This is just a little bit of my talk for ResearchEd Rugby.
The title for this blog is inspired by a song from ‘Not the Nine O’clock News’. The song was: Nice Video, Shame About the Song. It featured an arty and pretentious (and now dated) video with a song that doesn’t match it in style and quality. It is true that this is often the case. Money, time and effort is spent on the video when it should have actually been spent on the song. That for me is the current problem with Retrieval Practice. I am seeing lots of nice tasks, but I keep asking myself about the learning. Is this really supporting learning in the classroom? I always put myself in the lesson and think how I'd react. The Year 10 me would hate the constant changing of approaches, because I feel more comfortable with patterns and systems rather than a new approach every single lesson and week.
English is a very knowledge rich subject. In fact, it is probably more rich in knowledge than other subjects, because we can go from linguistic knowledge to historical, geographical, political, social and philosophical knowledge in just one line from a poem. It is that rich. That’s the beauty and the tyranny of our subject. There’s just so much knowledge it is hard to see that wood for the trees. In fact, every lesson is a knowledge weave. There are days where I wish I could teach Maths, because of the simplicity of knowledge at the heart of the curriculum. You can see how hard knowledge is in English when you try to compartmentalise anything in the subject. Things just so a bit bleurgh. Because you cannot compartmentalise something that is so vast and crosses so many domains. This is why we have had problems with knowledge in English.
Problem 1: Knowledge Organisers
If I had a time machine, I’d go back an change this completely. The problem that we fell into was that knowledge organisers focused on plot, character, context and quotation knowledge. These things barely scratched the surface of what we want students to say. You may as well just have a plot summary and tested students on that. The knowledge was redundant later when you explored a different text. Simply, the knowledge organisers focuses on understanding rather than learning in English. Scroll back through your organsiers and you’ll see that they were about some pretty basic stuff and they didn’t build on / connect / support other parts of the curriculum. That’s not to say there isn’t value in the stuff, but if you have to spell out all the characters in a book and have to test students about the names of the characters again and again, then there’s something inherently wrong with your teaching. Teaching the concept of realism when reading a book is far more beneficial because it can be used in a number of different contexts. Knowing the name of a character in a book will be good in one context: a general knowledge quiz, if you are lucky. Knowledge Organisers, in truth, are supporting pub quizzes and nothing else.
Like most of us, when we think something is worthy we put the foot on the pedal and speed on. We went mad for knowledge. We drowned in it. We made booklets with questions and answers. We tested students all the time on them. I made readymade videos with questions and answers. We bathed fully in the knowledge waterfall. We were dripping in knowledge goodness, or so we thought! There was no thought apart from the fact that we knew students needed to know quotations and students needed to know facts. We threw everything at them. When was the book written? Who had a ruddy face? Often missing behind all this kind of work is a picture of what needs to be retained. We were largely chucking everything and hoping something will stick. This works well for some subjects, but for English it doesn't. You end up with students able to write Dickens's ingrowing toenail but unable to explain the structure of the story.
Alongside all the different retrieval practice tasks and these two problems, I think there is a problem with knowledge in English. We have largely adopted things that work in other subjects without necessarily thinking about the what and the how. It has been a case of nice retrieval practice task, shame about the learning. But, doesn’t it look pretty.
For me, we needed some precision, clarity and structure to the knowledge in English. Something to hang all the knowledge on. There was too much clutter. In our attempt to teach we threw everything and the kitchen sink. Teaching is largely decluttering and we often forget that. Therefore, we decided to approach things from a Cognitive Load Theory angle and explore how to address the different types of load:
• Intrinsic load – difficulty of the information
• Extrinsic load – manner in which the information is presented
• Germane load – processing, construction and automation of schemas
We focused mainly on the extrinsic load elements. How could we present the knowledge in a way that reduces the load and helps with the process and constructing of schemas? We looked at a model for this and used something I had invented early to cope with the poetry anthology of the GCSEs.
Several years ago, I produced this:
It was created to help build and retain knowledge of the texts. Students worked, with the teacher, on learning the questions and the answers, helping them learn several things so they were able to write about the poem from memory. They could remember the content – RED. They could remember some quotations – BLUE. They could remember some techniques and their effect – GREEN.
I wrote one of these for every scene in Romeo and Juliet. When students were studying the play, we’d use these questions. From the beginning, we were being precise and structured with the knowledge to be learnt.
Process for the lesson:
· #Watch scene
· #Together, as a class, we find the answers to the nine questions.
· #Analyse the scene – and teacher some stuff
· #Quick answers to the nine question from random students
· #Next lesson would start with the questions being answered in books
The knowledge retrieval was part of the lesson and not dominating the lesson. Plus, it was structured knowledge retrieval. Students knew the structure and the format. I wasn’t changing things all the time. There was consistency and familiarity in the approach. Students liked it. It was pattern forming and behaviour forming. We’d often revisit an old scene and check their knowledge on that scene and filling any gaps if needed.
The interesting thing for me was the creation of the questions. Each subsection of questions was working to build a different schema. We were working on collectively building that knowledge from the beginning and constantly retrieving it. By the end of the process, students will have 84 separate plot points, 84 separate quotations and 84 separate techniques linked to a quotation. We will have a clear body of knowledge to work with on securing and revisiting. The 'what' or the knowledge was transparent to the students too. Instead of telling students to revise the whole things, we could guide them to our questions. Plus, a student missing a lesson wasn't at a disadvantage, because we'd revisit the knowledge. We were constantly revisiting things.
I have a problem with comprehension tasks in lessons, because I feel they try to do too much and are largely deceptive for students. They will ask students to spot things and then in the next question they’ll ask them to form an interpretation of a character. There is such a jump in the thinking between questions like this. I preferred this new approach for me because it started with concrete knowledge and so the rest of the lesson could be spent on developing interpretations. That concrete knowledge could be utilised in developing an interpretation and extending thinking. It allowed time to be give easily, and freely, to explorative and interpretive thinking.
The questions themselves were interesting because they needed to be precise. The plot points weren’t very obvious ones. They had to have a dual purpose. Some of the questions related to who was on stage in the scene or who interrupts a conversation. These subtle plot points are often missed when teaching and only the strongest of students pick up on them. The quotations were small for ease of retention, but also they helped to be used in multiple contexts and arguments in an essay. Often we teach students to learn longer quotations because they have loads of techniques in them, but actually they are cumbersome because they don’t fit organically into the writing. This approach allowed us to build a range of quotations. Furthermore, the linking of techniques and effects was really important for us, because students don’t retain this connection and knowledge. It meant that students did not only have quotations and techniques, but they also were thinking of the impact on the reader.
Year 10 is about introducing and securing the knowledge to long term memory. Year 11 will be about revisiting and revising, but we might use one or two different approaches to the testing. However, we will still use the same format. We are providing structure, precision and clarity to the knowledge. Of course there is more knowledge and approaches to it learning it, but this is a driving one for a core body on knowledge. Making sure there is a clear foundation of knowledge.
English is a rich and beautiful subject. I know that some fear the dominance of knowledge. We need to be careful of fetishism of knowledge. It is good to know stuff, but I think, like most things, a balance is needed.
Are we overloading students with too much knowledge that the most important and useful things are not sticking when it comes to texts.
Knowledge shouldn’t be isolated to one lesson. What happens if that lesson is missed? We need to look at building structures to help us, if a student misses a lesson. If we are not clear about the what, then this becomes a problem. Also, if we are not clear about what students need to know, then how can we help students revise? For some, reading the text numerous times will help, but for others it is useless.
Two questions everybody needs to think about: What is the main knowledge students need to retain for a text? What is the structure we are going to use to impart, test and revise the knowledge?
At the moment, I feel we are chucking everything and hoping it sticks. We are using every approach under the sun to make some of it stick.
Thanks for reading,
P.S. I will be sharing my PowerPoints with all the questions later.