Recently, I asked a class of top-set year 11s to identify the verbs in a piece of writing. It was a seemingly simple activity that I had given them a few minutes to complete, yet it quickly became clear from the blank faces I was met with that my request had posed something of a problem: after five years of secondary school, a sizeable proportion of the group did not know what a verb was.
How many times in 11 years of schooling must they have encountered the term before? How many times must they have heard the word uttered from a teacher’s lips or seen it written up on a board? Yet despite numerous exposures, this relatively simple concept, one probably within the capacity of a bright 5 year-old, had slipped away and had hardly been grasped at all. Of course, the humble verb is but the tip of the iceberg; the number of completely learnable terms and concepts which I have exposed my students to and they have have not learnt is too numerous to list.
This realisation, that so much of what I have taught has not been learnt, has been steadily dawning on me over the past year or so. It has set in motion a strange and vertiginous feeling, akin perhaps to trudging for many miles across a plateau in the hope of finding a place to spend the night, only to find oneself standing at the edge of a plunging, bottomless abyss.
Much has gone before, in my classroom and in others. Curricular have been jammed with sparkling ideas and concepts; lessons have overflowed with activities and ingenious new strategies; every inch of white board has been crammed with text and pictures and diagrams. Exercise books have been filled with words; hours of discussion have ricocheted between the classroom walls; synapses have sparked and connected in their billions. But still it is the same. So many children leave school knowing far less than we would hope them to.
The reasons for this are complex. Anybody who tries to tell you that there is one cause is wrong. Anybody who finds solace in an ideological or scientific explanation is probably only telling you half the story. Society, motivation and development all play a part, but I still think one of the causes has its roots in both curriculum and pedagogy. There is a paradox here: in trying to do so much we do too little.
My theory is that we try to throw too much at children, and that this is why so little of it sticks. A basic understanding of cognitive load theory can help us to conceptualise why over-stuffing lessons and curricular does not work. The human working memory – the part of the brain that processes new information – can only cope with a limited number amount of new information at one time. When it becomes ‘overloaded’, there is no room left to think, which can then prevent new information from reaching the destination it needs to get to: the long-term memory, where it can be stored indefinitely. (Alex Quigley usefully sums up how this works in this post on thinking hard.)
There are other reasons, too. One, which I have dubbed the as-the-crow-flies-error, lies in asking students to perform complex skills, like analysing a writer’s style, before being secure in the knowledge needed to be able to do this, such as understanding the text’s plot or comprehension of the writer’s language.
The recent drive to increase the level of ‘challenge’ in lessons is an important one, but only if this challenge is focused and achievable. I would argue that we should always aim for more depth and less breadth. Drawing on international comparisons, Tim Oates argues – here – that teachers should look to expand upon the current idea before progressing to the next ones. Take one idea and examine it in depth, rather than let five or six ideas be touched upon superficially. A concern with this approach, some might argue, is that it does not benefit our more-able students who will be forced to remain with topics that they are ready to move on from. However, with good planning and more imaginative and stretching questions, our more-able students might well benefit more from this approach than any other.
The beauty of this way of thinking is that we might achieve more success by doing less work than we already do. By stepping back, by deciding on what is most important (and then going home a little earlier) could we go some way towards helping students to learn things more securely?
What follows are the things I am currently working on in my role as English teacher; the principle behind them all, however, could extend into all aspects of school life:
- Plan to teach only 1 or 2 new vocabulary words or concepts per lesson.
- Give less feedback – i.e. set one target, not two, but give time and space over a number of lessons to work on it.
- Limit the number of success criteria, or procedural processes, that students work on in one go. (I have a habit of asking students to do 5 or 6 new things in their work; it works better to use fewer so that they can really think about them.)
- If a slide show is to be used, cut down the number of words per slide, and cut down the number of total slides . If they have to read something from the slide, allow time for that.
- Plan for two or three tasks per lesson, no more. Revisit the same material but in slightly different ways.
- Decide on the key, essential knowledge that must not be forgotten. Teach it, revisit it, test it … and repeat. Joe Kirby’s knowledge organisers provide a useful model of how this could be organised.
- Teach a bit, let the students write a bit. Teach a bit, write a bit. Teach a bit, write a bit. Lesson over.
Ultimately, all this is about prioritisation, about separating the wheat from the chaff – and then ensuring that the wheat is learnt well.
And if you are prepared to take this jump, perhaps you will have the spare time to start visiting friends, reading books, doing the things you enjoy and, dare I say it, forgetting about work.
(If you enjoyed this post, you might also enjoy this video on the art of subtraction from Jason Ramasami, who illustrates this blog.)