Classroom Questioning: Common Problems and Practical Solutions

Questioning is powerful yet hard to get right. It takes knowledge, practice and experience to use questioning as a tool to consistently improve learning. When teachers first start out, their questioning is not very good. This indicates that it is a technique that needs practice. Furthermore, it’s not unusual to see more experienced teachers use poor questioning too. That they’ve had years of experience yet still fall into the poor habit of bad questioning shows that we need to think carefully about this part of our practice. Like any skill, some teachers will be able to draw on their natural talent, but for most of us mere mortals, asking good questions is not a natural part of our practice. Its something we need to work on.

Why question at all? We want to use our questions intentionally to fulfil two broad purposes: to cause students to think and to check for understanding. How students think about new content has an impact on how well they learn it. Good questions can cause students to elaborate on new content and make connections with things they already know. This strengthens their understanding and helps them remember what they’ve learnt. Naturally, the message is not always received the way we intend, so we also want to use questioning to check for understanding so that we can make good judgments about how students are going as they build-up new knowledge.

Of course, there are many reasons questions don’t have the impact we want them to have, but I catch myself and other teachers making four common mistakes. Firstly, we direct our questions to too few kids, often the smart ones, which causes sampling problems. Secondly, we ask students to self-report on their understanding despite this being a poor way of gathering data on whether they truly understand; thirdly, we ask students questions that are pointless because they lack purpose; and lastly, even when we ask good questions, we allow students to give a poor answer, which requires very little thinking. These four errors – poor sampling, self-report, asking purposeless questions, and allowing poor answers – thankfully have practical solutions. Let’s look at the errors more closely and discuss how they can be fixed.

Error 1: Poor Sampling

A common habit that is hard to break is directing too many questions to too few students, usually only the clever ones. This occurs because, after asking a question, the teacher only nominates responses from students who have raised their hand to answer. The problem is only a few students raise their hand frequently, and some never at all.

Even teachers that know this is not good practice fall back on taking too many hands. This is because it is easy. We know students who raise their hands will provide a good, clear answer, so we have a bias towards picking them to respond.

If the aim of questioning is to figure out what students know then it makes little sense to pick a response from a volunteer because students only raise their hand when they are confident they have the correct answer. Of course, it sometimes appropriate to choose a hand, but if the teacher keeps choosing hands, they will end up with a poor sample of data to work from. It is fairly common for a teacher to ask three questions, pick three confident volunteers to answer, and then decide to move on due to the correct responses. This despite 90% of the class not having a clue what’s going on.

There are two ways we can address poor sampling. The first is to cold-call students. The teacher should ask a question, give students a good 10 seconds to think carefully about the question (or to talk to a partner), and then pick a student at random to answer the question. Picking a student at random is called cold-call. If the teacher cold-calls a series of questions, perhaps 4 or 5, then they will have a much more reliable sample to work from. They can use this sample to make a decision about whether to further teach a particular point or to move on.

The second way to address poor sampling is to implement whole-class response systems. At the primary level, this is often achieved using mini-whiteboards. The teacher asks a question, gives time for students to respond to the question on the mini-whiteboard, and asks the students to show their responses to the question by holding their whiteboard up facing the teacher. Because all students have responded, the teacher has fantastic data to work with. The main idea with cold-call and using a whole-class response system is to increase the number or students responding to questions so that the teacher can make a more informed decision on how students are going.

Error 2: Self-Report

Teachers tend to ask students to self-report when it is, at least at the primary level, a complete waste of time. To demonstrate what self-report means, imagine a teacher has just finished an explanation on cellular structure and wants to know if they can move on to the next topic:

Teacher: Okay, those are the basics of cellular structure. Everyone clear on the difference between human and animal cells?
Students: ahh, yeah
Teacher: Good, let’s push on to the role of chloroplasts.
(
From Teach Like A Champion)

The teacher has asked the students to self-report whether they understand the material. This is a problem because students rarely have the self-regulation skills to realise when they don’t understand something. When you are a novice, it’s hard to know what you don’t know. You simply don’t have the knowledge to figure out what you don’t understand. Furthermore, the classroom is a social environment, so even though a student might realise they don’t get it, they may not self-report that for fear of looking ‘dumb’ (I think all teachers intuitively know this is true). By asking students to self-report their understanding, the teacher is getting false data. In the example, the kids report they understand the cellular structure, when in fact they do not.

Luckily, this is one of the easiest problems to fix. If a teacher has just taught the basics of cellular structure and wants the students to know the differences between human and animal cells, then instead of seeking self-report, the teacher should test the students on the content. Now I have not taught cellular structure before (I believe it is a high school topic here in Australia), so you must take my suggestion with a grain of salt, but the teacher could perhaps organise a 1-page mini-assessment which requires students to draw a plant and animal cell diagram and label it with a brief explanation for each label. The assessment could also ask questions on why plant cells have different organelles. By testing the students, the teacher will gain a much better understanding of how thoroughly students understand the topic. This can help inform the teacher if students are ready to move on or if more time needs to be spent teaching the topic. The main idea is to replace self-report with a more objective assessment of how students are getting on.

Error 3: Asking Purposeless Questions

Even when self-report is avoided, questioning often lacks intentionality. We sometimes ask questions that don’t really have a purpose, which causes students to think about irrelevant ideas. For example, imagine a teacher has just finished teaching kids about how to classify animals into the five vertebrate groups – fish, mammals, birds, amphibians and reptiles. They then ask, which is your favourite vertebrate group? This question lacks purpose. Asking a question about how students feel about a particular vertebrate group does not help them learn how to classify animals into their respective groups. It causes them to think about things that are irrelevant. Students might say, I like birds the best because they can fly or I like fish because I like going fishing with Dad on the weekends. I see this type of question – one that asks for an affective opinion – all the time at primary level. It is a common mistake because it does not address the learning intention.

Teachers likely fall into this trap because they’re thinking on their feet while teaching a topic they haven’t covered before. I know I am more likely to ask irrelevant questions when I am underprepared on a topic I am less familiar with. The way to fix this is to plan questions before the lesson. Naturally, it becomes easier to think of relevant questions in-the-moment the more you teach as you’ll gain pedagogical content knowledge from the experience, but often, and especially early on, you need to be less spontaneous and more intentional with your questioning.

While preparing in the morning before school, I like to go over the lesson materials and jot down the problems students might have as they grapple with the learning intention. By identifying the sticking points, I can formulate questions intentionally designed to support their understanding. Using conjunctions to create compound and complex sentences is a big focus in Year 2 and I know from experience that students find it hard to distinguish between using the word so as an adverb and as a conjunction. Therefore, when we look at this conjunction specifically, I prepare some examples and non-examples with questions to direct student thinking to focus on how the word can be used differently. By preparing the questions in advance, they become much more intentional. I am less likely to ask questions that lack purpose because I’ve already thought hard about what I want them to think about.

Error 4: Allowing Poor Answers

Lastly, even when good questions are asked, sometimes teachers allow students to opt-out of answering properly. This is a problem because the point of questioning students is to make them think. If they opt-out or answer poorly, they aren’t thinking hard enough. For example, a teacher may ask a question to hone-down on what separates mammals from the other vertebrate groups: Bob, many people think a dolphin is a fish. What would you teach them? If a student simply opts-out by saying “I don’t know” or says “they don’t lay eggs” without elaborating on that point, then the student isn’t thinking hard enough. They’re unlikely to gain anything from answering the question you have posed.

Doug Lemov’s Teach Like A Champion gives fantastic advice on how to deal with students opting-out. He recommends that teachers turn “I don’t know” into success by ensuring students who won’t answer or can’t answer practice getting it right. He calls this No Opt-Out.

Imagine you ask a student what 3 x 4 is and they say “I dunno” without really thinking about the answer. Most teachers will simply ask another student and leave it there. The problem is two-fold: 1) the student does absolutely no thinking, and 2) the teacher implicitly signals that not knowing is fine. So instead of just moving on and asking a different student, the teacher should come back to ask the question again. This time, they can’t opt-out because their classmate has just said the answer. The teacher can then follow up with another related question. Perhaps they could get the student to draw a representation of 3 x 4 on their board. The idea is that not engaging with the question simply is not an option. If a student does not know or does not want to think about the question, then they should be compelled to work harder so that they do know.

As for providing poor answers, Lemov recommends teachers not settle for poor answers, but to hold-out for answers that are “all-the-way-right”. He writes that “teachers are, in the end, the arbiters of quality.” The standard we set matters. When students give a poor, half-right answer, teachers should push for elaboration instead of settling. Coming back to our vertebrate example, where our students responded with they don’t lay eggs, the teacher could say:

  • “True, they don’t lay eggs. Can you discuss why that is important?”
  • “Good start, can you develop your answer?”
  • “Okay Bob, can you talk about why you’ve mentioned eggs?”
  • “Great, when you say they don’t lay eggs, is that all that matters?”

In holding out for all-the-way-right, you set the standard that fully elaborated answers are expected. An answer, in your classroom, requires thought. Naturally, to keep clarity for what you are looking for, it is also a good idea to script appropriate answers to your pre-planned questions. This will help you make decisions in-the-moment on whether you are happy with your students’ responses.

In Conclusion

To recap, we identified four common errors teachers make when questioning their students. Thankfully, there are practical solutions that can be implemented to fix these problems.

Screen Shot 2020-05-18 at 7.08.49 pm

For further reading, I highly recommend Teach Like A Champion. The book goes into detail on questioning and other techniques. I am constantly referring back to it. I urge you to pick it up.

I hope this blog has helped you improve your understanding of good questioning. If you haven’t already, connect with me on Twitter @johnkenny03.

 

How to Help Students Remember: Active Recall and Spaced Repetition

You taught a lesson. It went as planned. The students responded well to your questions and were able to complete the independent work without a problem. You left the classroom feeling confident your students had learnt something that day. But then, come assessment time, the success rate on the relevant questions related to that lesson were low. Perhaps around 60%, perhaps lower. You’re puzzled. The lesson went well, so why didn’t they remember?

This is a common problemI’ve encountered many times. Classroom teachers are good at presenting new content and ensuring students understand it. What we’re not good at is ensuring the students remember what they’ve learnt. Learning things for the first time is exciting and invigorating. Remembering things – going over material over and over again – simply isn’t. It’s not as sexy. No one really likes to talk about, so it gets neglected.

There are two revision strategies that will help your students remember more: active recall and spaced repetition. Integrate these strategies into your practice and your students’ success rate come assessment time will skyrocket.

Active recall

Active recall is an efficient learning strategy. It is the idea that if you endeavour to actively recall information then you will, in turn, efficiently strengthen that memory. It contrasts with passive-review of content, which does not require as much effort on the part of the learner. For example, rereading a text on how we classify mammals with no further action is passive-review. Answering a series of questions on how we classify mammals is active recall. The distinction between active recall and passive review is the amount of cognitive effort required. Actively putting in the effort to recall information is most efficient for longterm learning.

Active recall is counter-intuitive. Most people, including teachers, intuitively assume learning and remembering are about putting information into the brain. But, in fact, research has shown that, rather than repetitiously trying to ‘top-up’ our longterm memory with the same information, we remember more when we try to actively take information out of our longterm memory.

Active recall takes advantage of the testing effect and is considered to be the most efficient way to maintain what has been learnt. In 2013, Dunlosky et al. wrote an article titled Improving students learning with effective learning techniques which summarised the utility of popular learning techniques. They found that practice testing, which necessitates active recall, has high utility.

“On the basis of the evidence described above, we rate practice testing as having high utility. Testing effects have been demonstrated across an impressive range of practice-test formats, kinds of material, learner ages, outcome measures, and retention intervals. Thus, practice testing has broad applicability. Practice testing is not particularly time-intensive relative to other techniques, and it can be implemented with minimal training.”

Dunlosky et al. highlight several studies in order to draw this conclusion. One study by Runquist (1983) seeked to compare the performance between conditions that do and do not include a practice test. Participants were presented with a number of word-pairs for initial study. After study, half of the participants were tested via cued-recall and half were not. A final cued-recall test was taken 10 minutes and 1 week after the initial study period. The study found that performance was better for participants that were practice tested than participants that were not (53% versus 36% after 10 minutes, 35% versus 4% after 1 week). The students that were required to actively recall information performed much better. Other studies also demonstrate and elaborate on this effect. See here and here.

Hopefully you are convinced that active recall is a strategy we should use to improve student learning. Now I’d like to discuss how active recall can be used practically in the classroom. Luckily it’s not complicated. Because active recall takes advantage of the testing effect, you simply want to be thinking about testing students more often. Any way you can present questions and have students make the effort to answer them will cause students to engage in active recall.

For example, during review in a primary context, I present a slide of a question on learnt material, for example on 3 digit addition with trading, have students answer the question on a mini whiteboard, and then give them the answer as feedback. Finally, I quickly check their work before moving on to the next one. Testing them is the key here – the students have to make the effort to actively recall the steps to solve the addition problem. This is much more effective than simply remodelling how to solve the problems.

Screen Shot 2020-05-08 at 3.16.13 pm.png

I also like to use multiple choice quizzes. Quizzes are great because they require students to actively recall information in order to eliminate distractors and provide the correct answer. This is much better than simply explaining what was learnt. Again, testing is the key here. It requires students to engage in active recall.

Screen Shot 2020-05-11 at 12.31.18 pm.png

It is also important to note that quizzes of this type should be low-stakes. That is, no grades or evaluations need to be made after the quiz is taken. This is because the main idea behind using a quiz is to promote learning through active recall, not to assess and grade work. It is important students understand the quiz is being used to help them learn and not to watch them perform. I’ve found that framing quizzes in this way promotes self regulation: they know that the quiz is their to help them, so they’re much more keen to discuss things with their peers and pursue feedback and discussion with the teacher.

The message from the research is clear: find ways to test your students more often to engage them in active recall. They will remember much more.

Spaced repetition 

Spaced repetition is the idea of distributing students’ active recall of learnt concepts over time. The effect occurs when practice is spread out. This contrasts with the more popular method of massed practice, whereby students review an idea many times in quick succession. Dunlosky et al. (2013) describe spaced repetition, which they call distributed practice, as having high utility.

To illustrate how spaced repetition works, imagine on Monday Teacher A and Teacher B introduce 3 digit addition with trading using the column method for the first time. Teacher A and Teacher B both have their students practice the new method for 60 minutes, but Teacher A masses practice and Teacher B distributes it over time. Considering the research on spaced repetition, we can reasonably assume, given all other variables stay the same, that Teacher B’s students will outperform Teacher A’s students on an assessment in the future.

Screen Shot 2020-05-08 at 2.00.56 pm.png

This works because spaced repetition combats the forgetting curve. The forgetting curve shows how memory is lost over time when there is no attempt at retaining it. The important lesson that it gives us is that memory is lost at an incredible rate. However, every time we interrupt the forgetting curve, it takes a longer time to forget. So whenever our students are reviewing something as part of a spaced repitition schedule, they are strengthening the encoding of that memory. The more times the information is reviewed, the slower the rate of forgetting.

Screen Shot 2020-05-08 at 2.03.19 pm.png

When exactly you should have students review content in a spaced repetition schedule is important and tricky. We know that the best point at which students should review material is just as they are about to forget. If students review content just as they are about to forget it, then the longterm impact on remembering that content in the future is optimised. Researchers believe this is the case because the effort required to actively recall information from longterm memory is higher if we are just about to forget. Counterintuitively, the more difficulty students have when successfully recalling information, the higher the impact on learning.

In a classroom context, reviewing content as students are about to forget is difficult. The teacher’s pedagogical content knowledge and ongoing assessment are crucial for choosing which content needs to be reviewed on a frequent schedule, and which can be reviewed on a less frequent schedule. Generally speaking, new content should be reviewed frequently after the point of initial instruction with spacing increasing between reviews over time.

“to remember something for 1 week, learning episodes should be spaced 12 to 24 hours apart; to remember something for 5 years, the learning episodes should be spaced 6 to 12 months apart. Of course, when students are preparing for examinations, the degree to which they can space their study sessions may be limited, but the longest intervals (e.g., intervals of 1 month or more) may be ideal for studying core content that needs to be retained for cumulative examinations or achievement tests that assess the knowledge students have gained across several years of education.” (Dunlosky, et al, 2013)

If we want spaced repetition to work in the classroom, we must first accept that some of the time within a lesson needs to to be put aside purely for revision. This is not simply about reviewing what was learnt in the previous lesson because, as Dunlosky et al. state, intervals of over a month may be required for the most important content. Time needs to be put aside to review many things, both new and old.

In a primary context, I like the idea of having a daily review session in English and Mathematics that purely focuses on learnt content. These reviews can go for 15-30 minutes and can review different learnt content, perhaps 5 to 10 different things, everyday. In other KLAs that are not taught as intensively (Humanities and Science, for example), I like to have a 10-15 minute review to begin the weekly lesson. The teaching team can decide on the schedule of what is to be reviewed depending on the subject and the assessment information they have. By slicing out some time purely for review, we can ensure that students quickly touch on different learnt material over time, resulting in better learning for the long term.

Finally, as a general piece of advice (and I can only speak for primary here), I recommend avoiding having a whole lesson as a review on a single concept unless students are demonstrating fundamental misunderstandings during review. Put simply, students that do not understand something do not need to review it, you need to reteach it.

What not to do

To sum up so far, we know that active recall and spaced repetition are the two best revision techniques. There is a strong evidence base for them, but they are not common practices in classrooms. How we integrate these principles into our pedagogy is one of the most important aspects of our work.

I’d also like to talk briefly about what not to do. Be mindful to avoid doing the opposite of the two strategies –  avoid passive review and massed practice.

Highlighting, rereading and summarisation are examples of passive review, and were evaluated as revision strategies with low utility by Dunlosky et al. (2013). They paid particular attention to these strategies because they are popular. If we accept active recall as the optimal way of revising learnt content, we should think carefully about whether or not students are doing the cognitive work. If not, they are probably too passive in their review. We want to avoid that.

And as I have explained already, we should avoid having students mass their practice because it does not optimally combat the forgetting curve. Pending students understand the content, it is much better to review the content for 5 minutes spread across 5 time intervals than 25 minutes at once. Naturally, massing practice will result in good performance on a task in the short term, but remember that good performance won’t necessarily result in longterm learning. It’s the effortful retention over spaced intervals, sometimes months apart, that really count.

If you haven’t already, connect we me on Twitter @johnkenny03. 

Highly recommended further reading and viewing:

Key paper: Dunlosky et al. 

The forgetting curve

My blog on Daily Review

Ali Abdaal’s videos on active recall and spaced repetition

How to Help Students Remember: Active Recall and Spaced Repetition

You taught a lesson. It went as planned. The students responded well to your questions and were able to complete the independent work without a problem. You left the classroom feeling confident your students had learnt something that day. But then, come assessment time, the success rate on the relevant questions related to that lesson were low. Perhaps around 60%, perhaps lower. You’re puzzled. The lesson went well, so why didn’t they remember?

This is a common problemI’ve encountered many times. Classroom teachers are good at presenting new content and ensuring students understand it. What we’re not good at is ensuring the students remember what they’ve learnt. Learning things for the first time is exciting and invigorating. Remembering things – going over material over and over again – simply isn’t. It’s not as sexy. No one really likes to talk about, so it gets neglected.

There are two revision strategies that will help your students remember more: active recall and spaced repetition. Integrate these strategies into your practice and your students’ success rate come assessment time will skyrocket.

Active recall

Active recall is an efficient learning strategy. It is the idea that if you endeavour to actively recall information then you will, in turn, efficiently strengthen that memory. It contrasts with passive-review of content, which does not require as much effort on the part of the learner. For example, rereading a text on how we classify mammals with no further action is passive-review. Answering a series of questions on how we classify mammals is active recall. The distinction between active recall and passive review is the amount of cognitive effort required. Actively putting in the effort to recall information is most efficient for longterm learning.

Active recall is counter-intuitive. Most people, including teachers, intuitively assume learning and remembering are about putting information into the brain. But, in fact, research has shown that, rather than repetitiously trying to ‘top-up’ our longterm memory with the same information, we remember more when we try to actively take information out of our longterm memory.

Active recall takes advantage of the testing effect and is considered to be the most efficient way to maintain what has been learnt. In 2013, Dunlosky et al. wrote an article titled Improving students learning with effective learning techniques which summarised the utility of popular learning techniques. They found that practice testing, which necessitates active recall, has high utility.

“On the basis of the evidence described above, we rate practice testing as having high utility. Testing effects have been demonstrated across an impressive range of practice-test formats, kinds of material, learner ages, outcome measures, and retention intervals. Thus, practice testing has broad applicability. Practice testing is not particularly time-intensive relative to other techniques, and it can be implemented with minimal training.”

Dunlosky et al. highlight several studies in order to draw this conclusion. One study by Runquist (1983) seeked to compare the performance between conditions that do and do not include a practice test. Participants were presented with a number of word-pairs for initial study. After study, half of the participants were tested via cued-recall and half were not. A final cued-recall test was taken 10 minutes and 1 week after the initial study period. The study found that performance was better for participants that were practice tested than participants that were not (53% versus 36% after 10 minutes, 35% versus 4% after 1 week). The students that were required to actively recall information performed much better. Other studies also demonstrate and elaborate on this effect. See here and here.

Hopefully you are convinced that active recall is a strategy we should use to improve student learning. Now I’d like to discuss how active recall can be used practically in the classroom. Luckily it’s not complicated. Because active recall takes advantage of the testing effect, you simply want to be thinking about testing students more often. Any way you can present questions and have students make the effort to answer them will cause students to engage in active recall.

For example, during review in a primary context, I present a slide of a question on learnt material, for example on 3 digit addition with trading, have students answer the question on a mini whiteboard, and then give them the answer as feedback. Finally, I quickly check their work before moving on to the next one. Testing them is the key here – the students have to make the effort to actively recall the steps to solve the addition problem. This is much more effective than simply remodelling how to solve the problems.

Screen Shot 2020-05-08 at 3.16.13 pm.png

I also like to use multiple choice quizzes. Quizzes are great because they require students to actively recall information in order to eliminate distractors and provide the correct answer. This is much better than simply explaining what was learnt. Again, testing is the key here. It requires students to engage in active recall.

Screen Shot 2020-05-11 at 12.31.18 pm.png

It is also important to note that quizzes of this type should be low-stakes. That is, no grades or evaluations need to be made after the quiz is taken. This is because the main idea behind using a quiz is to promote learning through active recall, not to assess and grade work. It is important students understand the quiz is being used to help them learn and not to watch them perform. I’ve found that framing quizzes in this way promotes self regulation: they know that the quiz is their to help them, so they’re much more keen to discuss things with their peers and pursue feedback and discussion with the teacher.

The message from the research is clear: find ways to test your students more often to engage them in active recall. They will remember much more.

Spaced repetition 

Spaced repetition is the idea of distributing students’ active recall of learnt concepts over time. The effect occurs when practice is spread out. This contrasts with the more popular method of massed practice, whereby students review an idea many times in quick succession. Dunlosky et al. (2013) describe spaced repetition, which they call distributed practice, as having high utility.

To illustrate how spaced repetition works, imagine on Monday Teacher A and Teacher B introduce 3 digit addition with trading using the column method for the first time. Teacher A and Teacher B both have their students practice the new method for 60 minutes, but Teacher A masses practice and Teacher B distributes it over time. Considering the research on spaced repetition, we can reasonably assume, given all other variables stay the same, that Teacher B’s students will outperform Teacher A’s students on an assessment in the future.

Screen Shot 2020-05-08 at 2.00.56 pm.png

This works because spaced repetition combats the forgetting curve. The forgetting curve shows how memory is lost over time when there is no attempt at retaining it. The important lesson that it gives us is that memory is lost at an incredible rate. However, every time we interrupt the forgetting curve, it takes a longer time to forget. So whenever our students are reviewing something as part of a spaced repitition schedule, they are strengthening the encoding of that memory. The more times the information is reviewed, the slower the rate of forgetting.

Screen Shot 2020-05-08 at 2.03.19 pm.png

When exactly you should have students review content in a spaced repetition schedule is important and tricky. We know that the best point at which students should review material is just as they are about to forget. If students review content just as they are about to forget it, then the longterm impact on remembering that content in the future is optimised. Researchers believe this is the case because the effort required to actively recall information from longterm memory is higher if we are just about to forget. Counterintuitively, the more difficulty students have when successfully recalling information, the higher the impact on learning.

In a classroom context, reviewing content as students are about to forget is difficult. The teacher’s pedagogical content knowledge and ongoing assessment are crucial for choosing which content needs to be reviewed on a frequent schedule, and which can be reviewed on a less frequent schedule. Generally speaking, new content should be reviewed frequently after the point of initial instruction with spacing increasing between reviews over time.

“to remember something for 1 week, learning episodes should be spaced 12 to 24 hours apart; to remember something for 5 years, the learning episodes should be spaced 6 to 12 months apart. Of course, when students are preparing for examinations, the degree to which they can space their study sessions may be limited, but the longest intervals (e.g., intervals of 1 month or more) may be ideal for studying core content that needs to be retained for cumulative examinations or achievement tests that assess the knowledge students have gained across several years of education.” (Dunlosky, et al, 2013)

If we want spaced repetition to work in the classroom, we must first accept that some of the time within a lesson needs to to be put aside purely for revision. This is not simply about reviewing what was learnt in the previous lesson because, as Dunlosky et al. state, intervals of over a month may be required for the most important content. Time needs to be put aside to review many things, both new and old.

In a primary context, I like the idea of having a daily review session in English and Mathematics that purely focuses on learnt content. These reviews can go for 15-30 minutes and can review different learnt content, perhaps 5 to 10 different things, everyday. In other KLAs that are not taught as intensively (Humanities and Science, for example), I like to have a 10-15 minute review to begin the weekly lesson. The teaching team can decide on the schedule of what is to be reviewed depending on the subject and the assessment information they have. By slicing out some time purely for review, we can ensure that students quickly touch on different learnt material over time, resulting in better learning for the long term.

Finally, as a general piece of advice (and I can only speak for primary here), I recommend avoiding having a whole lesson as a review on a single concept unless students are demonstrating fundamental misunderstandings during review. Put simply, students that do not understand something do not need to review it, you need to reteach it.

What not to do

To sum up so far, we know that active recall and spaced repetition are the two best revision techniques. There is a strong evidence base for them, but they are not common practices in classrooms. How we integrate these principles into our pedagogy is one of the most important aspects of our work.

I’d also like to talk briefly about what not to do. Be mindful to avoid doing the opposite of the two strategies –  avoid passive review and massed practice.

Highlighting, rereading and summarisation are examples of passive review, and were evaluated as revision strategies with low utility by Dunlosky et al. (2013). They paid particular attention to these strategies because they are popular. If we accept active recall as the optimal way of revising learnt content, we should think carefully about whether or not students are doing the cognitive work. If not, they are probably too passive in their review. We want to avoid that.

And as I have explained already, we should avoid having students mass their practice because it does not optimally combat the forgetting curve. Pending students understand the content, it is much better to review the content for 5 minutes spread across 5 time intervals than 25 minutes at once. Naturally, massing practice will result in good performance on a task in the short term, but remember that good performance won’t necessarily result in longterm learning. It’s the effortful retention over spaced intervals, sometimes months apart, that really count.

If you haven’t already, connect we me on Twitter @johnkenny03. 

Highly recommended further reading and viewing:

Key paper: Dunlosky et al. 

The forgetting curve

My blog on Daily Review

Ali Abdaal’s videos on active recall and spaced repetition

How to think about pedagogy

Pedagogy is the practice of teaching. It is what teachers actually do in the classroom. The big influence teachers have on student learning makes pedagogy an ongoing hot topic. Many have different ideas of what pedagogy is and what it is trying to achieve. The term ‘pedagogy’ can be vague.

Jo Facer, a secondary principal, loves simplicity. She speaks so eloquently about how the eduworld overcomplicates pedagogy to the detriment of learning. She argues that this has lead to an array of bad pedagogical practices that manifest in different ways. Epistemology as pedagogy is an overt example of what she is talking about – it is the idea that a discipline’s epistemology can or should be used as one’s pedagogical approach. This is a popular approach in Australian primary science education where thinking like a mini scientist and engaging as mini scientists is popular. A confused understanding of pedagogy largely stems from faulty thinking about how students learn best.

Facer’s idea is that our understanding of pedagogy has become far too complicated. As a solution, Facer calls for simplicity. She recommends we think about pedagogy as essentially addressing three things:

1) Attention – are students listening?
2) Understanding – are students understanding?
3) Memory – are students remembering?

By thinking of pedagogy in this way, we can better understand whether what we are doing in the classroom is purposeful and effective.

Attention – are students listening?

If students are not listening to what the teacher is saying then they are not going to learn much. Although somewhat of a truism, we know students need to listen to what the teacher is saying because of the heavy impact scaffolding has on the rate of learning. This is all about promoting the right conditions for learning.

Eliminating distraction will likely be the first priority in most classrooms. Behaviour management plays a role in this. From overt displays of bad behaviour to whispered conversations of one’s new Mario Maker level design, social influences in the classroom can cripple attention. If students are constantly being distracted then they will not learn very much. In this way, behaviour management is about eliminating distraction to promote attention.

The teacher’s engagement norms and routines are also important. A crucial yet often overlooked engagement norm is the expectation that students keep their eyes on the teacher or student while (s)he is speaking. Another laughably-simple-yet-powerfully-effective norm is using a ruler to follow along line-by-line while reading a text in a group or as a class. In the primary classroom, engagement norms with whiteboards (whiteboard marker down, whiteboard on the floor) are particularly necessary and powerful influences on attention. To establish and maintain these norms, teachers should use behaviour management purposefully. Establishing and maintaining these norms helps students maintain their attention.

Silent entry (to the classroom) is one of the most effective routines in my classroom. Things get wild at recess and lunchtime. Coming back into the classroom silently helps eliminate distraction and focus attention right away. Early on in the year, I also use a floor-to-tables transition routine. Students transition between the floor and tables silently in three steps. 1) stand up and move 2) sit down 3) GO (prompt to start straight away). These routines are designed to eliminate distraction and help focus attention. They help ensure students are ready to listen to what I have to say and attend to tasks assigned. I’ve found that it is so important to practice these routines until they are completely automatic. Once they are automatic, they really pay off.

Once distractions have been largely eliminated, and engagement norms and routines have been established and adhered to, the teacher still needs to ensure students are listening. It is still possible for students to be passively distracted. Are they following along, or is this evening’s planned antics on Fortnite on their mind? This is where questioning comes in. Teachers need to ask frequent, targeted questions so that students understand that the expectation is that they are attending to what is being communicated. It keeps them accountable. Cold calling is essential to ensure this works well. This questioning-as-accountability rationale is separate from checking for understanding but frequent, targeted questioning serves both purposes simultaneously.

Understanding – are students understanding?

First and foremost, getting students to understand is about communicating information precisely and unambiguously. We want the students to deduce only one possible interpretation of an idea. The best way to do this is to adhere to the principles of explicit instruction. Put simply, we need to present information clearly and in small steps using examples and nonexamples (models), and give a ton of guided practice with necessary support (scaffolds). Working in a different way while students have not attained a base standard of knowledge will only hinder understanding, not help it.

Students can also be attending to what is being communicated but learning very little because they do not understand. This can happen even if the explanation is exemplary. At primary level (and I daresay well into the secondary years), many students haven’t learnt to reliably and accurately communicate their misunderstandings. This could be because they aren’t fully cognizant of how powerful it is to communicate their misunderstanding, are nervous about doing so for social reasons, or they simply don’t know that they don’t understanding.

Because we cannot rely on students to reliably communicate whether or not they understand something, our pedagogy needs to be tailored to bring misunderstandings to light. The foundation stone of checking for understanding is to eliminate self-report.

Teacher: okay, those are the basics of cellular structure. Everyone clear on the difference between human and animal cells?
Students: ahh, yeah
Teacher: Good, let’s push on to the role of chloroplasts.
(
From Teach Like a Champion)

This is an example of what not to do. If we accept the idea that students will not or cannot reliably and accurately communicate their misunderstandings, we should not ask them to do so. We should not ask them to self-report. Instead, we should ask a series of, “carefully-chosen, open-ended questions directed at a strategic sample of the class and executed in a short time period.” (Lemov, Teach Like a Champion, Chapter 1). Planning the questions in advance and sampling strategically – being clear on who you want to ask a question to and why – will give a teacher clarity on what standard they are looking for.

The last step major step in checking for understanding is to increase the sample size. The higher the sample, the better the reliability. Students need a ton of guided practice. In my classroom, I use Show Me to increase my sample size while seeing how students are getting on during guided practice. In almost every lesson, students use whiteboards to answer key questions and then ‘show me’ their work. This helps me see if students are able to actively show evidence of their understanding. It helps me figure out if they are ready to work independently. It is important teachers think about techniques they can use to increase the reliability and validity of the data they are receiving from their students. That’s how we know they have all understood – not just the clever ones.

Memory – are students remembering?

A good definition of learning is a change in long term memory. Students can show understanding and complete independent work at a high level of performance but still learn very little. This is because forgetting plagues learning. Memory is the most neglected area of pedagogy. It’s neglected because memory and forgetting are not well understood and reviewing material simply isn’t that sexy. Learning something new is exciting; going over material 5, 10 or 20 times isn’t. That requires sweat and toil.

Pedagogy needs to be tailored to support memory for the long term. It needs to combat the forgetting curve. We need to 1) put practices in place to help students remember and 2) check to see if they have actually remembered by assessing their knowledge and skills.

At primary level, almost every student needs a highly structured review in every lesson. This is because they do not have the academic skills to manage a review themselves in a time-efficient way, and if they do not review learnt material, they will forget it very quickly. These highly structured reviews should stick to the two golden principles of review: active recall and spaced repetition. Students need to be active during review. They need to be doing the cognitive work. They also need to be actively engaging in topics spaced over time; ideally, they should be reviewing content just as they are forgetting it. This will maximise remembering.

The work done at Bentleigh West Primary School, a public school in Victoria, around Daily Review has helped me immensely in understanding how review can work effectively at primary level. I think that their review strategy is very good because they have thought long and hard about how they can adopt the principles of active recall and spaced repetition in a primary classroom context. They have nailed time-efficiency. I have written about them and strongly recommend reading and watching the embedded Youtube video of Bentleigh West teacher Dave Morkunas demonstrating Daily Review.

Once material has been understood and reviewed often, it is then important to assess if the knowledge is being maintained over time. This is where assessment comes in. I think a common mistake is to assess material once, give a grade, and then never assess the material again. This is a pedagogical flaw. To fix this flaw, Jo Facer recommends retrospective assessment. The idea is to include assessment material on the current topic, but also include prerequisites in the assessment materials as well. I think White Rose Maths does a good job of this as the assessments they create include questions on material learnt in the year prior to the current one. They include questions on prerequisite knowledge to current learning. They have this idea of retrospective assessment in mind.

Jo Facer’s simple understanding of pedagogy is refreshing and oh so true. Conceptualising pedagogy as essentially addressing three areas – attention, understanding and memory – helps frame the purpose of our pedagogical approach and technique. It’s a good way of assessing effectiveness and identifying areas for improvement. So remember, are they listening? Are they understanding? Are they remembering?

How I’m getting the most out of my (new) job

Things have changed. My work routine is nothing like it used to be. I work as a ‘remote teacher’ now and that’s been challenging. My productivity and overall enjoyment of my job took a hit in the first few weeks of the change.

I wasn’t hard on myself for it. I think it’s a common, normal reaction. I love the fast-paced intellectual work of classroom teaching. Working remotely is a different ball game. It’s not as stimulating and certainly not as busy. I have less problems to think about and more time to think about them. It’s had an impact on the fulfilment I draw from teaching, and I think that’s a feeling a lot of us have had.

Thankfully, although I doubt it’ll ever be the same as actually being in a classroom, I’ve found ways to manage the fulfilment I get from my new role as a remote teacher. I’ve noticed some underlying principles that are helping me stay happy, motivated and fulfilled in the (new) work I’m doing. I think that applying these principles can help any teacher manage this change to our professional lives. So if you’re in a bit of a rut, I hope these ideas help!

Life long learning

It’s a cliche, but definitely true for me during this weird old time of remote teaching. Engaging in subject areas I find super interesting has helped motivate me. And motivation is hard when the kids aren’t around.

I have spent a lot of time pouring over How Learning Happens, a book on educational psychology, and took some online courses to sharpen my linguistic knowledge. Learning motivates me to be better at what I do, and I think that’s especially important right now.

There’s something about improving your own knowledge that motivates you to be better. I recommend improving your knowledge if remote teaching is creating a bit of a slump for you. It certainly helped me.

What interests you in education? How can you find out more?

Fast bad wrong

This is a mindset that has helped me enjoy my new work. The idea is that when you are attempting to create something new, you should simply accept that, at least in your mind, it is going to be of low quality. One of the biggest obstacles to getting started on something new is this knowing that the first draft is going to be pretty bad, so just do the first attempt fast, do it bad, and know that’s it’s probably going to be all wrong.

When I started making video lessons, I kept this mindset of fast, bad and wrong. It helped me get started and helped me keep the focus on improvement over perfection. I thought to myself, “right, I am going to do this fast, it’s probably going to be bad, and it’s probably going to be all wrong. Let’s just get started.”

Adopting this mindset moves your evaluation of your work away from overall achievement (how good is this?) to improvement (how can I make this better?). It’s much more gratifying to think about how to improve something. The principle has helped me focus on that, which has helped me enjoy the process of learning to do new things a lot more.

Share your work

Sharing your work helps you love your work. Writing is how I share my work. From a purely capitalist mindset, it doesn’t make sense for me to spend time writing about stuff on a blog that few people read. The return on time invested is not high. But that’s only if you’re talking in terms of $$$. Sharing my work actually makes me more fulfilled in my work. This is common. Just take a look at the explosion of presentations and video lessons freely shared online since COVID-19. These teachers are applying the same principle. They’re sharing things because, either consciously or unconsciously, they know that sharing what they do with others will help them find fulfilment. It helps them enjoy their work.

I encourage you to share your work with others. Maybe a blog? a website? OR, and I would love to see this, a Youtube channel??? Find a way to share your work. It will help you enjoy your (new) job more.

And just remember, if all else fails, you’re definitely not the only one that’s finding the change tough! Hang in there.

How Learning Happens: a GLOWING review

Most education books I purchase are worth the price, but every now and then a priceless book pops up. Some books are just so good you know they are going to stand the test of time. Daisy Christodoulou’s 7 Myths About Education is a great example. That book was right on the money. I still reread and refer to it. Doug Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion is another one. I am constantly flicking through it years after initially picking it up. These books are rare gems.

How Learning Happens by Paul Kirschner and Carl Hendrick is one of those priceless books. It’s a compilation of 28 seminal works in educational psychology grouped by topic.
1) How Does Our Brain Work?
2) Prerequisites For Learning
3) Which Learning Activities Support Learning?
4) The Teacher
5) Learning in Context
6) Cautionary Tales

How Learning Happens : Paul A. Kirschner : 9780367184575

Each chapter focuses on one research article chosen for its impact on educational research and usefulness in a classroom context. Providing the link between research and practice is the book’s main selling point. Research articles don’t cater for teachers, so it is often difficult to understand how the work can be applied in a classroom context. Plus, where do you even find these articles? Which ones are worth your time? The authors fill that gap. They provide discussion, suggestions and examples of how some of the most important works could be implemented in the classroom in a digestible way (the chapters are ~10 pages or less).

Teachers will already be familiar with some of the more popular works in the book. For example, I had already read Sweller’s Cognitive Load During Problem Solving and Kirchner, Sweller and Clark’s Why Minimal Guidance During Instruction Does Not Work. I know the content well enough to apply it in my teaching. While reading the chapters on these articles, my background knowledge helped me understand the authors’ intent in relating the research to classroom practice. I often found myself nodding along thinking, ‘yep, they’re exactly right.’ The cool thing is that, even though I am very familiar with these papers, it’s likely I’ll use How Learning Happens as my first point of reference when I need a refresher. That’s how well the book summarises the work.

There were papers I was not familiar though, and reading about them in this book helped me understand some of the things I already do intuitively in the classroom. For example, the third chapter is titled How Deep Is Your Processing? and summarises Craik and Lockhart’s work on levels of processing. The article’s main idea is that the level at which information is processed (shallow to deep) affects how well the information is remembered.

I knew little about this research. Of course, like most teachers, I had an intuitive understanding of the topic. I knew that getting students to think about what they are learning in the context of what they already know is good teaching, and that having them elaborate on the information works well for memory retention. However, if I asked myself, hypothetically, would I be able to explain why this is the case to a 5-year-old?, I would have said no. That indicated a gap in my professional knowledge. Reading about the work on levels of processing provided the clarity I needed to understand the rationale behind contextualising information and allowing time for elaboration. And we know, incidentally from other papers in this book, that knowledge helps experts solve problems. That’s why this book is such a gem: it provides enough clarity to strengthen my background knowledge, which will help me solve the very complex problem of how can I best help my students understand and remember this tomorrow, next week and next month?

Levels of processing provided one of many uhuh moments. I could ramble on gushing about how much I enjoyed this book, but I’ll spare you that. Just know that I often found myself feverishly writing down notes in Notion and googling for extra information and context after that mad rush of excitement learning new things and making connections often provides. I know quite a bit about education now, so it is pretty rare to find an edu-book that does that to me. I think it’s a priceless read.

I recommend this book to all teachers, new and old. New teachers will benefit by being introduced to many important topics they know little about, and more experienced teachers will benefit from the extra layer of clarity the book provides to what they already explicitly or intuitively understand about teaching.

Pick it up, read it thoroughly, and place it on the shelf ready for when you inevitably refer back to it.

 

 

Changing my mind on AITSL’s certification process

I am no longer a new teacher. I realised this was the case upon my return to class this year. Previously, a return after the summer break was difficult. I was nervous and a little stressed about what was to come – a completely normal reaction for a new teacher (lack of experience will do that to you). I did not have the same experience this year. This year, my fifth year of teaching, I feel calm and in control. Every year, I knew what I was doing – I wasn’t lost in the madness – but this year I really know what I am doing. My experience is really starting to show. It made me realise that I am no longer a new teacher.

I’ve now reached a different career stage. I am competent and confident in what I am doing, enough to make consistently good decisions and give advice on a range of instruction-related topics. I can anticipate potential problems and not second-guess myself while implementing effective solutions. I no longer need to keep reminding myself to act in a certain way or do certain things in the classroom – it all comes quite naturally. It seems I’ve entered some kind of middle-career stage, albeit at the very early entry point of it.

This has got me thinking about what I am to do in the future. For now, I am very much engaged in my work. I’m still excited about what I’m doing. Classroom teaching is complex and I still have much to work on to make incremental gains in my effectiveness; however, I know that eventually, I will need to do more to keep myself engaged. I don’t think that’s too far off if I’m completely honest.

Systems within Australia continue to grow due to population increases, and many older educators are due to retire soon, leaving many opportunities for career progression in leadership and administrative roles. From what I have heard and seen, it is not so hard to advance to an administration role. There are teachers with 2 or 3 years of teaching experience picking up AP roles. That’s great if you’re keen on administration, but what if you’re not? What if you want to stay in the classroom?

Currently, all systems except Victoria have signed up to Highly Accomplished and Lead (HALT) teacher certification through AITSL. This is treated as the option teachers who would like to stay in the classroom have for career progression. I have written about the problems I have with HALT certification, and although I still stand by my criticisms, I have changed my mind on what it is trying to achieve and what it can achieve for effective teachers.

In 2017, when I wrote that blog, I did not think HALT certification was a good idea (for the reasons outlined in the blog). However, upon chatting with colleagues and loved ones about my concerns and my thoughts about where my career could go in the future, I now believe the certification process is important. It has its flaws, but without it, there is no other good alternative to AP roles that ensures career progression whilst simultaneously allowing teachers to stay in the classroom. I don’t think I want to go into school administration, so what would I prefer: a system that does not have any certification process that raises a teacher’s pay, status and responsibilities, or one that does, even if it does have some flaws?

The certification has the potential to keep good teachers in the classroom for a longer period of time. Without it, I foresee ambitious and highly motivated teachers taking on administrative roles even if they’d prefer not to, for this would be the only way to increase one’s pay, status and influence in the system. I did not have the knowledge or experience to consider this early on in my career. With experience, my perspective has changed.

Will I take on HALT certification in the future? I don’t know, but I am happy that it is there as an option despite its flaws.

English and Mathematics Daily Review

English and Mathematics daily reviews (henceforth titled Daily Review) are quick, snappy sessions of previously taught content that take place within the English and Maths blocks. They can last 15 to 30 minutes and are designed to give students practice on previously taught content. It is best if reviews take place daily, most often at the beginning of the block, before the content of the main lesson is introduced.

Daily Review isn’t typical of how primary teachers conceptualise review. It is not a short ‘what did we learn yesterday’; it is a structured session packed full of content taught yesterday, a week ago, a month ago, or even a year ago. The idea is to cover taught content, often core content for the subject, in 2-3 minute time intervals back-to-back at a rapid pace. Because this style of review is so pacey, it is important new content is not included. Students will need more time to grapple with new ideas.

Anything that has been previously taught can be included in Daily Review, but core content – that which constantly pops up and supports the execution of more complex tasks – is best to include regularly. For example, I always include work on simple, compound and complex sentences with taught conjunctions, for I know practising writing sentences will help students write paragraphs and full compositions. In Mathematics Daily Review, I always include a slide on basic number facts within 20 or 100 as these will support students when they engage in problem-solving tasks. These are examples of core content that supports learning within the subject.

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It is best to do Daily Review using mini-whiteboards with strict engagement norms. You should teach your class exactly what they need to do so that the session is smooth. Daily Review loses its magic if the pace is sluggish – students get bored and not enough content gets covered. Students should know things like when and how to put whiteboards down, when to ‘jump in’, and when to show their whiteboard to a teacher. These are called engagement norms.

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As for organising the content, it is best to do this in Powerpoint (not completely necessary though). I’ve found that organising the content in Powerpoint slides helps to move through content at a rapid pace while also gaining the benefit of having a central location for the content. Once you have created a slide on a piece of content, you can file it away and simply paste it into the new week’s Daily Review slides when you wish to review it again. That saves time.

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Below is a video I STRONGLY recommend viewing alongside this blog. You will gain a much better idea of what Daily Review is all about. Dave skillfully explains and models the pace and engagement norms desired in Daily Review, and provides example slides and how to use them.

The Research Rationale

The rationale for Daily Review requires an understanding of the forgetting curve. Hermann Ebbinghaus was a German psychologist who studied the rate of forgetting by memorising a series of nonwords and testing his recall over time. He found that after committing new learning to memory, we experience a rapid initial loss followed by a further gradual decline in item recall.

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The forgetting curve tells us that if the taught content is not revisited, retrieval of the content will diminish rapidly. We, therefore, cannot be certain that what we teach in a single lesson will be retained over time. We can make a safe bet that much of it won’t be.

Although the forgetting curve is a natural process, it can be disrupted. Studies have shown that even reviewing material just once is enough to prolong forgetting. Unfortunately, without further review, this initial boost in recall will quickly be overcome too. The trick is to keep reviewing the content at spaced intervals. An initial review will help in the short-term, but reviewing material multiple times at different intervals will help students retain information for much longer.

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Ebbinghaus’s research has serious implications for classroom teachers. Spaced repetition of content is required if the content is going to be retained over an extended period. This is the rationale for Daily Review: it disrupts the forgetting curve and helps to ensure students remember what has previously been taught.

Cognitive Load Theory also rationalises Daily Review. CLT emerged from the work of the cognitive scientist John Sweller in the 80s and 90s. The theory builds on two assumptions. The first is that there is a limit to the amount of new information the brain can process at one time. The second is that there is no known limit to the amount of stored information that can be processed at one time. We can slowly build up knowledge in long term memory in the form of complex schemas that, when developed to automaticity, can be called upon to solve complex problems.

The formation of schemas in long-term memory is important because they work to reduce the load on the highly constrained working memory. If working memory is overloaded, there is a risk that the content being taught will be misinterpreted or completely misunderstood by the learner. The intrinsic load of the content could overwhelm working memory.

Daily Review can help students gain a high level of automaticity which will allow them to call on their knowledge rapidly, freeing up space in working memory. This will help students to solve more complex problems. Suppose a student is asked to compare the personalities of Mr Wormwood and Miss Trunchbull in Roald Dahl’s Matilda. The task requires the student to use the language of comparison and contrast to explain the similarities and nuanced differences between their obnoxious and abusive personalities. If the student has not practised using conjunctions for comparison and contrast such as whereas, although, but, even though and however, then the task may be too difficult. If the student has practised writing compound and complex sentences with these conjunctions during English Daily Review, the task will be easier to complete. The constant practice builds schema in long term memory to the point of automaticity. The knowledge can be called upon to complete a more difficult task; in this case, comparing the personalities of two characters.

Affective Impact

Implementing Daily Review will have a positive affective impact on students. This is because Daily Review helps students secure their knowledge to the point of mastery. I believe that disengagement in a subject is born of not knowing enough or not being able to do enough within the subject. Reading a book becomes much more enjoyable once you’ve secured the skills needed to access the phonological pathway, and solving mathematical problems becomes much more exciting when you are familiar with the problem’s deep structure.

Sarah Barker has a fantastic chapter in this book on the affective impact of direct instruction. She comments that review is, “a crucial part of improving confidence and competence” and that “the process of retrieving previous learning is achievable and accessible, and immensely satisfying.” I have seen this in my own classroom. Students are engaged when they can readily respond. On the other hand, not knowing often has the opposite effect.

Daily Review will have a positive impact on the teacher too. It’s great watching your students succeed, but Daily Review will mainly impact the teacher because it allows them to do their job well. Because the kids review so much content, you will be getting a lot of feedback on how they’re going. Noticed 3 strong students have split 21 into 3 parts when asked to find 1/4? Time for further investigation. Noticed students added 3 digit numbers accurately and at lightning speed? Things are going well. The strengths and weaknesses become very obvious when you are receiving info this rapidly every day. This helps you do your job better, and that’s satisfying.

So you want to know how to teach reading?

Four Corners recently aired a report on education that featured the Reading Wars. The report itself did not surprise me much. It summarised the arguments of both sides in typical fashion. What really got my interest was the comments made by pre-service teachers interviewed for the piece. One made comments on his teaching degree that made it clear the information he is receiving is vague. He said that he felt his teaching degree wasn’t giving much direction on how to actually teach kids how to read:

“I know at university, we’re taught a whole abundance of approaches to teaching reading and writing, but we’re not necessarily taught which one works. I think the reason for that is that people don’t know.”

I think his comments are very insightful because, at that very point in my career, I did not have the awareness to make judgements about my degree – my opinions were pretty staunchly aligned with the opinions of my lecturers. I’m happy to pitch a guess that most preservice teachers are like me; the pre-service teachers in the report are likely exceptions.

The pre-service teachers gave me much hope that there are new teachers out there that are hungry to learn how to teach kids to read effectively. If you are a pre-service or new teacher, and your curiosity has brought you to this blog, then you need to know that you don’t know nearly enough to teach reading properly. Yes, that is scandalous, and yes, you have the right to be upset about it. I also spent $$$ to learn very little. In the years since finishing, I have learnt enough to feel confident in my practice (though I still have much to learn!). There are some things worth knowing to get you started on your journey to becoming a good teacher of reading. Let me help you out by pointing you in the right direction.

Why bother?

In case you’re still not convinced that diving deep into the world of evidence-based reading instruction is necessary, then you should take the time to read this paper by 3 people that really do know their stuff. It’s tough reading; at least, I felt it was very hard to read when I first encountered it, for I did not want to admit that I did not know enough. I implore you to read it. Find motivation in it. You will feel so much more fulfilled once you realise you’ve got a ways to go and that you gain the knowledge you need to improve your practice and gain the best possible outcomes for the kids you teach.

One of the authors of the paper above also recently did some research into whether or not teacher education courses are giving their students the knowledge they need about effective reading instruction. The results were not encouraging. It’s worth your time.

It’s best if you move away from poor ideas

Having gone through initial teacher education, I have no doubt you have been introduced to the 3 Cueing System.

Image result for 3 cueing systemYou need to know that this model does not align with research on reading (1 and 2) and that you should move away from it as soon as possible. The Simple View of Reading is widely accepted as a good starting point for thinking about how students learn to read. You should move away from the 3 Cueing System and begin to study the Simple View.

The Simple View of Reading shows us that, while reading is a complex task, it can be represented as two independent processes: word recognition (decoding) and language comprehension. Skilled reading is actually a combination of these two processes. Decoding is the ability to get the words off the page accurately and fluently, and language comprehension is the ability to make sense of what is being communicated. If a student is deficient in either of these, then reading difficulties will arise.

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Treating reading like a combination of two separate processes means that we also need to teach the two processes separately. When students first come to school, they have little, if any, word recognition skills. This is why the evidence base recommends focusing on strengthening word-recognition skills right away while simultaneously and separately building students language comprehension through vocabulary, knowledge building, oral language and book exposure.

Whole Language and (so-called) Balanced Literacy advocates reject this evidence-based view of reading because they believe that reading words cannot be separated from ‘meaning’. They believe students can grasp the meaning of texts without actually being able to decode words as reading is a ‘meaning-making process.’ The 3 Cueing System says students should figure out words using ‘semantic’ and ‘syntactic’ cues before relying on graphophonic cues (graphophonic isn’t a word, btw. They mean using phonic knowledge). This approach has been debunked by reading research and should be put to bed. It’s actually worse than that: reading research has shown that this approach teaches the habits of poor readers (also). It’s not just that the 3 cueing approach isn’t correct, it’s actually completely and utterly backwards. The research strongly indicates that the Simple View really is the correct way to think about how students come to read: two processes that converge into skilled reading.

Since the publication of Gough and Tunmer’s 1986 paper, researchers have worked to expand on the Simple View of Reading. One often-cited model that expands and builds on the Simple View is Scarborough’s Reading Rope. The Rope breaks reading down into its two processes – word recognition and language comprehension – and expands on them to give a neat breakdown of the component parts of the two processes. This model does a great job of showing how complex the Simple View really is – it is simple, but not simplistic.

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Get familiar with phonics, but not ‘just phonics’

How students come to get the words off the page – the word recognition side of the Simple View – is the battlefront of the Reading Wars. Research has found that synthetic phonics, an approach where students are taught letter-sound correspondences in isolation and then taught to synthesise the sounds to read words, is the most effective way to teach word recognition skills (here). Whole Language advocates totally reject the evidence base for the efficacy of synthetic phonics. Within the evidence-based community, to reject synthetic phonics is akin to being a flat-Earther. Yet you will hear many on the Whole Language side disparage the approach as overly simplistic rote learning. That it is not. It is systematic, engaging, explicit and difficult to teach well. The evidence for it is very convincing. The debate around the efficacy of synthetic phonics is one where a lot of misinformation is thrown around, so I encourage you to dig a little deeper to get to grips with the facts of this approach.

Although phonics is rightfully at the forefront of the debate (it’s not taught very well, so evidence-based advocates push hard for change in that area), it’s important to note that it is not the only area that needs to be taught explicitly and systematically. The reading research actually identifies 5 components, or ‘keys’, of reading instruction that need to be taught in this way. The five keys are phonics, phonemic awareness, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension.

That preservice teachers do not hear about the 5 keys in their courses is evidence enough that something isn’t right. They were first identified as the 5 essential components of reading instruction in a report by the National Reading Panel in the United States titled, Teaching Children to Read: An Evidence-Based Assessment of the Scientific Research Literature on Reading and its Implications for Reading Instruction. Many publications on the 5 keys have been published since. The most digestible versions of these come from Hempenstall and NSWCESE. It’s well worth getting to grips with the 5 keys, for they form the basis of all effective reading programs. The amount of time devoted to each of the components will obviously vary across year groups and ability levels, but nevertheless, good reading instruction will teach all of the components explicitly and systematically.

Remember that you cannot teach what you don’t know

Do you know what a bound morpheme is? How about a schwa? A relative clause? An allophone?

If you had a similar experience to me, you won’t know what these are. You must know what these are and a very long list of other language concepts that aren’t considered super necessary by initial teacher education courses. You simply cannot teach what you know nothing about. Of course, there is a lot to know. No one expects primary teachers to have professor-level knowledge of the intricacies of, for example, bound and free morphemes, but a minimum standard is necessary. We should at least know what they are, why they are relevant, and how they that knowledge can be used to improve reading outcomes. That goes for a long list of language concepts.

I can’t recommend Louisa Moats’s Speech to Print highly enough. This book will give you the base knowledge you need to teach language concepts well. Trust me, you will have kids in your class that really struggle with reading. So much so that it is very easy to feel completely overwhelmed by their needs. Knowing your stuff will help you help them. There is no way around this.

I’d like to mention that there are people out there that go hard after teachers for a myriad of reasons. We are constantly poked and prodded at in the media. Some of the criticism is valid and some of it isn’t. If we are going to take a research-based, objective approach to things, then the criticisms of teacher knowledge in this area are valid. You must remember one simple thing: it’s not your fault; the bar is set very low in initial teacher education courses. All you should do from here is work to plug those holes.

Get to grips with explicit instruction

Knowing your stuff will make little difference if you do not know how to teach it well. Many have a role in helping teachers learn to read, but the teacher’s main role is to implement best practice in a classroom setting. We do the coal-face stuff.

Knowing a lot about the evidence on teaching children to read is a great start, but it won’t make much of a difference if you do not teach it well. The instruction really matters. Unfortunately, ITE is really left wanting in this area, too. Explicit instruction isn’t heavily favoured and, in my experience, often talked down on. Yet the evidence is very clear. From Project Follow Through to process-product research, the principles of explicit instruction have been shown to be effective time and again. This is the craft of teaching. Many people know the reading research – they study it and write about it – but only teachers implement the ideas in the classroom. It’s what we do as a profession, so it is important we do it right.

Barak Rosenshine’s paper on the principles of instruction is required reading. I cannot recommend Tom Sherrington’s booklet on this paper highly enough, and once you’ve moved on to refining your explicit instruction, picking up ResearchEd’s Direct Instruction book is a great idea.

Get on Twitter

Lastly, if you are not on Twitter, then I really encourage you to get on there. Twitter can be at times… erm… not great, BUT it can also be fantastic. There are very knowledgable people on Twitter willing to share their ideas daily. You will learn things at an amazing rate if you follow the right people! I’m @johnkenny03. See you there!

 

Critical Mass

In social dynamics, critical mass is a sufficient number of adopters of an innovation in a social system so that the rate of adoption becomes self-sustaining and creates further growth. The term is borrowed from nuclear physics and in that field it refers to the amount of a substance needed to sustain a chain reaction. (Wikipedia)

The sun came to say hello and then disappeared as quick as a lid on a new whiteboard marker, but that didn’t stop 300 educators lapping up the good vibes at Marsden Road Public School’s edition of Sharing Best Practice 2019. I personally enjoyed meeting a bunch of people I feel like I’d known for a long time but had never met in person (special mention to Rachel, who got stuck with me for a long while). I also enjoyed meeting quite a few brand new faces that are also interested in evidenced-based ideas and school improvement. Thanks to all who came and said hello to me.

It was great to be around like-minded educators. As Stephen Dinham said in his presentation, there are a lot of wacky and weird ideas in education on the scale that you do not typically see in other fields. This means that there are diverse philosophies floating around in schools. It can be hard to find people that are interested in what you are interested in. Sharing Best Practice provides the chance to mingle with like-minded people. And if you ask me, 300 people showing up during the holidays to talk about evidence-based education is very encouraging.

The workshops and keynotes I attended were all fantastic and firmly grounded in evidence. There was a diverse mix of school leaders, teachers, speech pathologists and researchers presenting – all people passionate about sharing what they know to improve things for students. I particularly liked hearing teachers speak. The teachers I saw had a natural flare about them (well, they do this sort of thing daily) and I think it is important for teachers to have the confidence to share what they know. After all, we are the ones right at the coalface. We need to be partners in creating change.

During the Q&A, which took place at the end of the day, many of the questions asked of the panel had the same ring to them: how do we spread evidence-based ideas and instigate real change? I thought the responses from the panellists were spot on. Although progress, arguably, has been slow, there is no doubt progress has been made. The conference is a testament to that. The only thing we can do is keep talking about good ideas – keep banging the drum. Eventually, we will reach a ‘critical mass’ of educators that are working with an evidence-based mindset. At that point, change will become more rapid. It is important we reach that critical mass.

What are the barriers to reaching a critical mass? Jennifer Buckingham addressed some of the barriers to change in early reading instruction, and I think they apply to evidence-based approaches generally. She highlighted initial teacher education as a very real barrier. Buckingham’s research into what is being promoted in ITE is damning. Hardly any courses promote robust ideas like systematic synthetic phonics, and some of the textbooks prescribed even denounce it as a worthwhile approach. I’d also like to add that school leaders are also a major barrier to reaching a critical mass. Well, they are not so much a barrier as a gateway to real change. As noted in the keynotes, many schools are actually ahead of the game (governments, universities) when it comes to implementing effective, evidence-based approaches. Schools that have experienced moderate or great success – West Beechboro, Blue Haven, Marsden Road – all have leaders advocating strongly for better approaches. Leaders steer the ship. The more leaders steering their boats in the right direction, the closer we will get to achieving a critical mass because, by definition, others will follow.

Special thanks to the staff at Marsden Road for making it all possible. I’ve been buzzing about it for a good 24 hours now and probably won’t stop until we get back to school!