Curiosity and the Curriculum

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With the growing popularity of cognitive load theory (CLT), we are seeing teachers adapt their teaching: removing the irrelevant, the cul de sacs and the diverting tangents from their teaching. Pupils can meet a piece of novel information mid lesson that they can’t locate within their schemas of knowledge and that can overload the working memory. They could also form misconceptions from incorrectly located knowledge.  Yet before all of these fascinating and intriguing diversions are removed from your teaching we’d urge you to pause and consider the nature of self-regulated knowledge acquisition.

When you first hear something on edutwitter or in education that seems to be gaining traction what do you do? Dig a little more? Learn a little more? Well the same happens with pupils. Their epistemic curiosity is driven by trying to locate new knowledge within their current schemas of knowledge. If they are unsuccessful, but still curious, then they accumulate new knowledge to expand a schema or build a new schema so that they are able to locate this new knowledge and further knowledge from the same field. Those intertextual or intersubject references of yours may be sometimes lost on most of the class, but for some of the class those references make them go off and read a new book, watch a film or start reading up on a subject – all wholly self regulated. They may be novices, but they can still be in schema building mode.

Curiosity is an innate human characteristic, but it’s also definable. It’s a compelling desire to acquire further knowledge or develop a particular skill. Linked with strong self-regulation it can be ultimately rewarding. If you are designing a curriculum you have to think – am I building this into my teaching? Are you giving them La Grande Permission to go off and independently acquire new knowledge in order to epistemically locate a nugget of knowledge that you have exposed them to?

An inspired child is one happily gorging themselves on your subject; their amplified curiosity pushing them to accumulate new knowledge or abilities beyond that which they are learning in your lessons.  As an English teacher, I knew that children I inspired would be reading and writing beyond that which I was doing in lessons. They were no longer only learning my subject in lessons, my subject had become part of their identity. Accumulating new knowledge and abilities in English was part of their identity and driven by them – in addition to learning the curriculum which I had designed for them. I’m no different. My curiosity in my subject is continuous, self regulated and it forms part of my identity. When I teach, I don’t just pass on knowledge, I also pass on the curiosity that drives the passion for my subject.

There’s a world of self-regulated learning out there for the curious child and any curriculum you design needs to consider how you broker that curiosity to them.

Does culture trump everything?

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Barak Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction provide a useful summary of some important ideas that we would encourage our trainee teachers to read and think about. The practice of instruction is an important aspect of teaching which many professionals need to be concerned with in their day to day work. However, as academics, one of our roles is to encourage our trainees to question the wide range of evidential and philosophical positions that they encounter, and before Rosenshine’s work becomes a kind of unchallengeable orthodoxy (something that happens with influential educationalists’ work – c.f. Lev Vygotsky) we would raise two questions that we think speak to the wider question of culture and its effect on education

  • To what extent are Rosenshine’s principles (and the research that he bases them on) facilitated by the cultural context within which he is working?
  • To what extent can any educational idea be successful if the cultural environment that it is being introduced to – both within and outside schools – does not see view that idea as desirable or compatible?

In raising these questions, we don’t seek to denigrate Rosenshine’s (or any other thinker’s) work, but rather get trainees and their mentors to think about  the wide range of processes at work in teaching and learning. However for at least one or two of us in the UoB team we would posit that culture might be the most significant, and perhaps unrecognised factor involved in these processes.  What we’re referring to when we talk about culture is in some senses, an intangible combination of location, class, race, gender and ethnicity, but for simplicity’s sake, we might see it as the interconnectedness of three things; who I am, where I come from and how those things shape my world view. This might also apply to groups of people or organisations, so culture could also refer to who we are and how we see the world.

Writing in the TES recently  teacher and blogger Mark Enser suggested that he thought that every UK teacher’s practice could be improved by adopting Barak Rosenshine’s principles of instruction. However, he also commented that he thought that it would take a culture shift to effect such a change in UK schools.  Enser is right about this – to move to the kind of culture in which instruction was the focus of all teaching would require some big movements in the way that both educational policy is made, schools are run and teachers are developed. Attempting such a shift would lead to that second one of our two questions above; is such a shift achievable, or indeed, desirable? To explore this further for a minute, let us return to Rosenshine, an academic working at an American University (Illinois, in this case) and working with people who are going on to teach in American elementary schools, high schools and colleges. Anyone who has spent any time in the American education system will know that instruction is very important; indeed, many of the people who work in these institutions will be referred to as instructors. Within this education system, they are expected to instruct, to lecture, to set quizzes and tests and to confer grades on their students.

We would suggest that this is something subtly different to the Northern European conception of a teacher. In the European tradition, instruction has only been a part of what the teacher is expected to do. Some people might think that this is what needs changing  about UK schools– that teachers need to be left to teach – but notice here that they don’t say “teachers need to be left to instruct”. We might suggest then that the culture of Northern European education – as opposed to an American, or Far Eastern one perhaps – is one in which the teacher has a more holistic, and certainly more pastoral, role. The teacher standards (regardless of what one thinks of them) in both the UK and the Netherlands would seem to indicate this. We could of course, have a national conversation about whether or not we think that this should be the role of the teacher, but right now, in many ways, this is the culture of UK education.

Instruction is of course, a hugely important part of many educational processes. Improving the way that our trainees here at UoB give instruction is something that we focus on quite a lot. Rosenshine provides a good starting point for thinking about what teachers need to do with instruction. But what about those circumstances where we don’t want them to be instructing (we think there are some) or perhaps those circumstances where we need them to be more critical than Rosenshine’s principles require them to be? (And we should say here, that probably in opposition to a lot of people writing on the internet, that we believe “whataboutery” to be a thoroughly good thing, as it drives inquiry on). We have recently been engaged in some research[i] which suggests that there might be some difficulties for science teachers  – who require a particular kind of ontological self- awareness – if they approach their instruction, or any other aspect of their teaching,  in an uncritical way; a fact not lost on some American colleagues who are thinking along similar lines. Such criticality requires an understanding of the culture in which Rosenshine originally develops his research, and the cultures from which his research examples are drawn (largely Maths, Science and English classrooms in the USA and Australia). It also requires some understanding that the culture of school science requires that teachers’ instruction deals in things that are, at best, simplifications.

The importance of understanding culture, is importantly for us, acknowledged by a wide range of people in education who come at the problem from different perspectives. Tom Bennett, for example,  arrived at the conclusion that the culture within a school is the single most important factor in determining how pupils behave. We often extend this by telling our students that they need to understand the culture that surrounds a school as well and this thinking is what leads to the second of the questions that we started with. If we want to promote a particular way of thinking about teaching and learning we need to understand the culture into which we are doing that promotion. Careful thought about this process is required beforehand if it is to work. For us this is best exemplified by the cautionary tales of the involvement of both Dulwich College and Wellington School in state education. Both instances suggest that knowing a little about the culture of the area that you are moving your educational philosophy into might be useful, and a consideration of the cultural differences between that philosophy and the world view of the people you are trying to introduce it to may also prevent misunderstandings. To paraphrase Theodore Roosevelt you might carry a big stick, but you still need to remember to walk softly.

 

[i] Bates, G. & Connolly, S. (in review)  “The role of intellectual virtues in the development of the science teacher: an initial provocation” Research in Teacher Education

Is it important that they enjoy your subject?

Should enjoying your subject be part of learning it?
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Reading through the latest in the TES on the Shanghai Mathematics study I was struck by a quite simple statement.

“The research also shows that while teachers felt pupils enjoyed maths more when taught using the mastery methods, a survey of pupils did not back this up.

And the researchers warn that previous studies in East Asia have found that pupils are less likely to enjoy maths than those in England.”

The teachers thought the kids were enjoying their mathematics, but they were not. Naturally, there are some subsequent questions you might ask yourself:

Is it that important that they enjoy your subject?

Is it that important the method used to teach them enhances their enjoyment of your subject?

How did these teachers get a wrong perception?

These are important questions. For example, I enjoy running and being a runner. I don’t enjoy hills. I hate them. I don’t enjoy long steady runs. I tolerate them. But the fact that I have to do them to be a good runner doesn’t stop me from enjoying running. In fact, there is some part of me that finds hill running quite interesting and makes me curious. Lactate threshold training is a key part of running and I’m often to be found reading in-depth sport science texts about the very thing I hate. Curiouser and curiouser.

However, as an English teacher it is very important to me that people enjoy English. Even though sometimes English is tedious, frustrating, difficult and challenging in all sorts of ways (as well as being endlessly enjoyable), it is important to me that the end result is that they enjoy English and are fascinated to learn more about the subject even when it is a very difficult area. That ‘curiosity’ is what drives us to opt in to learn more about the subject independently and in our own time. It pushes the ‘subject’ into what we perceive as our leisure time and becomes part of our identity. We begin to source new knowledge in the subject independently and look to locate this knowledge within our current knowledge.

The current GCSEs in English Language and Literature are not holding their own in the marketplace of being pre-A Level recruiters. English is not a vocational subject, rather it develops transposable knowledge and skills which employers and students alike value. In addition, it is a deeply rewarding subject to study on personal and philosophical levels.

I am not one for ‘making lessons fun’. My subject is fun. However, I have to think about whether my perceptions as a teacher of my students are right. My running coach can easily ‘beast’ me to make me stronger, but that would probably put me off running or at least being taught by that coach. So it is important that a teacher has access to student voice. Sometimes it is challenging learning my subject, but I want the overall picture to be one of the students enjoying my subject: student voice is thus important.

Is it that important the methods I use to teach them enhances their enjoyment of the subject? That is difficult. I think I want the methods I use in teaching to enhance their curiosity in my subject. I want to make students stronger in such a way that they enjoy the challenges in learning more about my subject. I also want them to go on to study English at A Level and beyond.

And finally. How did these teachers get such a wrong perception of their students’ enjoyment? Did they mistake progress in learning for enjoyment? Making progress in your subject seems to be not enough to make students enjoy your subject. There must be a fostered curiosity whereby you see and appreciate the challenges within the subject and begin subsequently locating that new knowledge and curiosity within your identity. E.g. You become someone who reads interesting and difficult books as part of your identity.

it’s this last point that GCSE English isn’t fulfilling. The combination of specification, teaching methods and perceived employability are not competing with the STEM subjects. Whilst English teachers can make changes to the latter two, the first one remains out of their hands. There is a disconnect between the discipline of English with its focus on the study of language and its rich range of texts with an emphasis on reader response and the GCSE specifications for English Language and Literature. This is because English teachers do not have enough input into the GCSE specifications. At the moment, the boards are revisiting the specifications for their five year refresh and we need English teachers to have an open and consultative voice on this refresh to better help us to develop the next generation of life long students and teachers of English.

Cognitive Load Theory and Assessment

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Recently, we did a CPD session on using Cognitive Load Theory (CLT) as a lens through which to view teaching and assessment in HEI. There’s scope for teaching practice to be improved in universities: use dual coding, stop reading out slides word for word and so forth. We also focused on summative assessment design. The difference between schools and HEI is we can design our own formal awarding assessments. To highlight an example of poor assessment design for our session we used the QTS Numeracy Skills Test. When you are trying to work out the question, someone starts reading the question out again, overloading your working memory. It’s an infuriating, but excellent example of poor assessment design through the lens of CLT.

In HEI, however, we can design out some of these poor assessments. We can also go further. We can look at whether the right assessment vehicle is being used for the intrinsic load being assessed, whether the assignment briefs contain too much extraneous or ambiguous information and other enhancements. In our session, we also acknowledged criticisms of CLT which are that it is a lab based concept: some extraneous load is normal in the field or discipline. This means whether you are learning or accessing schemas of knowledge, it’s not always possible in real life to remove extraneous load. When one of our trainee teachers is teaching, they have to deal with substantial extraneous distractions on their working memory whilst trying to access their schemas of knowledge in order to run the logistics of the lesson, perform in-action reflection and still teach. These can be unexpected answers or questions from a child, an observing SLT listening in on a learning walk or the mother of all extraneous loads – the rogue wasp. In all situations, they will be expected to demonstrate the Teachers’ Standards despite quite a lot of extraneous load (be reassured trainees, we do get better at managing it all). In seriousness though, if we are considering CLT then assessments have to do two things. First, you need germane laboratory style assessments to see if they can achieve the intrinsic load of the topic. For example, at Oxford University, they have increased the amount of time available for the mathematics paper to increase outcomes of all students. The intrinsic load was more important than the ability to cope with the extraneous load of a limited amount of time.  Secondly,  you need field or discipline based assessments to check they can access their schemas of knowledge as required despite the extraneous load provided by real life. As Mark Enser says in his blog, we do get better at this. So handling intrinsic and extraneous load together is something we can improve with practice and experience.

This brings us back to schools. Schools have focused a lot of their efforts on CLT as a means through which to raise the intrinsic load of the content being taught through germane teaching. So far, so good. But secondary schools are spending huge amounts of learning hours teaching towards GCSE assessments – sometimes from year 7 onwards despite the knowledge needed for these requiring just 120 guided learning hours per GCSE. Teachers in secondary school can look at their GCSE assessments through the lens of CLT and ask, critically: are these well designed? I recall the infamous GCSE English question, ‘Is George and Lennie’s dream in Of Mice and Men futile?’ The extraneous load of the unusual vocabulary choice in the question prevented many students from accessing their schema of knowledge about the text rendering the assessment of their knowledge inaccurate. Mathematics papers are notorious for containing higher reading ages than the students sitting them. If the assessment is the same intrinsic load, but starts to test working memory or things other than the intrinsic load of the assessment, is this poor design? Is it failing to test the schema of knowledge held by the student sitting the test? Well, only if it is not done deliberately.

The current GCSE papers have some sections which have a low extraneous load. They also have some sections which are so fiendish that teachers spend disproportionate time preparing students for it, and some sections which deliberately raise the extraneous load (e.g. the English unseen poetry section). If an assessment has a high extraneous load, then it should be because this is what happens in the discipline. If there is no need for a high extraneous load, then the assessment should be as germane as possible.

Those assessments which contain unnecessary extraneous loads also have higher ‘failure’ rates. This is where the assessment has not successfully accessed the schema of knowledge that the students have. They also raise the stress levels of teachers who are held accountable for these poor performances. How many times have you sent a student into an examination confident that they have the knowledge needed to do well only to be baffled when the grade comes back? Preparing students for assessments in a high stakes environment is fraught with difficulties. It can be as simple as not knowing one unusual word that prevents them accessing their schema of knowledge. You cannot control for a poor assessment in the same way we can in HEI. We can redesign the assessment to improve the ability of our students to access their schemas of knowledge and to demonstrate their knowledge effectively. We can also deliberately reproduce tasks from the discipline to better prepare them to work in the discipline. Schools have had this type of assessment (coursework and experiments) stripped from them because in a high stakes environment it is easy for an adult to assist students in managing the extraneous load in the assessment.

What then for schools? Well, currently, they still have scope to design their own assessments from KS1 up to KS3 (government NCTs notwithstanding). They don’t need to reproduce the poor assessment design of KS4 which eats up precious learning time and introduce it into years 7-9. They can also work on allowing them to work on subjects as a discipline. English students can work in the fast moving world of journalism, writing copy to speed; geographers can go out into the field and match the real world to their schemas of knowledge: there is scope for excellent curriculum design where assessment is designed for the students not the accountability system. There is a match between HEI lecturers and teachers for KS1-3 in terms of the ability to design curriculums and assessments.

I’m wary of calling for redesign of KS4-5 assessment because it does nothing but create more workload. However, there is a case for a fresh review of the assessments through the lens of CLT. Can we improve the ability of these assessments to enable students to access their schemas of knowledge and for teachers to spend more time teaching content and less time preparing students for the unnecessary extraneous loads of the poorly designed assessments? I’d be interested to hear from teachers who know their key stage or secondary subject assessments in fine detail and how they view the assessments through the lens of CLT.

10 things they hate about your subject

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Does it worry you when a pupil says they hate your subject? It should. That’s a strong word hate. And then applied to your subject like a knife in the heart. Nobody should be hating a subject. They especially should not be hating your subject.

Well actually, they hate performing in your subject.

They hate performing in P.E.

They hate writing for the view of others.

They hate reading aloud.

They hate doing maths and showing their working out publicly.

They hate taking exams in your subject.

In all of these, they hate performing in your subject. They hate publicly displaying: their body, their misconceptions in maths, their ineptitude in speaking modern languages, their poor reading aloud in front of others and their difficulty writing out their ideas; for public ridicule as they see it.

So who are ‘they’? They are pupils and adults who have had a negative experience of performance in your subject and have developed an aversion to it. This can be especially cemented when they do the final performance – the examination or assessment. And all of this fits into the contemporary agenda of mental health, but don’t think it is a new problem. It’s just modern life involves more performance these days.

Pupils who dislike performance based aspects of a subject can be found in any room of people. I’ve met so many people who tell me a variation along the lines of: ‘I had a negative experience performing in an area of a subject and this has affected me in all walks of life.’ These people make life choices, career choices, struggle in specific relevant situations and employ avoidance of activities & circumstances: a life time of different experiences all rooted in a negative experience of performing in a subject at school, e.g. ‘I didn’t like speaking in front of the class and now I avoid all public speaking wherever possible.’ I meet TEACHERS who don’t like public speaking. It’s a real thing this is. Teachers!

This must not be confused with the stretch and challenge agenda.  This agenda is focused on removing differentiated learning outcomes. A good teacher knows exactly where a pupil’s comfort zones and barriers to learning are. They engage with the pupil using a high quality relationship to create trust. Once established, they then use that trust to take the pupil beyond their comfort zone in such a way that the pupil feels supported and stretched at the same time.

One question I find helpful to ask myself is this: do I want them to read 3 books or 1000 books? If I want to achieve the latter, then I need to find a way to ensure a pupil enjoys the performance of reading. Does a P.E. teacher want the pupil to play the sport in school and never again or do they want them to enjoy sport itself for life? We have to think about the long term outcomes even when we are thinking about assessment outcomes. It is important – we need to achieve both the outcomes (performing in assessment) and the inspiration (performing in life) together. There is no good in having one without the other.

Don’t forget there is a good side to performance – I am not saying performance is a bad thing. I read an interesting article on science experiments which said the reasons for doing experiments are a mix of learning and of generating curiosity, motivation and an interest in chemistry. It suggests that when children meet challenge, if they have enjoyed challenge before in the subject they are more likely to persevere and to have better self-efficacy. It is a bit like doing a five kilometre run and then going home and doing some quite difficult mathematics made much more interesting by the fact that your five kilometre running performance has provided the data. Successful performance is brilliant. Life changing. Inspiring. Alas, so is a negative experience of performance and not in a good way.

The next time you meet a child or adult who dislikes your subject, ask some questions. What is it they don’t like? Is it a performance aspect? Is there a single incident which has taken root and created this aversion? Install a new updated experience of performance. One in which they are taught properly this time. Don’t let them move forward still hating your subject: for the rest of their lives.

Be like #GarethSouthgatewould – teach them to own the process.