Sunday, 19 May 2013

What is all this knowledge based, direct instruction, stuff about

Over the past few weeks I have tried to get to understand what Direct Instruction (DI) is and what the knowledge based curriculum is all about. Is it a threat to “progressive” teachers? Are the knowledge based fanatics about to capture vulnerable children and make them join a cult? Do they hate children? Are they ignoring individual differences between children?

The answer, as far as I can tell, is no to all of the above. They don’t tend to talk about children in that starry eyed way that “student centred” teachers sometimes do. One reason for that is that they do feel they are under some sort of attack. They cite Ofsted and some SLTs (senior leadership teams) as negating their particular form of teaching. That is slightly odd as in my understanding of how DI can work there will be times when classroom activities will be taking place that will look like activities taking place in an “ordinary” classroom. More later.

Are the DI advocates right? Sort of. It is difficult to get the detail of what they actually do across a series of lessons but I am going to try to describe how DI might be a perfectly fine way of teaching children. And there is some decent research that identifies DI as being a very good way of teaching in terms of achievement. John Hattie looked at educational research and has produced a table of those teaching activities in order of effectiveness. He identifies feedback as the most effective. Dylan Wiliam and Paul Black explained this as far back as 1987, in their small publication, Inside the Black Box. Direct Instruction comes in Hattie’s top ten. We ought to take account of educational research and marry it with our professional judgement and use what works. I know this a very emotive issue and there are many strong views. I am one of the strong view holders but I have always been open to the evidence. Sometimes this leads us to the wrong place, often because we did not use the evidence but used what felt right, or what we “thought” Ofsted had said, or … a lot of other reasons.

One of the difficulties with humans is that, once we have a view, we then to both defend “our” view and also we selectively pick up and use as further justification for our current view. If you, erroneously, hold the view that teaching to learning styles is a good thing then you will pile up the evidence in favour of that, until something happens to shake you free from that idea, possibly to attach to another, similar idea. Open minds are rare in humans, and probably in dogs as well.

So what is the basic model that DI folk are using? Not easy to answer that as they seem, the ones I have met on Twitter that is, to have developed their own versions, plural included intentionally, of DI so what I will try to do is identify the key features of what the believe and use. I am sure they will correct me if I am misrepresenting them.

Following advice, via our lovely friend, Twitter it is best to describe the teaching model as Traditional Teaching, as opposed to Progressive, rather than pure Direct Instruction. Traditional Teaching is as poorly defined as Progressive Teaching so there is quite a lot of wriggle room!

The first thing, belief, whatever is that we must teach children knowledge. Whatever that knowledge is, it must be taught. When you read that sentence, emphasise the word taught and you will get the proper meaning. Taught is critical. Children gain knowledge, in the most efficient way, by being told it by someone who knows. By being told by a teacher. They do not accept that there is any better way for the initial transmission of that knowledge. The facts, the content, the stuff that kids get examined on that is factual.

If you have carried on reading I thank you and i am glad you did. It means I can stop you being quite so outraged as you might be at what I have just written. What DI folk do not accept is that it is desirable in any way for children to discover knowledge. They see it as inefficient, and pointless as knowledge is best delivered by the teacher. During the delivery phase of this knowledge the teacher will ask questions to check that students have received the knowledge. This is not a stage of full understanding for students. That will come later.

This delivery of knowledge, managed and monitored by the teacher does have a basis in cognitive science. The details of working memory are given in the link. Essentially our working memory which we use to temporarily store and begin to process the knowledge. Until the knowledge gets moved into long term memory our students have learned nothing. Interfering with working memory, distraction, more information than working memory can hold will mean the knowledge is lost from working memory. For the DI folk students cannot envisage how a student could learn new knowledge from a project or anything else that goes under, for them, the demon named progressive teaching. And in that respect, provided the cognitive science theories are right, they are correct. So knowledge is precious and must be delivered to students directly, in small chunks that do not overload their working memory.

The next stage is almost always showing the students worked examples, where each step is small enough for them to get and fully explained so that they begin to absorb the process used to move from one step to another in the examples. What is happening now is that students have the knowledge and having got that they are able to understand the processes, skills, involved in solving the problems. One criticism of other teaching methods is that they simply provide too much information, too early. The environment is too rich for working memory to properly assimilate. That sees a sensible idea.

After the worked examples then comes practice. But practice with close and, it seems to me, quite intense feedback, correcting students’ mistakes as soon as possible, so that the get the correct knowledge into working memory rather than learn the wrong things. The work of Prof John Hattie tells us that effective feedback to learners of this sort is number one for effectiveness. The same stuff Dylan Wiliam has been banging on about for 20 years or so!

Then my understanding gets a little less evidence based as my Twitter folk have not described the process past this stage. My guess would be that they would use some further, more challenging material for students to work on. Very importantly they would want to make sure that any learning material used focused on the knowledge and the skills with minimum additional working memory load. This was, although they did not put it in these terms, their objections to the Mr Men materials from @russeltar and his Active History website. The Mr Men were an additional, unneeded distraction. Something to be learned by the students which was too poorly connected to the learning that was taking place.

I can’t get clear how the DI folk see the thing which the progressives would call engagement. I say this because when I mention engagement I was told, by a particular Tweeter, that this was not a device for focusing attention but was discipline. I think, but I may be wrong, that the expectation is that students will attend to the learning and have an appropriate focus as part of their behaviour for learning. I do have a lot of time for something along these lines. I was a head teacher who did care about students so much that we trained ours in how to learn. What behaviours were best of them and the rest of the class. We achieved results that were consistently above FFT D.

I still have questions:

What does a lesson plan or what do the material used for a Traditional Teaching lesson look like?

Is this process universally applicable for all the content in all subjects?

If the progressive method is so flawed, why is the Traditional Teaching process, not dramatically better? (One would think that if we were overwhelming the working memory so much that little would be learned)

Does this process work for all students? Equally well?

I can see how the Traditional Teaching method described may look a little clinical. Does that matter?

I think that our drive to engage students distorts the challenge, the learning challenge, we need to set them and expect, not hope, but expect them to achieve. But I wonder what part their engagement plays. What motivates students to focus and to learn?

Saturday, 18 May 2013

Working Memory- It Only Stays There for a Minute or so...

Most cognitive psychologists agree on the concept of working memory and understanding how it works is rather important for teachers. It would also be great if children understood the implications of how their own working memory operated. They could choose to further develop their own learning attitude to enable them to become better learners.

The particular issue I want to address is not working memory’s limited capacity but the fact that working memory can retain information for a very limited time, about one minute at best.

One minute is not a great deal of time. So let’s picture a classroom where all children are listening attentively. If they are not the piece of information the teacher is about to give may not even get into working memory!

The teacher states, “The chemical symbol for oxygen is O”. Ok. That gets into working memory. Unless something happens within a minute to move that piece of information into long term memory the information is lost. One minute! Yep, one minute.

Now, fortunately the teacher has spoken the information about the chemical symbol and, critically, will have written it up, or powerpointed (Is that a word? ... It is now!) it or some other visual display - indicated where oxygen is in the periodic table chart on the wall. That gives students, at least, a reference to use when they move to the stage that formally moves the information into long term memory and begins to secure it.

Also, super fortunately, or brains will try to automatically move the information into working memory. We are all different but this might be what happens in my brain and your brain when the teacher tells you about the symbol for oxygen.

You will link the idea to the already stored memory for the word symbol, which will have lots of links to other schema, mind maps your brain has previously created some time in the past, which is activated when it recognises the word symbol. Perhaps you also have heard of oxygen. Another link for the data stored in a very fragile way in your working memory. Great if you have a brain map for chemical symbols and that will contain references to chemicals having symbols. You will recognise that the start of the word “Oxygen” has the symbol “O”. Your teacher will be a great teacher if he writes the word Oxygen on the board with an upper case “O”. Teachers can be very supportive of this learning stuff!

To start to secure the information in long term memory we now need to get students to use and munch and think about the information as the more links there are to already existing brain maps the stronger the memory will be. Link it in as many and as varied different ways and your students will genuinely not be able to say, “Don’t know”, when you ask them, next lesson, “So, what is the chemical symbol for Oxygen?”. Please note, you can’t say Oxygen and imply the upper case letter but you can write “Oxygen” on the board to trigger some of the brain maps the student previously used to store the information. Information becomes knowledge.

This also gives some insight into why bright children are bright. Bright, clever, is a function of the number and the complexity of the interlinking of brain maps.The more you have and the better they are linked, the brighter you are and you can learn more stuff, more rapidly and more securely.

Knowledge Based Teaching - a small challenge

I am not just trying to be provocative to those who strongly believe in some version of Direct Instruction - teach knowledge, no fluffy stuff poorly paraphrases what they believe. well I am, in the hope that they will respond and show me where I am getting it wrong. Or, perhaps, let them carry on with their own thinking and delve deeper into the learning process.

One of the tenets of Direct Instruction is to present the knowledge that we want students to learn as clearly as possible. I asked @oldandreuk if he would ever make learning more difficult for students. He answered in a slightly reserved fashion saying that he probably would not.

I later read some research that seems counter intuitive. The research found that if students were presented with some material to be learned they learnt MORE and RETAINED MORE if a less clear font was used in the text than if a standard, clearer font was used.

Ok, from that I make a leap, untested, but playing with ideas is fun, to hypothesise why it might be that the less clear font, which makes students work harder might be working. What I came up with depends somewhat on accepting learning is a process of either creating a new memory map in our brain or, more usually, adding to an existing memory map. If we make students work harder, make the learning process more challenging without making the content to be learned more difficult we force them into activating more brain memory maps, more schema as the cognitive scientists say. More links mean better learning as it creates stronger memories as more maps could be activated to retrieve the learning and attaching to more maps means a deeper understanding.

May be I have created a load of nonsense but it could be correct.

Why am I exploring this?

Because although I agree with lots of the Direct Instruction stuff it makes me uncomfortable. It seems too barren a way of learning. Too programmed. Also I think DI works better for some types of learning than for others. Maths, MFL, some science work are examples of linear subjects where knowledge is built from previous learning. For example, in maths if you do not understand how to multiply by 10 you will certainly not understand how to multiply by 100.  Times 100 builds on the understanding of times 10. It also does not make for the best maths teaching to learn times 100 before learning times 10. But aspects of, say, English are not linear - some English learning will be but the great proportion of maths is linear and English is less so.

Also, research shows that DI is about 10% better than other ways of being taught. Not an efficiency improvement to be sniffed at but if other methods are so poor and clearly flawed, according to DI folk, then why are other methods getting close? Why do they get to within 90% of the claimed DI?

Be glad to hear your disagreements.

Thursday, 16 May 2013

Cognitive Load and teaching Part 2

Continuing from part 1. There is some logic in this world!

Like all good learning programmes let’s start with a little revision.

The brain has 2 memory systems which interact.

The time and size limited working memory which processes, does the thing we call thinking, and can call on stored schema in the long term memory.

The working memory can only act on items it has in its own, limited storage - probably a maximum of 8 items and for anything slightly complex it can “think about” 2 or 3 of them.

But, working memory can call into its storage schema, however large and complex, and each schema only counts as one item.

Learning is the process of putting memories into long term storage. Working memory does that, often by attaching a new item to an existing schema, although working memory can create new schema. Think of schema like parts of a spider’s web. These can be big or small and probably will be connected to other “spider’s webs”. Think of a colour, say, green. When you do that you may also think of things that are green. Grass, tree leaves, bogies. Perhaps green also triggers thoughts of the Green Party. You get the idea. Schema are linked in all sorts of ways. The more links there are the more you are able to access a memory, because you can get at the memory from a greater number of places. We are completely unconscious of our stored memories until they get brought into working memory. Dreams are a special case. Odours can trigger memories as can sights and sounds or touches. You will need to Google if you want to know how senses fit into this.

Let’s get back to the limitations of working memory. CLT suggests that there are three loads, unfortunately not well defined or understood exactly what a load means as a brain function within CLT, that working memory has to deal with. The theory says these loads add and, I guess, we can think of these loads as totalling to a number either within the capacity of working memory or totalling and overloading working memory. This is where the, common sense to some extent, practice of Direct Instruction comes in.

The loads are named Intrinsic, extrinsic (my name as it fits better with intrinsic - Google if you don’t like it.) and germane.

Intrinsic load is the difficulty of the material to be learned. So 2 + 2 will present a lower intrinsic load than, find x where x=(245+93-18)/3.

Extrinsic load is the elements of distraction that are in the environment of the learning. Reducing this distraction is one of the features that CLT and DI folk get so worked up about. If you follow Twitter you will know of the minor ruffling that Mr Men caused. There are lots of bits to that argument but the one that impacts on CLT is that Mr Men is an additional piece of learning that is not directly connected to the core learning, which in the Mr Men case, was about the rise of the Weimar Republic. The Mr Men are seen by the DI folk to be an unnecessary distraction. And one can see from CLT and the limited space in working memory. The opposite camp will have reasons why the use of Mr Men is good. Probably something to do with engagement. I know it is a little more complex than that in the Mr Men case but I can’t go into all the possible issues. They don’t matter for CLT theory.

Germane load is the cognitive load put on working memory in creating or modifying schema, that you know are held in long term memory. The process of learning.

Now, CLT seems very sensible and one of the things I impress on teachers I work with is to make things as simple as possible.

But there are a number of matters that CLT enthusiasts have to deal with if they want to have a theory supporting their claims that DI is a better way to get children, and adults, to learn.

  • What exactly is a cognitive load? How is it measured?

  • What causes the limitations of working memory? Is it related to neurons or some other physical structure?

  • How do we include motivation/or engagement or whatever you choose to call it? Why do some challenging tasks lead to better learning than simpler ones? (Difficult fonts make learners work hard in reading the material but there is some evidence that learning is better than for more readable fonts.)
  • Given CLT theory and DI are directly accessing brain structures for learning and working within their limits, why is DI, at best, only around 10% more effective in securing learning?

Happy to have any comments, and especially corrections. I am no expert. I just read stuff and think a bit.

Thoughts on Cognitive Load Theory and its implications for teaching

Now, let me first make it clear that I am not a psychologist and I have no formal psychology qualification. I have been an educator, including a head teacher, for a number of years. So, I have gleaned what I think I know and understand from reading and tweeting. I was interested in a method of teaching called Direct Instruction (DI). I could not find anyone who used this system as very fully described on the internet. A simple Google search will give lots of references. A few folk have put their finger into this pie and a guy called Englemann has written a book, extracts of which are available.

It seemed to me that critical to the validity of Direct Instruction is the accuracy of a cognitive psychology theory called Cognitive Load Theory (CLT). So, a little diversion which will allow me to see what I can explain about CLT. I might even add a couple of diagrams - but YouTube has some nice, simple videos explaining CLT as well.

CLT postulates two memory systems in the human brain, One is called working memory, there are other terms. This is what we use to temporarily remember information. If I ask you to read the following once and then repeat it immediately, you are using working memory. So here goes:

01923 460172

Look away and repeat the number.

Whether you were successful at reproducing the number or not you have shown that you have a thing that allows you to remember some numbers. If you do nothing else then the number will disappear and you will gradually forget it.

But, if I tell you a few things about the number

It is a telephone number
The first part, 01 923, is the STD code for Watford
The second part, six numbers, 460    172 are the rest of the number
What I also done is chunked the number for you. More about chunking, later. Nothing to do wit pineapple chunks, by the way!

Then you will find you are more able to remember more of the number. That assumes you have remained interested enough to keep playing along with me. if you have great. If not, can’t win ‘em all!

If I get you to repeat the number, preferably in a fixed pattern like, 01 923 460 172, then after a few repeats the number will be easier to remember. What you are doing is moving the number into the second memory system, called Long Term Memory. If you want to divert into how we can effect better memorisation then Spaced Learning will be your cup of tea. Stay with me for a little longer please.

Working memory can retain data for up to 60 seconds. The actual time is less important than the fact that it is a short time. Also distractions can shorten this time or impact on the accuracy of the data retained in working memory.

Working Memory seems, also, to be the place where we manipulate the data stored there. Where we do our thinking! Thinking, in a very simplistic model, is comparing one thing to another. Is it bigger or smaller; is it the same or not the same. Lots of simple comparisons to decide in some data forms a part of that thing or this thing. We recognise the telephone number as being a telephone number, rather than, say, the price of a pint of beer, in working memory.

To move this data, the telephone number, into long term memory involves, essentially tagging the data with already existing schema, memory maplets I will call them, existing already in long term memory. I tried to help you do that transfer process by telling you that it was a telephone number. I assume you already have a map in your brain that says a particular number has the format of a telephone number. I told you it was Watford STD code. You probably have two scheme, one for STD code and one for Watford, that you can readily attach the telephone number to.

Why are schema important?

Two reasons: First, we need schema to attach data to so that it can be stored in long term memory. So we can remember it.

The second reason is that we can include schema in our working memory. They seem to be able to be used inside working memory and that allows us to process information at a higher level. We simply cannot hold the amount of data in our working memory that would be needed to understand without being able to use the schema we have in our long term memory.

To see the dramatic effect that having access to schema can be you just have to realise how you are understanding the words that you are currently reading. You don’t read each letter to understand the word. You take it in as a whole because you have a scheme for that word. Much faster and means you can actually read a lot faster than you think you can!

It also explains why, for those who can spell, why a words just *looks* wrong. Your schema for words includes the shape of the word. An incorrectly spelled word will be the wrong shape! Nicely, my computer also underlines the word in red which draws my attention to the word. Shape tells me it is wrong, or sometimes right - silly computer, and then I use working memory to decide where the word is wrong.

I need a cup of tea now so the rest of this blog will have to wait. Just  make sure you get schema built in your brain for working and for long term memory. We will need some of the details to see what these Direct Instruction folk are saying.