In trying to do so much we do too little

in doing too much

Image: @jasonramasami

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.)


18 thoughts on “In trying to do so much we do too little

  1. There are a couple of things that occur to me in reading this post –
    1. In primary we teach across the curriculum, allowing us to make connections, which in turn helps the children to make sense of what we have taught them. Once people have made sense of something, it tends to stick.
    2. It takes an awful lot longer to understand, to know and then to keep the knowledge we have taught a child – and in order to do this, children must use this knowledge a lot of times and in many contexts. Perhaps in secondary, where there are so many children to be taught, it is possible to deceive oneself that what one child has grasped in one class, so must another, because the same ground has been covered.
    3. Rushing is an ever present temptation. You’re right. It leads to vast holes in knowledge and understanding.
    4. I’m not sure I agree with your concept of working memory here. As I understand it, it is the ability to hold and manipulate short amounts of information, such as letters, when deciding new words, or numbers, or as during a mental maths calculation. This ability lasts only a matter of seconds – I’m not sure that this is what is happening in the situation you describe. Children (and adults) with shorter capacity for working memory have impaired ability to process long and complicated instructions (they have generally forgotten them by the time they settle down to work) – as teachers we might characterise these children as ‘Dolly Daydream’s.
    Anyway, a good post, with which I think we should all agree. Teach less, do it better.

    • Hi Nancy. Thanks for your comments.

      1 and 2. Although I’m not a primary teacher, I agree that a primary setting would seem to offer more opportunity than secondary for connections to be forged and knowledge to be revisited in a range of contexts – which is why teachers of secondary subjects must focus on curriculum cohesion to make up for this. Nevertheless, the problem I have described must also exist in primary too as so many children arrive at secondary with huge gaps in their knowledge. I am not to blaming primary teaching in any way; it’s also down to individual differences and the curious nature of learning itself.

      4. As for my definition of working memory, I am using it as a metaphor as much as anything. As you say, much of the laboratory research describes how the working memory deals with small pieces of information – letters and numbers, etc. I think it is reasonable to assume that similar problems exist when the working memory is dealing with more complex problems and concepts too. Even our most able students will have limitations in the amount of things they can think about at once. I have a lot of experience working with ‘top-set’ GCSE students. One of the things I have learnt over the years, is that they too struggle to cope with too many new ideas at once; they also need careful scaffolding (as long as it is pitched high). Apologies if my use of the research was a little cavalier or unclear.


      • Ha. I doubt you could ever be unclear, Andy 😊
        The issue of gaps is an interesting one. As an Sen teacher in a mainstream primary it is what I seem to spend so much of my time addressing. Sometimes it’s just that they forget (it’s not information they use all of the time, so it goes), sometimes there is a specific learning difficulty, and sometimes it’s just life. They were away, or there was a bee that day – it’s messy. Just like human life.

  2. Certainly fits my teaching experience and the evidence.
    One effective methods is ‘checking prior knowledge’. When i run training sessions it is clear that this is rarely done. Unless new knowledge can be linked to exiting knowledge, it cannot be understood. ‘Spaced repetition’ is vital for long-term memory.
    Anecdotally, I have a tutee who was able to balance chemical equations and interpret velocity-time graphs, but was getting D/E in GCSE assessments – she was lacking basic knowledge like ‘atom’, element’, ‘compound’ etc

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  6. Reblogged this on AMWinterbottom and commented:
    Really enjoyed this blog (from a maths teacher’s perspective) and it echoes a lot of what I have thought recently with regards to increased content at GCSE and teacher workload.

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  10. I grew up in a different country, where we had the concept of “studying”. This meant not just doing homework, but taking responsibility for making sure you actually knew and could recall the material you had covered that day/week/previous weeks. (Of course, we had textbooks which was a big help with this.) Not everyone lived up to this by an means, of course, but nonetheless the ideal was there. I was startled to find that this concept seems absent here; instead, there is “revising”, something you do at the end of the year’s work (and which all too often turns into cramming).
    In line with this, my observation of my own children’s schooling is that there all too often seems to be an assumption that once children have been exposed to something in the classroom, they should therefore “know” it, with little to no further effort.
    I suspect this relates to the appealing ideas about the ability of children to learn “naturally” and relatively effortlessly, that have been so popular over the last 40 years, combined with a distaste for testing and for more than minimal practice. Sadly, I think this is just pie-in-the-sky for most children. Genuine learning, unfortunately, often does require effort and work; although this can be reduced by good curriculum design and teacher-led spaced practice.

  11. Thinking as a writer, rather than as a teacher, I suspect that the problem for your students might be more to do with not understanding the role of a verb, and why it is important to be able to identify it, than with not remembering it as such. I think we remember long term what we find useful, rather than what we are told we need to ‘know’. It’s only useful to be able to identify a verb, if it changes or enhances the way that you write, and not as a separate skill per se. Perhaps an interesting question for your students (and one that would make verbs more memorable) would be to talk about what verbs *do* in writing, rather than which words *are* verbs? This is what worries me so much about the naming of the parts that goes in primary at the moment – why name them unless you know what they do to the meaning of what you write? The sense that a verb gives motion, action and impetus to a sentence is perhaps more important than knowing which words are identifiable as verbs, if we are thinking of ourselves as writers rather than as linguists?

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