to say that giving feedback results in expertise and mastery. There are few teachers who do not prioritise giving feedback and yet not all teachers' feedback is equally effective. My understanding of the effects of feedback has grown as I've come to accept and internalise the profound differences between 'performance' and 'learning'. If you're not clear on these, I've summarised them here. Hattie and Timperley point out that, "Feedback is one of the most powerful influences on learning and achievement, but this [...]

Robots, evolution and why schools shouldn't worry about innate skills

2016-10-13T22:45:49+01:00October 13th, 2016|learning|

It should come as little surprise to hear that some of what human beings can do is innate. That is to say, we are born with various capacities and abilities which appear to be 'hardwired' into our brains. The evolutionary psychologist David Geary talks about such capacities as being either biologically primary or secondary adaptations. Biologically primary adaptations are those that emerge instinctively by virtue of our evolved cognitive structures, whereas biologically secondary adaptations are exclusively cultural, acquired through formal or informal instruction or training. Evolution, through natural selection, has resulted in brains that eagerly and rapidly learn the sorts of things which allow us to [...]

Call and response

2016-10-05T14:05:38+01:00October 5th, 2016|learning|

Over the past few years I've spent a lot of time visiting schools to talk about literacy. One of my stock nuggets of advice is that it's worth spending lesson time scaffolding students' speech in order to help them become fluent in academic language. My contention is talk is a powerful cognitive lever and that by getting students to speak in academic language it changes the way they think. If you can think in academic language then writing becomes straightforward. I call this my simple theory about writing. Amazingly though, I've very rarely seen this done well. Teachers are very keen on making [...]

On gimmicks

2017-07-15T21:47:07+01:00October 2nd, 2016|learning|

What is a gimmick? The dictionary defines it as "a trick or device intended to attract attention, publicity, or trade." So, putting a cartoon tiger on a packet of breakfast cereal in order to attract children's attention is a gimmick. So is repackaging ordinary Shreddies as 'Diamond Shreddies'. In the words of Rory Sutherland, these sorts of gimmicks attempt to solve problems by "tinkering with perception, rather than that tedious, hardworking and messy business of actually trying to change reality." An example of something that isn't a gimmick is a BOGOF offer where the customer gets something of practical value that they might actually [...]

Why mini-plenaries are a waste of time

2018-10-28T12:37:23+00:00October 1st, 2016|learning|

Plenary is an interesting word. It originally meant absolute, without reservation or qualification. The pope used to offer plenary indulgences to crusaders absolving them in advance of any sin they committed in the defence of the Holy Land. Later it came mean full, complete or pertaining to all. A meeting or assembly to which all were obliged or expected to attend would be called a plenary. Nowadays, conferences often have plenary sessions which sum up themes and draw disparate threads together. From here the word has leapt into education parlance as a mechanism for ending lessons in a way intended to ensure [...]

The Trouble with Transfer – my #rED16 slides

2016-09-10T20:53:10+01:00September 10th, 2016|learning, psychology|

Today saw another triumphant outing for Tom Bennett's grassroots conference, researchED. This year I ran a session investigating the research into how we transfer what we learn between different contexts, the slides for which, along with hyperlinked references to the studies I've cited, are below. ResearchED 2016 The Trouble with Transfer from David Didau The high point for me was that Paul Kirschner said the presentation was "pretty good". I will write up an explanation for these as time allows over the next few days, but for those who can't wait, turn to Chapter 6 of What Every Teacher Needs To Know About [...]

A conversation about the best way to teach a new concept

2016-06-16T08:34:55+01:00June 16th, 2016|learning|

A few mornings ago, Rufus William got in touch with an interesting request: @LearningSpy fancy doing a quick maths activity? You just need something to write with some paper — Rufus (@RufusWilliam) June 14, 2016 I’ll admit to being a little anxious, but in the spirit of enquiry, I agreed. This was the activity: A domino is made up of 2 squares. A pentomino is made up of 5. How many different pentominoes are there? I got out my paper and pen and duly set to work: I quickly realised the answer was ‘loads’. At that point I gave up and told [...]

What are they learning?

2016-12-31T13:51:38+00:00February 26th, 2016|learning|

Learning is never neutral. Although I have no empirical evidence, I'm pretty sure that it's rare indeed for children - or indeed anyone - to learn nothing in a given situation. My contention is that children are always learning something even if that thing is not what a teacher wants or expects them to learn. In a lesson, students might learn what we have planned for them to learn, or they might learn a misconception. Equally, they might learn that their teacher has low expectations, that they 'can't do' maths, that school is rubbish, or that messing around results in greater social recognition than [...]

What every teacher needs to know about… rote learning

2017-02-09T12:45:00+00:00February 24th, 2016|learning|

As per, here's this month's Teach Secondary column for you delight and edification. These days it is rare indeed for children to be taught much by rote, or, to use a less pejorative term, by heart. Rote remains a much maligned and neglected method of instruction. Certain ways of thinking about education are so ingrained that they become understood increasingly literally and separately from the complexity of ideas that originally gave them meaning. We don’t even consider whether rote learning might sometimes be an effective tool – we know, deep in our hearts that it is an unnatural instrument of evil, born in [...]

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