Why you should ask yourself: ‘Has this been learned?’

19th October 2018 at 00:00
After reading a seminal US paper that emphasises the difference between ‘learning’ and simply ‘doing’, Mark Enser has transformed how he teaches

Barak Rosenshine has changed my view of teaching. The former professor in the department of educational psychology at the University of Illinois wrote the seminal paper “Principles of instruction” in 2012 (see bit.ly/Rosenshine). Amid the majestic sweep of good sense that the paper lays out, this sentence hit me: “The most effective mathematics teachers spent about 23 minutes of a 40-minute period in lecture, demonstration, questioning and working examples. In contrast, the least effective teachers spent only 11 minutes presenting new material.”

The more effective teachers spoke more than the less effective ones – this ran counter to every piece of training I had ever received. We had always been encouraged to spend as little time as possible talking to the class. But the evidence on effective teaching suggests that this is wrong. So what should teachers spend all that talking time doing?

Principles and practice

Rosenshine brought together research into cognitive science and into the real-life practice of effective teachers to create 10 principles of good instruction. The use of real-world practice means that it is very easy to see how you can apply this work to your own teaching. The paper focuses very much on why certain aspects of teaching are effective, but it leaves the method down to the professional in the classroom.

As such, it explains why scaffolding is important and why we need to break a lesson into small chunks, but avoids the lists of strategies that can quickly become ill-understood gimmicks passed from consultants to senior leaders to teachers.

A key principle is that we should start each lesson with a short recap of what has already been learned. The “testing effect” means that every time we recall information from our memory, we improve our ability to recall it again in the future.

I endeavour to start each lesson with a short quiz or a longer question that requires the pupils to use what they have learned previously. I ensure that this recap also ties into what they are about to learn, so that students can see the links between different lessons over a course.

This idea of connecting information occurs again in Rosenshine’s third principle: asking a large number of questions. This questioning allows you to return to something learned in a previous lesson that links to the current one. For example, in a lesson on conditions in the rainforest, I might ask pupils questions about the mechanism of low-pressure weather systems and the role of convectional rainfall.

Questioning also allows you to check for understanding throughout the lesson, rather than waiting for a plenary, when it may be too late to correct misunderstandings, as well as to ensure what Rosenshine terms a “high success rate”.

He notes that the most successful teachers were constantly circling the class when pupils were working, and checking for any misconceptions. They would stop the class if they noticed a problem and would re-teach something that had not been understood. Practice does not make perfect – if pupils practise mistakes, then these mistakes become permanent.

One common misconception about this form of direct instruction is that everything is learned via a teacher lecturing from the front of the class. This is not the case. Rosenshine is clear that pupils need successful independent practice so that the skills and knowledge they have been taught become automatic.

This effective independent practice comes after clear instruction, and the use of scaffolds and modelling to make the expectations for the work very clear. I try to achieve this by modelling my own thoughts on the board as I demonstrate writing an answer. I show my thought processes and explain how I am making the decision to include certain pieces of information, or to structure my answer in a particular way.

When pupils are engaged in independent practice, and I am happy that any misconceptions have been addressed, I find this is a good time to put in place the last of Rosenshine’s principles: engaging pupils in reviews of their work.

Students need a chance to look back over their recent work and review what they have learned, and to see the bigger picture that should be emerging. While they are working, I try to speak to a pupil or two about what they have learned so far and to help them to draw ideas together. By talking to two pupils per lesson, I can work my way through a class every term.

I also build in reviews at the end of each topic, during which the pupils have the opportunity to reflect on what they have learned. Once again, the idea is that they need to recall previous lessons and look for links between them.

Calling for a culture shift

The biggest message from Rosenshine’s paper is that we need to move away from a culture of doing to one of learning. You see the former in the classroom when pupils say they have “done the work”, or an exasperated teacher complains that their class should be able to answer a question because they “did this last week”. It is a subtle shift, but we need to replace the idea of covering content with the question “Has this been learned?”

It is possible to argue that what Rosenshine sets out is nothing other than good teaching. And you would be right. If you wanted to teach someone anything, from driving a car to the effects of the UK’s energy mixture, you would start by recapping what they already knew, explaining what they needed to know next, having them practise, checking how they were getting on and then giving them feedback. At its heart, this process is very simple. But doing these simple things well can be complicated.


Mark Enser is head of geography and research lead at Heathfield Community College in East Sussex. His book Making Every Geography Lesson Count will be out soon, published by Crown House. He tweets @EnserMark

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