Getting the best from Rosenshine

Teachers have many different tools available to them. Sometimes the sheer choice of what we have available can be overwhelming, and the absence of absolutes can make these choices even more difficult to navigate. All we have available to us are ‘best bets’ as Professor Robert Coe calls them in The Great Teaching Toolkit, so what can busy teachers do in order to sift through all of the information that is out there?

One of the most useful frameworks I have found is the ‘Rosenshine Principles of Effective Instruction’. As we know, Barek Roshenshine explored what it was that effective teachers were doing and examined the commonalities and what it was that made these effective. What he didn’t of course provide was a checklist of what needs to be included in each lesson or how every teacher, in every subject or school needs to do. I have warned before about the danger of using it as a list of non-negotiables in a previous blog here. Instead, he gives us a starting point of what to explore further and understanding what lies beneath each of the principles in order to see how we can get the most from them.

Tom Sherrington has helpfully organised these into four strands, grouping together ‘new material in small steps, scaffolding and modelling’, asking questions and checking for understanding’, the ‘daily, weekly and monthly review’ and finally ‘guiding student practice, obtaining high success and independent practice’. There are other ways these can be grouped, and it is likely that something like questioning would run through all phases of the learning sequence, and we often scaffold at a variety of points, including with the questions we ask. However, it is important to understand what it is about these elements which might make a difference to your classrooms.

Introducing material in small steps is essentially about cognitive load theory and how we can support the working memory. If we overwhelm our students with too much information at once, especially as we deal with complex and abstract ideas, we are going to limit what they are able to do with it. They will struggle to have the working memory capacity to process the materials and that is when we can often get that sea of blank faces starting back at us. We need to consider carefully the steps we take students through as we introduce new material, and the more complex the information they have, the greater the intrinsic load, the more we need to approach it in those small steps. For example, if I have a class of competent readers who have a lot of knowledge already about World War I and we are studying Private Peaceful, I may be able to work through the text swiftly, confident that students are going to be able to have a basic understanding of the text before we move into more complex analysis of structure and language. However, if we are studying a Shakespeare text, especially if it their first foray into studying his work, then the intrinsic load will inevitably be higher. Even the most competent adult reader will encounter language and ideas which are perhaps unfamiliar and need greater consideration. This means I would introduce elements of this text in smaller steps, scaffolding as we go.

Smaller steps also have the bonus of allowing us to really understand where misconceptions or straightforward misunderstandings have occurred. Students have a wonderful knack of getting through quite a lot of the lesson before throwing their hand up saying ‘I don’t get it’. We then have to go slowly backwards and check where they lost the thread. By introducing material slowly and in stages I have a better chance of checking earlier and identifying where things may have gone wrong and head them off before they end up in a complete tangle and switch off.

Throughout this stage then I will be checking for understanding but also scaffolding the learning for the students, providing prompts with my language, keywords, discussion and short tasks for students to consolidate their learning.

I will also take time to model the processes I want them to go through, modelling reading, demonstrating metacognitive processes, and modelling any writing I need them to do. Modelling is a powerful way in which we can make abstract ideas concrete and allow students to abstract them again once they are fluent and competent in using them. It they are able to actually see the processes, step by step, pause and reflect and see the end product too, they are much more likely to be able to achieve what we need them to.

Once they have been given the opportunity to explore new information it is important that we take the time to recap and review it, creating links between ideas to build schemas, prime them for new learning and ensure that information is stored effectively in the long terms memory so they can use it as and when it is needed in a fluid and agile way. Creating opportunities to recap throughout the work, will ensure that students have a better understanding of material and can be more successful as we move through. We also know that when you look at things like the ‘testing effect’ or Ebbinghaus’ forgetting curve, if we make use of this we can be confident that students are retaining the right information and are ready to build on that.

This is of course where questioning and checking understanding is so important. Again, if we have planned the learning in small steps then we are in a better position to know what our students know, what needs overlearning and more practice and what needs reteaching. Questioning though is a complex process and we don’t simply use questioning to check understanding. We use questioning to probe and extend thinking, to encourage participation and to get students to reflect on their own learning too. However, planning for those moments where core understanding of foundational knowledge is essential is key. Those hinge moments which can make or break learning need special attention and not left to chance.

Finally, we want students to have the chance to do something with that information they have been given, but making sure they are in the right position to do so is important. I often look back and realise that I had rushed students to the task or the writing process, aware of the time on the clock and the lesson number on the scheme of work. We all would have been in a better position if I had taken more time to really probe understanding and ensure that all students were in a position to continue, providing further scaffolds or reteaching for those who needed it before they continued.  

This also meant that for some students they spent some time practising to do things incorrectly. The more we guide students in their first tentative steps in their practice the less likely this is to happen. Practice makes perfect they say, but imperfect practice will just embed misconceptions and errors further. How many times had my students written ‘febuary’ in order to have this error so embedded and fluent? Many, many times, across many classes over the years it seems.

We all want students ultimately to be able to do things independently though. I would always joke that my aim was to make myself redundant as they knew so much and could do it so well I was only there for emergencies. But students with lots of knowledge and understanding of what is needed will be able to tackle tasks with increasing independence. It is also important in terms of building their confidence, knowing they can do it, and for them to experience what it can feel like to struggle. They need to know they have the tools and solutions to work through some really difficult problems and independent practice allows this. It is useful to give them this time in class as what you don’t want is for them to only discover this at home and become frustrated and despondent. If they try out things in the lesson where I can be there as the final safety net if they need it. This means they will be more confident once they take this knowledge into the wild and work on things alone.

Rosenshine’s principles are just one framework, but they provide a useful way for some of us to think about our lessons. As I said at the start there are things, we will do multiple times in a lesson and in some lessons, there may be some things we don’t, for example once we are at the end of a learning sequence and students are working independently. We shouldn’t shoehorn things in for the sake of it. Some subjects will also use some things more than others and some students will need some things more than others too. However, I believe it is really important to consider what each of these areas offer and how can be selective in the tools we use and refine them to be as sharp as they can possibly be.

Zoe Enser’s latest book, The CPD Curriculum: Creating conditions for growth, is available now.

3 thoughts on “Getting the best from Rosenshine

  1. I love this post, there is so much here! I particularly like the way you have connected different elements and explained using the framework to influence thinking, planning and teaching. I wish O could write with such clarity!


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