In teaching and learning terms that is.
Asking somebody to do something or giving instructions to be followed is an everyday thing but when we teach there is another dimension, we are directing learning. If there are two paths to the same objective does it matter, through our teaching, which one we direct our students to use?
We know that there is often a sequence to learning, an order in which we learn things and on which we base future learning. I find that we can learn things out of sequence, but it severely hampers our understanding later when called on to apply our knowledge or undertake a problem-solving activity. We also know that it takes an effort to learn something and the major part of that ‘learning’ involves cognitive activity: we must think in order to learn!
How hard can learning be?
The effort of learning is proportional to what we already know, what we understand and what we can use to learn what we don’t yet know or understand. Make sense?
A teacher who can make each of these steps proportionally ‘easier’ for a learner is often regarded as a ‘good teacher’. Making things “easier” of course involves many things such as providing encouragement, a good learning relationship, an accurate assessment of what is already known and understood as well as choosing the appropriate learning path.
What part does memory play in learning?
Let’s get back to the thinking aspect and let me give you a simple example of how the right path can make something easier by considering what we need to hold in our memory as we carry out a task.
Finding something: the instructions.
- The item you are looking for is in the large inside pocket of the blue bag in the third room on the left of the corridor.
- On the left side of the corridor look for the third room. In that room look for the blue bag and inside the blue bag open the large inside pocket where you will find the item you are looking for.
I’ll start by asking you if there is any difference between instruction a) and b) since they both direct you to the object in the pocket of the bag.
You will notice the sequence of information is different. Sequence “a” starts at the end, at finding the object and “b” starts at the beginning, of looking for the object. Which do you think load your memory the most or are both the same? In order to remember or follow the sequence would you involve imagery at all, would you try to visualise the sequence and see in your minds eye (the pocket, the bag, the room and the corridor)? If you were given only sequence “a” do you think you may reverse it to make it easier to follow?
Thinking about how our brains work – working memory and cognitive load theory
I am of course hinting at two theories of how our brain works and how they may influence our learning. The first is “working memory” (different to short term memory as it involves some ability to process information and was coined by Miller, Galanter and Pribram and first used in the 1960’s[i]) simply put a type of memory that has limited capacity. It is from this memory that we may transfer information to our long term memory, the type of information, knowledge or understanding that is involved in learning. We may get told an address and recall it minutes later but the next day we will probably have totally forgotten it.
The second theory is “cognitive load theory” (credited to John Sewell of the University of New South Wales in 1988[ii]) and is directly proportional to how much effort we need to make to learn something irrespective of our ability. We can ‘load’ the learner with unnecessary demands by confusing them, making things overly complicated or by making the learning environment ‘hostile’ or ‘toxic’.
Addingto the challenge – the issue of time
Now let’s add a new dimension and see how it would impact our ability to find the object, that of having only a few seconds to find it after which a severe penalty will be imposed.
Consider our example again and instruction a) and b). For me path “b” offers the least effort in terms of working memory, I do not need to re arrange the sequence and can easily visualise the path to the object. No time will be lost in ‘reverse engineering’ the instructions and I believe I would be calmer or more confident of success even with a time penalty being applied.
As for cognitive load, well I think path “b” again would make things easier since there is a logical sequence in the order of direction helping me process information, but the time penalty certainly adds to the load. Once again though to me the complicated nature of instruction “a” would add to the cognitive load.
As teachers and given these two theories where are we in creating our teaching paths?
I would suggest that it is certainly worth exploring these
two theories prior to planning our lessons, building learning relationships and
creating learning environments especially when we consider the claims of each
in terms of learning.
I am currently reading David Hughes book “Future Proof your school” the section on pupil voice contained a comment that made me think, well most of the book has made me think!
Pupil voice is a key component of my work on learner engagement and building learning relationships which I represented in the acronym “PBCF” meaning Power Belonging Choice and Fun. Easy to remember – “Please be child friendly”! These four ‘needs’ form the drivers for engagement and so pupil voice is a critical component. Power is the representation of ‘voice’, being heard or your views and opinions genuinely recognised.
In his book David gives an account of one of his experiences in making the Schools Council a funded body. The school was suffering from the effects of vandalism which drew resources away from the school and affected the environment in a negative way. His solution was to offer the Schools Council a percentage of the saving the school would make if there was little or no vandalism. They could then spend this money on school projects, such as disco equipment. Attendance at the disco would be by ticket and tickets were linked to learning behaviours and learning progress, engage in learning and you were eligible for a ticket but if you did not then you would not be able to attend. He says:
“.. achievement co-ordinators monitored pupils’ progress with the tutors, issuing weekly reports in assemblies. This was much more positive use of their time and began to set a change in climate of the school: achievement was given a higher priority.”
It is the last part of that quote that made me think, “achievement was given a higher priority”. It made me ask the questions “Priority over what, and in what was achievement in competition with?”
Symptoms or cause?
I know that it is easy to focus on the symptom rather than the cause and these then becoming the priorities in schools. Symptoms of under achievement include lateness and absence, poor learning behaviours, a lack of respect to each other and these are symptoms we need to address by understanding the cause. I think that is what David did successfully and what began to alter the climate in the school, he understood the need for a real voice, for ‘power’ in a structured and tangible way that had a genuine ‘ear’ when it came to setting school priorities. Students became ‘empowered’ and understood the implications of their actions or indifference to what was directly affecting them.
So what are the priorities in your school and how would you characterise them? Do they focus on symptoms rather than cause? We know all schools will say achievement is a priority, perhaps their number one priority but how does this translate in terms of allocation of resources? I would claim that those things that have the biggest immediate negative impact tend to receive the greatest resources. In doing so the finite resources of a school are often focused on the symptoms and not addressing the underlying cause. I believe those students who do not have their four learning needs met will only reluctantly engage in learning and will present symptoms typical of those needs not being met which result in school ‘phoney’ priorities. Perhaps you can suggest a few.
Here are some of the ‘priorities’ I have experienced in the schools in which I have worked. Assessing the resources given to each (teacher time, money, facilities, equipment) we can get an idea of the true priority each is given.
- Classroom behaviour
- Movement around the school
- School rules (equipment – uniform etc)
- Various policies (marking – homework etc)
- Raising standards
One through to four only become a priority because learners are not actively engaged in learning and we hold number five as our single accountability performance indicator. I suggest we become fixated on one to four which only serve to subjugate the symptoms of the causes rather than recognising them. Ask yourself what you do if you don’t like the TV programme you are watching. What do you do if your partner wants to do something together and you don’t. Your actions are moderated by maturity, agency and a sense of responsibility. Perhaps our students don’t possess such moderating factors. If they don’t then it is our responsibility to recognise the four needs and ensure the school maintains these as their true priorities for doing so will result in raising standrads.
For more on PBCF you can download details of my presentation I gave at the 10th Festival of Education this year held at Wellington College.
For David’s book you can find it here: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Future-proof-Your-School-improvement-developing/dp/1912508443
The school curriculum has many masters, and whilst we think in subjects, few options. We need to rethink our approach and it starts with developing a new specification.
Where we are now.
Any present curriculum is a specification consisting of ‘subject areas’ and listing ‘content’ under those areas, content being the things learners should know and understand. The specification sets out a standard for education and provides a basis for measuring conformance. Demonstration of the success of the teaching of this curriculum is by assessment of the learner through formal examinations or tests producing grades or levels.
The problem with a specification
The very nature of a specification requires it to be exact but if what is written is ‘criteria specific’ then it can soon become obsolete. The reason for this is because as either the expectations change, or the standards required increase the specification becomes no longer appropriate. This is both a good and bad thing depending on how flexible the system is to adapt to changing specifications. If the system is inflexible, unable or unwilling to change then the specification can act as a limiting device preventing future developments keeping pace with change. In such circumstances it can also lead to those with a vested interest unwilling to change frequently resulting in a conflict between the existing specification and the new ‘reality’ or requirements of the system. We often observe such stakeholders battling to retain the existing system ‘as is’ and insisting on a set of ‘basics’ represented by the current specification as being essential.
A simple example of a limiting or hindering specification
- The new vehicle design MUST achieve 40 miles to the gallon.
Here we are limited to the figure of 40 mpg, there is no incentive to explore 80mpg. Further we are referencing a ‘gallon’ requiring a liquid fuel solution.
It is possible to write a specification that is less limiting and more liberating.
- The new vehicle design must represent the most efficient form of energy conversion currently available or planned in the near future (5 years), and also be able to be adapted or upgraded to future systems.
Please don’t pick holes in my two examples, they are just that! I am trying to make a point that is critical to education. That the knowledge we teach today and the understanding or skills we require to be demonstrated today may not be that which is necessary in the future. If we have a limiting specification then it is more than likely that we will be ‘out of date’ and caught up in that vested interest cycle (think EBacc, STEM, STEAM etc).
Where to start in writing a specification
It is easy to write a limiting specification, we list the traditional core subjects and rely on what we were taught in order to define the curriculum. We can insist on the ‘basics’ and on ‘traditional values’ and say we are going to raise standards, but I would argue we are creating a conflict between ‘what is’ and ‘what is needed’, we are being inflexible. Writing a specification that will produce a more ‘liberating’ curriculum will help us respond to future needs, to be more agile or flexible in our approach. We will still need ‘checks and balances’, a way of evaluating the effectiveness of the specification in achieving our desired outcome but this will not be one looks backward to determine its success but instead very much forward.
To put this argument into context I would recommend you read the “The Sabre Tooth Curriculum” by J Abner Peddiwell. There are many online accounts and a book is available too.
In the Sabre Tooth Curriculum it is survival needs that lead to identification of the tasks that need to be taught. There is both spiritual and political impediment to the development of a curriculum and to the teaching of these things. Success based on the initial criteria promotes the curriculum and the content but as the initial need and challenges change the curriculum does not. Sides are taken and arguments made. Those for continuing with the current system reference greater virtues than suggested by the now outdated skills in order to justify their continuance. Those that suggest change are admonished for their lack of education.
My advice in writing a curriculum specification
You start at the beginning and that is not with the specification at all. Alvin Toffler is accredited with saying ““The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn. ”
Learning as a problem-solving exercise
We need to look at education, specifically learning, as a problem-solving exercise. We need to decide what we want to achieve. Once we do then we have available a language and a set of tools that will help us design, specify, generate ideas (for there is always more than one),build, test and evaluate a dynamic system that will equip people with the abilities, knowledge, insights, understanding etc to teach themselves in whatever environment they find themselves in. We will have done what Alvin Toffler suggested the literate of the 21st century need from our education system and we will have cut the strings that presently bind us to the Sabre Tooth Curriculum mentality.
After my talk at the 2019 Festival of Education I have prepared a downloadable file covering the key aspects of the session. Like all my presentations I favour writing something specific after the event, you may wonder why!
Nothing ever goes to plan!
No matter how or what you prepare a good teacher knows you must respond to the audience and their needs, so it is with my presentations and talks. I find I may miss or understate some key points in the urgency to deliver in a time constraint. If only I had a half day, but then would that be long enough to squeeze in over 40 years experience in education? I very much doubt it.
After the event I have time to reflect and using my slides and notes I take the opportunity to put it all together along with any points raised during the talk. I hope you find the file useful and even if you did not attend #EducationFest this year the notes should allow you to understand my approach and message.
“See the behaviour as a symptom of a need and address the need.”
As far as needs go there are four of them that require addressing if we seek active learner engagement and learning behaviours. For more about the four needs you will have to download the file but here is the graphic I use to explain the simple message to remember the four needs –
“Please Be Child Friendly”
This was my 5th time at the festival but this year I spoke at the festival about the importance of learning relationships and our learning needs when we are in the learning zone. What I was reminded of, and what I have always believed is that ….
“Teachers need to remain learners“
And this is why….
I don’t mean the compliant type of learner who takes on new initiatives, learning ideas or theories and adds them to their teaching repertoire just because they are asked to. I mean the type of learners who challenges the ‘what’ and the ‘why’ as well as the ‘how’. The type of learner who sees learning as a problem-solving activity for to do so shows they are already looking for ways to improve learning. They are the type of teacher who is observant, reflective, see opportunities, is collegiate, supportive and open.
The second reason teachers need to remain learners is firstly the dynamic of learning and how this impacts our view of self, our confidence and our energy. To place yourself in learning situation, to move out of your comfort zone requires confidence but it is where the magic happens. It is where you discover something new about yourself and add to your view of the world and those in it. The second reason is you get to visit the emotions, experience the anxiety, and celebrate the successes and failures of learning. You get to be reminded what your students go through each and every day and this is a valuable reminder of the type of learning relationship you need to build with your students.
Compliance then in both teaching and learning could be regarded as a disability and not an advantage. Think about that as you as a teacher seek compliance from your students. Accept the challenges that come your way from learners and as a teacher learn to use these to your advantage. There is no such thing from a learner as a “red herring” questions for they are an insight into how they are thinking and an expression of a learning need.
Teachers are heroes!
This is my version of “The Hero’s Journey”, I have adapted it for teaching and learning, for learning is a journey often involving challenges and teachers are heroes. “The hero myth pattern studies were popularized by Joseph Campbell, who was influenced by Carl Jung’s view of myth. In his 1949 work The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Campbell described the basic narrative pattern” (1) and we can recognise these in such things as Disney adventures today. See if you can recognise it in your own teaching and learning.
This year, actually on Thursday the 20th of June, I will be speaking at the 10th Festival of Education. I have attended the festival in previous years and enjoyed listening to the broad range of speakers and exploring some very interesting topics. So what am I talking about?
The title of my talk is “Closing the Achievement Net”.
Not all that clear perhaps so here is a breakdown:
- The session will start by reflecting on the types of learners we find in our classrooms and how they respond to learning challenges.
- A discussion of the ‘teacher/learner relationship’ will help identify the key elements, after ‘safety’, for building effective learning relationships.
- We will also look at typical behaviours when these elements are lacking encouraging us to see them as symptoms of need and respond accordingly
- Each of the four elements, (Power, Belonging, Choice and Fun) will be discussed in practical teaching terms in order to identify opportunities to build and strengthen them in our lessons and around school.
In preparation for the talk I have run this past a number of people, and I have been surprised by some of the comments, so much so I thought I would highlight a few issues that I think need explaining and that I will need to address in my talk.
- What net? The ’net’ is a metaphor of course but what am I hoping to catch? Well I am hoping by ‘closing the achievement net’ we will ensure that we acknowledge all learners and that we create an environment that positively promotes learner engagement.
- Types of learners. I am not referring to terms like “learning styles” or “multiple intelligences” I will be using three very practical identifiable types taken from an analysis of school reporting and teacher comments over a number of years. In defining the learner types my focus is on ‘learner approach’ and ‘potential’.
- Language, it appears that not all words mean the same to all people and we need to be mindful of the context in which we have both heard and used them. The word “Fun” for example is the “F” part of PBCF which I claim is essential in the teaching and learning relationship. One teacher said I am not hear to entertain and tell jokes and I agree so what do I mean by “fun”? This is something I will be careful to explain along with other words I have used like “effective”.
- The possible mix up between symptoms and behaviours. I see behaviours as symptoms of a need or needs. If I buy a bottle of water this is a behaviour that is symptomatic of needing to quench my thirst.
If you are attending the Festival then I hope you are able to come along to my workshop on Thursday (14:15 in Maths 3) or say hello during the day, if not then I will be publishing the slides and notes from the day.
I like it when a plan comes together, even if it’s not one of mine!
I came to Northampton to take up a post as head of faculty at Trinity school in 1990 when education in the town was split 3 ways, lower, middle and upper. What struck me moving from Lincolnshire was how close the schools were and how much co-operation there was across schools and phases. This was supported by an excellent teacher’s centre, an ICT support centre and LEA advisors. There were black clouds on the horizon though in the way of Ofsted inspections, league tables and the resulting competition and a changing National Curriculum as schools wrestled with the burden of demands it placed on time and resources. Enter the “dark ages”, who would have predicted academy chains, a University of Northampton or a teacher recruitment and retention crisis?
Jump forward nearly 20 years and the University of Northampton is now in the town, education is split 2 ways and there are such things as academies, MAT’s, the EBacc and once again the energy and passion and above all, ownership for education by those who teach in Northampton has emerged. Hurray and well done to those who has the vision and tenacity to make #EducatingNorthants that was both a) an event that was well supported and owned by the teachers and b) a success. I am so glad I was there to see it, it has been some time coming.
I no longer teach, instead I share my 40 years of experience of teaching and learning, leadership and management through my writing, coaching, workshops and consultation. So perhaps I may offer a slightly different perspective on the day to many who were there.
The venue, the UON is new and ‘modern’ in all senses of the educational world and proved to be up to the job of hosting 600 teachers providing entertainment, refreshments and excellent resources. I have to say it lacked a little ‘soul’ though, perhaps it will come in time.
The excellent programme kicked off with a welcome and a chance to hear from the organisers whose vision and determination had brought about the day. The tension and excitement was palatable, it was going to be an exceptional day. Talking to those who I met and became re acquainted with there was anticipation and expectation, something has to come from this day other than a temporary high. I was reassured that although I had not taught for nearly 8 years I still understood the core challenges and that little had really changed in day to day teaching except the landscape in which it played out. Let’s not underestimate the significant impact the landscape and the ‘political engineers’ who have formed it has had on teaching, but I found many examples of those who had begun to take ownership of it and who had ideas on how to master it. Creativity is important to me, I see teaching and learning as a problem-solving activity, and there was much creativity in evidence throughout the day.
I was able to continue my journey as a learner like many who attended this day and felt uplifted as a result. Change may not be here, but the winds are blowing, and they are rising from a breeze to hopefully a storm.
How will we measure the success of the day though and how will we continue the ‘conversation’ as some have put it? Perhaps we should take a spoonful of our own medicine each day and show creativity, a growth mindset, resilience and above all create the learning environment that embraces all those in our care first and satisfies some arbitrary target last.
I will conclude with what I have discovered to be the key to engagement in any activity, process or organisation and which I believe sits behind the success of #EducatingNorthants. The graphic below gives you an overview of the concept and it’s easy to remember just “Please be Child Friendly”, PBCF. You can of course take this as “Please be Colleague Friendly” too.
When people have a voice and representation and can communicate openly with each other it empowers them.
Believing in something that is shared with others and through common language or aims it gives us a sense of belonging.
By being given a choice we can express our needs and learn to understand responsibility and consequence.
Fun translates into energy and passion for the things we believe in, for the things we believe are attainable and of value to us.
PBCF was at the heart of the success at #educatingNorthants and if maintained will be what ultimately transforms teaching and learning in Northamptonshire.
Director at Advocating Creativity in Education
Published 8th April 2019