Tuesday 29 March 2016

Thinking about: - Posters

Thinking about:

When you set an activity, or tell a story, or show a video to help a child learn one of the inevitable consequences is that they will devote some of their thinking to extraneous matters. Some of these are difficult to avoid. Feeling hungry. The argument you had with your mate. The fact that the room is too cold or too hot.

The other ‘unwanted’ diversions can come from the task itself. Recently Twitter was ablaze with postergate. Whether posters were sometimes a distraction or a device to essentially keep children busy rather than to help them learn. Of course any technique can be used for good or bad in terms of supporting of distracting from learning. I have my own view, supported by observing poster-lessons in a number of schools. It is very easy to set the task of creating a poster and have children spend a great deal of time and thought on aspects that are not related to the content of the poster.

A poster is essentially a display device whose job is to attract so that the ‘reader’ can be informed. The problem is that the attractiveness can take over so very easily. Children know that attractive posters matter. They are right. It is an important feature of a poster. But while they are thinking about how to make a poster that does attract attention they are not also spending that time thinking about the information on the poster. Presumably, the information is that which is to be learned and so needs to have the maximum thinking allocated to it.

That for me is the point missed by those who tweeted their ire about the fact that creating a posters *could* be a valuable learning device. True but how easy is it to get children to focus on the intended learning when they are also trying to create an attractive poster?

The form of the work that children are asked to put their work into; A poem, a poster, a display or whatever has its own challenges. If a child is utterly familiar with making a poster then they can spend more time thinking about the learning. If they struggle to create a poem is that struggle to do with what is to be learned or to do with the construction of the poem?

Struggle with learning is fine if it causes deeper thinking about the learning NOT if it is a struggle with the format.

For the above poster how much learning is gained by the production of the poster compared to, say, deciding on what information to include without then creating the poster?

'via Blog this'

Monday 27 April 2015

Why do I need a teacher?

Walking the dogs through the glorious Welsh landscape is brilliant thinking time. Today they were particularly well behaved. I could walk the lanes with my hands in my pockets and with no pulling on the leads. The weather was hot enough to be very pleasant and with a gentle breeze blowing it was just great. I had chosen a route that had no sheep in the fields on either side of the lane. Most have now produced their lambs and the shepherds are tending to keep them all close to the farm buildings. They will all be out and about soon enough.

I was thinking about what it was that a teacher did. A bit like the ‘If we have Google, why do we need a teacher?’ Google alone would work if education was simply about collecting bits of knowledge. You will know my views on the need for and the value of knowledge. We need as much as we can get and it needs to be readily accessible. I hope you do not read into this piece that I am espousing any view that lowers the status of knowledge. I am most certainly not!

In the very rural area in which I live there are lots of trees. I like trees. But I am not very good at what used to be called ‘nature’. My wife can look at a flower in the hedgerow and almost certainly identify it. All I know is that she is consistent. I don’t actually know if what she identifies a flower as is truly that particular flower’s name. I trust her, though so I am pretty sure she is right.

Back to trees. I was wondering how one identifies a particular tree. I can identify an oak tree by the shape of the leaves and I think I know that a sycamore has those helicopter like seed pods. I can do a fir tree. But that is about it. Oh no, I think I can do beech as it has a distinctive bark, silvery and peeling.

But what actually matters in tree identification? Is it leaf shape, or seed pods, or bark? What else. Will any one of these do or do different identification features work at different times of the year? So many questions. Each of which I could Google, and there is probably an iPhone app that allows me to take a picture and identifies the tree for me!

So I started thinking about how a teacher would help me in my quest to be a tree identifier. I know they could tell me what tree was what. But what they would have, if they were a great teacher, is a system for tree identification. They would tell me, I am making this bit up as I do not know how to do it for trees, to look at the leaf shape first and then the bark and also the angle that the branches form at. I know from art that different trees sprout branches at their own particular angle. It is this system that the teacher has and knows that I need. Not just a list of tree and matching leaf shapes.

Let me also add why discovery methods are likely to fail. Am I likely to discover this tree identification system for myself? Does one actually exist? As a naive tree identifier I don’t even know if there is a system. As an old hand at learning I do know that there are systems for most things. Naive learners do not even know that!

Sunday 28 December 2014

We don’t know what we don’t know… 21st century skills

We don’t know what we don’t know…

So we have to teach children not the knowledge base that is current, actually we only would ever teach a tiny, tiny fraction of the sum of knowledge, but we must prepare them for a world that does not yet exist.

I am trying to encapsulate those who proclaim against teaching children knowledge and would have us teach children skills, to learn usually.

This is an example of association by juxtaposition. One says one, or more, correct thing(s) and then places next to that a statement. The second statement then becomes true by association. You may want to get the logic of the correctness, or not, of the second statement.

The transistor was invented in 1948 in the Bell Labs in America. This functioned in a similar way to the valves that were used in radios and other electronic apparatus. It is unlikely that the explosion that occurred over the next few years would have been predicted by many around that time. The transistor led onto the integrated circuit, invented about ten years later. This led to the development of the electronic computer in, well it really depends what we mean. Valve computers, Colossus were doing sums in the 1940s. It was then not much of a jump to the large computers that were run using integrated circuits that we would recognise as the modern version of computers. In the 1970s the Altair, probably the first personal computer came into existence. In the 1980s IPM invented the PC, a portable personal computer. Apple 1 on 1976. And so on.

This is not a history of computers. It simply says that future developments come from current developments. If you understand how a triode valve operates it is not too much of a jump to understanding how a transistor and then an integrated circuit works.

Mobile apps for phones appeared in 2008. No one predicted that in 2000! But apps are simply developments from the types of programming that were going on ever since the computer had been invented. The job of ‘appwriter did not exist before 2007. Did our education system beat itself up because we had not prepared children to enter this brand new job market? No it did not. The knowledge we need to write apps is simply a development from existing skills. Were those entering this job market able to cope? Of course they were.

We are fine to just develop the curriculum as time progresses. Stuff we know now will merge into stuff we need to know in the future. Just like it always has.

Sure the future will be different but just because the calendar changed from 1999 to 2000 it does not mean we have to change the way we teach children. We certainly should not think that one day they will wake up and their brains have suddenly become inadequate for the world they are now in.

Stop this silly 21st century skills nonsense now.

Sunday 21 December 2014

Who is responsible for engagement, teachers or children?

Whenever I bring this topic up I get an anti response which is based around the idea that some children, because of some feature of the child, can’t be held responsible for engaging. I don’t believe, even if this were true, that the few should determine what we do for the majority. My work with EBD schools has further convinced me that nearly all children can behave properly in class and can learn effectively. The numbers that seem unable are a very tiny fraction and it might be that we need to work even harder on that tiny number.

What I am going to propose is based on the view that we lose something by thinking the teacher is responsible for generating lessons that are engaging. Let me deal with the opposite end of that spectrum. I am not saying that teachers should try to plan lesson that are devoid of engaging stuff. I don’t want lessons to be planned to be boring. Give me a little more credit than that.

Let’s think about what lessons might be like of children can be expected to engage rather than the current, widely held view that teachers provide the engagement. How would the planning teachers did change? How would misbehaviour now appear to the teacher, other children and school leaders if a child was responsible for engaging in the learning?

My thoughts are that we lose the opportunity to teach children how to engage if we hold teachers responsible for providing engagement.

So what would we need to teach children?

Listening skills: Children know how to listen but do they know how to listen carefully and how to begin to place what they hear into their thought processes so that learning can take place. I guess the title would be ‘Listening for Thinking’ to try to define what I mean.

Trust: Children should trust the teacher to provide appropriate learning opportunities. They should be willing to listen for as long as is needed. I can hear the sharp intakes of breath from some. This does not mean that the teacher should simply talk for England (or Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland). I would be very critical of a teacher who was continuing to talk when children were clearly not in learning need of the talk. I also would be very supportive of a teacher who was talking a lot if that was what was needed. Perhaps I hold teachers in too high regard? Perhaps I trust them to do what is best for their children in terms of learning? I think not.

Whenever I said to my mother that I was bored she told me to go and read something. She made it very clear that my feeling bored was a consequence of my own action/inaction. I was very rarely bored as a child and that was when the telly began sometime in the afternoon and never seemed to even begin on a Sunday. It was also black and white. Bored is a feeling the child needs to act on not something that the teacher needs to feel responsible for.

Learning is hard: It is. It needs hard work. We need to think and we are not primarily built for thinking. We have to put aside our genetic dispositions for scanning the environment for possible threats and focus for a long time so that we can learn. Children need to be told it is ok to feel lost, as though they are not understanding but with continued focus and application learning will happen. Teacher also need to ensure that they understand learning and how it is most likely to happen.

I think there are other things we would need but, for the moment, that is enough.

Perhaps more, later.

Friday 14 November 2014

Engagement - too many meanings!

In thinking about engagement and what I want when I talk about engagement by children in lessons I am sometimes frustrated by the meaning some others attach to this word. In this post I want to try to define what I mean by engagement and what I do not mean. This is a prelude to exploring how we might teach, encourage, help children engage in lessons in a way that supports their learning.

This is part two. Part one is here.

What I do not mean by engagement.

Engagement - engaged to be married.

Engagement - I have an engagement. I need to go now. A meeting, event of some sort.

Engagement - I have been engaged to deliver an INSET Day at Bog Standard Comprehensive School

Engagement - I am engaged (taking part) in doing this activity.

Engagement - I am enjoying this activity. (I am quite happy with learning being enjoyable.)

Engagement - I am designing this activity so that the children will be engaged. So that children will be interested.

The last one is the one which I think is missing the point. I do not think we should have to try to get children to do the activities we have planned for their learning. I am assuming we will have planned these well but our primary thoughts will be what they need to learn; essentially, what they need to know.

What worries me is that teachers may distort the content, avoid the difficult stuff, by their perceived need to get children engaged, to get them to see the activity as interesting, fun, motivating etc. What this attitude leads to is desperate attempts to make learning fun, and so not boring. God forbid that children might just get on with the learning and trust the teacher has set work that will allow them to learn.

I am assuming we all know about internal motivation and how important it is to support that rather than using extrinsic rewards to drive a child to take part in the lesson.

A child who does not take part, who does not participate in the learning activities is either being set work which is too easy or too hard or is misbehaving. Too hard or too easy, if it is not just the child’s inaccurate perception, is a result of the teacher’s poor planning. If the child is misbehaving, refusing to do the work set, or not trying to do the work properly, then there are appropriate ways to deal with this. An appropriate way is not to make the work more attractive. We should not be bribing children to learn. We should have high expectations and so should they. If you are having to think too much about how to make the work attractive to the children in your class then you need to take a long hard look at the learning culture that exists in the class and perhaps in the school. Let me again make it clear that I have no issue with children enjoying the activities but I do not think we do our children a proper service by sugar coating the learning to make it palatable. learning is hard work and it needs to be recognised as worth doing.

The description of the engagement I want is encapsulated by the phrase:

Engagement in the learning, not engaging with the activity.

Engagement with the activity is superficial. The hope, I guess, is that the child learns, almost, by accident by completing the tasks set by the teacher. What I often see is children doing an activity and then the teacher identifies the learning outcomes that were expected. Not as reinforcement but to ensure the learning has happened. My question is, if the learning can be brought about by the teacher identifying the learning why do the activity? Perhaps the engagement engendered by the activity was not well focused? Perhaps the children were not engaging in the learning? Perhaps more thought needed to go into the activity and the ability of the children to actually engage in the learning rather than look for the fun!

With that as the definition of engagement my next, probably, post will be about how we might enable children to engage

Saturday 8 November 2014

Engagement. Teach children how to engage.

I have a view about engagement. My view is that engagement is not something teachers should be amending the learning plan to include. I am sure that adding engagement is not the best way to work with children. I think we may well be missing an opportunity and doing children a disservice for their future learning if we provide the engagement.

Children do need to engage in learning. It is axiomatic that to learn they must engage with the learning. I am saying that the engagement in learning is an internal process for a child. By trying to make a task engaging we are using external, extrinsic, motivation and the evidence is that intrinsic motivation is what we want. That is what will generate life long learners.

I want to distinguish between engaging with the task and engaging with the learning. When teachers add the engagement to make the activities enjoyable that is wrong, for me. When teachers create activities that challenge children and children meet those challenges effective learning can happen. When children know how to engage and how that leads them to learn great things can happen. I wish there was another word for making the activities engaging. I wish that teachers could distinguish between the two versions of engagement. One version is ‘willingly takes part’ and the other is ‘learns’.

Let me digress for a while. Please bear with me. We, my wife and I, have two dogs. Lovely Belgian Shepherds, Carlos and Merlin. As a breed one could say Belgians are enthusiastic, which makes them great dogs to train and very enjoyable to be with. But they are also quite excitable. When it is time to go out their preferred method was to wait for the inner door to be opened and then barge out past, and into, any object or human that was in the way in a rush to get to the door leading to the garden. They would knock over anything. The corridor to the external door was a wreck. If you have dogs you may well know the effect!

My wife was very angry that the dogs knocked everything down. My suggestion for a solution, which did not go down too well, was to say that the corridor should be cleared so that there was nothing to knock down. Seemed sensible to me. But my wife, who is not to be trifled with - let me assure you, said that this was certainly not the solution. She said I must train the dogs to go out sensibly. So, train them I did and we now have a much calmer time instead of the mad rush to exit. Stuff rarely gets knocked down and humans are reasonably safe. She was right. Doing the right thing, training the dogs is a much better solution. Removing stuff is a solution but it is a poor one. Took some time to teach the dogs to walk, calmly behind me to the exit door. Not as quick as just moving the stuff out of the way!

Creating engaging activities will mean that children enjoy their work but, for me, it is the wrong solution. They may not learn as effectively. We need a way of getting children to learn because they have the skills to learn, not because the teacher has managed to create a fireworks lesson which, I believe, might well distract from the learning rather than add to it. The impression is that children are learning when what is really happening is that are just waiting for the next enjoyable bit. Teacher as an entertainer. Or more cuttingly, teacher as a clown.

If we could teach children to engage in learning rather than have to be engaged by the teacher then we might have done them a real, life long favour. Or should we go for just clearing the corridor to the exit so that nothing gets knocked down?

In my next blog I am going to explore how we might teach children to engage. It will rely on the attitude my wife has. Do it properly and have rightly high expectations of behaviours. Perhaps she should write the blog. I love her lots.

Wednesday 5 November 2014

Can I improve my students' memory?

Treading of dangerous waters, here. But the following is a distillation of what I have read and hopefully understood about memory.

At some point your children will take exams and the more they can remember, facts and processes - know what and know hoy - the better they are likely to do in the exam, other things being equal.

It is important to be clear about two stages relating to memory.

The first is one that many teachers will already do well. Getting the stuff in. This starts with the teacher being very clear about what the student is to learn. Do they really need to hear, and potentially learn, that interesting story you always tell when teaching the topic? Really? I know you enjoy it and your children may well laugh but is it time well spent? Would it have been better to repeat the work in a different way rather than add a piece of narrative that is loosely connected to the thing you want them to learn?

That does not mean there should be no stories. Stories have a very special place in relation to learning. Stories seem to be privileged as routes into the brain. Stories place facts in a sequence and relate items together. Stories can change facts into understanding - or at least begin that process for our learners.

So the first feature of improving the memory of students is to be sure they receive the information they need. As rich as it needs to be and no more. If we think of this as a process model we want to refine the input so that what is presented is as accurate and complete as can be.

I do not mean spoon feeding nor rote learning. Both have their place in very specific setting but in general they will not lead to quality learning per se. There are reasons to make the learning a little more difficult that one might at first choose. Make the learners work a little harder to comprehend and their learning will be enhanced. Perhaps this works by priming their brain to activate the areas they already know which will relate to the new learning. There is some evidence that asking students to try to solve problems that they do not quite have all the required knowledge for enhances the learning hen that new knowledge is presented. Which knowledge we should present in this way and how often we should do this is a matter of professional judgement. I can see it would work for those students who were well motivated and somewhat tantalised by the puzzle aspects of such learning. But it could also be the case that some did not really try, knowing that they did not yet have enough information to resolve the puzzle. It might annoy some students who feel that the teacher should be providing the knowledge first.

Given the teacher is providing the knowledge to students the ability to explain clearly is paramount. Great teachers give great explanations. They pace the explanation that provides pace, possibly just a little faster than the students can easily manage but not so fast that they are lost. Make them work for it. Great explanations may well be a knife edge and that is difficult to define. Presenting work that is at the time just outside the student yet expecting them to keep up could be seen as an exemplification of high expectations. 'I know you can do this' is an attitude great teachers display to their students. Not dumbing down as this could be come just spoon feeding where the students do little thinking about the new knowledge as it is presented. Robert Bjork describes these as 'desirable difficulties'. It is very well worth reading the details and watching the videos.

So we have carefully selected what is to be learned and we have constructed the explanation phase using the ideas of Robert Bjork. Our children surely know what they need to know. Sadly no. In most schools the above is often well done. In some classrooms too much emphasis is placed on discovery type learning. What these teacher probably believe is that children who 'discover' the knowledge will understand if better that 'being told'. The evidence is that this is not true. At best children understand as well and in many cases they will not know as well. The major disadvantage for all children is that the discovery process takes so much longer. The second issue is that disadvantaged children do considerably less well than more advantaged children. The Matthew Effect prevails.

The second matter is to do with what, in my view, is less well done by many teachers. Once learned, ie in one's brain, there is a need to practise recall. if we cannot recall then we cannot truly say something, in the academic sense, has been learned. The recall needs to be, as dog trainers know, proofed. I am in no way suggesting children are dogs other than to say that dogs trainers and good owners know that their dog needs to be taught to, say, sit in as many different environments and with as many different distractors as possible.

In multiple choice question parlance the wrong answers are called distractors. They are there to distract. The learning must be as secure as possible. So present children with answers that are similar, more similar as they become more secure. Make sure they are answering from their knowledge rather than using other clues. (Other clues are fine once we know they are secure in their learning.)

Testing, children testing the extent to which they know something, is an underused technique to aid memory. Not an important test like the one to decide which set you are in for GCSE physics but low stakes, the outcome is for you to know what you now need to relearn type of tests. We need lots of these. Short tests where the feedback allows a child to realise what he/she knows and does not know. If possible to know why they don't know whatever has been tested. Proper diagnostic testing. Teachers can write these tests. They do not have to be something external but it does require some thought if the test outcome is to be more than a simple list of what the child has answered correctly and what incorrectly. Write the test so that the outcome is for the child and not for the teacher to be able to record a mark.

So clarity of input and checking of what has been properly learned will support memory and recall.