Peter Brown, Make it Stick

A few weeks ago, when I reviewed What Every Teacher Needs to Know about Psychology, David Fortin tweeted me to say that the aforementioned book was best read alongside Make it Stick by Peter Brown.  I am glad that I followed up on David’s recommendation because I really, really enjoyed Make it Stick.  I read it during the Christmas holidays and although I learned a lot and it made me re-evaluate some of what I do in the classroom, reading it never felt like work.

As its title would suggest, the book explains what the research tells us about how we should be learning if we want information to stick in our brains.  It is enlivened by stories of students, teachers and professionals who have modelled good practice and improved their outcomes as a result.  It covers a lot of familiar ground, including the benefits of spaced practice, low stakes tests, elaboration and desirable difficulties but adds specifics and details which are very useful to the classroom teacher.  For example, Brown quotes a research project undertaken at a school in Columbia, Illinois, which compared the benefits of low stakes testing with that of simply revisiting material.  The children who were quizzed on the material three times during the semester achieved on average an A- in the end of topic test sat a month later.  The children who had simply revisited the material, albeit the same three times, achieved on average a C+.  That small example made the power of being asked to recall information very vivid.  It’s a slightly different situation, but it made me think that when I do question and answer sessions on previously learnt material, I should emphasise thinking time more and be slower to let my classes look up material that they can’t at once recall.  Surely every little instance of having to think, rather than just checking and repeating, should help?

More specifically on the subject of low stakes testing, I have often wondered exactly how testing the questions need to be.  Are, for example, short answer tests significantly more beneficial than simple multiple choice ones?  The research on this doesn’t seem to be clear cut but Brown says that ‘tests that require the learner to supply the answer[s] … appear to be more effective than simple recognition tests like multiple choice or true/false’.  He goes on to point out, though, that ‘even multiple choice tests can yield strong benefits’.  Whatever kind of test you are doing, it is worth delaying the feedback on the answers. Normally, when I do a low stakes test with a class, it is at the beginning of the lesson, and we mark it straight afterwards, but this book made me think we should wait until closer to the end of the lesson to do the marking because by delaying feedback I would be giving my students two opportunities to revisit the material, rather than just one.

Tests are not the only aspect of learning on which this book has useful and specific advice.  It contains two tips on the use of flashcards that I found particularly helpful.  The first of these is simply that you should remind students to shuffle their flashcards every now and then because you will learn better if you don’t always encounter material in the same order.  The second is never to think of something as permanently learned – there might be some flashcards that you need to revisit less frequently but you should never put them completely aside.

This book also contains a key warning for all teachers that knowing something very well is no guarantee that you will teach it very well.  In fact, it might just mean that you add complexity to your explanation that isn’t necessary or helpful to a novice.  It might mean that your explanation is based on some unhelpful assumptions.  Obviously, this means we need to think through our explanations carefully, but if even our carefully crafted explanations are leaving students puzzled, we should make use of the explanation skills of the class in front of us.  Sometimes, as Brown points out, the best person to explain something to a student who is struggling will be one of their classmates.  Since getting students to articulate their thinking is already a good idea – it shows what they have understood – that it might have the added benefit of helping someone left befuddled by the teacher’s explanation can only be positive.

One final thing in this book that gave me pause for thought was its musings on the Dunning-Kruger effect.  (The tendency of the incompetent to overestimate their own abilities and thus to underestimate the work they need to do in order to improve.)  Dunning and Kruger argue that two of the reasons for this phenomenon are (1) a reluctance on the part of teachers and trainers to give negative feedback and (2) an inability on the part of those who are struggling to recognise the mismatch in quality between what they have produced and the work of their most competent peers.  The logical response to this would seem to be (1) not to hedge negative feedback with positive comments that might give false reassurance and (2) when working with students who are struggling, make clear and specific comparisons between their work and work of the highest quality.  In both of these, though, it will be necessary to proceed with caution, in order not to leave the student feeling completely broken.  This is one where balancing pastoral and academic needs will almost certainly mean that one solution does not fit all.







C.Hendrick and R. Macpherson, What does this look like in the classroom?

The aim of this book is to provide the best possible advice on how to translate the findings from educational research into classroom practice.  The ten short chapters cover a good range of topics: (1) assessment, marking and feedback (2) behaviour (3) reading and literacy (4) SEN (5) motivation (6) memory and recall (7) classroom talk and questioning (8) learning myths (9) technology and (10) independent learning.  Each chapter is organised around questions asked by teachers, with each question being answered by two experts on the topic under consideration.  For example, the questions on assessment, marking and feedback are answered by Daisy Christodoulou and Dylan Wiliam, and the questions on memory and recall by Paul Kirschner and Yana Weinstein.  The only exception is the chapter on independent learning, for which all the contributors to the book pitch in.

Every chapter starts with a series of key quotes from the two contributors.  These are reproduced in a typeface which I found very trying to read.  Perhaps this was because of the research that showed that people are more likely to remember material which was given to them in a tricky-to-read format?  I can’t now remember where I read about that research, but I promise I didn’t make it up.  In any case, it didn’t prove true for me, I started skipping the quotations and going straight for the main text, thus not benefiting from the reinforcement of the key points made in the book…  Still, that is my only criticism of this book, which I found to be full of both practical advice and reassurance.  All the contributors explain their ideas clearly and concisely.  Want to know how and when to use past papers with your classes; how you can use assessment for learning effectively; or how to make your feedback more useful?  It will take you less than two minutes to read the answer to each question, and following the advice given will almost certainly save you time in the future.

I particularly enjoyed the chapter on classroom talk and questioning, in which the questions are answered by Doug Lemov and Martin Robinson.  In response to a question on how to stop one student dominating a discussion during group or paired work, Lemov makes the simple but brilliant suggestion of ‘preced[ing] discussion with writing’ – getting all students to write down their answers to a series of carefully targeted questions before having them break into their groups or pairs.  That gives everyone a chance to reflect, and means that all should have something to bring to the discussion.  With paired work, it is also worth using ‘managed turns’, requiring those in the pair to switch between the roles of speaker and listener.  I also thought Lemov was spot on in his explanation of why it is better to use some cold calling during discussion than have a universal hands down policy.  Of course, we sometimes want a reluctant contributor to formulate an answer or articulate an idea, and that’s where cold calling comes into its own.  But having children raise their hands provides us with ‘great data’ – is this a question lots of the class feel confident answering or have I even befuddled the brightest spark in the room?  The child with their hand up may have something particularly insightful that they are keen to share, and that certainly isn’t something we would want to ignore or discourage.

More generally, I loved the fact that someone had asked how to make sure that classroom discussions are ‘rich rather than superficial’, and liked the advice about having the question on the board to keep everyone focused, and the idea of writing up key points made during the discussion as you go long.  To these, I would add, please ban students from saying: ‘This is a bit like what Mavis just said …’, which I find is generally a precursor to someone saying exactly what Mavis just said.  This sort of repetition becomes a bit boring, obviously, and it never really moves the conversation on.

Other gems from the book were: Tom Bennett’s advice on how to start a difficult conversation with a parent; Alex Quigley on how to help students engage with difficult texts in the sixth form (essentially, think carefully about the background knowledge that students will need to understand the book or article and make sure you equip them with this knowledge in advance of setting the reading); and Paul Kirschner on how to avoid the ‘split attention effect’ (‘don’t put a diagram on one page and an explanation on the next … if the explanation can be nested in the diagram’ and ‘don’t introduce [something] and then explain it five minutes later’).  If it were in my power, I would make all teachers read the chapter on memory and recall because of its en pointe explanations of the theory, its many common sense strategies, and its helpful diagrams of Yana Weinstein’s Six Strategies for Effective Learning and Barak Rosenshine’s 10 Principles of Instruction.  I should stress, though, that all the chapters have value, and reading any or all of them  would be a good investment of time.

D. Wiliam, Leadership for Teacher Learning

As Dylan Wiliam points out early on in this book, there are two ways to improve the quality of the teaching profession.  Firstly, through being more choosy about who you recruit and secondly, by providing additional training for those already in the profession.  Wiliam is in favour of prioritising the second, whilst stressing that we need to make absolutely sure that the additional training has proven efficacy, so that it can genuinely change for the better what teachers do in the classroom.  The key thing Wiliam wants teachers to focus on is, of course, formative assessment, and chapter 4 of his book has lots of detail on the hows and whys of this.  But, once we are on board with formative assessment, what do we need to do to help teachers improve?

Before we design any training programme we need to be clear about what we want teachers to get better at and, Wiliam says, we need to respond less to what teachers want and more to what students need. (It would be nice to think that those two collided but I realise that can’t be taken for granted.  Maybe one day.)  Training and support need to empower teachers in order that they feel able to adapt formative assessment techniques to best suit both their subject and their method of delivery.  Leaders must, however, guard against ‘radical modifications’ which would render techniques ineffective.  Regular dialogue about what teachers are doing and why, as well as supportive lesson observations will presumably help with this.  Leaders also need to make sure that teachers are not required to change too much all at once because this will quickly become overwhelming and unmanageable.  Instead, teachers should work on one or two improvements at a time.  Only when those new techniques have become ‘second nature’ should further change be considered.  Incentive to change is crucial, and part of that will be provided by holding teachers accountable for their professional development.  Wiliam suggests using written action plans which specify ‘development priorities’ as a way of achieving accountability because they ‘make ideas concrete’ and keep people focused, but he also recommends getting teachers to share their goals with colleagues, pointing out that, for teachers, feeling a responsibility to the wider school community can be a very good motivator.  Alongside the accountability of teachers should come support from above, including support with risk taking.

Improving teachers’ classroom practice is not easy.  Habits long acquired, and cemented through daily repetition, are never easy to shift.  Wiliam suggests school leaders draw on the guidance in Chip and Dan Heath’s Switch: How to change things when change is hard.  I agree with this recommendation; Switch is a wonderful book.  (You can read my review of it here.)  So, it’s Wiliam for what to change and the education specifics, and Chip and Dan Heath for how to make the change happen.


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Judith C. Hochman and Natalie Wexler, The Writing Revolution

Judith Hochman and Natalie Wexler get to the heart of the difficulty schools have with writing within their first couple of pages – teachers assign writing ‘but they haven’t actually taught it in a careful sequence of logical steps, beginning at the sentence level.’  Part of the problem, as Hochman and Wexler are quick to acknowledge, is that most teachers are given no training in how to teach students to write. And, of course, most teachers, especially at secondary level, don’t have huge amounts of time to devote to literacy instruction.  In the absence of both time and the knowledge of how to do things better, we have fallen into certain habits – we set writing homeworks, we correct errors in grammar, punctuation and syntax, and we try to encourage students to read more in the hope that that will help their writing.  Then we fret when students make the same mistakes over and over again, and their writing barely seems to improve.

We need a new strategy, and Hochman and Wexler have provided us with one that is simple, practical and manageable.  It is those things because of the thought, effort, research and experimentation that went into producing it.  It is easy to use but it cannot have been easy to devise.  It would be accurate to describe the The Writing Revolution as a step-by-step guide to improving children’s writing skills but it is one underpinned by a holistic vision.  The authors are clear about the need for a whole school approach, and the importance of embedding all work on writing within the existing curriculum.  The examples in the book show how all teachers, including those of maths and science, can and should contribute to the teaching of writing.  Implementing The Writing Revolution at your school will, of course, require thought to the particular needs of your pupils and some training of all staff.  Fortunately, the techniques set out in the book are easy to explain, justify and model, and that will help a lot, as will the advice on how to differentiate your approach for beginners and improvers in the world of writing.  For me, one of the strengths of this book, is that the authors haven’t just thought about how to get students to write accurately; they have also thought about how we can help our students write in ways that are more interesting.  There is also some really practical advice on how to help students take notes and summarise texts.  As a read, I kept stopping to try things out, and to think about how and when I could build the activities into my teaching.  I hope my enthusiasm for this book is infectious because my next step is to start talking to my colleagues about how we should be managing writing as a school.

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E.D. Hirsch, Why Knowledge Matters

For me, the most interesting chapter in this book is ‘The Educational Fall of France’.  Prior to 1989 France had a centralised educational system, and a national curriculum which specified what students should be taught and when.  It also had highly effective schools.  No other country in Europe could boast of higher levels of ‘achievement [or] equity’.  But in 1989, with the introduction of the Loi Jospin (the Jospin Law), all of this was to change.  The educational system was decentralised and the specific national curriculum of the past replaced by a ‘platform’ – a brief digest of ‘common national standards’.  The purpose of all this was to create a child centred curriculum.  The data suggest that all of this was a horrible mistake, and there is an extensive supply of data.  Every ten years, the French Ministry of Education collects extensive information on the test scores achieved by 10 year olds.  It stores this alongside demographic information about the child.  The last information collected on students under the ‘old’ system dates from 1987.  There are two data sets from students schooled since the passing of the Loi Jospin, one from 1997 and another from 2007.  In that time, only the curriculum has changed extensively.  School budgets, buildings and teachers’ level of expertise have all remained pretty constant.  Any change in academic results is therefore likely due to the new curriculum.  And the data show a pretty steep decline in achievement from all social classes.  Furthermore, the data from PISA show that France has gone from having one of the most equitable educational systems in the world, to having one of the least equitable.  Oh dear.


Why failure is not the new success

Recently, when returning an essay to a student, I met with a response which rather took me aback.  I had covered the essay with comments.  Some of those comments simply read ‘No’; I have, perhaps, a lack of patience with basic factual inaccuracies.  My comments suggested that the essay was rather rushed, and made it clear that it wasn’t up to the standard I expected.  The student was quite indignant about all this: ‘You can’t criticise me for failing. I am allowed to fail.’

This sums up very neatly, I think, why we mustn’t give out glib messages about failure.  As far as I know, at my school no-one does this, which is partly why the student’s comment took me by surprise, but the ideas (1) that failure is something to be celebrated and (2) that it can be more valuable than success do seem to be gaining credence in wider society, and I think we need to be a bit cautious about both these ideas.  Whenever anyone tells me how much you can learn from failure, I find myself thinking that I don’t believe that anyone has ever suggested to a batsman struggling for form that he sits down and watches videos of Phil Tufnell at the crease.  (Well, not unless a cure for the bad form would be a bit of light relief.)  Aside from ‘don’t miss a straight ball’, what would you learn from watching an inept tailender struggle to make it into even single figures?  Think, on the other hand, of the rich information you could gain from watching Sachin Tendulkar, Javed Miandad or Viv Richards at their fluent best.  When and how do they take guard?  How far do they stride down and across the wicket?  How is their bat positioned?  How is their head angled?  What determines their shot selection?  Which balls do they leave?   Failure often only tells us what not to do.  Evaluating success provides us with detail and nuance.  I think we all instinctively know this.  That is why we model answers for students or consider with them the strengths of A* essays.

Even when failure is a useful ‘learning experience’, it isn’t the failure per se that you learn from.  It is the feedback you get afterwards, and often it is necessary for someone else to provide that feedback.  Even if you can work out for yourself where you have gone wrong, you may well not know how to put it right.  To continue on the cricket theme, no-one needed to tell Mitchell Johnson in 2011 that he needed to be bowling a consistent line and length, what someone needed to do was to help him achieve that on the field of play.  (Obviously, as an England fan I wish no-one had ever helped him achieve that, but that’s a different story.)  And there will be times when it is possible to learn almost nothing from a failure.  One of the times I failed my driving test, the examiner pretty much said to me afterwards that although I hadn’t made any major errors during the test, I didn’t seem like the sort of driver he should be letting loose on Britain’s roads.  What was I supposed to do with that information?

The message I do want to convey to my students about failure is that it shouldn’t be an excuse for giving something up.  There will be times when we all need to dwell on where something went wrong, however painful or unpleasant it may be to do that.  There will also be occasions when we need to tear things up and start again because our first efforts  didn’t work or weren’t good enough.  And, sometimes, we will need to listen with an open mind to someone telling us that we have stuffed up.

To summarise, a failure that is a result of a lack of effort or attention to detail is never acceptable.  A well intentioned failure should not be a cause for reproach but, unfortunately, there will probably only be so much you can learn from it.  You should try, however, to be robust in the face of failure, and to learn what you can.




Isabel Beck et al, Bringing Words to Life

When I trained to teach, we were taught very little about how to develop children’s literacy.  I’ve always wondered why because you can’t be a good historian without good literacy but until recently, I have never made a proper effort to remedy the deficiencies in my understanding of this important area.  Reading Bringing Words to Life was the beginning of my education on the pedagogy of vocabulary instruction, and I couldn’t have wished for a better book with which to start.

Beck et al divide words into three categories.  Tier one words are a common part of our everyday language and rarely need to be taught.  The examples given of these are: ‘warm, dog, tired, run, talk, party, swim.’  Tier three words are specialised and often subject specific.  Three examples would be ‘filibuster, pantheon [and] epidermis’.  These are best taught as and when they become relevant in the curriculum.  Tier two words appear less frequently than tier one words in everyday conversation.  These are not words that most students will encounter regularly in day-to-day interactions but an understanding of them is essential.  A student’s ability to read a complex text will be severely hampered if they don’t know plenty of tier two words.  ‘Contradict, circumstances, precede, auspicious, fervent and retrospect’ are all tier two words.

The utility of tier two words is such that it is worth focusing on teaching these words in school. Beck et al suggest that if we could teach as many as 400 of these words a year from reception through to key stage three ‘we would make a significant contribution to an individual’s verbal functioning’.  But which words exactly should we teach?  There are some useful resources out there for those trying to choose which tier two words to teach, including Coxhead’s New Academic Word List (which is compiled from words that feature commonly in academic journals and university textbooks) but Beck et al also encourage teachers to use their own judgement when selecting words.  Words that would cement and enrich students’ understanding of the books that they study in school would be obvious ones to select, but I thought that it would be good to consider vocabulary that could be used to discuss current events in a more sophisticated way. (Hostile, for example, seems to me a pretty useful word in today’s world.)

If choosing which words to teach is step one, then step two is making sure that you teach the words in an efficacious way.  Getting students to look up definitions in a dictionary is not such a way.  Dictionary definitions can be problematic for one of four reasons:

  1.  They might not make it clear how a word is different from other similar words.
  2. They might be phrased in a vague way.
  3. They might be misinterpreted.
  4. They might consist of many parts but not make it clear whether all these parts are crucial aspects of the word being defined.

Beck et al give some great examples of each of the above.  Mine, taken from my Chambers’s Twentieth Century Dictionary of the English Language, are merely for the purposes of exemplification.  I do realise that most of the words I have chosen would not be defined in exactly the same way today.  (If you are wondering why I used such an old fashioned dictionary, I should say now that the only other dictionary I possess is The “King’s English” Dictionary.  The King in question was George V.) 

  1. A definition that does not make it clear how a word is different from other similar words would be that given in Chambers’s of an inquisition as ‘an inquiring or searching for: an investigation’.  The definition has none of the pressing and frightening connotations that would normally be associated with an inquisition.  If we said that the police conducted an inquisition, we would mean something quite different from if we said that the police conducted an investigation, and the definition above does not make that clear.
  2. A definition phrased in a vague way would be that of a portrait as ‘a likeness of a person, especially his face’.  It would definitely be more useful here for a portrait to be described as a painting, photograph or engraving of a person, as I am pretty sure all modern dictionaries do.  Equally, the definition of foreshadow as ‘to shadow or typify beforehand’ is not very enlightening.
  3. A definition from Chambers’s that might be misinterpreted would be that of the word depend, the first words of which are ‘to hang down: to be sustained by or connected to anything’.  This does not capture the metaphorical sense in which we normally use the word today.  I would humbly suggest that defining corn as ‘seeds that grow in ears’ was also a misstep.
  4. A definition that consists of many parts but does not make it clear whether all these points are crucial aspects of the word being defined would be that of the word gross as ‘coarse: rough: dense: palpable: glaring: shameful: whole: coarse in mind: stupid: sensual: obscene’.  Can something that is just one of these things be described as gross or does a gross thing need to encompass several of these aspects?  It isn’t clear.

OK, so my dictionary is rubbish.  If you want to be convinced on the general point that dictionary definitions are not always the best way to learn the meanings of words I can particularly recommend pages 43-45 of Bringing Words to Life.  I should also say that Beck et al do point out that some dictionaries are much better than others.  They recommend, for example, the Collins COBUILD English Language Dictionary, for its discursive definitions.

Just as they recommend caution in the use of dictionaries, Beck  et al warn teachers against assuming that children can pick up words from their context.  They identify four types of context in which students might come across words: misdirective, non-directive, general and directive.  Only the last of these is properly helpful in terms of understanding how a word is defined.  Once again, examples will help to illuminate all four contexts.  I have found that Evelyn Waugh is a rich seam for the first three – the quotations below are all taken from Decline and Fall.  I have highlighted the key word in question each time.

Misdirective contexts – ‘ “Philbrick, I required you to take off those loathsome garments.”  “They were new when I bought them.”  said Philbrick.’  This is misdirective because might lead the reader to think that loathsome means old.

Non directive contexts – ‘He had come there after a creditable career at a small public school of ecclesiastical  temper on the South Downs.’  The context here gives no information at all about the word in question.

General contexts – ‘ “Sent down for indecent behaviour, eh” said Paul Pennyfeather’s guardian.  “Well, thank God your poor father has been spared this disgrace.” ‘  It is possible to infer from the use of the word disgrace that indecent is a bad thing but not possible to fully understand its meaning.

Directive contexts were not really Waugh’s thing but they are easy enough to understand – they show you what a word actually means.   For example, ‘In August, Houston experienced the worst deluge in living memory.  The severe flood left whole neighbourhoods ruined.’

Apart from using directive contexts, we should seek to do daily follow up with words being learnt that week.  The book has loads of great ideas for effective follow up.  We need to ensure that our instruction is ‘robust’, which means that we need to ‘get students actively involved in using and thinking about word meanings and creating associations among words’, so that they are able to use words in a variety of contexts.

I really appreciated the clarity and common sense in this book, as well as all its activity ideas.  It’s a gem.

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