Cognitive Science v Neuroscience: ‘priming’ – could it change how we teach?

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Recently, @TeacherTapp recommended our blog titled: ‘Cognitive Science v Neuroscience: retrieval at the start of a lesson or not?‘ based on research in a neuroscience paper on how memory is formed and it has produced quite a strong, but positive reaction. Experienced and new teachers alike have said how the key process of ‘priming‘, a process of how memory formation happens ready for retrieval or constructing new knowledge or skill (a process which we established in our blog), resonates with their experiences and indeed CPD offered by many in education. It changes the debate around memory, the formation of it and how we approach education – if we believe that we can appropriate ideas from both cognitive science and neuroscience into education (note the many limitations with doing exactly that). This further blog aims to revisit key aspects of educational ideas and policies which are reliant on the notion of how memory is formed through this new lens of priming. It must be said that this blog is theoretical speculation and is done to give you some scope of where we will be looking to research the concept of priming and to explore if there is evidence to support this idea.

The immediate response from the original blog was that interleaved retrieval could have more limitations than we first thought. For example, doing interleaved retrieval at the start of a lesson in which the retrieved schema is not going to be used in the lesson would be priming the wrong cells (containing the schema) if we follow the neuroscience research outcomes. Instead of readying or strengthening the memory cells for the lesson, it is readying unrelated memory cells. In other words, the start of a lesson isn’t the right place for interleaved retrieval. The good news is that online asynchronous learning has been accelerated in its development and uptake over the last year thanks to the reduction in the number of children going to schools during so called ‘lockdowns’ (schools never closed(!!)). Interleaved retrieval therefore could still have a place online and asynchronously. However, the practice would need to change from being cold retrieval to a two step process of warm reactivation and then retrieval. This could be achieved, for example, through undertaking reflection, watching a short video, viewing some modelling or perhaps writing out a non-assessed overview e.g. a synopsis of a play. There are clearly implications here for how online learning is constructed and so that area is something to revisit separately. Further, the gap in time between revisiting learning and the way we revisit learning is affected. Too soon and the cells have not reformulated their architecture ready for expression of the arc gene. Too late and with no priming then no expression of the arc gene takes place.

There are further areas where our ideas about memory are predicated in policy and practice. Take, for example, the notion that ‘learning is a change in long term memory’. This is a prevalent idea found in the OFSTED research framework and the OFSTED inspection handbook which talks about teachers ensuring that pupils ’embed key concepts…and apply them fluently’ (p.44) as well as ‘transfer key knowledge to long term memory’ (ibid). These ideas are now in the Core Curriculum Framework (CCF) for trainee teachers upon which the Early Career Framework (ECF) is founded and also the NPQ suite of qualifications (for first teaching 2021 onwards) have been built. The CCF and the NPQ suite of qualifications sets out ideas such as ‘…committing some key facts to their long-term memory is likely to help pupils learn more complex ideas.’ (p.11) and very importantly, ‘Requiring pupils to retrieve information from memory, and spacing practice so that pupils revisit ideas after a gap are also likely to strengthen recall’ (p.12). All of this language is clearly from ideas that have emerged through cognitive science. The fundamental ideas here stems from the paper from Kirchner, Sweller and Clark which focuses on the concept of working memory and the limitations of asking working memory to learn or problem solve without prior instruction (discovery learning). The neuroscience model of memory formation adds to this language and enables us to revisit some of these core concepts. Memory, according to the research in the neuroscience paper cited at the start of this article, is formed through expression of the arc gene. By controlling the priming process large increases in gene expression can be produced at the points of memory formation which leads to enhanced remembering. Why this process has evolved is unclear, but a workable analogy is that it memory can be used as almost an immune response to threats (retrieval and/or problem solving/constructing new knowledge or skill (creativity?)). Problem solving, we could theorise then, requires a series of processes to be successful. An initial activation event, a period of time, and then a warm reactivation event in which both retrieval and construction of knowledge happen simultaneously – there would be initial activation and expression of the arc gene happening simultaneously. The key concept is that remembering works like an immune response to a threat. How strong that response is relies on the original gene expression at the point of memory formation. To respond to this threat requires both strong retrieval and constructivist thinking. If the brain has not been strengthened by primed expression of the arc gene prior to retrieval then the resultant retrieval will be weaker than if priming had been used. Further, if you are undertaking retrieval to strengthen the memory (in cognitive science words, to put knowledge into long term memory) then cold retrieval does not necessarily lead to the expression of the arc gene necessary for a subsequent strengthening of the memory. Cold problem solving, cold questioning, cold retrieval; all these do not fit with the neuroscience evidence of how memory cells are strengthened (memory formation with gene expression) or used effectively to deal with the subsequent activities which rely on memory (remembering). I suppose it’s a little like the athlete who spends time visualising and reflecting prior to an event – in effect, priming themselves ahead of the event (threat) following winter training. The priming effect enhances both the remembering (what to do) alongside the constructivist problem solving (how to resolve an unexpected threat). What ‘learning’ is then, if we follow this train of thought, is not necessarily ‘a change in long term memory’ – long term memory is not a static schema that remains the same. You learn it and then you strengthen it ready for future use. You then also prime it prior to its use at a point in the future. Retrieval alone, then, does not strengthen as effectively as memory which has been formed through a priming process. The memories therefore require priming if they are to be fully strengthened and in order to be able to work at peak effect at some unknown point in the future. Memory can wane just like your immune system can wane. Yet, given the right priming it can be ready to retrieve and problem solve a threat a long time after the original learning and priming actually strengthened the gene expression.

Imagine that there are ten cells. One becomes populated with memory through the initial activation and no reactivation at the right time through a process of priming. Through conditioning (retrieval practice) you can make the one cell very efficient at producing the memory at will. Imagine now that controlling priming to enhance gene expression (the arc gene which is associated with memory) brings 9 more cells into play. The memory now sits in ten cells and thus the original formation was much stronger. The resultant remembering is supercharged and thus is able to be used more effectively within future learning opportunities. It also requires less future retrieval conditioning. Indeed, the research says that subsequent retrieval isn’t having the same impact on the expression of the arc gene as the second encounter with the learning. That second encounter and how it happens is where the gene expression is happening.

Learning, then, happens as part of a process. New knowledge is constructed into pre-existing knowledge but then needs to go through a priming process. That priming process is essential as this is where the amplification of expression of the arc gene is happening. Although the whole process is important, the ‘learning as a change in long term memory’, if defined by gene expression, is happening during the reactivation event. But alone, it is insufficient: it needs to be taught, a period of time allowed, warmly reactivated and then it is ready for strong remembering for ‘threats’. Those threats should be both retrieval (known threat) and constructivist retrieval (unknown threat). In short, it is a moving sequence vulnerable to time delays and cold threats rather than a static schema which sits in the long term memory.

What does this look like at the level of lesson or learning episode? Well it begins to adapt some of the pedagogical tools we use – in particular formative and summative assessment (threats) as well problem solving or creativity and the length of time between the initial encounter with learning and when and how it is revisited. A first teaching should be followed by a period of time to allow for cell reformulation . The warm reactivation becomes the super important event. It suggests that before introducing a ‘threat’ during the revisiting for the second time – whether that be Year 1 painting in primary school or leading a Q&A session in English, you would undertake a non-threatening priming activity as a pre-activity. Not low stakes retrieval, but low stakes warm reactivation. To be very honest, this is not wholly new – doing a pre-questioning session to make a Q&A session better than a cold Q&A session is something teachers already do. Questions like ‘Do you like Lady Macbeth?’ would be a clear warm reactivation question. There isn’t any right answer, but the cells containing the memories would be readied. If asked later on for Lady Macbeth quotations the pupil’s memory cells would retrieve these successfully and also this would lead to expression of the arc gene. This is a reversal of what is currently happening.

I suppose at this point we begin to reflect on cold assessment. Every teacher knows that cold assessment is never as successful as assessment where the learning has been warmly reactivated first. It makes us consider if our wholly cold national assessment system is an accurate way to measure learning amongst children as well as the quality of teaching in schools. It would be interesting to see what effect controlling priming would have on large scale assessment systems such as mock examinations. Warm reactivation before mock examinations could be more effective at strengthening memory that simply delivering cold mock examinations. There is something to be said there about how a teacher knows better what a student’s knowledge or skill is like because they see the student in operation when they are primed rather than in the cold examination hall. It possibly also explains how a student can prime themselves more effectively for an exam than they ever did in class and thus score more effectively in the cold formal exam than they did at school (e.g. in a mock examination where they were not primed nor motivated to prime themselves).

Another area worth revisiting is Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction. Here we see the idea that we should be reteaching that which has not been retrieved accurately. However, if the reason that the retrieval was unsuccessful was that there was weak memory formation then this reteaching could be simply relaying down foundational knowledge rather than creating the priming process for expression of the arc gene needed for a stronger future remembering. With the idea that memories can get better at responding to threats (retrievals) by being warmly reactivated first and then exposed to the threat, simply retrieving at the start is not the right idea. Indeed, one of Rosenshine’s key principles ‘…the review at the start of the lesson…’ (Rosenshine, 1982, p.8), is very nearly there. It’s just been conflated with contemporary ideas of retrieval and sometimes reduced to cold quizzes at the start of a lesson – further more, not enough attention has been paid to whether it is a second revisiting and how much time has lapsed between the initial encounter with the learning and the second revisiting.

It’s important to think about how we could further support children with learning difficulties through priming. By offering CPD to support teaching assistants in the theory of priming they could better understand just how important theories such as Porges’ work on the Automatic Nervous System (ANS). In his modelling, some learners who have had adverse childhood experiences (which could well include negative school experiences due to early issues with learning needs) have amplified ANS responses. In other words, when faced with ‘cold’ unprimed ‘threats’ (cold questioning, cold retrieval, examinations, etc.) some children respond with ANS driven fight or flight responses. By introducing warm reactivation ahead of such situations, support assistants could modify the ANS response, reduce behaviour-led responses and increase successful retrieval and construction of new knowledge or skills. Those with SEND can also have higher absence rates or simply have insufficient adaption in a lesson – this could affect the priming process: the initial event, the period of reformulation and then the expression of the arc gene are all susceptible to absences or issues with access to learning (barriers to learning).

I’m sure we could go on, but it is worth thinking about how enshrined our ideas about memory are into the way we train teachers, leaders, inspect schools and so forth. The new ideas from neuroscience both complements some of these ideas and challenges them, but also refines the language as well as lends criticality to the way we understand the processes. However, it does need a jolt of reality. Much of this is theorising and it is important always to be critical of everything we meet in education – every idea in education, after all, has limitations.

We are launching a two phase project to investigate the concept of priming and enhancing the formation of memory using these ideas. If you are interested in being part of the research, as either a teacher or a school, and would like to be put on the contacts list for the launch of this or any other research projects then drop me an email at james.shea@beds.ac.uk or you can find me on Twitter at @englishspecial.

Dr James Shea, Senior Lecturer in Teacher Education

Copyright © 2021. James Shea. All rights reserved

Cognitive Science v Neuroscience: retrieval at the start of a lesson or not?

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With the publication of a neuroscience paper on recall and memory formation we now have convergence between cognitive science’s research in how memory works [in education] with neuroscience’s research in how memory works. Remembering knowledge over time and how to do something, after a gap of time, are very much vogue in education right now and rightly so. However, this article is about the publication of neuroscience research and what this neuroscience paper suggests about the way some in education will approach their lesson design as a consequence (a longer write up of these ideas can be found here).

Let’s get some caveats out the way. The research in this paper is about cells in the the brain and formation of memory through the expression of genes. It’s not about the more social concept of mind, nor indeed does the paper suggest what teachers might do with this new knowledge of the brain. I’m not claiming that this paper proves anything about how we should teach, but I’m aware that it does bring criticality to the way that some think that memories are formed (especially within education) and so it is important.

So what does this neuroscience paper say? Well it said that the formation and recall of memory works a bit like a body reacting to a vaccine. The first jab makes the body receptive to it and gets it ready for the booster. When the booster arrives a surge of gene expression takes place, the strength of which controls the number of cells ready to be recalled in case they are required (e.g. if an infection shows up then the body is ready to react). So there are three parts of the process. The initial activation, a reformulation of the cell architecture which is effectively ‘readying architecture for gene expression’ and a reactivation event in which gene expression happens ready for future remembering. The reactivation event is the crucial event. We can speculate then, that when you teach you are laying down the first activation- a first pass of the schema* itself, but the gene expression at this point will be small. Over time, the effectiveness will wane as the potential memory cells have not had a second reactivation event. Further, should you need the schema to be ready for recall and to be produced on demand (e.g. an examination), you undertake a warm reactivation event to prepare for the recall (retrieval) event itself. Instead of going straight into a full retrieval of memory cold, there should be a warm up process where you are getting the memory ready to access the schema in case it is required. Then you should ask for a full retrieval.

*Note discussions around the concept of schema

Stage 1 – teaching and re-teaching of new/schema (followed by a delay to allow reformulation of architecture)

Stage 2 – priming the schema before revisiting the schema from Stage 1 (this triggers the expression of the arc gene needed for memory formation)

Stage 3 – remembering of schema associated to Stage 2 alongside teaching of new schema

How does this affect teaching then? Well, currently, there is a lot of focus on retrieval practice, a psychological conditioning process – retrieving knowledge repeatedly with the view to making the recall stronger. Yet this paper is suggesting that there is a nuance to be appreciated scientifically. If you go straight for a retrieval quiz then that’s the equivalent of asking the schema to be recalled without having reformulated cells ready to express the arc genes. It’s not necessarily strengthening the memory formation. Cold questions and retrieval quizzes at the start of the lesson don’t reflect what this neuroscience research says. What you should be doing is something lighter – controlling the priming event. Think about discussions and recaps of the topic – quite wide ranging discussions rather than small minutiae. Then, in the main part of the lesson, the small minutiae will more accurately be recalled and more importantly, the process of priming and then the remembering (producing memory to face the challenge) will work more effectively. It is important to see the nuances here of some of the things we do in teaching. Retrieval at the start of a lesson of content that is not going to be used is priming the wrong (cells containing the) schema. In addition, That’s a different process altogether – that’s conditioning. According to the science in this paper, you want to be ensuring that you actually work with the schema for which the cellular architecture was created as that will lead to expression of arc genes which are responsible for creating more memories. In some ways the paper informs us on the gaps between cognitive science and neuroscience.

The future could be, one could speculate – not starting the lesson with the conditioning process of retrieval practice, but starting the lesson with warm reactivation of the schema. In particular, you should not start the lesson with retrieval of schema which won’t be used in the lesson as this does not lead to expression of the arc gene necessary for memory formation. The lesson itself should contain both remembering and new learning together as the brain constructs the new knowledge (or skill) into gene expression and starts to get further architecture ready for the next warm reactivation event. When that happens, it will be ready to swing into action with both the original knowledge and the new knowledge constructed into a single schema. This stronger formation of memory will lead to better remembering and require less future retrieval practice (because we currently use conditioning to supplement weak memory formation). Retrieval should still form part of the lesson, but if incorporated into the main lesson following a warm reactivation event at the start of the lesson then it will be more effective. And lastly, remember, the schema used should be relevant to the lesson.

It is a potential change in the sequence of learning that we have come to see become quite mainstream. First, an activation event, then a gap of time to allow for reformulation of the cell architecture, then either a warm reactivation event alone or warm reactivation and new knowledge together to start the architectural reformulation necessary for expression of the arc gene in the next warm reactivation event. In addition, less retrieval is necessary. This is because we currently use retrieval (interleaved or not) to condition a pupil into producing knowledge in response to a question. By making the original formation of memory stronger through the priming process (expression of the arc gene) remembering will be stronger. You are supercharging the formation of memory through creating more gene expression at cell level. We have worked up further thinking here on what the implications would be for interleaved retrieval, Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction, OFSTED inspections, NPQ and even SEND. All of these areas could be affected by this concept of supercharging memory formation.

There is lot of theorising there and I’m sure those with good knowledge of both science and education will be able to add more thoughts. This paper does not at any point inform us how to teach and it’s important to emphasise that point. There is a major caveat also which is that taking science and turning it into educational practice has lots of limitations. However, it is an interesting paper and it does suggest a different, and scientific rather than theoretical, model of how memory is formed and how a priming event could be better than retrieval for the start of a lesson.

We are launching a two phase project to investigate the concept of priming and enhancing the formation of memory using these ideas. If you are interested in being part of the research, as either a teacher or a school, and would like to be put on the contacts list ready for the launch of this or any other research projects then drop me an email at james.shea@beds.ac.uk or you can find me on Twitter at @englishspecial.

Dr James Shea, Senior Lecturer in Teacher Education

Copyright © 2021. James Shea. All rights reserved

New Wave Progressive Teachers

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At a recent conference to prepare the trainees for schools, we asked them what would be the ethos and values of a school they would like to end up working for. The most common answer was ‘progressive’. Here at UOB Towers, we don’t accept the traditional/progressive dichotomy and instead embrace a pluralistic approach which sets out that the evidence informed teacher (and there is a debate about what constitutes evidence) selects the pedagogy best suited to their unique class at any moment in time. So we asked them – what do you mean by progressive?

It turns out that the prog/trad divide was not what the trainees meant. They didn’t mean do group work rather than teach from the front. They were not saying they wanted to work at schools that eschew SLANT and TLAC. What they were saying was they wanted to work for a school that provided a progressive curriculum and a progressive approach to staffing. We asked them what they meant by this. Their early answers on what kind of school they wanted to work for are really quite illuminating.

“A school that has good behaviour management and a strong belief in the arts”

“Accepting, forward thinking, values student and staff well-being, inclusive”

“Strong focus on equality and diversity.”

“A creative teaching environment – progressive.”

“One that values all parts of a student’s wellbeing, Not just the academic side of things.”

“Strong pastoral care and pupil well-being at the core of values. respecting all subjects equally.”

“Clear school-wide systems (behaviour, etc.) and also has staff welfare as a high priority.”

“A school with the ethos of being all about individual students achieving the best they can be – not through grades but in their own abilities.”

“A school that treats all subjects the same, every lesson is important.”

“Engaging with the local community and celebrating of arts, sports and culture.”

“Supportive, progressive and allowing for a number of different teaching approaches.”

These are just a selection, but key themes emerged: inclusivity, diversity, equity, caring, supporting of staff and students and high expectations around student behaviour. They wanted to work in a school which is a tight self-sustaining diverse community heavily supported by SLT with a flatter hierarchical structure where everyone is valued and respected regardless of subject, age, gender, etc., and encouraged to explore a wide range of pedagogies.

Still, this use of the term progressive by trainees who might have no awareness of the prog/trad divide and instead use it with a different meaning intrigued us. ‘Define progressive’ We asked.

“A school that keeps pace with the changing needs of education and the world beyond school – supported through education and extra curricular activities.”

“Progressive to me means continued training on problems that are new for the next generations, training for teachers on current mental health issues, up to date.”

“Progressive – open to new ideas and adapting to change. Modern and relevant teaching.”

“Willing to adapt and use new research along with key principles of teaching to continually adapt teaching methods and styles.”

“A school that won’t be too rigid with how they want lessons delivered. I want to be free to lead my lessons for individual classes and tailor them for their needs.”

The trainees want to be free to read papers and books and try out these new ideas in their teaching. This includes being inclusive, focusing on a work life balance, pupil mental health, approaching the issue of diversity in cohorts and teaching itself, teacher autonomy and really the biggest theme of them all – curriculum. They want a wide curriculum with contemporary relevance in which all subjects and pastoral care contribute to a strong starting platform for young people.

Now, this is simply a couple of hundred trainees starting on their training. Their ideas will change between now and the end of placement, but they aren’t inexperienced. Many come from a background in education or have already held a professional role prior to switching their career to education. It is interesting to see where they are starting from – their values and mores. Further, this is the next generation of teachers. Many of them will go into middle and senior leadership. Their ideas will permeate our profession over the next 5-20 years. It will be interesting to see just what the future might look like under the leadership of these new wave progressive teachers.

Tables in the classroom good. Tables facing the front better

 

You see it all the time, some edutweeters responding to an edutwitter discussion about how to teach with a self-defined single model version of teaching: ‘All desks facing the front, teacher at the front.’

And let me start by saying that there is a lot of truth in that particular model. If I have them in groups and then ask them to listen whilst I am giving instructions or doing a similar teacher led activity then I’m just asking for them to not pay attention. You can call it whatever you want, but sometimes it really does work if I have them all facing me when I am teaching.

However, once I’ve completed that learning event and moved on, then I need to consider what the best room layout is for the next learning event. I can’t have one model of desk layout always employed regardless of the activity.  If I was then doing an activity with group work, allocating different roles and they had to work effectively as a team, then I don’t want all the desks giving them physical barriers to represent their internal ones. They are going to have to learn how to collaborate because that’s pretty much what it means to be a citizen in a society – in work, rest and play. That’s why PISA are testing it and why we are good at it. Covid19 will naturally affect this, but the reality is that we will slowly return to working collaboratively in groups within our classrooms.

So, I want to move the desks. Sometimes I move the desks into group tables. Sometimes, I reduce the number the tables in play by only giving a group a single table around which they have to sit. More room for the sitting part & my circulation and more intimacy for the group work – there must not be hiding room in good group work. Too often, we give them a tiny working area for close text or number analysis sat on an island of tables and mini-cliques can quickly emerge which render the group work a poor vehicle for learning. And then here is the important part, if I then moved to another teacher-led learning event I would move the tables again. Only, I would not do this personally – the pupils would be trained to move those tables on my direction, lift – not drag, in a display of co-ordinated table movement, rather like when one turns the dial on a prism viewfinder. I like teaching with plural models of teaching and I like teaching with plural models of desk layouts.

My tables are moved then, habitually, to suit the activity. Whole room clearance for drama pedagogy, Socratic questioning circles, work performance review, partial clearance for group activities and then back to formal rows for teacher-led and the opening and closing of my lesson. It sounds a lot, but in reality there might be 2-3 minor movements in a single lesson. Each movement of tables is an aesthetic display of coordinated memorised room shaping by the pupils. Once I had trained them into creating the half dozen table layout shapes I employed over the year they had no problem in creating them at speed. If you buy into Sweller’s cognitive load like many do, then you should be buying into creating the optimum environment for each activity in your room, each and every time without any disruption. You should also be thinking about the limitations for any model of education in any particular situation with any group of people in a place of education. And you should be thinking about the limitations of always advocating a single model of teaching or education to others. Dichotomy in Edutwitter is a real issue and a red herring. You reduce teacher agency with educational dichotomies. Let well trained teachers choose how to teach each unique class that they have.

This plural approach to teaching models is the real demonstration of how teachers teach – adapting their classrooms for maximum learning.

 

 

 

Lockdown Learning for Schools in September

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When the lockdown came for us in teacher education here at UOB towers, it was like we had been building up to this, technologically, for some time. Little did we realise it, but the past two years that we had been piloting webinars, developing online teaching pedagogies and moving face to face delivery to online delivery were going to become very relevant. The reason we were developing this was quite simple: mentors having to drive a long distance to mentor development face to face sessions were delighted to sit and have a webinar from home instead with a cup of tea beside them and with no commuting. We had just started to experiment using the flexibilities offered by this technology with some of our trainees when the university shut its doors for COVID19 and our entire programme, overnight, moved online. The same content got taught at the time it was scheduled. Live and exceptionally well attended webinars replaced face to face sessions and it was as seamless as switch as you could imagine. From the trainees’ end, this was a bit of a shock (they relied on the physical library more than I thought), but to their credit they have been very resilient despite the challenges of losing physical interaction with their peers and tutors as well as a change in approach to teaching. No matter what we try to do as tutors, we cannot replicate the live synchronous and emotive experience of learning that happened in the physical classroom (I am from the reader response school of thought) and I think we all see the online version as an inferior substitute to the real thing. Though, to be fair to online live webinars, there are some sessions which have proved to better suited to webinars – ‘preparation for assignment’ type seminars where thinking time, intense question and answer sessions and the ability to record everything have proved to be a superior model.

We are fortunate in our School of Teacher Education to have well designed Virtual Learning Environment technology underpinning our delivery. Technology that was designed and used to deliver taught and assessed units within courses (as opposed to Zoom etc., being designed for business). The students, as I said, overnight, have remained enrolled in units, enrolled on courses and ‘attending’ designated sessions as timetabled. The staff are teaching as much as they ever were and apart from some tricky assessment modifications we’ve by and large ensured that the trainees have had a smooth transition in terms of academic input. This shows that we are benefiting from the level of technological infrastructure in homes, with trainees and with the university. Indeed, business and charities are in a similar position – the flexibility of technology has enabled us all to deploy social distancing as a strategy to push back against the R rate.

Thinking about schools now, it is clear that the way forward will be an adherence to the current rule no unnecessary close social interactions. If you can work from home or learn from home using the flexibility of technology you should and alternatively if you can run your business or attend somewhere with social distancing then you can do that. That’s the way the UK has chosen to keep R down (there are other models: Sweden, South Korea and so forth). Some people have to go to a workplace and more people will go back to a workplace as they open up with social distancing in place, but some people can continue to work from home. The same doesn’t quite apply to pupils in schools. Most pupils will have to go to school and be taught via traditional pedagogies by teachers in face to face sessions for some of the time if not all of the time. In the classrooms, social distancing  can and will have to be practiced (due to smaller numbers in school through rota systems). Some pupils will learn online effectively, because they have the environment and technology to do so. Some pupils who could stay at home will go to school because they don’t have the learning environment to learn from home. Those pupils who can learn from home will be taught by teachers using online pedagogies to supplement the face to face teaching. Teachers and schools from September will need to be able to teach face to face and to teach online. What teachers and schools are doing, on behalf of the government, is deploying the flexibility offered by technology to reduce social interactions. It could be that once the R rate comes down and test and trace becomes much better in terms of its success rate that the government will switch to an approach where social interaction is not so heavily repressed, but until we see the infection rate come down and the test and trace capacity increase we have to think about logistics based on current approaches.

My job as a course leader of teacher education is to ensure that the teachers coming in can teach online as well as face to face. We are already doing this for the outgoing cohort. They would normally have run a face to face ResearchEd style conference to finish the course. This year, they will run that conference as an online conference. Live webinars will replace the keynotes and the breakout presentations. They will put on an entire day of live webinar based learning for each other. We are already looking to enhance next year’s cohort’s knowledge of TEAMS and so forth as part of our planning.

When I look to the future (as someone who has written frequently about technology in education), I can see that blended learning is about to become a reality for everyone. You can have social distancing in schools because you must – for those who will attend school. You can have live teaching online because you must – for those who can study from home for some of the time. I know that live webinars are not as good as face to face sessions, but that’s not the important part right now. What’s important is to keep unnecessary social interactions to a minimum whilst maximising safeguarding and education.  There will be regional variations as well – schools and parents in an area seeing a rise in transmission could expect to be placed back on extensive lockdown. Teachers will be, for next year at least, waiting for the COVID19 phone call as opposed to the OFSTED call.

Rosenblatt’s Principles of Instruction

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You might be familiar with Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction, but are you are aware that the similarly named Rosenblatt also had principles of instruction some 60 years earlier? In the interest of revisiting educational history, Rosenblatt’s principles are as interesting to review as Rosenshine’s.

To start with, Louise Rosenblatt didn’t collect her own principles together. They were spread out amongst her seminal work on transactional theories of literature and Probst put them together. Indeed her most famous text from 1938, Literature as Exploration, is still in print . These principles emanate from the teaching of English (she is best known for the concept of ‘Reader Response’), but the principles can also be explored through the lens of other subjects by considering the notions of epistemic curiosity (Litman, 2008). The main principle to note here is that there is an element of the learning that cannot be placed in a knowledge organiser and cannot be directly instructed for. In English we refer to it as reader response. The idea that every person’s experience of the text is unique. The text sits alone until a reader comes along and consumes it. In doing so, they have an experience. That experience then makes up part of the meaning of the text. So, let’s look at the Rosenblatt’s principles of instruction as put together by Probst (1987).

Thus, you can see how it contributes to contemporary debates over knowledge, “knowledge…is not something to be found, not something the teacher can give to the student…”. Here, I don’t mean that one cannot organise and plan knowledge for lessons – planning and organising knowledge ahead of a lesson is a very good approach to teaching. I am saying that not all knowledge can be organised and planned for in lessons. For English, this is fairly well enshrined in our subject. Each student, when writing about literature, will offer a personal response over and above those efferent aspects of the text that the teacher can plan and teach to the student. It’s not enough, in English, for the student to learn about characters, plots, contexts and themes in literature: they must also personally respond to it. Take the recent real life story about Lord of the Flies – it makes people question their response to the original text. Do humans forever have a touch of the animal within them? Or is it not so inevitable? Our personal response when we read the text forms part of the meaning of the text. And further, that meaning changes as we change and the world changes.

The next step I want to take this to is as a lens through which to look at other subjects. Litman writes extensively about epistemic curiosity. Both the desire to learn more about something one is passionate about and also the desire to fill a perceived gap in knowledge. When learning within a subject, experiences happen. These experiences also feed into epistemic curiosity. The reader response can therefore be applied to other aspects of the curriculum. When learning about the horrors of slavery or the civil rights era, many of us felt compelled to know more. Sometimes, as Litman points out, that compelling need is because we feel a deficit of knowledge. We feel it is important to know more about this topic. It drives our own self-regulated learning with the metacognitive engine running at full speed. On other occasions, a teacher might expose you to a topic and you find it compelling. I still recall the experience of being taught the Norfolk crop rotation method from medieval history in year 9 and deciding I wanted to find out more – independently.

The concepts behind Rosenblatt’s principles of instruction therefore play an important part in a teacher’s planning. When is this going to happen in the lesson? How can we use discussion to facilitate this ‘experience’ and response. It’s not enough to learn that knowledge which we have planned for them to learn. There is more – the experience of learning that knowledge and then further: what is that experience like? By this, I don’t mean gimmicky things which makes a lesson ‘interesting’ – I’m on record as saying our subjects are interesting in their own rights. But that ‘interesting’ actually means it feeds into curiosity. What we want to achieve in our lessons is an experience where the students themselves find our subject interesting and that bits of our subject knowledge are attached to these experiences of curiosity.

I’m interested to know how other subjects approach this unique idea of the triangulation between the student, the knowledge and the experience. I have written before that knowledge alone is insufficient (see our article on Disposable Knowledge). When learning knowledge, students will have an experience of learning that knowledge and that experience becomes part of the knowledge. We can’t say in advance what that experience will be, but it is something we can plan for and even look to enhance.

 

 

Learning, Memory and the “Ruck Schema Problem”

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One of the many marvellous things about the recent rugby world cup in Japan was the re-emergence of the open side flanker. For those of you not versed in the dark arts of rugby union, the open side flanker usually wears the number 7 shirt, and one of his or her main jobs is to attack and defend rucks – the situation that occurs when a player is tackled and the ball goes to ground. In defence, they often try to pinch , or “jackal” the ball from the tackled player so that possession is turned over. In attack, they are often responsible for the clear out; the forcible removal of a defensive player from over the ball. In Japan, England often played with two open side flankers in the form of Sam Underhill and Tom Curry, both experts in the number 7 role.

The open side flanker is an example that we sometimes use here on our course to illustrate the problems of seeing learning as being purely about memory. In the materials which surround their new inspection frameworks,  OFSTED  define learning as being about “ effecting a change in long-term memory”. This is fine up to a point;very few people could credibly argue that memory had little part to play in learning and it is clear that many things that we need to learn in school rely upon us transferring things from our working (or short-term) memory to our long-term memory.  However, as it is our role to get trainee teachers to think about learning in as many ways as possible,  we like to problematise that definition and get them to think beyond it.

So, back to our open side flanker. One of the roles of this sort of player is to learn to recognise the types of situations that occur at rucks and to make decisions about how they could respond to them. I, as the player’s coach could teach them as many of the possible situations  that occur and get them to remember both the situation and the potential responses to  them there are.  We might see this as the player developing their own “Ruck Schema “ – a cognitive structure in my brain which holds all the information I need to respond to a particular situation. The schema is a well-established and explored idea in cognitive science, and indeed a good deal of cognitive science in education sees teaching and learning as a matter of schema development (Sharon Derry’s paper on Schema theory provides an introduction that we have found useful on our course) .  So as the player’s coach, it is in my interest to develop the players’ ruck schema by getting them to remember as many responses as I can teach them. However, he or she will need an opportunity to practice his or her skills in order to strengthen those memory structures. This could be in training or in games.

So far, so good. Memory is key to my development of the next Sam Underhill. But why is it the case that very few of the young players that I coach are likely to reach that high level? Well, the answer is probably that my teaching needs to cover a bit more than just what the player needs to memorise in order to respond to the game situation. Some of what I need to teach the player is reliant upon other things; motivation, for example. I need to motivate them to do other things which are not solely reliant upon memory. Diet, conditioning, mental strength. These are all things that are largely not about my ability to get the player to “remember stuff”. They probably rely more upon my relationship with the player, my ability to tap into his or her hopes and fears and how I prepare them to deal with the unpredictability of the game situation. We should say here that all these things are, for us at UOB, really significant jobs that the teacher has to do with their students, and that these are largely not about altering long term memory. They speak to other, deeper-seated elements of our psyche.

There’s a parallel here for learning in other areas of the curriculum as well. We would argue that there are some fairly significant elements of teaching in the Arts which aren’t  just about memory. Interestingly, this isn’t a version of the well-trodden “knowledge vs skills” argument. It’s more about the fact that there are some aspects of the Arts that don’t rely on memory (or at least not in the sense of the working/long-term memory binary set up by OFSTED), but still need to be taught by teachers. A good example of this is improvisation – the practice that music and drama students need to engage in when they make an immediate, unprepared response to a text or stimulus. Now, before we go any further, Drama students will want to remind us that Konstantin Stanislavski thought that memory was essential to improvisation – and they would be right to do so. However, some psychologists, and indeed, Stanislavski himself , would suggest  that it relies on “affective” or “episodic”  memory . This is an important distinction to make as it means that the teacher has to do something very different, in pedagogical terms, to the kind of thing that is proposed by the instructional science of someone like John Sweller (which is where OFSTED’s definition of learning originates from). It is a distinction that points to the fact that learning is a little more complex than simply effecting a change in long-term memory.

An excellent recent instance of what we mean here is provided by Alan Yentob’s documentary “East Side Story”, which recounts the story of a group of young people with little or no experience of drama coming together to write and produce a play about knife crime. In the documentary, we see the students being encouraged to improvise action and dialogue by their teachers in order to develop a script. While the improvisations have some basis in the young people’s lives – and thus are building upon their episodic memories – the teacher is coaching them through the process, rather than instructing them to remember how to do it. They are getting the students to use their pre-existing memories, rather than building their long term ones, and indeed, the student’s success as an improviser is not completely dependent upon these memories, but rather upon their confidence in relating them and their willingness to engage in the improvisational process. This is completely different, pedagogically, from the process of getting students to commit a mathematical or scientific formula or process to their long-term memory. A similar thing occurs in Jimmy McGovern’s documentary “Writing the Wrongs”, in which  McGovern works with a group of sacked dock workers to write the script of his 1999 drama “Dockers”. McGovern and the novelist Irvine Welsh, act as teachers but the processes they are teaching have little to do with some of the more mechanistic approaches to writing that have garnered popularity in certain parts of the world, which encourage students to commit a procedure for writing to memory.

Performance, or perhaps more accurately, learning to perform, might be something else that relies less upon memory and more upon the teacher’s ability to unlock certain other parts of the student’s mind. Music teachers will be very familiar with the student who is technically very good, practices regularly, has a good understanding of the relationship between what they are doing and music theory , but cannot, for whatever reason, reproduce the quality of what they do in public performance. Again, the teacher here, like the rugby coach, needs to use other skills and other kinds of knowledge in order to help the student overcome these difficulties. As a PGCE course we are very interested in what these kinds of knowledge are; motivation, attention, perception, creativity, confidence and the awkward nature of the human condition all might be things that our trainees need to consider. Memory is an important part of learning, for sure, but it’s probably not the only part.

The late Jerry Fodor, perhaps the 20th century’s pre-eminent philosopher of mind, thought that cognitive processes, such as memory, made bad candidates for empirical research. In effect, we could know a great deal about cognitive inputs and outputs, but not very much about what was happening inside the brain. Even those people, like Gregory Murphy, who suggest that developments in modern cognitive science mean that Fodor’s ideas have less pull than they used to, accept that he had a point. Cognition, and indeed, memory as a constituent part of cognition, are things that we still only understand a limited amount about, and as such, it is problematic to commit ourselves to narrow definitions of something like learning, when the things that influence that process are more complex than they appear to be.

A new modern language is coming to your school soon. Are you prepared?

When I go over to Europe, like many other travellers I’m astounded at the amount and diversity of people who can speak in English. I have schoolboy French, cafe Spanish and a strong enough grasp of language theory to read signage, but there’s no denying my lack of fluency and in particular my inability to hear what they say back to me in another language. And that’s not because I can’t understand what they are saying it’s because I can’t hear what they are saying to understand them. Being profoundly deaf means relying on a narrow range of exceptionally unclear and underpowered sound frequencies alongside lipreading. Throw in another language with its nuanced sounds & new phonemes and the processing load is so much that I’m still trying to decipher their opening ‘estoy’ by the time they’ve finished their speech.

Which brings me to the idea of introducing a GCSE in British Sign Language (BSL). I have a confession: I don’t sign – mainly because I wasn’t brought up in a deaf community. I was one of the first in the country to attend mainstream school when all others with my ‘condition’ were shunted off to special school. It wasn’t much fun. Being in the top set for every subject should have gifted me the Education Endowment Fund confirmed top set uplift. However, the downside was no Special Educational Needs Coordinator (SENDCO), no teaching assistants, teachers who mumble, teachers who sat you at the back, teachers who only taught in one channel (my thanks to the dual coders of today – you are helping the deaf pupils) no fellow deaf people and most certainly no BSL anywhere. Which is why I don’t sign. I’m a hearing person in a hearing world who doesn’t hear well rather than have what the deaf community call an ‘I am deaf’ identity.

Today, signing is still uncommon. If a deaf child comes into the school then an Educational Health Care Plan can pay for a signer. Good luck with getting one of them. Better learn to be a lawyer at the same time as signing. And then finding a school that wants to pay the first £6,000 of your support. And then you’ve still got to contend with bearded mumbling teachers teaching in front of brightly lit windows (just because the deaf pupil has a slow, asynchronous second channel doesn’t mean they don’t need the first channel – ever watched live out of sync subtitles?).

Which brings me back to my opening bit about the Europeans being so good at speaking English. Nick Gibb has recently supported the introduction of GCSE BSL. You can imagine it would be quite a popular take up. Modern Languages would benefit from having this socially inclusive newcomer in its midst. A language that learners can use at home and abroad.

BSL is a modern language in its own right and one which is unique. Not because it is signed, but because it lives in perpetual fear of death. Most deaf pupils have hearing parents. They all have to learn BSL as a second language. BSL is only taught by deaf parents to deaf children if the hearing loss is passed on. That’s a very small proportion of the people who are deaf. The language is also struggling due to the migration of deaf children from special schools where deaf communities operate to mainstream schools where deaf communities are not in operation. If they are lucky, they’ll meet a few other deaf people and have access to a signer (as well as a career in law).

If BSL GCSE gets introduced and indeed if the take up is strong this changes BSL as a language. I saw a video where the MP Angela Rayner was talking to her constituents and when one of them was deaf she switched to signing (she has BSL level 2) seamlessly. That’s the vision of BSL – it helps the deaf person access the hearing world. That’s how we should look at Special Needs and Disabilities (SEND) theoretically. I’m only deaf if I can’t access the societal thing which I am experiencing. Disability has liminality. It comes in and out of existence depending on the context. That liminality can be affected by making the context more inclusive – which is why we love all the Europeans speaking English (even though we make our own efforts to learn one or more European languages). When everyone is speaking English we can, as monoglot English speakers, access their society. They even speak English to each other in multi-national cosmopolitan areas – it’s the unifying lanaguge for them all.

There we have the reason for introducing BSL GCSE (and maybe even some at a younger age?) – we can bring that European experience for the monoglot English to the deaf – and keep BSL alive at the same time. And it’s happening – the GCSE will come in, we will find teachers for it and pupils will learn it. It will be fascinating to see it unfold. Mind you, I really ought to learn to sign…

Transposable habitus not disposable habitus

We discuss epistemology frequently here at the university and one thing we look at is whether knowledge is disposable or transposable. If you prioritise knowledge, you want to learn it. You make a conscious effort to recall it. If you don’t value the knowledge, you might comply with holding the knowledge within a context, but then throw it away once you leave the context. Quite simply, it becomes disposable knowledge.

I coined disposable knowledge in my book on technology-led learning. The premise is quite simple and still holds – some knowledge is disposable. E.g., if I want to do something on the computer, I don’t attend a ten week course on Microsoft Word. I google or YouTube some direct instruction, I learn just enough temporarily to undertake the task and then I throw this learning away. I deprioritise it and forget it. Why? Because if I really need it again, I’ll look up the direct instruction again. I perceive that it has little value for me in future unknown situations and therefore it does not get added to my store of highly valued transposable knowledge. There is also no escaping that some knowledge can become more disposable as time passes. Scientific and technological advancement can transfer knowledge from the science domain to the history domain.

Transposable knowledge, habits and skills combined equates to habitus, that term coined by Pierre Bourdieu – whose work has attracted more attention since Ofsted embraced the idea of cultural capital. These ideas all explore a central theme, the unknown future. We build up cultural capital and a transposable habitus that enables us to be successful in different, unknown future areas of our lives. We accept, always, that there are limitations to these concepts of Bourdieu, but this concept of transposable habitus does have a place in education.

We now turn to our teachers and teacher education – where we find trainees are building knowledge, habits and skills for future unknown schools – their transposable habitus which will equip them for a career in teaching and education. However, if they are in a school with a very fixed way of teaching and, even more, if it is a way of teaching that the trainee doesn’t believe in or feels is not evidenced, then it becomes a disposable way of teaching. Instead of moving from one school to the next with a large transposable habitus, they throw portions of it away and enter their next school with a much smaller amount of transposable habitus about teaching. We are fortunate in that our partner schools and mentors understand this and help the trainees explore different ideas about teaching beyond that in their room, department or school. If the mentor doesn’t use a projector, they understand that another school might be passionate about dual coding and so ensure the trainee explores this approach as well as not using a projector. Group work is another example. A good mentor explores both teacher-led and student-led work with their trainee regardless of their personal opinions.

One assessment on our course is that the trainee has to design a sequence of learning (a scheme or unit of work) and accompany it with an essay written at Masters level justifying their designed sequence of learning. They will cite both subject-specific pedagogy, such as the teaching of inference, and they will cite non-subject specific theories of learning: such as cognitive science, constructivism and behaviourism. They can draw on their school placements, the pre-existing planning they have seen and their wider reading for this assessment and it helps them crystallise their professional and autonomous ideas about teaching their subject. The planned learning that makes it into this assessment is the planned learning that they believe in. We are, through this assessment, trying to create in the trainee, transposable habitus that they can take to any school in England.

In designing this sequence of learning they can draw in the ideas, teaching and planning they have undertaken in their school placements. They hold these ideas up to the robust criticality of writing at L7 and justify their personal choices. They begin to make evidence informed decisions about their design of a curriculum. This habitus is transposable. They will hold their future planning up to such standards.

When a recently qualified teacher arrives at your school to begin their early career you have to be careful not to be too judgemental. What if much of what they learned was not valued by them and thus not transposable? What if the ideas they have learned to value aren’t valued at your school? They could have a miserable first year which could end with them leaving the profession. They might write their training and first job off as evidence that they were not cut out for teaching and we might lose an otherwise excellent practitioner. This debate also shows the need for entrenching teacher autonomy. If we want to keep teachers in the profession then we need to think about how to utilise and develop transposable habitus.

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Fast reading and fast readers

“But the privations, or rather the hardships, of Lowood lessened. Spring drew on: she was indeed already come; the frosts of winter had ceased; its snows were melted, its cutting winds ameliorated.”

(Charlotte Brontë, Jayne Eyre)

I always recall the word ameliorated as it turned up in Jane Eyre when I studied it for A level. ‘What an unusual word,’ I remember thinking at the time. Clearly it means the weather improved or changed. An unusual word and it drew attention to the pathetic fallacy in the text reflecting the shifting plot. If I was reading it out aloud I’d add a spring like tone to the sound of it to add a reading cue for the listener. This is why when we listen to good readers we understand the meaning more efficiently.

What happened there was inference. As a reader, motoring through the text at full speed you meet uncommon words. You may, as was the case with me at the time, be meeting the word for the first time. However, most times, with a combination of grammar and reading cues, you can decode enough of the meaning to continue reading without pausing to look the word up. This is a very specific reading skill which overcomes the raised extraneous and intrinsic load of meeting a new word whilst reading at pace. Decoding and inference at pace is what you need to be able to do in order to be a reader who can switch to different texts at ease – older texts, texts from other countries, texts in translation, texts with stylistic adaptations for effect and so forth.

Now I say all this because recently an interesting paper garnered attention in the English teaching community. The paper focused on what it called ‘fast reading’. It’s an unfortunate phrase that gives you the image of a teacher rattling through a text at speed. In fact, it means a teacher reading without interruption, without popcorning to other children in the class, without pausing to discuss the impending doom captured by the cleverly inserted pathetic fallacy, but instead consciously embedding tone and emphasis which provide reading cues. There is much merit in this – fast reading will help children decode and infer at speed and be able to use this ability to infer meaning when reading other new texts for themselves. You would, of course, then still be wise to explicitly teach inference at pace amongst other aspects of the teaching of inference. Teaching inference is a large part of what an English teacher does and is rooted in reading, listening and in processing the language with sophistication.

All good so far, what’s the issue? Well, one thing teachers have taken to is pre-teaching vocabulary before a chapter. This means the teacher will pre-read the chapter, identify the new words likely to trip up the readers and then pre-teach them before the reading of the text. This removes the extraneous load of meeting a new word and therefore makes the reading experience have a lower intrinsic load. You can see here the immediate issue – the pupils aren’t developing the decoding and inference skills needed to process new words at speed in fast reading. Pre-teaching vocabulary isn’t transferable to a new text. A pupil can’t pre-read a chapter, identify the new words then pre-teach themselves the words before reading the chapter again.

The answer is complicated again. There are times when a word can be solved by grammar or reading cues to a strong enough degree. The reader has to be able to decipher the words to the degree needed to function. I could read, ‘The nearest elder, a Ntask, was still several miles away…’ I can see the unusual word ‘Ntask’ is a proper noun, a name of an elder, this person might have some kind of rank, status or gender, but in terms of reading I can carry on without needing to stop and start looking this up. If, however, the sentence becomes impenetrable and my reading is wholly arrested by my inability to decode a word I might stop, lightly hold my finger on the word and my kindle would very kindly pop up a definition of the word including ‘in usage’.

Now, in an English class, the reality is I can’t simply hold my finger on the word because we have paper books and I have a whole class of pupil readers with me. So there will be times when I pre-teach vocabulary. There will be times when I do pause at a new word with the class and quickly teach the inference needed to decode the word. I have got to expose them to the raised intrinsic load which has been delivered by the raised extraneous load and then teach them how to resolve this using decoding and inference.

Inference itself goes much deeper than this light touch analysis. We are English teachers and we can pause and dwell on a passage before going ever and ever deeper into a text. But at the same time, we must be careful to not think that removing extraneous load in reading is always helpful. In some instances, it removes intrinsic load and the pupil never gets to develop the transferable knowledge and skill necessary to read at speed in such a way that it brokers them to other texts.

Our challenge, as English teachers, is not to teach them solely for the measurable now, but also for the unmeasurable future. A time when we hope our former pupils are enjoying reading a wide range of new and challenging texts for themselves as adult readers.