Have you ever covered a Maths lesson and found yourself looking enviously at their textbooks? I have.
They’ve always felt like such a useful teaching resource. They often contain lots of worked examples that helpfully model how to answer questions. And there are multiple questions (of increasing difficulty) for pupils to practise with.
In time, I came to covet those questions: in most of the science textbooks I’ve used, there are only four or five (often rather ropey) questions for each topic. For other subjects, ready made textbook questions do not exist at all.
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Which is fine if you teach in what I now consider to be the "old" way. I’d trained as a teacher in an era obsessed with Bloom’s Taxonomy where I was (with hindsight, incorrectly) discouraged from asking recall and application questions and encouraged to focus more on creating, evaluating and analysing.
What I now recognise is that you can’t evaluate and analyse what you don’t know or understand, and questions give pupils a chance to master the (vital) basics.
This is why I was so pleased to meet Ruth Walker at a ResearchED conference nearly two years ago. Ruth’s session was electric. Her frustration with the quality of GCSE physics textbooks had led her to write her own and her thinking behind them was underpinned by cognitive science.
The textbooks were clear and detailed. But most importantly, they contained lots and lots of practice questions.
It wasn’t just the sheer quantity of Ruth’s questions that was impressive; she’d thought about how to vary the question styles, how to scaffold the questions, increasing the difficulty carefully.
Taking a SLOP approach to teaching has resulted in a greater proportion of my lessons being used for deliberate practice. More answering questions, less copying notes. Pupils are having to think more. It varies depending on the topic, but it's not unusual for pupils to be answering dozens of questions in a 60-minute lesson.
SLOP is now a key component of my day-to-day classroom teaching. Here are some of the benefits of it in my science classroom.
Practice makes permanent
As Professor Daniel Willingham mentions in the excellent Why Don’t Students Like School?: “It is virtually impossible to become proficient at a mental task without extended practice.”
SLOP gives pupils an opportunity to develop fluency in some of the most fundamental basics of the curriculum: definitions, units, relationships between quantities, equations, calculations, chemical reactions, empirical formulae and so on.
Pupils remember what they attend to. The more practice they have answering SLOP questions the more likely they are to remember key concepts and procedures.
Automatic for the pupils
Extended practice means pupils can develop automaticity, which frees up working memory. Experienced science teachers can already substitute and rearrange equations with little thought. We don’t have to think hard to remember that a kilogram contains a thousand grams. This frees up space in our working memory to deal with the more complex stuff.
Pupils have to develop this through practice and experience. If they don’t they can really struggle with unfamiliar questions.
This has been most apparent to me in A-level physics. In A-level physics the many equations needed are provided on a data sheet. You don’t need to memorise them.
However, in my experience, pupils who know the equations off by heart are significantly better at using them to answer exam questions, as they have more working memory available to deal with the problem solving.
Building confidence and competence
Careful scaffolding increases confidence. I currently teach a number of classes who in September were disengaged from science. Their confidence was rock bottom, and many would switch off and shut down at the sight of a relatively basic question.
SLOP allows you to start simple and build up the difficulty carefully. It’s had a really positive impact on the attitude of my pupils. They get the sense of success from the very easy (and well-modelled) initial questions, which then gives them confidence to tackle the slightly more difficult ones.
It’s worth noting that this is not reducing expectations or dumbing down. I expect my pupils to be able to tackle the more difficult questions once we’ve practised the basics. I’ve found this approach to be particularly effective when using SLOP to help pupils get to grips with using equations in GCSE physics.
For example, I’ve recently been teaching my Year 10 class about resistance, and how to use the equation V=IR. I always start by working through a few examples with the class so they know how to answer the questions (and show their working out).
The initial questions involved calculating V when given I and R; a simple process that they could all engage with. After a few of these questions, values with decimal places were introduced.
Once those are mastered we introduced values with prefixes such as milli and kilo. Finally, values with standard form were included.
Breaking it down in this way means that pupils only have to master one new skill at a time. Thomas Chillimamp and Adam Robbins have both written useful blog posts on how to construct SLOP calculation worksheets.
Don’t work more, work smarter
SLOP is workload friendly. Generally, SLOP doesn’t take massive amounts of time to create as many of the questions can be copied and then tweaked. There are already a wealth of SLOP resources available (for free) online that can be used or customised.
The marking and feedback is generally rapid and effective. Unlike lesson plans, presentations etc, SLOP created by other teachers is very easy to use in your own context.
Pupils have responded really positively to the increase of SLOP I’m putting into lessons. It’s made them more confident and competent. I’ve been able to pinpoint and correct misconceptions more rapidly and easily. I’m not coveting the maths textbooks quite as much as I used to…
Bob Pritchard is lead practitioner (physics) at St John Plessington Catholic College in the Wirral