Hey all, it’s been a while since I’ve written an instalment of Book Club. It’s been so long that, the last time I released one into the wild, it was to compare the Young Samurai series to Trumpism (did I mention that you can buy the first book in that series by following this link?) Now, we’ve got a new incumbent president, and times are changing.
Since then, I’ve become a full-time teacher. It’s involved a lot of learning, much of which we do on the job, at weekly CPL sessions (known to those in the industry as Continual Professional Learning). To support my learning, I’ve continued to read up on the latest and greatest in pedagogical practice.
One of the greats is Barak Rosenshine and his Principles of Instruction. These encompass 10 steps to being a better teacher, and I’ve read through – and summarised – them, so you don’t have to. It’s all research based in cognitive science, which looks at how brains acquire and use information to overcome the limitations of working memory when acquiring new material.
In other words, how do we support students who are performing complex tasks?
Begin with a short review
Starters are part-and-parcel to any lesson, but they vary depending on your school. Some will offer bell work (‘complete this as soon as the bell goes’), while others offer more freedom, and may not require a silent start.
Regardless of what your starters look like, they should review learning that’s already been completed. This strengthens students’ abilities to recall and make connections with new material. It’s important that this takes place because our memories are limited, and we need our students to recall prior information to aid with current learning.
Rosenshine makes really clear that any newly acquired skills should be practiced far beyond the point of initial mastery. Practice makes perfect.
Present new material in small steps
Get your students to practice small amounts of new material, and help them with their practice. Giving them too much new information will swamp their working memory, and they might struggle to acquire anything else. Rosenshine actually found that the most effective teachers spent over half of a 40-minute lesson on presenting new material and providing more explanations.
A great way to put this into practice could be as simple as teaching students how to write in paragraphs, modelling and thinking aloud to demonstrate your thought processes, all before getting students to practice for themselves. Don’t rush this step, or you’ll have to start from square one.
Check ALL learners
It is SO easy to pick on students who enthusiastically put their hands up; I think we’re all guilty of that. By cold calling as many learners as possible, and providing them with high-level questions, we can determine how well material has been learned and whether there is a need for additional instruction. As well as that, asking students to explain their thinking process can help them to see what they’ve done right, and where they’ve gone wrong.
Great activities to support questioning include:
- Pair with a neighbour to share your answer
- Summarise the main idea into one or two sentences before sharing
- Writing an answer on a card to hold up
- Raise hands if they know an answer – and then raise hands to show that they agree with the answer
If we model the way that kids should be thinking, they’ll be more likely to put the skills you’re trying to transmit to them into practice. This allows them to focus on specific steps, leading to faster problem-solving.
Guide student practice
If you’re not rehearsing new content sufficiently enough, you’re going to forget it, plain and simple. When you’re checking all learners, using questioning will ensure that misconceptions don’t get lodged into their long term memories. You need to guide your students from point A – where the learners has started – to point B – where you want the learner to be by the end of the lesson.
A great way to do this can be having students explain how they arrived at certain outcomes. This makes it easier for them to notice their own mistakes (and become more independent learners).
Check for understanding
This one’s super straightforward. We can present students with all the new material that we might want, but what’s the point, if we’re not checking that they’ve got it? By going back to questioning (can you see how key questioning is in the classroom?), you can encourage students to elaborate, to deepen their understanding.
Following this process gets students to connect to prior knowledge, interleave with what they already know, and show the teacher where knowledge gaps exist. This will guide your future lessons, which you’ll be able to replan and adapt.
High success rates
It’s really, really difficult to overcome learned errors. Before moving on, you need to make sure that there’s a success rate of learning among at least around 80% of students. Sure, it would be great to aim for 100%, but we can never guarantee that every single student will be at exactly the point we want them.
By getting the success rate to 80%, you can be fairly confident that the majority of learners have overcome any errors that you may have anticipated. Those who are successful may be able to carry the less successful learners too.
Scaffold difficult tasks
Scaffolding is so important when teaching any subject. It means providing support to help learners get to where you want them. Scaffolds are crucial if learners are struggling with your questioning, because you don’t want to simply give up. When (and it will be when, not if) a student replies that they don’t know the answer, you can’t just say ‘okay’, and move on.
Play a game of no-opt-out! Don’t accept ‘no’ for an answer, and break down the question to help them get to the answer you’re expecting. The idea behind scaffolds, though, is that you slowly remove them until learners have become more competent to complete their work to the standard that they’re capable of with your supports in place. Rose shine calls this a cognitive apprenticeship, as their confidence slowly grows under your guidance.
Thinking aloud lets kids hear an expert thinking, a process that is usually hidden from them. Likewise, you can monitor their progress if you ask them to think their processes aloud.
Monitor independent practice
Students need to undertake extensive, successful, and independent practice for their new skills and knowledge to become automatic. Through constant independent repetition where learners achieve good outcomes, they won’t even need to think about what you’ve taught them; it will come naturally.
After learners have mastered automaticity, we can devote more practice to comprehension and application, such as using knowledge for exam skills. However, this will not come easily. Students should be adequately prepared before being expected them to undertake independent work, or else learners may permanently take on misconceptions.
To check learning, Rosenshine recommends supervising work for an optimal 30 seconds or less while you circulate the room. This will give you time to see as many students as you can and ensure that they are on task. However, checking on all students isn’t always easy. We’re teachers; we have a lot of kids to see to. So, it can be a good idea to try out cooperative learning. Have your strongest learners explain material so that the kids aren’t always relying on you. This will allow students to explain the work in their own words, which encourages deeper thinking, and gives lower prior attainers another chance to hear the task from a peer, whom they may find easier to understand.
Weekly and monthly reviews
When a topic is bountiful with well-connected knowledge, students find it easier to learn new information when prior knowledge is more readily available. You’re probably the same, and it makes sense; let’s take the First World War as one example. That topic is huge and expansive, with so many little intricacies.
It can be overwhelming.
However, if you’re introducing students to the short term causes of war (the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand), why not activate their brains by questioning them on their memories of the long-term causes, if you’ve already covered that? That way, we’re gearing our learners up for success by getting them in the right mindset for learning, since they’ll know from the start that they’re adding to an already somewhat full knowledge bank.
So, that’s Rosenshine done and dusted. I’d highly recommend that you give his writing a read – it’s not long at all, and he goes into a lot more detail than my short summary did. What teaching and learning strategies have you been using to help your students?