The holy trinity of English teaching: direction, immersion and habit

Over the past couple of years it has become clear to me that the individual lesson is too simple a vehicle to be relied upon as the main driver of learning. That is not to say that lessons are unimportant in themselves, but that learning itself is too tricky and elusive to be calculated from the cumulative sum of a series of hour-long, bite-sized chunks of teaching. To me, this vision of learning presents a child with a situation not unlike being asked to clamber up a set of stairs with a raging inferno hot on his tail. Even if he gets to the top without being sizzled to a cinder, his chances of ever making it down again are very slim. Each stair – each unit of learning – burns away just as his foot leaves it.

Instead, our students need repetition, consolidation and extension; if not, their seeming progress can be little more than a Pyrrhic victory.

This problem is especially true of English teaching. Language learning is not speedy or linear or logical; in fact, it is slow and erratic and associative. It is the result of mastering and practising some fundamental concepts, but it also benefits from a virtuous cycle of discovery: the deeper we submerge ourselves, the more we learn, and the more we learn, the more likely we are to dive deep again. Vocabulary research, for instance, suggests that young people absorb new words through multiple exposures in slightly different contexts. The lesson-by-lesson, unit-by-unit, year-by-year model can be too crude to manage this successfully.

We need a mature vision of English planning and teaching that appreciates the interplay between the short-term and the long-term, that recognises the conceptual and iterative nature of learning, and accepts the supporting roles that reading, writing, speaking, listening and thinking all play in this process.

I like to think of English teaching in terms of three principles: direction, immersion and habit. A holy trinity, if you like.

Direction

‘Direction’ covers all the concepts, information and chunks of knowledge that we want students to learn and will direct them to learn. This might range from how to spell ‘onomatopeoia’ to knowing the events in Chapter 1 of Animal Farm to understanding how and why writers use imagery to represent their main ideas. This learning will, at times, be specific to one context; at other times, students will apply what they have learnt to a range of new reading, writing and speaking situations. This material can and should be planned for lesson-by-lesson, but it is even better to plan to revisit it so that students are less likely to forget. It is the stuff of ‘learning objectives’, ‘lesson plans’ and ‘curriculum maps’.

Image: @jasonramasami

Immersion

If direction is about the depth and strength of learning, immersion is about breadth and diversity. We cannot expect students to remember everything they have been taught, and teachers cannot repeat everything students have been exposed to ad infinitum.  English classrooms should immerse students in language and ideas so that they also have the best chance of learning indirectly and through osmosis. Text choice and task choice are important here: in my view, children need to be constantly challenged to read and think beyond the confines of their world. Engagement and enjoyment are important to immersion but perhaps we should be making things ‘interesting’ rather than fun.

Image: @jasonramasami

Habit

Students consolidate and improve their reading and writing skills because they maintain good habits over time. Helping students to do this has to be one of the main priorities of the English teacher, and it is an area of planning that calls for a coherent long-term strategy because it is devilishly difficult to do (see this post). First, we must decide on the behavioural habits we need to inculcate in students: these might be to rigorously edit and improve their work independently, or to read every day for pleasure, or to give full and well-reasoned verbal explanations in response to teacher questioning, or to always consider alternative viewpoints when analysing a text. All of these are worthy aims. Whichever we choose, we have to work backwards from the habit, work out the best way to teach students how to get there and then maintain an unrelenting focus on it over an extended period of time. From my experience, the more habits I try to promote, the fewer my students take on board. Less is more in this case. Of course, once the habit is in place, new habits can be introduced slowly.

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Image: @jasonramasami

So there you go: teach some material clearly and directly, and expect it to be learnt; create an environment where indirect learning becomes more likely; insist on those habits that are most conducive to long-term skill development. These can only be brought about through intelligent planning and a more subtle definition of what constitutes a good lesson.

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The ideas in this post have been a precursor for a new and exciting long-term writing project that I am about to embark upon. I am looking to refine these thoughts so please share your opinion and let me know if there is anything blazingly obvious I have left out!

Thank you for reading.

Andy

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Sequencing lessons in the run up to exams

The weeks preceding an exam always feel like a mad rush, at times chaotic. There’s so much our students need to know and be able to do in such a short space of time that it can be hard to identify what to cover and what to leave out. These final lessons should pinpoint the  critical content of our subjects, but sometimes in our desperation to throw everything at students we can create more problems than we solve, leading to confusion and inertia.

My year 10s will be sitting their AQA, GCSE literature exams towards the end of May. One paper will ask them to write extended responses to two literary texts: Of Mice and Men and An Inspector Calls. The other will ask them to compare two poems on the theme of conflict – of a group of 15 – and respond to an ‘unseen’ poem (i.e. one they have not read before). Barring two poems, we have now thankfully covered everything else on the syllabus. There is still, however, much to do. Not only do my students need to revise, extend and connect – and perhaps even critique -what they already know, they also need to practise writing exam answers in a fluently academic style. How do I fit it all in?

Two recent posts by English teachers have inspired me: Joe Kirby’s on ‘knowledge organisers’ and Phil Stock’s on how and why we should teach students to memorise key quotations. Joe’s post argues that by creating a simple one-page organiser we can a) meticulously clarify the key knowledge in every topic and b) provide a memory tool for students to revisit and test themselves with. Phil’s post looks philosophically at how learning a quotation might lead to greater appreciation of literature. He also argues that “from a practical point standpoint, a well-selected quotation can stimulate deeper language analysis or act as a cue for links to other ideas and interpretations across a text.” Phil then shares a number of practical memory strategies to help students learn them accurately.

I have created knowledge organisers for An Inspector Calls (link) and Of Mice of Men (link), complete with key quotes.

AIC knowledge

OMAM knowledge

These were more tricky to design than I had expected. I agonised over what I was leaving out as much as what I left in; I imagine many other English teachers will quibble with my choices. Still, I see these as cues and points of reference to inspire richer, fuller interpretations rather than ends in their own right. I decided not to create a poetry organiser for two reasons: 1) it is easy to find quotes in the exam as students are given complete poems and 2) I will use these first two as experiments – I do not want to over-complicate things at this stage.

So, the next question was: how should I plan the sequence of lessons leading to the exams? Here, I have looked at the evidence from learning science shared in Make it Stick by Brown et al and How We Learn by Benedict Carey. This is also nicely summarised by Dunlosky et al (2013) here.

This is my revision programme:

lit revision

Lessons (apart from extended exam practice) will:

1) Begin with a ‘memory platform‘ where they will be tested on key knowledge/quotes from the knowledge organisers using a wide range of  quizzing methods. Students need to be fluent in this knowledge and to do this they will need to cover it repeatedly. They will be encouraged to elaborate on these points of knowledge, exploring their wider significance.

2) Revise and extend a key area. OMAM and AIC – the green lessons – will be taught side-by-side, whereas the poems will be revised in pairs.

3) Lessons will end with 15 minutes of deliberate writing practice where students will be expected to hone the finer parts of their analytical style by writing a paragraph at A/A* standard – this is a top set – based on the content of the lesson (modelling and scaffolding will feature here too).

Rather than tell students to ‘go home and revise’ I will give them specific revision tasks for the first few weeks before the cramming inevitably ensues. These will involve self-testing using the knowledge organisers, further extended writing practice and planning exam answers. Fortunately, we do have more than 12 lessons until the exams – I have given myself some wiggle room and a chance to respond to any other pressing needs that arise.

So why do I think that this has a reasonable chance of working effectively?

The evidence suggests that distributed practice is more effective than massed practice. I have avoided blocks (two weeks of OMAM, two weeks of AIC and two weeks of poetry). This scheme breaks this into smaller chunks that sit side-by-side. Another way of looking at it is that students will be constantly shifting across an interconnected body of knowledge, practising it as they go, rather than the more traditional approach of studying three isolated units of knowledge.

The evidence suggests that regular retrieval practice aids long-term retention – it is much more effective than re-reading notes. The ‘memory  platforms’ allow for regular quizzing – teacher, self and peer. Before we revise each poem, they will read it and annotate themselves; this will ultimately be a retrieval task (although, of course, they may usefully generate new ideas too). The extended writing opportunities will be a chance for students to both extend and apply their knowledge. Lastly, lessons will be peppered with retrieval questions: e.g. ‘Give us a quote/event that supports that argument?’ or ‘Let’s have two adjectives to describe Slim.’

The evidence suggests that getting students to elaborate – the process of finding additional layers of meaning in new material – can further aid retention. Rather than simply recalling information and quotes, students will constantly be asked to explain the broader significance of this, linking it within and across texts.

The evidence suggests that through interleaving – alternating between different problems rather than focusing entirely on one – not only is the material more likely to be retained, but it will improve  chances of success in a future test. As you will have noticed, the lessons alternate between poetry and drama/prose all the way through. Teaching  literary texts side-by-side is really exciting: students must consider the finer, subtle differences between them. Which writer provides the most positive portrayal of women? Both Priestley and Steinbeck took a socialist stance: how do they differ? Which text has the greater emotional impact? In other words, students might well gain a more nuanced understanding of the texts by considering them in relief rather than in isolation.

Caveats

As a research lead at my school, it is incumbent upon me to present evidence-informed ideas in a cautionary light. I think my sequence has a strong chance of working, but…

1) While the research into the learning methods presented above is robust, it has yet to be tested in my classroom. Will these findings extend to the study of English literature in my real-world context or not?

2) The success or failure of my plan will, as always, hinge as much on quality of my teaching along with the motivation of the students. We will all need to work hard outside of lessons.

3) While Phil Stock’s ideas about learning quotations appeals to my confirmation bias, I have yet to see/read about conclusive proof that this method produces better extended writing. It is great fodder for an action research project.

4) With so many variables in the mix, it will be hard to evaluate the effectiveness of this approach. Without a control group, it would be unwise to jump to assumptions based on exam grades. Looking at student work for evidence of impact would be a safer option – as would buying back one or two final exam scripts. I ‘could’ interview students on their views. However, the research into ‘desirable difficulties’ – as the strategies I have shared are sometimes known – suggests that even though people may have learnt more through exposure to these approaches, they often feel that they have not.

Your thoughts would be appreciated.

Thank you for reading.