Practising what you Teach: Putting Evidence into Practice

A practical ‘review’ of What does this look like in the classroom (Hendrick and Macpherson, 2017).

There is no greater evangelist than the recently converted. And honey, I am preaching.

I don’t want to structure this as a standard review of Carl Hendrick and Robin Macpherson’s brilliantly edited collection of interviews with expert practitioners. You can read one of those here or here,  or here or you know what… Google the reviews. But read the book, certainly. Not all of it will ring true for you. I found the section on technology to be not particularly useful: well, certainly I found José Picardo’s answers to be arrogant and dismissive — generally deriding the questions and questioners, rather than offering any real insight, but that was a minor pitfall in an overall compelling collection of insights into the current evidence base for what we are and should be doing in the classroom.  I could also offer some criticism of the gender balance of the experts, and a host of other things, but instead, I want to focus on the question: What does it look like in the classroom?

Aren’t the last few weeks of the academic year a wonderful time for teaching and learning? The summative assessments are done; you can reflect on your successes and failures (because lets face it, in this climate, the students’ failures belong to us as well). I mean, yes, there are Subject Evaluation Forms (SEFs) or Department Improvement Plans (DIPs) to complete, last-minute performance management hoops to jump through, sports days, induction days, transition days, inset days, ‘I-can’t-be-bothered-teaching-in-this-damn-heat days’, ‘Miss-can’t-we-put-on-a-movie?’ days and so on. But I would argue there is no better time to be reflecting on your teaching practice and trying out something new that may just underpin a transformation in your teaching next year.

There are a few things I have been tempted by: Some flirtation with interleaved practice, a focus on new ways of giving feedback and assessment, but the two that I am practising now, in order to implement confidently and securely from the get-go next year, are the first two elements of ‘the streamlined classroom’ Hendrick and Macpherson’s wonderful culmination of the research outlined in their book. These are: ‘Reviews previous learning’ and ‘checks for understanding’. Not to suggest for a moment that I was not doing this before, but rather, considering ways to hone and indeed ‘streamline’ practice so that it become habitual and effective.

I have always been a fan of using Starters to support students to ‘activate prior learning’ and ‘make connections to new learning’ but I think that where this fell down was perhaps a lack of consistency of form. I want to cut out a lot of the noise and decisions I make in a lesson plan: for example, coming up with ‘innovative’ and ‘original’ ways to start a lesson. A lesson opener should engage students’ processing skills and get them thinking about what they have learned, in order to add to this schema in an appropriate way. In many ways, if you are being ‘innovative’ and ‘original’ in the way you present this starter, you may inadvertently be providing your students with cognitive overload.

So here are two different strategies I am practising  with one of my classes in order to develop a more consistent approach to retrieval practice and reviewing previous learning next year:

As students enter and settle into the lesson, there are five questions on the board for them to answer. I’ve called this my ‘5 by 5’ (a reference — that only I seem to enjoy — to the television programme of the late 90’s and early 00’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer). The questions are organised in a way that require students to assimilate factual recall with interpretation and justification — drawing from real-world experience to develop speculation, with connections to textual detail.

An example from a recent lesson on the novella ‘Animal Farm’ with Year Eight (More Able students): (Learning objective: To make connections between the novella and historical and present day events and concepts).

  1. What is Mr Jones’ role on the farm?
  2. Which animals entered the barn first?
  3. Why do you think Orwell chose these animals to enter first?
  4. Which character do you think will be the most significant to the narrative and why?
  5. How is Old Major’s speech similar to that of a politician’s?

During the previous lesson, we answered the question, ‘How might a farm be like a country?’ by developing comparative hierarchies and then read the first chapter of the novella as a class. Here, I modelled questioning for clarification and prediction, making connections, and explained the definitions of the words ‘communism’, ‘proletariat’, ‘allegory’, and ‘parable’. (LO: To recognise features of a parable).

After launching with written answers to the first five questions, there was a quick-fire question-choral answer retrieval of the definitions of each of the target vocabulary from the previous lesson, and a discussion of links between the events of the novel and historical and real world events.

Then, through guided discussion, students likened the animals to:

Countries campaigning for independence form colonial forces (specifically India)

Protestors against oppressive regimes (the Arab Spring, Syria)

Donald Trump: I pointed out Old Major uses the device of rhetorical absolutism, and students made connections between this and speeches by Donald Trump.

Many students thought Boxer would be the most significant character, because he is strong and well respected. Others suggested it would be Millie or Old Major.

Students also hypothesised that the list of acts that animals should not commit would become a list of rules that were eventually broken in the novel. In order to do this, they needed to draw on their existing knowledge of structural devices such as foreshadowing, and build on their new understanding of the use of parable and allegory in order to teach a moral.

‘Here’s the Answer; What’s the question?’ is another retrieval strategy I have been using alternately with the ‘5 by 5’.

Here, there are 5 ‘closed’ answers on the board, and the students need to devise a question for which each will be the correct answer. You can gather the questions in on post-its if you like, and use them to produce quizzes for future lessons, as well as for assessing the students’ understanding.

An example from the lesson immediately following the one described above is:

  1. Boxer
  2. Proletariat
  3. Socialism
  4. Rhetorical absolutism
  5. Moses

The beauty of a strategy like this is that it allows students to experience low-stakes retrieval practice, whilst also allowing for a degree of creativity. You can reward students who can provide multiple questions for the same answer, and assess where students have not been able to develop their understanding in previous lessons. E.g. a student who can make connections between Orwell’s criticism of the church might pose the question:

Which character provides an allegory for Orwell’s view of religion?

And a student who may not have understood this may pose the question:

What was the raven’s name?

or even:

Who received the ten commandments?

This is valid AfL, because it demonstrates quickly whether students have acquired the target knowledge well enough to discern a ‘relevant’ question from an ‘irrelevant’ one, and where you may be able to build on the existing knowledge students have to develop a stronger link for them, rather than trying to teach the new information in abstract.

Being able to reflect on a good edu-book in a meaningful way in the last weeks of term at a school I am about to leave, with a class that has done well this year, has allowed me to practice what I would like to preach: low-stakes testing for retrieval practice and the ability to hone your understanding and skills to develop mastery (of course, I’m describing my process here, not the students’). If we are to preach life-long learning, we need to practise it, and it’s important to be given the time and flexibility to do so. Taking advantage of the ‘lost weeks’ post exams and leading up to summer is the best CPD you can’t pay for. I highly recommend it.

If you have tried out a new approach this half term, or have found something you’re planning to try next year, I’d love to hear from you in the comments.




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