Time to Get Knitting

These last few years have seen some amazing developments in teaching and learning. Despite the horror of the last year, we continue to see blogs and books and podcasts and videos, all exploring a range of different practices, in a range of different contexts. It sometimes feels like the world is aflame with the possibilities of what could be done, and people are raring to go to embed these in their classrooms.

However, some recent conversations and subsequent reflections have made me wonder where we are going with this. I see lots of examples of individual ideas  being introduced to schools, for example retrieval practice, Rosenshine’s Principles, and even, dare I say it, Generative Learning strategies. These are all weaving their way into the day to day fabric of the lessons. Very often this is a good thing, with people really thinking hard about their pedagogical choices and working to ensure they are using the methods well. Yet sometimes when I pull on one of the threads of these approaches, I find things start to unravel a little.

Take retrieval practice for example. It’s fab. I’m a huge fan and Ebbinghaus and Karpicke and Roediger are my poster researchers, alongside many great practitioners exploring this, such as Kate Jones in her books and blog. The evidence around it is compelling, students having to retrieve information from their long-term memory are given opportunities to both become fluent in its retrieval and to further embed it in the long-term memory stores. The testing effect itself is a teaching and learning strategy and the evidence indicates those who have a chance to be tested on key information make greater gains than those who are not. Fab!

But what if you don’t really think hard about those retrieval opportunities and what is being retrieved? What if students are not retrieving the most important things but are retrieving less relevant details? What if the process has become a bit arbitrary, like making up lesson objectives in pupil speak to go on the board, as opposed to one which will utilize all the great benefit they promise to bring?

Whilst there may be value in the retrieval of a wide spread of information from across the curriculum, would it not be better to focus on some of the key information, the threshold concepts, which are more likely to be linked to lots of other information? Would it not be better if we were given the opportunity to really reflect on how these points will link to not just the information in this unit, but the new information they can adhere to later? It can all too easily just become another thing we do, without considering the purpose.

We see a similar problem with assessment. It is well documented on my blogs that I am no fan of the language exam in its current form, but how often do we work really hard to build up a bank of knowledge through retrieval to only ask students to do something different at the end of the sequence? We teach this nuanced information about Shakespeare and then (at least in the past) we ask them to write a letter from Lady Macbeth explaining her thoughts. Again, whilst there may be lots of knowledge from the play contained within this, we are then left trying to unpick what this actually is, what might be missing and if issues around literacy are more of a problem than the knowledge and understanding of the play. We need to ensure those valuable learning points are used in a fluid and flexible way at the end as opposed to just hoping some of it will come through.

Many schools have already adapted their approach to ensure this knowledge is the focus of the assessment points (both summative and formative), making use of multiple-choice quizzes on and short response answers. These then sit alongside opportunities to write in greater depth so we can see how students can draw these elements together. However, sometimes the nature of whole school systems, flight paths, comparisons between subjects and GCSE grading systems, force people’s hand and they end up trying to replicate the exam structures and mark schemes and forgetting about the journey students have been on and the knowledge they should be assessed on. Assessments like these are traditionally loosely stuck on the end of a unit, a separate entity as opposed to knitted into what happen lesson by lesson or unit by unit and they look quite frankly, a bit frayed. Assessment in English especially is tricky, but I am told this is something which other subjects are finding is an issues too.

I think many of these problems we are finding come back to the curriculum. In order for students to make progress we need to ensure that the curriculum we are focused on is the right one and we need to have deep understanding of what it is we want to achieve. Whilst getting exam grades is one aim, it is certainly not the sole one or one that will happen without a good curriculum to underpin it. Without really knowing what knowledge students are building on in that year 7 unit and where we want that knowledge to go, we end up working in little silos, with distinctions between units and key information disappearing off into the ether. Ultimately it doesn’t matter how amazingly we ask a question, do a quiz or model an answer, if these aren’t the right questions or important points which relating to a well-designed curriculum, then it will be largely meaningless. It won’t matter if they retain it or if they really understand it as it is going nowhere. If we think it is important to teach students about syntax or sonnet form, then we need to ensure we teach it well and retrieve, embed it and use it in a variety of ways in the next things we do.

In addition, if we haven’t really explored in depth what we need students to know in a unit or a subject then we are much more vulnerable to the whims of assessment processes which don’t really tell us very much and from the inevitable tinkering from outside. As David Didau’s book Making Meaning in English says, the English domain has often been in a state of flux, and the body of knowledge required in the discipline is either unclear or highly contested. Contested is fine, as long as you are clear on why you have defined it in this way at the moment and are happy to adapt as new ideas develop. If we don’t really know what it is for though we are open to a myriad of interventions from outside, muddying the waters of what we want to achieve.

To this ends then I suggest we get knitting. We need to knit together all these wonderful threads that have been explored right into the curriculum. We need to trim and adjust and adapt, to ensure they are doing what we really want them to do. Without this we end up with hanging threads, holes and frantic efforts to patch things back together. That is not to say there won’t be times we need to unravel or pick up a dropped stitch or two, but if we can ensure that we are secure in what we need from our curriculum first, the purpose of retrieval, or a generative strategies or a the models we use, then we can really make sure that what is being learnt is meaningful.  

Zoe Enser is the lead specialist English advisor for Kent schools with The Education People and an ELE working with the EEF. Her first book, Generative Learning in Action is available now.

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