Teaching for Remembering Part 1

The question I had was: why don’t students remember what I’ve taught them?

Answer one (which I should have known): Practice to fluency.

In other words, learn to perform the skill (e.g. recall), both accurately and very quickly. I should have known this anyway because I had a primary school teacher who made us do just that with a stop watch. In the end I could say aloud twelve random multiplication facts from a grid in 9 seconds. Subsequently, I have never had a problem with recall in that domain. Note that when I started, it took me over a minute to do the same task, even though I understood the concept of multiplication clearly. Understanding and fluency of processing / recall are NOT the same.

That is why the constructivist approach is often found wanting when student progress is analysed, especially in basic skills. The focus is on acquiring knowledge, not developing it into skills which are performed at a practically valid rate. Some people of the constructivist persuasion will quote phrases such as “the child is a candle to be lit rather than a container to be filled”. They will also – some of them will have used it already if they have read this far – very quickly employ the phrase “drill and kill”. Comments like these belong to the field of knowledge known as rhetoric. They have no bearing at all on the issue of whether students are making sufficient progress.

Is accurate recall important? Always. To put it another way, when is inaccurate recall a good thing? When you drive, you want other drivers to recall the Highway Code accurately. If we all thought that was less important than the creativity and enjoyment people felt while driving, the roads would be carnage. There’s probably a metaphor in there for the current state of education, but to press on . . .

Worried about the idea that practice is boring? Concerned that Ofsted will regard your lessons as didactic or teacher-directed? Here are some reasons not to worry:

1. Ofsted fashions are now changing nearly as quickly as clothing styles, and certainly with much greater magnitude. By the time they get to your school, odds are they will think teacher-directed is where it’s at.

2. Tell them you are building skills to fluency, encouraged by Mr Gove’s recent statements on this very subject (e.g. “But with practice comes fluency, and then enjoyment”).

3. The good news: to be effective, practice must be daily, short, and timed. It doesn’t dominate your lesson, it becomes part of the routine. For example, spelling practice with a peer can be done in five minutes. (Also, it’s peer work, which in many places scores brownie points). A maths fluency practice sheet can be done in one minute. See, for example: Binder, Haughton & Van Eyk, Precision Teaching Attention Span, Teaching Exceptional Children, Spring 1990.

4. Practice is motivating when there is immediate, preferably visual, feedback. Graphs, charts, tick lists, that sort of thing. Students can do this on their own or with a peer. However . . .

5. As a teacher you must know if students have stopped improving and work with them to solve the problem. It may be a lack of independent application, motivation, or practising errors (e.g. copying a word wrong and then learning it by heart – which then has to be unlearned, which is surprisingly difficult!).

Some teachers already do this. My observation is that a lot don’t, but that’s not a criticism of them. I asked myself why I wasn’t getting a lot of practice done in my classroom, and the answer was quickly apparent: I just didn’t have time to prepare the many resources required. Unless this problem is solved, teachers will have trouble setting up meaningful, rapidly graduating practice activities.

But, of course, there are solutions. Here are a few:

  • There are lots of commercially available materials out there already. Google!
  • Collaboration between teams of teachers can greatly reduce the individual workload and multiply the number of resources available.
  • Students can often identify their own items for practice, e.g vocabulary, spelling, a particular maths fact family, etc.

Some teachers may argue that this is all very well for basic skills but you can’t practise more advanced skills such as essay writing to fluency. In fact, that is exactly what is required, and more so now that exams are becoming a much greater component of assessment. The whole point about exams is that they are identical tests under standard conditions and one of those conditions is timing. So how do you practice skills like paragraph writing and essay writing to fluency?

You can’t ask students to write multiple essays, or even paragraphs, without using up whole lessons. Instead, you can ask them to write parts of the essay, or paragraph, in response to an introduction, conclusion, argument, fact, quotation, etc. Keep it timed, check the work and give corrective feedback, otherwise it’s wasted.

Thought: if they were already fluent spellers and sentence writers, your feedback would be able to focus on ideas, structure and style. How much of your GCSE feedback is focused on basic skills, like the mechanics of writing or simple computations? Why? Because some students weren’t trained to be accurate and fast, so when they have to put a group of skills together, they lose accuracy and speed.

Students will need to write whole paragraphs,  essays, and reports on their own, as in-class assignments or homework; they must also receive feedback, or again, it’s wasted work. Schools are awash with bright ideas on giving feedback, so I won’t address that here. My own habit is to write on the essays, say what they need to do to move up a grade, and talk it over with them. I used to feel I was too slow at this, but after a lot of practice, I am now much more fluent.

To see a school that really focuses on fluency, try Morningside Academy in Seattle.

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