Find the time
Let’s talk about teaching and learning
Effective teachers think, talk and write about their practice. Following the release of Innovate, Sevenoaks School’s annual academic journal, Director of Institute of Teaching & Learning, Mark Beverley, discusses the importance of professional reflection on teaching practice.
Finding the time for reflection
It is a regrettable, and somewhat ironic truth, that daily life in schools tends to limit the time we have to talk about teaching and learning. Creating opportunities for professional reflection and learning to take place is, however, an essential ingredient for any school that declares itself forward thinking. And a truly exciting cultural shift can take place when students, as well as staff, contribute to the development of a reflective narrative.
Evidence based research v fads
Many schools have found the means to make professional learning for staff more effective. One reason for this, perhaps, is related to the increasing resources available to support the development of pedagogical enquiry. Educational research has never been in a stronger position, aided significantly by developments in cognitive science. So called ‘fads’ come into existence less frequently and claims once taken for gospel, for example, surrounding Learning Styles, Multiple Intelligences, ability grouping, discovery-based learning and ‘21st Century skills’ are shown to be empty of evidence base (Christodoulou, 2014, De Bruyckere, 2015).
Supporting teacher learning
Whole-school CPD is important, along with any opportunity to bring all staff together to consider matters of strategic priority; equally, reflective practice should take place within departments and or teams. But professional learning at an individual level is perhaps the most essential for ongoing development of motivated, professionally curious teachers, and the most likely to result in improved outcomes for our students. At Sevenoaks School we are fortunate that our Institute of Teaching and Learning can provide evidence-based support for teachers pursuing areas of independent interest, and we are able to help colleagues, should they wish to simply read further around a subject or embark upon an enquiry project.
Involving students in the conversation
In addition to learning talk among staff, studies show that introducing students to the language of learning and its associated practices, is of significant benefit (Brown, Roediger and Daniel, 2014). It seems logical that if teachers are better informed about such things as the difference between long term and working memory, what it means to experience ‘cognitive load’, how to evaluate the use and efficacy of different learning strategies – in other words, what learning actually is, then students will benefit considerably from the same understanding.
As well as knowing about learning, more effective students know how to learn (Ellis et al 2014): they are able to self-regulate; they consciously set goals for themselves; they understand the importance of self-explanation, spaced repetition, retrieval practice and interleaving – as opposed to massed practice (or cramming) in preparation for exams (Logan et al, 2012); they deliberately attack subjects or topics in which there are weaknesses; they review their learning and apply strategies they know will work. This kind of practice informs metacognition – thinking about thinking, the benefits of which are reported in a wide range of different studies.
The habit of metacogntion
Students need to be taught reflective habits. For metacognitive ability to come properly into being, it needs to be embedded in everyday classroom practice. A report published by the Education Endowment Foundation suggests the following as a series of steps to apply metacognition to learning a topic:
- Activating prior knowledge
- Explicit strategy instruction
- Modelling strategy
- Memorisation of learned strategy
- Guided practice
- Independent practice
- Structured reflection
Modelling a strategy
Defining features of these elements include explicit discussion of reasons why particular learning strategy (e.g., the use of a graphic organiser) should help generate knowledge of the topic, modelling of the strategy and checking for understanding, as well as reflection at the end on why and how the strategy was useful. Other techniques that can help students develop understanding of how learning happens, include live modelling and thinking aloud: the teacher verbalises their own thinking as they model the solution to a problem for the class – and in so doing breaks things down, shows how to deal with the unexpected and explores ways in which difficulties might be overcome.
Practice and review
Deliberate and repeated practice is also essential, as is the process of reflection before, during and after the event. What approach should we take as a class to learn this topic? How is our learning going? What could be have done better? Self-questioning has so much power, as does summarisation: The Week in Review activity (Ellis 2014) asks students to summarise what they have learned over the course of a week. Along with thinking about approaches to note making, summarising develops analytical and interpretive skills in selection, re-presentation, reorganisation and synthesis.
How students flourish
Daniel Willingham concludes his book, ‘Why don’t students like school?’ (2021) with the observation that student flourishing can be nurtured considerably through understanding of cognitive scientific principles. If the notion of flourishing is to exist as a core aim of the education we offer our students, finding opportunity to think and reflect, discuss and share principles and practices that can bring about this state – which is one of both thought and feeling – is surely a self-evident need.
Director of Institute of Teaching & Learning, Sevenoaks School
Feature image: by geralt at Pixabay
Support images: with kind permission from Sevenoaks School
More information on this study together with other articles can be found in Innovate, the annual academic journal from the Institute for Teaching and Learning: https://www.sevenoaksschool.org/teachinglearning/research/innovate/
Brown, P., Roediger, H. and McDaniel, M., (2014) The Science of Successful Learning, (Harvard University Press)
Christodoulou, D. (2014) Seven Myths about Education, (Routledge)
De Bruyckere, P., Kirschner, P., Hulshof, C., (2015) Urban Myths about Learning and Education (Academic Press)
Education Endowment Foundation (2018) Metacognition and self-regulated learning.
Ellis, AK, Denton, DW and Bond, JB. (2014) “An analysis of research on metacognitive teaching strategies”, Procedia: Social and Behavioural Sciences, vol. 116
Logan, J., Castel, A., Haber, S., Viehman, E., (2012) Metacognition and the spacing effect: The role of repetition, feedback, and instruction on judgments of learning for massed and spaced rehearsal, Researchgate.net/publication/233408065
Willingham, D., (2021), Why don’t students like school?, 2nd edition, (Jossey-Bass)