The problem with progress Part 3: Designing lessons for learning

progOver my last couple of posts I’ve suggested that you can’t see learning in lessons, you can only infer it from students’ performance. This means that as a teacher, when you get students to respond to exit passes, signal with traffic lights and otherwise engage in formative assessment what you see are merely cued responses to stimuli. What I mean by that is that the tasks we set students to check whether they’ve learned what we’ve taught only tell us how they are performing at that particular time and in those particular circumstances; they offer no indication whether the feckless buggers will remember any of it, or be able to apply it in new and interesting ways. I’m not saying that assessing performance is without value; by monitoring students’ performance if we can get some idea of what they may have learnt. But that’s all it is: inference.

The problem comes when well meaning teachers, having been blessed with some training on AfL, believe that they can ever know what their students have actually learnt rather than what they were able to do, and then, congratulating themselves on their clear-sightedness, adjust their plans for tomorrow’s lesson accordingly. At a massively simplified level, the process might look like this:

  1. Teacher teaches students how to multiply fractions.
  2. Teacher sets some problems which require students to multiply fractions.
  3. Students successfully complete these problems.
  4. Teachers marks their books and thinks, ah good; they’ve all learnt how to multiply fractions.  Let’s more on to some harder sums.

Sound familiar? I’ve certainly operated in this way (although not about fractions!) The problem is that I’ve really no idea whether the students really have learned what I wanted to teach them. All I know is that they were able to do (or not do) the task I set. If I assume that knowledge has successfully been transmitted and move on, many of the students may not have retained anything from the wonderful lesson I so lovingly crafted. And I won’t realise this until they sit some terminal exam and fail.

Of course, this is a caricature and I’m sure no teacher would actually behave this way. Would they?

Well, maybe in a culture obsessed with demonstrating progress in lessons they might. If they’re under pressure to design lesson so that an observer can tick a box and nod wisely at what the students have magically learned they might start to think that this is in fact the right thing to do.

Learning is messy. Sometimes students look like they’re making no progress at all but actually they just have a problem with the performance task you’ve designed. Sometimes students seem to fly; they jump through all our hoops and then, for reason we can work out, don’t appear to know anything when they’re asked to apply their knowledge in a different setting. And sometimes students look like they’re learning loads but actually they were able to do all they stuff you just taught em back in year 6!

Or maybe we prepare students so thoroughly to perform in exams that that’s all they can do.

So, if that’s the problem, what’s the solution?

Well, step one is to organise your programme of study to introduce what Robert Bjork calls ‘desirable difficulties‘. (See links at the end of the post.)

And step two is to plan lessons which take account of how children actually learn rather than how we’d like them to. Here are a few principles to help us do precisely that:

1. Build progress into learning outcomes

This is pretty obvious really. Use your spaced and interleaved curriculum to add to and connect the knowledge students are (you hope) acquiring. Nuthall’s research tells us we should assume that students will only retain new concepts in long term memory when we have taught them for the third time. Until then we need to remind students about the context in which they previously came across the information in order to activate their working memories. I’m going a bit off-script here, but I’ve become increasingly convinced that SOLO taxonomy is most effectively used to plan learning outcomes; many of the tricks and gimmicks involved in explicitly teaching students about the taxonomy should, perhaps, be bypassed to concentrate on expanding students’ domain knowledge.

There, I’ve said it. I find SOLO  valuable in helping to plan and organise a curriculum, but much of the time I was previously putting into teaching the taxonomy itself was based on the flawed belief that it would help students demonstrate progress. And make no mistake, it is great for getting students to demonstrate progress; but of what? If I accept that learning takes time and needs to build on a firm foundation of knowledge then there really isn’t any value in prompting students to show they’re able to more from multi-structural to extended abstract in a single lesson. All this demonstrates is the progress they’ve made in their ability to perform a particular task at a particular time. True extended abstract thinking develops over time. This is of course something we should plan for and it seems a sensible use of time within a spaced, interleaved curriculum that we should plan to take students on a journey from knowing very little, to knowing a lot, to being able to apply this knowledge in new and interesting ways.

An alternative approach to helping students to think more deeply about the knowledge they’re acquiring is contained in this guide on Visible Thinking from the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

2. Test for prior knowledge

If we’re to have any chance whatsoever of tracking what students learn we need to know what they have already learned. This means that before we teach a topic we should use diagnostic assessment to see what we might need teach and who we might need to teach it to. Nuthall tells us that 50% of what teachers teach is already know to their students. And to further complicate matters, students will all know a different 50%! This sounds impossibly complex; how are we ever to know what to teach?

Since the acquisition of new knowledge and skills depends on establishing pre-existing knowledge and skill, knowing what students know and can do when they come into the classroom or before they begin a new topic of study, will help us design lessons that build on student strengths and acknowledge and address their weaknesses. Cognitive psychologist, Daniel Willingham says, “students come to understand new ideas by relating them to old ideas. If their knowledge is shallow, the process stops there.”

Diagnostic assessment doesn’t have to just be a test. Direct measures like tests, concept maps, interviews etc. are all useful but so, sometimes, are more indirect methods like student self-assessment, reports and inventories of topics that have already been studied.

How to organise a concept map

A quick word on concept maps. Novak and Canas describe concept maps as “graphical tools for organizing and representing knowledge. They include concepts, usually enclosed in circles or boxes of some type, and relationships between concepts indicated by a connecting line linking two concepts. Words on the line, referred to as linking words or linking phrases, specify the relationship between the two concepts.” So, essentially they’re a more structured mind map (and not under copywrite by Tony Buzan!) Concepts are represented hierarchically according to the structure for a particular domain of knowledge and also on the context in which that knowledge is being applied or considered. I’d advise constructing concept maps with reference to a particular question you want students to focus on. This ‘focus question’ can be broad or specific depending on what you’re planning on teaching – the key is to keep students focussed on identifying concepts that answer the question and then rank them in order of importance. These concepts are then used to construct the map, which, students need to realised is never finished but will expand to fit in new concepts they learn along the way. And that’s the point: all students will have constructed their own map which they can use to help them decide what they need to learn. (More on concept maps here.)

Too trendy? If co-construction’s not your bag, you can always stick with a test; as long as you have a reliable means of assessing what students know before you start teaching you’ll have a benchmark against which to assess how much they’ve learned when you finish. Anyone who doesn’t do this is effectively fumbling in the dark and using a combination of guesswork and fortunetelling to work out their students’ progress.

3. ‘Take the temperature’ of lessons 

It’s important to gauge whether students are ‘getting it’. I written before about how I use my ‘flow chart’ to work out whether the levels of stress vs challenge in lesson are sufficient for students to move from what they comfortably know to knowledge that is ‘just out of reach’. But the king of the in-lesson thermometers is the hinge question. For the uninitiated, here are the essentials:

– A hinge question is based on an important concept in a lesson that is critical for students to understand before you can move on.
– The question should fall about midway during the lesson.
– Every student must respond to the question within two minutes so go with  multiple choice, factual questions
– You must be able to collect and interpret the responses from all students in 30 seconds. This is a great use for all those mini whiteboards gathering dust in the stock cupboard.
– You need to be clear on how many students you need to get the right answer in advance – 20-80% depending on how important the question is.

4. Use dialogic questioning to explore misconceptions

Dialogic teaching is very different from the classic question-and-answer sessions we’ve all either suffered or perpetrated in which students compete to offer brief answers to closed questions. In contrast, dialogic teaching is characterised by comparatively lengthy interactions between a teacher and a student or students in a climate of collaboration and mutual support.

Alexander (2005) describes dialogic teaching as:

… collective, supportive and genuinely reciprocal; it uses carefully-structured extended exchanges to build understanding through cumulation; and throughout, children’s own words, ideas, speculations and arguments feature much more prominently.

A teacher’s stock in trade is the question. Acres of forests have been felled to provide the paper needed for all that’s been written about questioning but in the interests of the environment and convenience I’ll point you in the direction of Alex Quigley’s Top 10 questioning strategies.

The point is that we need to have a battery of questions ready to explore what students currently understand and to use this information to guide them away from amusing misconceptions. This can be done during whole class direct instruction or with individuals or individuals while students get on with the tasks you’ve designed for them to demonstrate their current performance. If you have students’ concept maps to hand you’ll be able to establish who might need particular support with this particular topic as well as who requires stretching to make relational links with the stuff they don’t know so well.

The Rolls Royce approach might be to design specific questions for key students, but who’s got time? I rely on using a range of clarify, probe & recommend questions in order to drill into why students think what they think and to get them to establish connections with the other aspects of the course which are being interleaved.

Over to you

I’m sure there are many more wonderful strategies which promote the long term retention and transfer of knowledge rather than the whizz bang showmanship of teaching for short term performance, but these will be enough to get you started. I’d be delighted if you felt able to suggest your own top tips for designing lessons for learning.

Related posts

The problem with progress part 1: learning vs performance

The problem with progress part 2: designing a curriculum for learning

25 Responses to The problem with progress Part 3: Designing lessons for learning

  1. […] with huge thanks to The Learning Spy, I tried to get my meagre think-tank around something I had seen bandied about Twitter for some […]

  2. jamesmcdonald says:

    Just stumbled across this article following a tweet from Geoff Barton. Fantastic reading. Even on the first Sunday of half term! Thanks for sharing.

  3. Ellie Russell says:

    Another great post to make me think about what I do and why. Thanks.

  4. Heather Leatt says:

    I have enjoyed reading these posts, not least because they have made me think about learning and progress more carefully than I have done for a while. I think there is a misunderstanding about the nature of learning sometimes – remembering something is not the same as having learnt it. It is easy to think that pupils have learnt something new just because they can recall it the next lesson – real learning has only taken place when that knowledge can be applied in different situations. It’s that “creative” bit at the top of Bloom’s taxonomy. Can you apply what you know and even create something new from it that demonstrates real understanding?

    In my experience, long term retention and and transfer of knowledge is improved if pupils are given opportunities to practice what they have learnt in other curriculum areas. Functional skills had a go at delivering this – the idea of transferable skills which could be used not just across curriculum areas, but in “real life” situation too – ie outside of school. PBL, if planned and implemented effectively can contribute to this too. For it to work, however, there have to be mechanisms for this to happen, eg planning and mapping cross-curricular opportunities to build on what is being taught in other subject areas. A degree of co-ordination is needed!

  5. learningspy says:

    Hi Heather

    We could have a long discussion about the differences between learning, knowing and remembering, and I feel strongly that creativity does NOT belong at the top of a taxonomy: you can be creative with very little knowledge. SOLO’s ‘extended abstract’ is a much more useful measure of the level of students’ understanding.

    You’re right to say that ideally this would all be dealt with consistently across a whole school. That is certainly a worthy aim and when I’m king of the world I will be sure to implement. Until then we have a responsibility to affect change where we can; as individual teachers or with departments.

    Thanks for taking the time to comment, David

  6. Heather Leatt says:

    I think you’ve misunderstood what I meant by creativity in relation to Blooms, or maybe I chose my word badly. I was thinking of it in the sense that you can take what you have learnt and understood and create something different out of it, that demonstrates the depth and quality of the understanding. To use English type examples:

    write a missing scene
    create a new character
    turn a scene or episode into a song or poem

    the success criteria would be that these aren’t done randomly. They have to fit in logically with what’s gone before, but also add something new or different. To do this properly and effectively you have to have an in-depth knowledge and understanding of the thing that you’re changing and build upon it.

    I hope that’s clearer. I have never used SOLO , so can’t comment on it from a practical point of view. Heather

  7. englishplanner says:

    Excellent. I think I was meandering my own way towards SOLO and this has helped organise some ideas. Similar to your use of hexagons, I am playing with some linking games for next term although I think they need some further development. I’m waiting for the fog to clear but if anyone reading wants to comment, that’d be great. Thanks.

  8. learningspy says:

    Heather, I understood what you meant and I really wouldn’t be happy with any of those examples you give. It would be ALL about the success criteria and what would that have to do with creativity?

    It doesn’t follow that creativity is necessarily better if it’s based on “in-depth knowledge and understanding of the thing that you’re changing”; that can lead to pastiche and parody, but it isn’t any more creative than drawing a lovely picture.

    I’ve written about creativity before; as an English teacher I view writing as ‘creativity’, and as such acknowledge the need to teach rules. The better you know the rules the more intelligently you can break them. But creativity per se is not something that I’d place at the top of a hierarchy – it’s present at every level of Bloom’s (which is part of the reason I find Bloom’s taxonomy unhelpful).

    Here are a few of the posts I’ve written which relate to these issues:

    Thanks, David

  9. […] The Problem with Progress (Learning vs Performance, Designing a Curriculum for Learning, and Designing Lessons for Learning).  It talks about how we have to decide whats more important, learning or progressing rapidly. […]

  10. Heather Leatt says:

    Thanks for the response. First of all, I’d much rather be having this as a face to face discussion, as I never think trying to debate in writing is as effective! I think we will have to agree to disagree on this one. I take your point about the English examples, but although they may result in what could be called a pastiche, they won’t necessarily descend into parody and could still show an understanding of a writer’s techniques and intention, that would not have been present when they first started the work. I would say this is more like synthesis than parody. You’re right, you could paint a lovely picture – but if it was one that read between the lines and showed that the student had understood some of the subtleties of a text, why wouldn’t that be valid?

    Your picture eg made me thinkmabout what hapens in art. You see the same thing when looking at GCSE and art portfolios. Pupils study a range of artists, looking at philosophy, techniques, preferred media etc and produce work of their own in a similar vein – in good portfolios you can see the progress as pupils work on and refine their own products and annotate them, explaining rationale, decisions and improvements made, with explanations. From this, pupils learn about a range of different artistic styles, practise them and through synthesis, gradually find their own. In a different way, students of art and drama do similar things.

    I will read the other posts you provide links for with interest. Have a good day!

  11. learningspy says:

    Heather – you’re right ‘good’ pastiche would require a relational understanding of a writer’s craft and style: it would be a synthesis. Which is why I’m not keen on placing creativity at the top of a taxonomy. Creativity is only impressive when it’s extended and abstract; hence my suggestion that SOLO is a much more useful classification system.

  12. Tim Eaglestone says:

    Hi David

    I’ve come to similar conclusions over SOLO. I think it’s very useful (much more so than Bloom’s) when planning for progression over a period of time: be that a lesson or series of lessons. However, I was always reluctant to make the taxonomy the focus of the lesson as it felt like some kind of proxy for the subject itself.

    It also dawned on me that I spend most of my time on the multistructural stage with opportunities for relational stuff as students’ knowledge and skills developed. I stopped beating myself up about not really getting to extended abstract and I think it’s nonsense to go for that every lesson. It’s not that I have low expectations, it’s just that showing progress in the taxonomy does not necessarily correlate with deeper learning and understanding.

    You are right when you say: ‘True extended abstract thinking develops over time.’ And yes, that should be the end goal. So I keep a copy of the taxonomy taped to my desk to help plan lessons and questions, and I dig out a HOT Map from time to time. I do look for ways in which my students can be ready for extended abstract tasks. But I don’t let the SOLO tail wag the dog.

    P.S. Thanks for passing on Bjork links. Very good timing as I need to write a KS3 scheme of work for computing and desperately want an evidence base behind the planning.

  13. […] versus ‘learning’ – The Problem With Progress – which you can find here, here and here. Taking as his starting point @kevbartle’s brilliant post on progress, @learningspy asks what is […]

  14. Mary Whitehouse says:

    Excellent !
    Many thanks for this, much food for thought and some interesting links to follow.

  15. Lyn Tiernan says:

    Discovered your blog yesterday and have been reading back through posts. I love the energy and passion. And am really enjoying the mental challenge of reflecting on my own practice. So inspiring! But what I love most is that your posts affirm my teaching practice and experience, instead of making me wonder if I really know anything about teaching as many other blogs do!

    PS interesting discussion of creativity, Blooms etc. I’m Australian so for us ‘writing back’ to the text as described in the English examples above is a post-colonial act. Just sayin’!

  16. […] may recognise it from THE PROBLEM WITH PROGRESS PART 3: DESIGNING LESSONS FOR LEARNING where David goes on to […]

  17. […] Over my last couple of posts I've suggested that you can't can't see learning in lesson, you can only infer it from students' performance. This means that as a teacher, when you get students to respond to exit passes, signal with …  […]

  18. […] The Problem with Progress part 3 – designing lessons for learning Go with the flow – the 2 minute lesson plan Work scrutiny – what’s the point of marking books? Anatomy of an Outstanding Lesson […]

  19. […]–M0G3-dU.twitterThis looks interesting re SOLO. […]

  20. […] Part 1 – Performance vs Learning Part 2 – Designing a curriculum for learning Part 3 – Designing lessons for learning […]

  21. […]–M0G3-dU.twitter This looks interesting re SOLO. Plus it jogged my memory about the accelerated learning cycle lesson structure […]

  22. Andy McHugh says:

    I recently wrote about the issues with ‘measuring progress’ and would love to know your thoughts if you had a moment. Huge fan by the way and welcome back from your mini Twitter exile!

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