Thursday, 5 September 2013

Can I be that little better at……using cognitive science/psychology/neurology to plan learning?

In my last post I talked about how a number of factors throughout an academic year can help inform what you plan, how you plan it, and ultimately why you would plan it that way.  It took into account a lot of experience, trials, research and an underlying understanding of teaching.  In this post, I look at how knowing a little bit about cognitive science, psychology and neurology can affect the way in which you plan learning.  It’s always interested me how something I teach students’ one day can be forgotten only a few days later.  How is it that something I was so confident was memorised (or learnt) by students seems to vanish so quickly.  And that will be the underlying theme running through the posts.  How can we actually (or as best as we can) get the stuff we teach learnt in a way that students will remember it for a long time to come?  Now I may be speaking out of turn, but knowing how to make things 'stick' so that they can be retrieved at a later date, and methods we can plan into our lessons to do this, should at least cross our mind when putting a plan together.  You may not do anything out of the ordinary, but understanding how the brain works (that is if we actually really know how it works?) could help make what we plan to do to, and how we plan to do it, be that little bit more effective.  But first, here’s a summary of three background pieces of information you should be aware of:

It’s all a bit…..chemical-ly?
In a short sweet summary, the brain creates memories or templates through the release of various chemicals in the brain.  The two main ones are glutamate and dopamine.  Dopamine is the chemical that as teachers we want students’ brains to be releasing to ensure what we are teaching actually sticks.  It’s essential for making templates and connecting neurones to have this present in learning.  But how?  Well dopamine is predominantly released in two ways.  One of them is stress.  Although stress releases dopamine, it actually floods the brain and causes future problems.  It releases other chemicals that inhibit learning and actually affect the areas concerned with memory.  A more appropriate way is through reward and anticipation of reward (Curran, 2008).  As a teacher this can be created by the level of challenge and the way we involve students in learning.  I’ll talk about it a little later.  The main message here though is that if we create a highly stressful environment for students, we shouldn’t be surprised if things don’t stay in students memories for long.

The brain has a working memory, and it’s a really important part if we want things to stick.
In essence, when students are learning in your classroom they initially use their working memory to process and filter what it is you are teaching them.  The working memory however has limited space and can get very crowded very quickly.  It can also get filled up with distractions or irrelevant information which is why students sometimes misunderstand or can't remember things.

"Working memory is the workspace in which thought occurs, but the space is limited, and if it gets crowded, we lose track of what we're doing and thinking fails" 

(D.T.Willingham Why Don't Students Like School) 

Now the working memory deals with the ‘here and now’.  It’s what students use when forming an understanding as we teach them or explain something.  Information resides in here as students make meanings or develop understanding.  When the conditions are right, this information can then be transferred to the long term memory.

Working memory is a key player in getting information into our long term memory
Daniel T. Willingham in his book Why Don’t Students Like School? explains that working memory and long term memory work hand in hand with each other.  When the working memory is dealing with new information, it calls upon the long term memory for relevant background information to help make sense of it.  Once the working memory has thought about it, understood it and made meaning of it, there is a good chance that this information is committed to the long term memory.  This is a very basic analogy and isn’t as simple as it sounds.  If it were, students’ would remember a lot more than they already do.  But they key message here is that information needs to be attended to in the working memory otherwise there is little chance of a lasting memory ever happening. 

So how do we do this?

1 - The working memory is limited in space though so we need to consider this in our planning.
It is therefore really important in planning to ensure that when an element of learning is taking place, we don't over complicate it or create unnecessary distractions.  Ensuring that the attention of the student is purely on the learning is something that should be considered when planning.  Will the example you give or the task you design actually alter the students focus elsewhere and away from the topic in hand?  Nuthall in his book discusses how students’ recollection of information can be affected by the type of activity we design.  He states “sometimes memory for the task itself is longer lasting than the content the task was designed to teach”.  Willingham also gives a great example in his book where a teacher creates a task that resulted in students creating PowerPoint presentations.  Sounds normal yes?  The point he raises though is many students focused on the quality of the PowerPoint (the animations, fonts, pictures) and focused very little on the content they were learning.  Obviously the level of learning and what could be remembered about the topic at a later date wasn't very high.  That isn't to say though that we give up using variety and being creative in lessons (because this is an important part of remembering which I will talk about later), but the suggestion is to work on the content first, refine it, learn it and plan it before putting it into a new context (a poster, presentation, leaflet).  Therefore the learning in lessons, and time to create drafts, will need time carefully planned into it and come prior to starting such activities.  Getting students to think about, analyse and design what goes into a presentation before they hit the computers is a consideration that should be taken on board.

2 - Knowing things makes it easier to learn new things
Ok that again is a bit simplistic but the constant theme coming through Nuthall, Willingham and the work of Bjork is that having prior knowledge helps understand new knowledge much easier (although Nuthall does go on to say that if students of different abilities have the same learning experience they will learn just as much as each other).  It is though very difficult to know how much prior knowledge each individual has.  In my last post I talked about the importance of knowing the prior attainment of your group and using this to inform future planning.  But this is normally in the form of data and doesn’t tell you what they really know.  There is the possibility of planning in pre-tests or other introductory activities but maybe we could make the initial planning that little bit simpler.  One consideration is the careful planning of what is taught first and the sequences/pathways that follow.  The tip is to build upon prior knowledge so logically ordering what is taught first so it snowballs and draws upon old information can easily be mapped out before starting a unit.  Building upon prior knowledge and learnt information makes learning new topics easier.  This is down to the fact that new knowledge retrieves and builds upon the older information to form new connections.  The order doesn't have to be linear though and by using hooks, larger questions or starting with a broader concept, we can start with a wider idea which we can begin to learn about.  So is there a logical order in your subject?  Is there something that is vital to know first?  

3 - We can make using the working memory more efficient
This is more of a rationale rather than a tip.  As my earlier quote from Willingham explains, if there is too much going on in the working memory, students can lose sight of what is going on and the process fails.  Although there are no known ways to improve working memory, there is advice to using it more efficiently.  If working memory has a limited space, crowding it with numerous pieces of information can make the learning more difficult and less likely to be remembered (as I touched upon above).  A lot of new information we learn is done so by combining or linking to existing understanding or background knowledge.  By making what you teach more likely to be stored in the long term memory, it is easier to retrieve it again in future when you need it and is more space efficient (for the working memory) when doing so.  It therefore makes learning new information more achievable, especially when you need already learnt information (background knowledge) to do so.  So planning to commit as much information as possible through these suggestions can make the learning of new information easier.  Makes sense to me.

4 - It will only stick if you think about it
Willingham in his book talks about the importance of getting students to think about the knowledge they are paying attention to.  He explains that “your memory is not a product of what you want to remember or what you try to remember; it's a product of what you think about”.  It is therefore important we take his tip and “review each lesson plan in terms of what the student is likely to think about”.  If we are to help commit what we are teaching to students’ memory to be recalled later, we need to ensure the level of thinking is high throughout.  Unfortunately, many a lesson in my early career rarely had students thinking hard about anything at all.  Should I have been surprised when test scores weren't great?  So the step forward (in my case using SOLO taxonomy) is to constantly check planning before hand to evaluate the quality and depth of thinking that progresses through the lesson.  Am I hitting the surface and background information at the right times to build up background knowledge, and then working with it at a higher level later on to compare, evaluate, analyse and predict?  Willingham also talks about the fact that it's not just the level of thinking taking place, but the making meaning of what is being thought about.  Are the activities we have planned to use actually the most effective to help them understand what the information means?  This involves clever task design to ensure this happens.  The use of concept maps, challenge, well thought out questions and carefully planned tasks need to become part and parcel of what I do.  So, if the lesson I have planned doesn't make students think, or even understand the meaning of what is being taught, then it's back to the drawing board!   

5 – Pitching it right
As I said earlier on, the challenge that students are faced with when learning can help improve the likelihood of longer lasting memories to be formed.  Willingham talks about solving problems (in a wider sense) and engaging students in cognitive work.  If students aren't actually thinking and making meaning then it won’t be learnt.  He also warns that “without some attention, a lesson plan can become a long string of teacher explanations, with little opportunity for students to solve problems”.  So reviewing how challenging the lesson will be is again a really important point.  Have you pitched the work right?  Is there too little opportunity for students’ to think and be challenged? 

And then there's the neurology side (as highlighted by A. Curran). If I want to get the brain cells firing I also need to go back to the fact that the level of challenge needs to be pitched adequately in order to create an emotional response (emotion improves what is remembered).  In a very (and I mean very) basic summary, to learn new things we need chemical reactions involving the release of dopamine to be present.  Dopamine is normally released when a reward is present.  The emotion and reward of learning, and resultant dopamine release, is essential to commit knowledge to the long term memory.  It's the chemical which binds the neurones together to create memory so is essential I help (if I can) to get them firing and dopamine released.  Pitching a task too easy creates no real reward.  Why would it?  There simply isn't a reason for that feel good feeling to happen.  On the flip side, creating a task so difficult and without clear steps to achieving it students feel helpless and see it is not achievable is also not conducive (but don't make the task easier, make the thinking around it easier).  Again, knowing your group and planning to push individuals to create new meanings is another sure fire way to commit information to the long term memory.  Planning to get that dopamine release isn't going to be easy, but pitching challenge is surely the way forward.

6 – Three is the magic number
In his research that focused on how students actually learned in classrooms, Nuthall found that students who were exposed to a new concept on three different occasions and in a variety of experiences, stored the information in their memories for longer.  He states that:

“We discovered that a student needed to encounter, on at least three different occasions, the complete set of the information that she or he needed to understand a concept.  If the information was incomplete, or not experienced on three different occasions, the student did not learn the concept.”

Now using this principle, Nuthall was able to successfully predict what students would learn/remember with an accuracy of 80-85%.  An important warning though is that simple repetition will not be sufficient.  The three different experiences must come in a variety of mediums and ways.  Variety is therefore the key.  He also stresses that one great explanation is not enough.  So why three times?  Well he explains that new concepts aren’t transferred from the working memory into the long term memory until enough information has been accumulated to warrant it to make the move.  Students need to have sufficient understanding, knowledge of meaning and be able to link it to prior knowledge.  So in planning out a topic, will students really encounter a concept a minimum of three times each in their own varied way?  If not, this may also be a reason for things not sticking.

7 – If you don’t use it you lose it
This is a saying that I have heard for many years but is not quite right.  It's true that things become harder to remember as Willingham states when he says "we forget much (but not all) of what we have learned, and the forgetting is rapid".  Bjork (who I will introduce in a moment) along with Curran explain that it’s not a case that previously well learnt information we haven’t thought about is simply removed from memory.  They say it is not as simple as that.  Obviously our long term memory doesn't have an infinite capacity (do we really even know how much it has?), but one thing is for sure, if we don’t get students to revisit things, the connections or ‘route’ to them becomes weaker and more difficult.  Bjork talks about the fact that these things simply become harder to retrieve.  In some of the work by Bjork, subjects struggled to remember information they had learned a long time ago.  When presented with possible answers or cues, they suddenly remembered.  It wasn’t that the information was lost.  It was just harder to find or retrieve and the prompts help with the process.  So how can we ensure that we can help students learn something so that it is accessible a long way down the line (like during the exams period?).  As point 8 states, ione consideration could be ‘Practice, practice, practice’.

Interlude – Intro to Bjork
I thought it might be beneficial to stop for a moment and explain a little bit about Robert Bjork.  Some of what I will now talk about use slightly different terminology and I wouldn’t want to confuse examples.  One of the things that has got me most excited is the work of Robert Bjork, the Cognitive Psychologist from UCLA.  He poses some VERY clear considerations of how to tweak planning to improve long term memory.  Much of his work is not just applicable to the planning of lessons, but is also very important to long term planning of schemes, units or whole courses.

Bjork's work ties in with Willingham's research in a number of places.  Bjork talks a lot about long term memory and the fact that what goes in there is dependent on two indices: its storage strength (SS) or its retrieval strength (RS).  He talks very clearly about the importance of creating an environment where any new information is done so in a way that SS and RS is high.  Designing lessons where both (or even one of them) are low, could make remembering this information very difficult.  So what are these two elements and how to they link with planning?
Storage strength - 'How well learned something is'.  It makes perfect sense that learning something in depth increases the chance that it will be stored in the long term memory.  The better it is learnt the greater the storage strength.  If it has high storage strength, it is pretty likely that it will be stored in the long term memory ready to be 'retrieved' at a later date.

Retrieval strength - 'How accessible (or retrievable) something is'.  In very simple terms, retrieval strength works a little like this: The better you learn something, the higher the storage strength, the higher the retrieval strength.  Retrieval strength is your ability to recall, or retrieve, information at a later date.  Now retrieval strength decreases over time which is why a few months or years down the line we find it difficult to remember something even though it is on the tip of your tongue.  If something only has a low storage strength it will decrease quicker than something which you have learned well and ultimately has a high storage strength.  Obvious to say then that if you want to remember something a long way down the road, you need to ensure what you learn is high in both SS and RS.

But what implications will this have on my teaching?  How can I plan to have both of these?  Well Bjork identified a number of conditions which over time increase the chances of high SS and RS - which in turn leads to information being retained for much longer.  Now Bjork warns that these principles “slow down the apparent learning, but under most circumstances help long term retention, and help transfer of knowledge, from what you learnt to new situations”.  He dubbed these conditions desirable difficulties.  These conditions are purposely difficult and challenging to the students and assist in long term learning.  Whether you see 'rapid and sustained progress' in 25 minutes is unlikely.  But short term effects are not the goal here (and neither is it mine).  So how does Bjork’s work tie in with the others?  Let’s get back to the tips.

8 – Spacing it out (carefully mapping out practice, practice, practice).
Willingham and Bjork both have similarities in a lot of their work.  Willingham talks about the need revisit work and states “It is virtually impossible to become proficient at a mental task without extended practice”.  It is important then that things we want to stay retrievable in the long term memory need to be engrained in it adequately.  Practicing and repeated learning of a task can help make that information stick.  It also makes it more accessible in the long term memory and this helps new learning and the function of the working memory more efficient.  We therefore need to ensure that repeated practice is planned out throughout the year to ensure that a topic is revisited.  A way to do this (as agreed by both Willingham and Bjork) is space out learning and times when we come back to a topic.  As Bjork explains:

“It is common sense that when we want to learn information, we study that information multiple times. The schedules by which we space repetitions can make a huge difference, however, in how well we learn and retain information we study. The spacing effect is the finding that information that is presented repeatedly over spaced intervals is learned much better than information that is repeated without intervals (i.e., massed presentation).'”

In numerous studies in this field, Bjork and other researchers have found that the revisiting a topic multiple times over an extended period has a huge impact on the long term learning.  Obvious hey? But do we always plan to do this?  Bjork explains that by spacing out the intervals between revisiting a topic, we are encouraging the retrieval strength to decrease (The new theory of disuse - Bjork & Bjork 1992).  He also promotes that we plan to have the duration between intervals increases each time as well.  But why do this?  Research showed that information with a high storage strength, which was allowed to lower in retrieval strength over time, actually improves the subsequent learning of it when revisited.  The brain stores this information much better the second, third, forth time round and improves the retrieval strength as it goes.  The act of trying to remember what we almost forget is a good thing for memory.  Therefore planning to revisit topics and working out an optimal gap between revisiting it (increasing in length each time so it is almost forgotten) can have a very high effect on the long term learning of it.  From a planning perspective, it is therefore vital that topics are mapped out through units and schemes, with opportunities for them to be revisited or recapped.  Although this may seem time consuming to plan, or logistically a bit of a headache, the long term benefits can be far greater than simply blocking topics together (massing practice which ultimately results in very poor retention and retrieval strength) which is something we, and a lot of other schools, currently do.

9 – Interleaving
Now if I spaced and revisited topics from a course using the previous idea, you might quickly realise that you would run out of available time in your curriculum.  A way to ensure that spacing is done more efficiently is to weave numerous topics together throughout the year.  An example of this may be linking a topic I cover at the start of the year, say gender in sport, with a topic I teach a few months later, sponsorship in sport.  This process is called interleaving and requires the learner to constantly reload information from the long term memory.  A more extreme version of this may be to teach gender in sport, then age in sport, then diet in sport and so on, until finally returning to recover gender in sport, age in sport......etc.  As you can see, this could be logistically impossible with the time constraints of a 2 year GCSE course.  At a first time of trying this very different approach it could also be perplexing for students.  Instead, using the principle of spacing, combined with my initial example of interleaving, can result in a very exciting programme of study.  It steps away from the blocking of topics (massing practice) and allows for retrieval and storage strength to be increased.  It also allows juxtaposition of various topics and deepens understanding.  Planning out the course more effectively using this principle can be easily done.  The use of SOLO taxonomy in my personal lesson design also assists the achieving of this.  It does require careful mapping out, but reworking schemes this way ensures SS and RS increase.  A winner for long term learning.

10 – The testing effect

“Taking a test often does more than assess knowledge; tests can also provide opportunities for learning. When information is successfully retrieved from memory, its representation in memory is changed such that it becomes more recallable in the future and this improvement is often greater than the benefit resulting from additional study.”

Being asked to retrieve information alters your memory so information becomes more re-callable in the future.  Bjork identified testing as a method that can help make this happen.  This isn't testing purely for assessment though, although it can serve both purposes if needed.  The process of testing allows the connections towards that piece of information to strengthen, and therefore be easier to access than other methods.  It can be done in a number of ways.  Here are three which I will be planning to use over the year:

If we start in a logical order, Bjork found that testing prior to a topic or unit can has an improved resulting effect to long term learning.  This is an easy enough task to put in place and can be planned for at the start of any new topic.  “Although pretest performance is poor (because students have not been exposed to the relevant information prior to testing), pretests appear to be beneficial for subsequent learning (e.g., Kornell, Hays, & R. A. Bjork, 2009).”  It in itself provides cues for the then to be learnt information which makes it more learnable.

Using testing within lessons is also an effective method to increase long term learning.  As stated earlier, the process forces the brain to retrieve information from long term memory and can make future retrieval quicker.  It's effect can be very powerful (in one study students remembered 61% of information from repeated testing compared to 40% from repeated study - Henry L. Roediger, III, and Jeffrey D. Karpicke).  Adding tests as a starter, mid lesson activity or even plenary are very easy to organise and implement.  But what type of tests are best?  Although there are no sure fire answers, Bjork found the use of multiple choice tests to have a higher effect.  As Bjork explains “Little and E. L. Bjork (2010) argue that when students do not know the answer to a multiple-choice question, they may try to retrieve information pertaining to why the other answers are incorrect in order to reject them and choose the correct answer. It is this type of processing leads to the spontaneous recall of information pertaining to those incorrect alternatives, thus leading the multiple-choice test to serve as a learning event for both the tested and untested information.”  Therefore the use of multiple choice and working out the various options, helps improve the retrieval strength and subsequent long term retention.

Finally, Bjork identified that using tests and quizzes with students and their peers is a much better way of ingraining information to the long term memory than simply hitting the books.  I personally have already found this an outstanding revision tool as explained in an earlier post here.  Using testing as a desirable difficulty in the revision season can again increase retrieval strength.

11 - Final consideration: Mnemonics and other ‘tricks’ can help

Something we covered with students in our Learning to Learn course where simple memory tricks to help students remember information.  Now if there is information to be learnt, which requires little thought or seem meaningless together, a way to remember them is to use mnemonics or acronyms.  Because these pieces of information need to simply ‘be known’ in order to progress onto future learning, the use of these strategies can be very helpful in these instances.  So as Willingham explains, we shouldn’t be afraid to use them when suitable.  The same can be said for approaches like chunking.  If you don’t know what it is, it’s a method by memorising information by grouping things by association.  An example might be by remembering all of the fruit, then the stationary, and then the sports equipment from a long list of words.  The working memory works better when it isn’t overloaded.  By chunking numerous topics, this counts as one piece of information in the working memory, not several individual pieces.  It therefore makes for an effective, and efficient, quick little method to share in class.

If we believe what these principles say, by focusing on the way we plan in a slightly different way, we could be improving the chances that students learn information for the long run.  Hopefully these methods allow students retention rates to improve, rather then being forgotten only a few days, weeks or months later.

Links and further reading:

Why Don't Students Like School - Daniel T. Willingham

Wednesday, 4 September 2013

Can I be that little bit planning lessons?

In my previous post I highlighted the point that after a number of years of rambling through new ideas, theories and strategies, it was time to actually sit down and reflect on how to improve the learning that takes place in my lessons.  It is time to cull the ineffective practice and gimmicks, in substitution for a deliberately chosen approach that reflects my current thinking.  It is time to think about designing lessons that get the best out of my students.  It is time to come up with a plan.....about planning.

As a PE teacher traditionally trained to deliver practical lessons, a very fundamental and ridiculously basic approach to planning a lesson could look something like this:

- Key question/Driving question/Hook into the lesson content/Learning intentions
Students get changed
- Warm up linked to the focus of the lesson content
- Teach the skill/tactic/content
- Deliberate practice of that skill
Planned opportunities throughout the practice to give and receive feedback
Teacher intervention, feedback and evaluation
- Teacher whole class feedback and error correction
- Opportunity to practice the skill/tactic/content and work on correcting errors
Planned opportunities throughout the practice to give and receive feedback
Teacher intervention, feedback and evaluation
- Apply the skill/tactic/content to a wider context (challenging, higher order task - a conditioned game for example)
Planned opportunities throughout the practice to give and receive feedback
Teacher intervention, feedback and evaluation
- Teacher whole class feedback (with student evaluation and feedback)
- Link to future learning (what is coming next and where today's lesson fits into the bigger scheme of things)

Now in addition to this, you would obviously plan the type of tasks you do to highlight or embed the learning.  You would plan how your groups would work, opportunities for responsibility, resources, questions and so on.  And after years of teaching practical lessons, I'd probably say that I am confident in delivering a a half decent one.  But here's the problem.  No one ever taught me how to teach theory lessons.  Not in any depth anyway.  We spent a small time at University touching the surface of the topic, but never actually spending time understanding the difference (mainly due to the fact we teach far more practical than theory).  

Many an early year I used my 30 slide powerpoint and chalked and talked my way through theory lessons.  Obviously students became restless, learning wasn't great and I never knew what was wrong.  I then went the complete opposite and chucked in numerous gimmicks and activities with fireworks, pyrotechnics and smoke machines.  Students were up and about, sorting cards, filling in sheets, speed dating, learning on their own......but were they?  Were they actually learning and remembering what I taught?  Again, something wasn't working but at last I had pretty much worked out what.  I'd realised that I had been at each end of the spectrum.  Neither approach I had used allowed me to get the content to be learnt in any real depth.  There was no real strategies to embed and ingrain the content to memory.  No meaningful recall.  Instead I was rambling my way through lessons full of shallow learning.  My planning and understanding of how to plan a great lesson was only just coming together.  

Since then a number of interesting and key points have become common practice.  They don't always produce great theory lessons.  Sometimes they bomb right in front of my eyes.  Putting all of these things in one lesson might not necessarily work or might over complicate things.  But what follows are a number of considerations and points that will form part of my thinking for the current year.  I won't use all of them all of the time, but having an understanding and an eye on them should make what I do that little bit more effective.

1 - Know your subject and content
This goes without question.  It is essential that we know the content and topics we are delivering.  As teachers we are the primary source of information for students and having a good grasp on what we are teaching is vital.  Many a lesson I have to re-read or recap what it is I will be teaching.  I aim to know enough that I can answer as many questions as possible, and have enough depth in my understanding that I can stretch theirs.  With a concrete subject knowledge it is then important to plan what to do with it.  As Hattie talks about in Visible Learning for Teachers, being able to determine what elements of a topic need to be concentrated on more, what sequence would be best to teach it, what context is most appropriate for the material and so on is very important.  Seeing things through the eyes of your class (which differ immensely from group to group) is a real skill and needs that planning time to ensure you deliver what they need to know the best way for them.  As a teacher, doing my homework and background preparation ensures I can plan effectively.

2 - Where possible, plan collaboratively
"Planning can be done in many ways, but the most powerful is when teachers work together to develop plans, develop common understandings of what is worth teaching, collaborate on understanding their beliefs of challenge and progress, and work together to evaluate the impact of their planning on student outcomes."
Hattie 2012

This isn't always possible with the endless paper tasks and additional responsibilities we all have.  It is though an important factor to consider and one which we should all make time for.  Using colleagues to bounce ideas off of can be an excellent way of designing lessons.  There have been numerous times when I actively seek out colleagues and run ideas past them.  I know many departments set time aside to collaboratively plan larger schemes of work, but having a critical buddy to work with on individual lessons can be a great resource.  

"The co-planning of lessons is the task that has one of the highest likelihoods of making a marked positive difference on student learning."
Hattie 2012
Find time, allocate it somewhere on your timetable and aim to meet up to plan lessons.  Ron Berger in his book 'An Ethic of Excellence' talks frequently about how his fellow teachers meet regularly and critique each others plans.  Jeff Robin from High Tech High always runs project tuning sessions within his faculty.  This scrutiny of ideas can only improve the quality of the lesson you are planning.

3 - Keep it simple
"Make things as simple as possible, but no simpler"
Albert Einstein 
I can't stress this enough.  In my own experience, if I can see that what I am planning seems a lot, it usually is.  Instead of lots of little tasks and activities, using a few with dedicated time committed to them allows my students the opportunity they need to spend time really learning the content.  Busy doesn't always mean they are learning. As Daniel T. Willingham talks about in Why Don't Students Like School, "without some attention, a lesson plan can become a long string of teacher explanations, with little opportunities for students to solve problems".  This has happened to me in my early stage where over complicating what we did in a lesson restricted the time to meaningfully engage in actual learning.  It also makes it difficult for students to remember things long term if there is not enough time spent thinking and making meaning about information. 

Over the years I have seen that the learning I plan in my lessons takes time if students are to grasp it.  As Willingham states, "thinking is slow, effortful, and uncertain' so it's up to me to ensure there is time planned for this to happen.  Time to discuss, question, answer and reflect are better spent than simple tasks that rarely stretch the mind.  You'd be surprised at how quickly time can fly when students get fully involved in their learning.  Identify what is important.  What will make students think?  What will help students get a firm grasp of the content knowledge you are sharing?  Focus on that and ditch the rest.

4 - Learning objectives or not?

This will be the discussion of my next post where I aim to clarify poor use of them and how to have them make more of an impact in lessons.  Whether or not you believe in LO's, or even have a choice in using them, as Wiliam and Hattie talk about, lessons and learning need an aim/outcome/goal (as long as it doesn't spoil the journey - D.Wiliam).  Before planning the content of my lesson it's important to identify what the aim or intention is.  Students also need to know this so they understand what they have learnt, where they are and what they need to do next.  Understandably, hand in hand with LO's comes clear and transparent success criteria.  Planning to incorporate these in lessons is key.  Pull out these objectives or intentions from the curriculum, schemes of work or syllabus.  But don't let this restrict you.  Be brave enough to go beyond what is prescribed but be wary of time limitations.

5 - Learning first, then activities

"It is relatively easy to think up cool stuff for students to do in classrooms, but the problem with such activity based approach is that too often, it is not clear what the students are going to learn"
D.Wiliam 2011

Always plan what you want students to learn first.  Many a naive day as an early teacher I spent hours making and resourcing lessons with numerous activities.  Many of these rarely got beyond the surface level of what I was teaching and hardly got them thinking at all.  Cutting, sticking, putting in envelopes.....cripes!  Tessa Matthews tweeted a comment out a while back stating:

"Just remember the golden rule: If a resource takes longer to make than to deliver, don't do it!"  

Only because of mistakes in the past I now tend to agree.  Planning fewer and stronger activities with less resources and more thinking are far more purposeful.  If there is one thing I've learnt, it is that learning something takes time.  It can also be slow and we must allocate this time to students to focus on what is important.  If we consider what cognitive scientists say as well, sometimes these activities actually divert attention from the real learning and causes it not to be learnt at all.  I also feel that constructing less resourced activities means that I create more time to at home to mark students books, think about my opportunities for feedback, begin to identify the key questions I may ask in lessons and so on.  Personally this for me has been a much more effective use of my time and impacts the learning in my classroom more than anything else.  Think of simpler yet stronger questions.  Design activities that challenge and promote thinking.  Use tasks that help understand meaning as well analyse, evaluate, hypothesise and predict.  Time for me to be more effective and efficient.

6 - Looping the learning
This has been my thought for a long time from teaching practical lessons.  Cycles or loops play a very prevalent part in my planning.   Every time I teach a skill, it always loops back round and then spirals into the next lesson.  In fact it's the bread and butter of what PE teachers (in my experience) do.  It allows knowledge to be learnt, embedded, assessed and then applied to the next topic.  Bringing the learning full circle at the end of a lesson and seeing what has been achieved and what is still left to learn also informs future planning.  This was reinforced when I first dabbled with the Accelerated Learning Cycle in theory lessons (TEEP is an adapted version of this).  The cycle ensures that learning is visited, worked on, revisited, fed back upon, revisited.....  Since then the foundations of my planning has been focused on moving away from a linear pathway to a singular goal, instead looping the learning and then spiraling this into new topics.  Going full circle allows me to return to the aim of the lesson and ascertain whether it has been learnt.  If it hasn't, I can work through a cycle on that particular aspect and then return to assess understanding again.

7 - SOLO (Oh no!) and other structures
As a planning tool in itself, SOLO has been revolutionary in my teaching.  Love it or hate it, using it as made what I teach, the order or sequence I teach it in, much clearer.  It's fundamental ideology of teaching an idea, the facts, relating them and then extending or manipulating the content makes perfect sense to me.  As Hattie states in Visible Learning:

"Teachers need to move from the single idea to multiple ideas, and to relate and then extend those ideas such that learners construct, and reconstruct, knowledge and ideas.  It is not the knowledge or ideas, but the learner's construction of this knowledge and ideas that is critical"

SOLO has allowed me in terms of planning to structure what it is I intend to teach. Our subject (GCSE PE) requires knowing and understanding lots of individual pieces of information.  For the particular topic we're focusing on, it helps me break down what are the core components that need to be taught.  It allows me to build up knowledge very clearly which can then be built upon with new knowledge or meaning.  Once this knowledge is learnt it can then be linked to other concepts with their relationships explored.  We can then go even higher up the taxonomy and think about transferring this knowledge to new situations or asking abstract questions.  By it's nature it goes from shallow to deep learning.  SOLO doesn't have to be shared with students explicitly.  If its only use is to merely inform your planning it helps ensure the depth of content can be clearly and visibly covered.  SOLO isn't the only way of planning lessons though.  In fact I would strongly step away from prescribing a method.  There are no miracle cures or magic potions!  Find what is effective and works best for you and your students.

* Now you may have noticed in my previous point that I intend to loop the learning more.  Make my lessons more of a cycle and then link through into the next topic.  I aim to move away from a linear structure with a simple start and finish point.  But hold on, SOLO by its image looks very linear.  Well it is if you use it like that.  But after using it for a while I've become confident in exploring a topic through the taxonomy.  This topic itself becomes a multi-structural component of a larger unit.  The individual topic therefore loops and spirals into a broader area of study and allows students to create multiple links.

8 - Know your group

One of the most important things to consider when planning is knowing your group.  Using data and building upon prior achievement is essential.  Checking books, marking homework, formatively and summatively assessing students allows you to build up a picture of how secure students content knowledge is.  Hattie rates prior achievement as having a d=0.67 effect size and is 'is a powerful predictor of the outcome of lessons'.  It is therefore important to consult this before planning your next sequence of lessons.  What do students already know?  What still needs covering?  How best might I teach the content to this particular group?  All questions along these lines need you to have a finger on the pulse as it were.  From here you can then adequately pitch lessons and challenge students.

Understanding and knowing your students is also important.  Although I teach PE and the stereotype is that they are all sports playing students who love all activities, never once have I ever had two classes the same.  One student may be interested in Football with a different understanding of sport to a student who is interested in Gymnastics.  I therefore need to consider this in my planning, especially when thinking about how to explain an idea or put something into context.  As Willingham talks about in his book, one example for one student may not help another learn the same piece of information.  Knowing my students helps me plan to ensure this doesn't happen.  Variety is the key.

9 - Getting challenge right!
Planning and pitching the level of challenge of your lessons can be a difficult task.  It is important (as highlighted in my last point) that knowing your group and where they are will help this.  What you plan to do needs to be related to prior learning - which is why formative and summative assessment, and what you do with it, is so important.  For a while I thought I'd planned challenging lessons for all.  But that was the problem.  I rarely differentiated on an individual level and predominantly set the same task for all.  Challenge should apply to the learning, not merely the task.  And the learning needs to challenge all students.  Now this is a real skill and one that I have been honing for a while.

So when planning challenge this year, I will pay particular attention to the level of it in my lessons.  It's important the I pitch it right.  Too easy and there is no reward.  Feedback has less effect and becomes low value.  Too hard and it can provide a feeling that achieving this goal is unobtainable.  As Harry Webb talked about in a recent post, it needs to be not too hot and not too cold (love the Goldilocks analogy to ZPD).  The only way I will know if the levels are correct is if I go back and check prior attainment and know my group before planning my lesson.

So why pay more attention to challenge this year more than before?  Well because of the various factors that it links to.  Memory and feedback being two in particular.  If we are to get the glutamate and dopamine present whilst learning and thus commit what we are learning to memory, we need to ensure that what work we set is challenging (so there is potential for a reward - achieving the goal) and actually achievable (to release the reward - chemicals).  If work is too easy and not challenging, these chemicals aren't released as highly and won't be committed to the long term memory (the aim of learning).  Similarly, as stated above, the effect of feedback improves with the higher level of challenge.

10 - Memory, Curran, Willingham and Bjork

Now I talk more about memory in my next post as there is a lot to cover.  It's an area that I've been interested in for a number of years and one which I think can pose a number of considerations for planning.  There are a number of principles put forward by numerous cognitive scientists, psychologists and neurologists.  These principles talk about how we believe the brain and memory works, and many suggestions have been put forward to how these principles can improve long term memory and learning.  Even if you approach it with a sceptical eye, some of the considerations require only a small tweak to your planning, but the effects could improve how well a students learns and remembers what you teach them.

11 - Backward design
This is a point mentioned in Visible Learning for Teachers and is something we have used a lot in the past.  The principle is to decide on the end point or goal for a unit, topic, scheme or even lesson.  This is the main important information that you wish students to learn.  The procedure than involves working backwards and build up a route to the final intention.  The process is excellent as it allows you to map out the fundamental pieces of information that is required, and then built upon, in order to reach the final goal.  The process also allows you to identify the main concepts that need to be covered, as well as concepts that could be omitted, allowing you more time to cover the important information in depth.  From the point of a cognitive scientist, stripping back what you teach and spending more time reinforcing, thinking and making meaning of the important concepts is a more effective way to learn the content.  The process of working backwards and identifying the outcomes and goals at the start also means you spend the majority of your time planning the learning.  Only after this is done and fleshed out, do you then look at activities.

12 - Build in time for feedback and even more time to act upon it - high effect size so plan it

This is a topic that I will cover in depth at a later date in more detail.  Apologies for the buzz word, but if we are to 'close the gap' between where learners are and where they need to be, they need time to act upon any high quality feedback that they are given.  At times though it can feel like books can be meticulously marked, only for the comments and subsequent improvements to lay idle in students books.  If I am honest, in the past a large number of comments I have written have never been acted upon.  But why would it if I don't build time in lessons to act upon feedback?  And that is the big question.  When can we find the time.  With the mounting pressures of some subjects to get through endless content and fit it into a short time frame, finding that time to dedicate time to improving work can be tough.  But I really urge you to do so.  In my later post I will look at methods you could use to make things stick, but in terms of planning there are some ideas and considerations you could look to implement.  

A very simple way is marking books regularly, and upon returning them, setting aside the starter/bell work time, or even half of the lesson to allow students to improve their work.  Read the feedback and act upon it.  If it becomes regular enough students will become accustom to it.  Work will also improve.
Add DIRT time.  This is very similar to the idea above borrowed from David Didau.  Simply meaning Directed Improvement and Reflection Time, start planning some DIRT in your lessons and get students acting upon comments.

Or maybe, just maybe....?  If you want to take a step further and really revamp your planning, you could go a long way by using the ideas of Ron Berger and the process of critique.  I have blogged about this previously here but it involves spending a lesson critically analysing students draft work and providing extremely structured feedback for each other.  Time is dedicated to improving these these drafts and the process goes on.  So why is this different from the other suggestions?  Well, the quality of student-to-student feedback is a lot higher.  Also, the process of giving, receiving and then acting upon feedback becomes a culture of your classroom.

13 - Plan your key questions - not all but a few

As you plan your lesson and review it (particularly looking at it through the eyes of the students), try to think about particular things you need students to really know, and areas where students might become confused.  Take 2 minutes to look through your plan and think 'What would I ask if I was in this lesson?' Any common misconceptions you can spot?  For these times, can you preempt this and begin designing some of your questions?  I would encourage you to think about some strong questions which you can then use during the lesson to support the learning taking place.  What I would put caution to is planning out all of your questions.  When you get in the classroom the direction of students thinking can take multiple turns and there is no way you can plan questions for all eventualities.  As you become more experienced you will be better equipped to shoot from the hips and deal with the twists and turns of students learning.  Spending time thinking about a few key ones though are vital.

Plan your hinge questions as well.  What are these I hear you say?  They are questions you use at a key point in a lesson (usually after the main concept has been taught) to check the understanding.  Presented whole class and in the form of a multiple choice, they allow a very quick snap shot before proceeding with the lesson.  I'll talk more about these in a later blog.

Using a taxonomy such as Blooms or SOLO as a guide can also help you plan questions that increase in the level of thinking and challenge.  Don't forget that remembering and understanding questions can be just as important as evaluating and analysing.  More on this in a later post!

14 - Marking to inform your planning 
A very wise man by the name of Kenny Pieper once wrote a great blog post on how marking can inform so much in terms of your lessons and really drive your planning.  It is so important to act upon your marking and it gives a real insight into the understanding that students have.  Mark more regularly and let what you find out direct what you plan in subsequent lessons.  Were there any misconceptions and misunderstandings that you need to revisit next lesson?  Think about it, if you don't use your marking, you could go lessons without realising students really didn't get what you talked about a few weeks back.

Also, can you plan opportunities for marking within lessons?  Are there opportunities where you could plan an extended task (because its beneficial, not too just create time) where you can go and mark students books there and then.  Instant impact and instant feedback!

15 - And lastly, lesson plans (box ticking!!).
Is there a miracle planning tool?  The saviour of planning?  A best way of doing it?  This is a tough area to talk about as Ofsted say one thing, rumors from what inspectors have said contradict this.  Some (not all) SLT and leadership teams can also misinterpret messages from above and prescribe methods.  The key message though should be plan thoroughly in whatever format suits yourself, your subject, your students or your school.  Remember that there are key elements and ensure whatever planning format you choose, these key elements are included.  Mark work, formatively assess, use schemes and curriculum documents.......will all help.  Don't tick boxes for ticking boxes sake.  Do what is right to plan the best lessons for your students.