Effective Pedagogy vs Trendy Initiatives

Distractions stopping you doing the basics right

Amongst the most expensive activities in a modern society is education. Yet while teaching professionals like to think they are objective in the way they approach their sensitive task, there are always shiny distractions that attract the attention of educators away from the basics of managing complex social interactions. With a relentless focus on 'academic success', managers in schools are always on the lookout for the next drop of fairy dust to sprinkle onto their school's teachers. A nice, clean, top-down management intervention is an attractive way to appear effective in their role, but without a decent grasp of the changes required it is easy to make lessons less effective than before the intervention.

Before introducing new structures to guide and constrain teachers, it is important then to survey what it is that teachers are doing in the classrooms already and work out where the easy wins are. Teachers are time constrained, and anything that takes up attention or time will push out other tasks. There is an opportunity cost of imposing interventions beyond the training needs: unintended consequences can hinder effective approaches as easily as poor ones.

Some of the more recent ideas that have been widely adopted in schools are: learning styles, frequent summative tests, target grades, graded lesson observations, group work, triple marking, three part lessons, mastery learning, active learning, teaching resilience/grit, flipped learning … . The list is long, and while some of these have positive effects when implemented skilfully, far too many changes have negative effects for the students' grades, their broader educational success or their mental health. What is often missed is the years long development of a widely agreed set of principles derived from academic research into memory and learning, which should be driving schools to adopt some straightforward strategies that will have long term and real effects on education.

Safety and a Focus on Understanding

For children to learn, rather than just complete tasks, they need to have an interest in what they are studying. If they are not interested in learning the material then learning will not happen. The focus of tasks must be the concepts and knowledge of the subject, not the assessment at the end. A knowledge of the assessment requirements is necessary, but too much emphasis on testing and grades shifts children from an understanding focus to a less effective performance focus. And the environment must be one of emotional safety if the child is to take the risk to try to learn the material. If there is a chance of embarrassment in front of their peers, or a significant loss of self esteem, then fear can affect their willingness to engage.

Three Useful Strategies

Develop Curiosity

In a low ability Science set of 14-15 year olds, much of the curriculum was beyond them in the exams, but as children in a farming community they had a real interest in farm equipment. In the middle of a Chemistry lesson one boy would see something driving past the window and the cry would go up — “TRACTOR!”. And the whole class would rush to the window. Settling down afterwards, they could tell me about the hydraulic pressures, the importance of the voltage of the electrical system, the capabilities more specifically. The problem these folk had was not an inability to learn, but a lack of interest in schooling.

If the teacher can present a new topic in an interesting way, showing enough that is familiar but also demonstrating that the students would see as indicating gaps in their knowledge, then you are on the way to producing enough interest to carry them through a sequence of lessons. Telling them that this boring material will be in the exam will interest some, but will fail to inspire many.

Formative Feedback

In the interest of reducing academic stress, feedback is best focussed on being formative instead of summative. Summative assessments are useful for finding out what a child knows at the end of the course to find out if they are suitable to advance to the next level, but formative feedback, intended to identify problems and support the learner, should be the main focus during the sequence of lessons. Formative feedback should be low stakes, low stress, immediate, and constructive. Some of the best feedback, then, could involve giving the class the marking rubric and having them mark their own work for their own benefit, without having to give the teacher the score. If the score is important enough to record to feed the administrative demand for data, then it has become summative instead of formative feedback, and it loses much of its educational benefit. Assessments cannot easily serve two masters, they either support the students or the teacher, not both.

Cognitive Load Theory

Learning occurs when relevant concepts and information stored in working memory. If you want to multiply 37 and 15, then you have to hold both these items in your memory while you work out the answer. You will multiply 37 by 10, remember the result 370, and also remember the product of 37 and 5, half 370 or 185. You are now storing four items as you try to add two of them together to find the final solution, which probably involves some column addition in your head (add the 70 to the 80 to get 150, add in the 300, 100 and 5 to get 555. In total, before you finish you will be juggling five or six numbers in your short term working memory, as well as recalling the methods you need to calculate the interim and final result.

If you found the task tricky, then you are in good company. This task has a high cognitive load, and is more difficult if you have to work out a method as well as hold the numbers in your head. An impoverished home life or having distractions makes tasks more difficult as a result.

So, what can teachers to do work around this? Trying to reduce cognitive load while focussing on the key learning objectives can help. Scaffolding is a common technique to allow students to solve one part of a problem at a time. When students are given complex problems their entire focus can be on solving it, so they have little capacity to remember the steps they used. Starting with studying and explaining worked examples provides students with the information they need while still allowing them the challenge of understanding what has been done. The lower cognitive load improves the learning, although many teachers still intuitively feel that solving complex problems is a good learning experience.

Over stimulating material can be a problem too. It is a common technique to 'dual code' material given to students, to allow them to have two channels of information for them to absorb. But having interesting or exciting pictures illustrating some text without adding significant information can be distracting enough to reduce learning. Posters in the sight line in classrooms also have to be carefully chosen to contain important information without being competition for limited concentration.

Manager Driven Pedagogy

Managers have a key role in exposing their teachers to the key steps they can take to improve student learning outcomes, but they need to be very careful not to distract them from the things that matter. If the main purpose of a new drive is to push the latest thing they have read in an educationalist's commercial training offer, or they are not clear about the current state of the art in education theory, then they could cause more problems than they are solving. Focussing on safe learning environments, formative processes and the cognitive load of classroom tasks would be a good start for any manager looking to make a difference in their school.