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Memorable lessons and memorisation

I am currently working with a marvellous staff team at Cedars Short Stay School in Newcastle in Staffordshire. This school provides educational pathways for pupils and students who live in the Newcastle District or Moorlands District of Staffordshire who are not attending mainstream school. The caring and committed staff cater for a wide range of needs, including children who reside at the Darwin Base, a CAMHS tier 4 inpatient unit at the University Hospital, North Staffordshire.

In discussing the CPD programme with the coordinator for staff development, it was clear that my training sessions had to recognise the wide range of challenges facing teachers and support staff at the school’s various sites, and so my most recent work on evidence-informed principles was seen as ideal. Six one-hour twilight sessions were agreed covering the following agendas:

1. Sharing learning intentions and success criteria.

2. Learning environment and classroom management.

3. Progression and meeting individual needs.

4. Reading comprehension, key words, and knowledge.

5. Responsive (adaptive) teaching.

6. Feedback and feedforward.

With the final two sessions still to take place, it is clear that my concept of principles rather than ‘fixed’, micro-managed methods, is welcomed by staff. The principles’ approach sets out clearly to educators what the evidence tells us is most effective in terms of teaching, learning and assessment, (the principles), but does not define how those principles should be met. What works for one age group, subject or context will not necessarily work for all, so teacher and team judgement are central to the approach, along with a high level of trust in the professionalism of staff.

At Cedars, the principles’ approach is effective because the headteacher has the trust in staff that is often lacking in schools dominated by explicit micro-managed policies. Such policies are often accompanied by excessive scrutiny, surveillance, and accountability – the very issues that are driving teachers from the classroom.

Readers may know that there is a current emphasis, emanating from both the DfE and Ofsted, on cognitive science and memorisation. Inspectors are quizzing students during inspections on what they can remember about key concepts and what is often referred to as ‘rich knowledge’. Indeed, one commentator on education policy has suggested that the most commonly found word in the Ofsted framework is ‘knowledge’. Comments such as these below are commonplace in inspection reports:

“Recent strategies to develop pupils’ memory and recall are not yet having enough impact.”

“Teachers do not always ensure that pupils embed key knowledge in their long-term memory.”.

Teachers across the country are responding to this perceived demand by ensuring that lessons include memorisation activities with retrieval practice, spaced learning, and interleaving, all of which have been shown by the EEF to be effective in aiding recall.

However, the response to these demands in some classrooms is having unintended consequences. I recently was asked to undertake an audit of teaching, learning and assessment in a secondary school in England. I observed over 40 lessons during the week. Nearly all subjects and age groups were involved and while I saw many skilled class teachers, I was surprised at the low-level of participation from the students. In some classes only 3 or 4 students spoke, to answer or ask questions, and in only in three lessons was there any dialogue between students in groups or pairs.

Rosenshine’s popular list of principles includes advice for teachers to ‘ask a lot of questions and check for understanding’ and ‘check the responses of all students’. During my week auditing lessons, cold calling and ‘think, pair, share’ questioning techniques were rarely used and mini whiteboards were used in only one lesson and, in any case, are not effective for many teachers.

The concern I have from this admittedly limited sample, is that the DfE’s preferred approach of direct or explicit instruction with lots of short tests and memorisation activities, is in danger of leading to a more passive student workforce. Reactive teaching, where teachers use feedback from questioning to adapt lessons and, on occasions re-teach, relies on participation from students in questioning, and, in my view, this can only be achieved if the teaching itself is interactive. Long periods of listening, with little dialogue in pairs or small groups simply reinforces passivity, and where this coincides with classes where many of the students lack confidence, skill, or self-esteem, then alternative strategies are needed.

The CPD sessions with the staff at Cedars is based on the principles outlined earlier, but includes a menu of practical techniques for delivering them. The concept of the ‘menu’ is important. Sharing learning intentions and success criteria with students is a non-negotiable principle – the research evidence tells us that it is important that students understand not only the purpose of the learning but what a good final product or performance looks like. But ‘how’ learning intentions and success criteria are communicated is negotiable – the menu consists of up to 20 ways of doing this. What works for maths may not work for English; how success criteria is shared in science may be different in art; how key knowledge and vocabulary is learned in geography may differ from how it is communicated in food/catering.

One consistent issue is important in this debate, however. It relates to the work of the late Graham Nuthall, a professor of education in New Zealand who devoted 40 years of his career to research on teaching and learning. One of his books, ‘The Hidden Lives of Learners’ was ground-breaking. It documents the process of recording the conversations of learners in live classrooms to reveal their hidden thoughts while they are being taught. He discovered that many students ‘tune out’ while teachers are talking and that however skilled teachers are, not all the information they are conveying is received. He suggests in the book that:

“Because students learn from their experiences those of us who are teachers need to design activities in ways that students cannot avoid interacting with the information and we need to tailor those activities to students prior knowledge and understandings so they can make use of them.”

He goes on to conclude that while memorisation is important, the best way to recall information is to ensure lessons are ‘memorable’.

“One way of making information memorable is to embed the information in a range of different activities. This practice leads to the information being experienced and stored in memory in a variety of ways, so it has a better chance of being remembered.”

The principles’ approach offers a menu of techniques, and this supports the Nuthall theory of variety of activity. One example from the CPD illustrates this agenda. In a topic on healthy eating (food technology or science) the concept of ‘balanced diet’ is central. The term is first taught and modelled through class instruction. Later, the teacher uses a word dominoes activity with laminated cards being set out on a table (or whiteboard) where student are asked to link dominoes, (e.g. the term ‘cholesterol’ placed next to ‘heart disease’, with students required to explain the link between the words (or images). The teacher in the next lesson uses a ‘hot seating’ activity where members of the class ask the student in the ‘hot seat’ questions about diet. Later still, the students are required to write a conversation between a nutritionist and a member of the public on ‘how to eat more healthily’. They are required to ensure that 10 key words related to the topic are in the script they produce.

These ‘memorable’ lessons, Nuthall argues, will aid recall. Such activities, of course, demand participation and are more likely to engage and motivate learners who are reluctant to take part in normal questioning. Practical and stimulating activities are central to all the principles in this series of CPD sessions.

Robert Powell is happy to discuss CPD needs, without any commitment on either side, with any school wanting to explore possible support. His website, which includes testimonials, is Email and telephone 01785 664143 or 0771 505 0910.

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