Archive for the ‘Notes’ category


What to avoid when teaching

Durham University, the Sutton Trust and CEM published an interesting report called “What Makes Great Teaching” in October 2014. It’s an overview of what research appears to be telling us at the moment.

While it would be wonderful to think there is a simple, step-by-step formula to a perfect lesson, I’m not at all convinced it exists. In fact, I tend to think any complicated scenarios (classrooms, trading floors, warzones etc) preclude those sorts of plans beyond the “Stay in touch, keep moving and head for the high ground” heuristics.

One of the sections that caught my eye, though, was a list of things that don’t work. That instantly appeals.

The Don’ts

Don’t use praise lavishly.

This is Dweck, Hattie and others.

“Praise for successful performance on an easy task can be interpreted by a student as evidence that the teacher has a low perception of his or her ability. As a consequence, it can actually lower rather than enhance self-confidence. Criticism following poor performance can, under some circumstances, be interpreted as an indication of the teacher’s high perception of the student’s ability.”

Don’t allow learners to discover key ideas for themselves

Research evidence broadly favours direct instruction (Kirschner et al, 2006).

if teachers want them to learn new ideas, knowledge or methods they need to teach them directly.

Don’t group learners by ability

Evidence on the effects of grouping by ability, either by allocating students to different classes, or to within class groups, suggests that it makes very little difference to learning outcomes (Higgins et al, 2014). If anything,

[it] can result in teachers failing to make necessary accommodations for the range of different needs within a supposedly homogeneous ‘ability’ group, and over-doing their accommodations for different groups, going too fast with the high-ability groups and too slow with the low.

Don’t encourage re-reading and highlighting to memorise key ideas

Highlighting feels good but is deceptive – it doesn’t really work. A range of studies have shown that testing yourself, trying to generate answers, and deliberately creating intervals between study to allow forgetting, are all more effective approaches. (My notes on some of these studies are here)

Don’t address issues of confidence and low aspirations before you try to teach content

The effect of trying to boost morale before the content is near-zero. Poor motivation is actually a logical response to repeated failure. Start getting them to succeed and their motivation and confidence should increase.

Don’t present information to learners in their preferred learning style

Over 90% of teachers in several countries (including the UK) agreed with the claim that “Individuals learn better when they receive information in their preferred learning style (for example, visual, auditory or kinaesthetic)”. Sadly, the psychological evidence is clear that there are no benefits for learning from trying to present information to learners in their preferred learning style.

Don’t ensure learners are always active, rather than listening passively, if you want them to remember

If you want students to remember something you have to get them to think about it. This might be achieved by being ‘active’ or ‘passive’.


Careful Documentation

This (thank you Cristina) is a great mini-documentary about the impact of documentation as used in the Reggio Emilia schools and with the Making Learning Visible project

Documentation: Transforming Our Perspective from Melissa Rivard on Vimeo.

Intuitively, I am wholeheartedly behind this sort of approach. Instinctively, too, I worry about the biases that come with collecting. A while ago, I was interested in collecting and the biases, problems and difficulties with that. Documentation is clearly prone to that.

To summarise, though it’s a little jarring as a quote, you can use the wonderful Culture of Collecting:

“… if the cultural criterion of the desirable excludes anything tainted by ‘shit’, if the definition of a collectible rests on an implied ritual of cleansing … and if we never touch anything that is not already in a sense ‘our own’, then all conventional collecting can really offer is kitsch.”

Often the display work you see published online, or the student portfolios is similarly kitsch. Student work can be work that is “cleansed” by teachers, so to speak. Displays, while often remarkably talented, are also often remarkably kitsch.

Where the documentary scores for me is that those involved clearly see who “owns” the documentation to be an issue. For older students, what is helpful is that they become the protagonist in their own documentation. That, for me, is the exciting part. And that is what stops it being kitsch.


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“Tyrrany is the deliberate enemy of nuance”

Albert Maysles

Kurt Vonnegut, Art & Making Your Soul Grow

In 2006, an English teacher called Ms. Lockwood asked her students to write to their favourite author and ask him or her to visit the school. This was Kurt Vonnegut’s response.

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Trophic Cascades and Wolves


Making It Stick

Dogears from Make It Stick. Note to self – formatting on blog seems to have gone AWOL…

The Illusion of Mastery

V common

“The fact that you can repeat the phrases in a text or your lecture notes is no indication that you understand the significance of the precepts they describe, their application or how they relate to what you already know about the subject.”


A lead-pencil has a point, an argument may have a point, remarks may be pointed, and a man who wants to borrow five pounds from you only comes to the point when he asks you for the fiver. Lots of things have points: especially weapons. But where is the point to life? Where is the point to love? Where, if it comes to the point, is the point to a bunch of violets? There is no point. Life and love are life and love, a bunch of violets is a bunch of violets, and to drag in the idea of a point is to ruin everything. Live and let live, love and let love, flower and fade, and follow the natural curve, which flows on, pointless.

D. H. LAWRENCE (1885–1930)

The Discipline of Teaching

More dogears from Smith

Real discipline, I would argue, is not always a matter of driving yourself on; real discipline is also knowing when to stop. This goes for all people in all jobs. Certainly, as a teacher you need to pace yourself, to sense when you’re losing your perspective, to recover as you go along, to have some fun and relaxation in the term-time, to think of other things, to enjoy yourself and not to fall into a puritanically self-obsessed rut. And for their part, the holidays are much more rewarding and memorable if there is some intellectual challenge and creative reflection. Wordsworth called this ‘a wise passiveness’. For a teacher and for a parent finding that delicate balance – or getting a life – is a tricky business.


Mischief on the Moral High Ground

Thoroughly enjoying Jonathan Smith’s “The Learning Game“. This anecdote is from his childhood. His Uncle Bert, a haemophiliac, always stayed with them.

“Every Christmas Day for many years we all gathered in his room for our dinner. After dinner, in my early childhood, we always played cards. I looked forward to this as much as to the turkey because I concentrated so fiercely and I wanted to win. The grown-ups gradually lost interest in the game and drank cider, with only half a mind on the cards. Taking full advantage of that, I usually ended up with the biggest pile of coins, and as the pile grew I pictured the fountain pen I was going to buy. A Platignum pen, or at least I think that’s what it was called. Anyway, I had seen them in the shops.
Uncle Bert, impressed by my judgement and my memory for the cards, egged me on.


Why 21st Century Education is half-baked

Perhaps it’s the bias of the medium, but spend much time online among teachery types and you come across a whole host of slightly hackneyed tropes. There is the “Shift Happens” video, Sir Ken Robinson, the “guide on the side vs sage on the stage” mantra, factory-model schooling is bunk, and long, well-meaning pieces about 21st century learning like this and this. None of it, I think, is particularly wholesome.

That’s not necessarily because it’s wrong. Yes, there is a lot of waffle around 21st century skills Harry Webb has pointed out, but there is also good sense there in places. Some of it I agree with, some not. But all of it I find disheartening and half-baked.

The OECD have a peculiarly dry piece about the shifts taking place in education and learning. Take this snippet, for example.

“Value is less and less created vertically through command and control-as in the classic “teacher instructs student” relationship-but horizontally, by whom you connect and work with, whether online or in person. In other words, we are seeing a shift from a world of stocks, where knowledge is stored up but not exploited, and so depreciates rapidly, to a world of flows, where knowledge is energised and enriched by the power of communication and constant collaboration. This will become the norm. Barriers will continue to fall as skilled people appreciate, and build on, different values, beliefs and cultures.”

Well, hooray for the focus on learning communities, but does anyone else find this sort of thing soulless, almost completely so? It is education as management speak, learning as an economic need.

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Today, though, I came across a piece by Cyril Norwood.

The education that has so far been given to the people is at most partial and second best, and has little in common whether in range or in spirit with the universal education that may be. It was but the least possible with which the people would be contented and it was calculated to equip not citizens but servants… But education has to fit us for something … so incomparably precious that it will save a man from being a mere unit, a cipher: it will give him a life of his own, independent of the machine. And therefore at any cost our education must never sink to the level at which it will be merely vocational.

This has crystallized matters for me and made me realise quite why I think 21st century education is half-baked. In all of its rhetoric, the focus is on the learner; that, I believe, is “a good thing”. 21st century learning focuses, though, on the learner almost solely as an economic unit, as “a cipher” that needs preparing for a job that doesn’t yet exist. In doing so, it ignores the learner as a human, as a person with hopes and aspirations beyond the machine. Education, as Sir Cyril says, should never merely be training.