Monday, 17 April 2017

Thinking about...retrieval practice

Retrieval Practice - Pupils Need More Tests!
Generally, tests are considered for assessment purposes only. Teachers, in the main, have a negative perception of testing due to the significant increases in the number of tests that pupils now have to take during their school careers. However, they turn out to actually be one of the most effective tools for learning; quizzing and low stakes testing are crucial to optimise learning.
Testing has to be thought of as in a pedagogical sense. Testing, when used this way, engages learners in practicing recalling memories (information learnt). ‘The act of retrieving a memory changes the memory, making it easier to retrieve again later’. Repeated recall appears to help memory consolidate into cohesive representation in the brain to strengthen and multiply the neural routes by which the knowledge can later be retrieved. Research proves that practicing retrieval makes learning stick far better than re-exposure.
Retrieval practice is one of the most successful strategies for learning and the more effortful the retrieval the stronger the benefit. The greater the effort to retrieve learning, provided that there are high rates of success, the more learning is strengthened by retrieval. 
The following examples outlines some suggestions of how you might provide your pupils with opportunities to engage in retrieval practice.

Retrieval Practice Strategies for the Classroom
Regular low stakes quizzes - Possibly the easiest way to provide opportunities for regular retrieval practice is through low stakes quizzes/tests to your lesson that test knowledge that has previously been taught. Low stakes means that little emphasis is placed on the scores. Pupils’ results don’t have to be shared or recorded, it is the process of retrieving previously learnt information that is important.

Whole Class Quizzing - Create multiple choice quizzes that will engage pupils in retrieving information. You can use simple methods such as RAG pages or mini-white boards to ensure that pupils are individually accountable for answering question. This not only engages pupils in recalling learnt information but allows you to quickly assess their knowledge.

Interleaving Quiz - Regularly start a lesson with a low stakes quiz that allows pupils to revisit previously learnt information, using the following format:
1.   Question from previous lesson.
2.   Question from previous week.
3.   Question from previous topic.
4.   Question from previous term.
5.   Question requiring pupils to make a link between what they are currently learning and what they have previously learnt.

Quick Fire Questioning - This strategy simply involves asking a number of questions that require pupils to retrieve information. Consider how you make all pupils individually accountable for retrieving the memory. This could be achieve by providing pupils with some think time and insist on no hands up.

Writing to Learn - This task requires pupils to recall as much information as they can about a topic/lesson/term etc. Pupils are provided with a short period of time and asked to write as much as they can about a topic/lesson/term etc.
Homework - Forgetting is key to remembering and therefore spaced retrieval is an effective strategy.  The setting of homework is a great opportunity to encourage retrieval practice and to ensure it is spaced retrieval. Rather than set a homework relevant to the learning that has taken place during the lesson or that week why not provide pupils with a task that will require them to revisit previously taught content?

Self-explanation - Pupils are challenged to consider how new information can be linked to what they already know. In order to make links the pupils must engage in retrieval practice to recall all the previously learnt information.

Knowledge Organisers – There are a number of ways in which pupils use their Knowledge Organiser (KO) as a resource to help engage in retrieval practice.
·     Peer Quizzing - Using their KO, as a resource, pupils can quiz each other in pairs. One pupil can pose questions from the KO and check the pupils answers whilst the other is challenged to answer the questions. To help with this process encourage pupils to use Tip-Tip-Teach. If a pupil incorrectly answers a question their peer should give them a tip to help them recall the correct answer, followed by a second tip and then teach the correct answer if necessary.   
·     Cover – Write – Check - Correct - They cover the KO and aim to write down as much of its content that they can recall. Once pupils have recorded as much information as possible they check and correct their work. 
·     KO Starter Activity - Displaying one section of the KO with some information left off. Pupils are required to fill in the blanks, identify the key terms, complete a process or recall the precise definitions etc.

Cooperative Learning Strategies – There are a number of Cooperative Learning Structures that can be used to engage your pupils in retrieval practice. The main benefits of these are that all pupils are individually accountable for engaging in the activity and that half of the class are simultaneously answering a questions/recalling information at any one time.
·     Rally Robin & Pair Share – Basic structures. Pupils can recall information such as key words or speak about a topic.
·     Quiz – Quiz – Trade & Inside Outside Circle - Involves pupils pairing up and, in turns, answering and asking a question that requires pupils to recall information. Pupils can create their own questions or you could use exam questions and mark schemes.
·     Rally Coach - This cooperative learning structure involves partners taking turns; one solving a problem and the other coaching. This usually works best when the teacher has previously modelled a process for working out a problem e.g. Maths problem or answering a question with multiple steps.
Technology – There are number of ways in which you could use technology to help engage pupils in retrieval practice.
·     Classroom Apps - There are a number of apps and software that can be used to engage pupils in retrieval practice. Regularly used examples include Kahoot, Socrative and Google Forms. They allow you to create multiple choice quizzes to engage pupils in retrieval practice.
·     Flashcards Software - Here is a list of flashcard software that you can use to create your own flashcards for pupils to use (shared by @AceThatTest). These allow pupils to track their own progress, prevents them having to create their own and there are often a number of sets that have already be created that might be of use.
·     Subject Specific Software - There are a range of subject specific software which actively engages pupils in retrieval practice. These can be used as a high impact/low effort homework strategy that requires little workload. Some examples of subject specific software include; Linguascope/Memrise (MFL), Mangahigh (Maths), My PE Exam (PE) and Pearson ActiveLearn (various subjects).

Conditions for Effective Retrieval Practice

Success Rate - In order for the above strategies to be effective pupils must have a medium to high retrieval success.  If the tasks are too difficult pupils will not be able to recall any information.

Feedback - immediate feedback must be provided. Although the process is more important than the results it is still essential that pupils are provided with feedback to the non-recalled or incorrectly recalled information. Providing immediate feedback increases the likelihood that information will be stored to memory.

Space Out Retrieval Practice - It is important to leave a considerable amount of time between sessions of retrieval to take advantage of forgetting.

The misconception is that massed practice can lead to embedding something into long-term memory. Although this might lead to increased performance it is not conducive to learning. This is because when retrieval strength is high additional study has no effect on storage strength. When ideas have been forgotten the effort to recall them reconstructs the learning from long-term memory and makes the idea more memorable and connects it to other knowledge more recently learnt.

Educate Pupils on the Process - One of the most effective strategies for improving pupils’ ability to retain information is explicitly educating students about the research on effective learning strategies.  Teachers are encouraged to be transparent about the frustrations but the importance of the ‘testing effect’. Educating pupils on the benefits of regularly testing and self-quizzing is likely to improve their motivation for such tasks and will also help them develop their own effective learning habits.














































Wednesday, 5 April 2017

Thinking about...what we can learn from John Wooden


 John Wooden led his basketball teams to ten national championships in twelve years and is regarded as one of the greatest sport coaches in History. However, it is not his success and achievements that make Wooden so popular, it is the way he lived his life. His integrity, class and humility have inspired people from all walks of life and I believe the that teachers, schools and the education system can learn a lot from him.  
The road is better than the end
After Wooden had retired he was asked if he missed it [coaching basketball]. He explained that he missed the practices and working with the young people under his supervision but that he did not miss the games and the tournaments. Wooden expressed that the importance is in the preparation and not the outcome. He felt that ensuring his players were prepared to perform at their potential would have a greater influence on the result than constantly stressing over the outcome. Does your school focus on the road or on the end?  In education, like basketball, an outcome is inevitable; we can’t avoid the examinations that our pupils will sit at the end of their five years of schooling. We can, however, focus more on how they might grown as an individual throughout their five-year journey. We can make sure that our young people are defined by their character and not by their exam results.
Be more concerned with your character than your reputation
Wooden disregarded reputation because it was something that he had no control over. He felt that his teams couldn’t necessarily control if they win or lose but they could control how they played the game.  Wooden believed that success is what you consistently do and that you cannot be defined by a single moment, game or tournament. He would watch how his team played to determine if they were successful or not. Wooden would often say that ‘there were games when we scored more than the opposition but we had lost and vice versa’. In education, do we care how well young people play the game or are we only concerned with their results? Some schools become so focused on their reputation, on their results and on their Ofsted grading that they lose focus of what matters. The children!  
John Wooden was asked, after one outstanding season, if this was his best job and he replied that he wouldn’t know for twenty years. He explained that it is what your youngsters do after they have left your supervision that really determines whether or not you have done a good job. What good are a school’s results, or its reputation, if its pupils fail to make a positive contribution to and succeed within society?
Never mention winning
Ironically, those schools that become overly focused on winning (results and Ofsted grades) are more likely to fail (by their own standards). Wooden himself has experienced this. When discussing the 16 years prior to his first championship title he explained, ashamedly, that there were times when he wanted to win so much that he hurt his team’s chances by overworking his players or trying to give them too much. In education we are currently facing a workload crisis; a number of teachers are reportedly leaving the profession due to being over worked and over stressed. Perhaps, as Wooden suggested, we are hurting our chances of being successful as we are focused too much on winning. We are focused too much on what Ofsted want. If we want to succeed; take a step back, let teachers do their job and stop putting the emphasis on winning.


Real happiness and success comes from the things that cannot be taken away from you
Perhaps we need to revisit our moral purpose, the reason we got involved in the profession and what it actually means to be an educator. When reflecting on his life, Wooden stated, that true success can only be measured by the lasting things in life, those things that cannot be taken away.  He explained that he always tried to live his life by the motto: ‘you can’t have a perfect day without doing something for another without any thought of return’. How many perfect days have you had recently? In education are we fulfilling our moral purpose and allowing our pupils to fulfil their potential? Or are we teaching in return for good results or an Ofsted grade? John Wooden will not be remembered as being a winner but for being successful. It is not the ten national championships that gravitate people towards him but rather the influence and inspiration he had on his players and those who he worked with. Perhaps our education system can learn the difference between winning and success from John Wooden and focus a little more on character and less on reputation.  

Sunday, 11 December 2016

Thinking about... how to encourage teachers to take risks

Are you a teacher that has taught for ten years or a teacher who has taught one year, ten times?

We often associate taking risks with doing something different. Before taking a different course of action we carefully consider the pros and cons associated. However, the scales are often skewed in favor of inaction.

When it is suggested that we adopt a new form of pedagogy we are very effective at considering all the potential consequences. But how often do we consider the consequences of changing nothing, carrying on as normal and teaching the same way for yet another academic year? 

Last academic year, as one of the Teaching & Learning whole school priorities, we asked staff to consider how they can take measured risks in order to increase innovative practice within the classroom. But, how do you take (acceptable) risks within the classroom?

First of all we need to loose the negative connotations associated with risks. Instead of perceiving risks as bad we should see them as unavoidable. A risk is the possibility of bad consequences, therefore we can’t avoid them; every action or inaction carries some degree of risk. Once we acknowledge and accept this we can focus our energies into figuring out the risks that are worth taking in order for us to become innovative, more successful practitioners.

To encourage staff to develop their teaching and try something new we introduced ‘Risk it Weeks’. The first two weeks after February half term were devoted to ‘Risk it Weeks’ to provide staff with an opportunity take a risk in the classroom. During this time we asked staff to make a personal commitment to trying something new which would have an impact on pupils' learning. It is hoped that by taking a risk and trying something new teachers would:
  • Increase their comfort zone.
  • Improve their practice.
  • Add more skills/activities to their teaching repertoire.

Prior to the ‘Risk it Weeks’ we held a professional dialogue session. These are regularly scheduled to provide teachers with the chance to engage in meaningful discussions with colleagues from across the school. In this session we provided a range of pedagogical approaches and scenarios and asked groups to discuss each and arrange them on to a flip chart paper, containing a sketch of a fried egg, to indicate how comfortable they would feel using that approach within their classroom. The yolk represented the comfort zone, the egg white the stretch zone and the fried crispy bits on the outside represented their panic zone.




Two weeks after the session we delivered a range of T&L Forums that teachers could opt into. These sessions were based around those pedagogical approaches that teachers felt were in their panic and stretch zone. We hoped to give teachers the understanding and tools to use these strategies and grow their teaching repertoire.

This was a perfect time to launch our ‘Risk it Weeks’ as each individual teacher had been involved in the process of considering a range of teaching practices that they would not normally use and they had been given training on how to implement them effectively. Now, was the perfect time to ‘give it a go’.

The poster below details exactly what Risk It Weeks involved


Following 'Risk It Weeks' we held an internal TeachMeet where teachers shared the risks they took and the impact these had on learning. It was great to hear teachers reflecting and sharing moments of success in their classrooms. However, it provided me with a great opportunity to identify and share any best practice.

The following year I developed Risk it Weeks further by challenging teachers to take on the ‘are you a hobnob teacher challenge?’ (See details below).


Is the whole thing a bit of a gimmick? Yes it is. Is this necessarily a bad thing? No, it is not! Teachers embraced the idea, engaged with meaningful CPD and committed to something that developed their practice in a light-hearted way. Creating pleasurable experiences for teachers can only be a good thing, especially when considering how stressful and stringent our profession has become in recent years. In my opinion, this was a basic form of classroom-based action research; All teachers investigated what will and will not work for their pupils in their classrooms. As a result of Risk it Week teachers:
  • were talking more about T&L.
  • had increased opportunities to reflect on their practice.
  • could attend learning walks to observe their colleagues teach.
  • were given training in various areas of pedagogy that they didn’t feel comfortable with.
  • most importantly, were given the message that it is ok take a risk and for it to go wrong.

‘Failing forward’ is a fantastic concept and emphasises that we must learn to ‘fail intelligently’ as a result of risk taking and not carelessness

Sunday, 27 November 2016

Thinking about... my visit to Michaela

Michaela: ‘You’ll leave with more questions than answers’ 

Barry Smith, Deputy Headteacher at Michaela, wasn’t wrong. After two days at the school, my head is spinning. I am still trying to digest and comprehend everything that I have witnessed and heard. I am unsure of exactly how I feel about Michaela and I have been left pondering if I want to join the revolution.

During her introduction to Michaela’s ‘The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers’ event on Saturday morning Katharine Birbalsingh, the Headteacher of Michaela, exclaimed that ‘We’re thinking differently and we’re part of the revolution. Join us and be on the right side of history!’

Michaela are certainly challenging the status quo or ‘ripping up the rule book’, as Katharine would put it. Teachers at the school are required to challenge what has become the ‘known truths’ in education and, in doing so, they have become unashamedly knowledge focused and they have adopted a tough-love ideology. Their philosophy and practices have raised debate, scepticism and, in some cases, have been opposed very strongly. I was unsure what side of the fence I would fall on, but I went with an open-mind and as Katharine requested of delegates, I was willing to change my mind.

I visited the school on Friday and had the opportunity to drop into lessons. The best way to describe what I saw is absolute consistency. Pupils’ movements and actions in lesson were unified, teachers taught lessons through drilling and didactic teaching and using the exact same structure. Even on the corridors pupils moved consistently, in lines and with purpose.

The event, Michaela hosted the following day, was really valuable because I had seen the school in operation but I did not have the opportunity to listen to the reasoning behind their methods and values. This is why, when I left on Friday, I had more questions than answers. The majority of these were addressed throughout the ‘The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers’ event and the following is what I took away. 


One aspect of Katharine’s opening speech that resonated with me was a section on ‘personal responsibility’. It is clear that this underpins the routines and no-excuse behaviour policy at Michaela. The school does not aim to oppress children, contrary to the suggestions of some of Michaela’s critics. Rather it is used to inspire them to rise to the ‘top of the pyramid’, a metaphor used to articulate the extremely high standards that the school has for their pupils. A pupil at Michaela operates at the ‘top of the pyramid’ simply because it is ‘who they are’. Their behaviour represents their intrinsic motivations rather than their desires to simply avoid a sanction, to please others or to benefit their future self.


I witnessed this first hand, during a conversation over lunch, a year 9 pupil explained how they had been given a detention in a Maths lesson for talking. He expressed gratitude for having the opportunity to learn from his mistake so that he could become a more successful individual. The systems in place at Michaela ensure that pupils take personal responsibility seriously. How many behaviour systems across schools in England result in pupils staying at the bottom of the pyramid? Behaving just to ‘fall into line’ or to achieve rewards and please their teachers? The large majority I assume. Michaela could argue, for this reason, that it is the large majority of schools that are oppressing our school children.

How can I improve our school systems so that pupils’ take greater personal responsibility? This is one question I will take away; behaviour is excellent in my school but how can I change the attitudes of my pupils so that they act in manner that reflects their desire to become a better version of themselves rather than simply to conform to the school rules?

Whilst recounting his experience of joining the Michaela teaching staff Mike Taylor expressed a concern that ‘teaching is becoming anti-intellectual’, sadly I agree. However, as a member of SLT am I part of that problem? For teachers to be more effective and for the profession to be an intellectual one we need to provide time for our teachers to refine their practice and to develop their subject knowledge. Mike outlined how, as a teacher at Michaela, he had the rest and freedom to be a better teacher.

What is the learning return on the time invested? This one question, posed by Jessica Lund, will become my most important takeaway from the weekend. If I want my staff to become experts in their subjects, I need to give them the time and freedom to do so. I definitely can’t ask them to do anymore!

Jessica Lund’s speech, No nonsense. No burnout. No marking, discussed the one huge challenge facing our profession; workload, wellbeing and teacher burnout. This is something taken very seriously at Michaela. The staffs questioning nature extends to their own work. Jessica regularly posed a question that they frequently use; ‘what is the learning return on time invested?’. The use of this question has resulted in Michaela not marking work and centralising homework. Jessica explained that ‘we don’t mark we give feedback’. She emphasised that pupils are more similar, in terms of their learning, than different. So why write the same targets in 90% of pupils’ books? Why not focus on teaching the 10% and the common misconceptions before they arise?

What is the learning return on the time invested? I need to ask this question to determine how efficient and effective our school’s choices are. Do they have a greater impact on staff or pupils? If the answer is staff. We need to change or stop what we do.

If Joe Kirby had to attribute the astonishing culture and impeccable behaviour at Michaela to one single thing, it wold probably be the Michaela boot camp. Each new cohort is inducted to the ‘Michaela way’ with an intensive bootcamp that focuses on developing the mindset and habits that pupils need to be successful. Joe stated that ‘we can’t expect children to do anything that they haven’t explicitly been taught’. Michaela prioritise culture over curriculum in this first week and teach pupils about stoicism, self-control, the school values, how to deal with being given a demerit and how to behave in detention.

The bootcamp is not only an essential induction for new pupils, it also provides a sound foundation for new teachers. Often new teachers can feel overwhelmed with the complexity of new systems and structures, this can prove especially difficult when older pupils know the rules far better than the new staff. The opportunity to observe experienced staff, team teach and practice on the new cohort develops confidence and means that pupils cannot differentiate between the new and more experienced teachers.

What are the habits I would most like to prioritise in my school? How do I model these to both staff and pupils? The culture and ethos within a school is shaped by its whole school systems and practices. Can I leave the adoption of these to chance? If I do, I am likely to find myself within a different culture to the one I envisioned.

There were other speeches throughout the day that were equally as thought-provoking but the above are most pertinent to me. The school’s new book ‘Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers’ explains the ‘Michaela Way’ in greater detail. I recommend you read it; it is the first thing I will be doing when I finish this post. I have bought a number of copies so that staff at my school can also reflect on and learn from ‘The Michaela Way'.


Regardless of your opinion of the school you can only applaud Michaela for their openness and transparency. During my two days at the school there was no arrogance. The school doesn’t profess to be the greatest school in the world. Teachers openly admit they have made mistakes and that they are continually learning and developing. Michaela has simply put itself ‘out there’ and, in doing so, they have encouraged educators to question the practices within the teaching profession and they have inspired schools to make changes against bureaucracy and in favour of enabling both staff and pupils to flourish.

It is easy to criticise and judge from afar but my advice would be to engage with the staff, visit the school and use it as an opportunity to learn. Whilst I was there pupils were as happy, better behaved and more knowledgeable than any other pupils I have ever seen…you simply cannot ignore that.