Harry Fletcher-Wood, Responsive Teaching: Cognitive Science and Formative Assessment in Pratice

Harry Fletcher-Wood understands exactly how to make a book user-friendly.  Reading this book, it is clear that lots of thought has gone into how to organise the material so as to best support the work of classroom teachers.  The chapters all follow broadly the same format, breaking down a topic under general headings, such as ‘the problem’, ‘the evidence’ ‘and ‘practical tools’.  Each chapter explains the nature of a problem teachers might encounter and the evidence they should understand when formulating a response to that problem, before exploring practical responses to the problem in hand.  To help teachers decide what methods to choose to tackle the problems they face, Fletcher-Wood present alternative stories of action.  For example, chapter 5 ‘How can we tell what students are thinking?’ explores four commonly advocated ways of tracking students’ understanding.  This exploration helps the reader to see exactly why some methods should be preferred over others.  It is a subtle but compelling way of leading the reader to the right answer.  Another lovely aspect of this book is the ‘experience’ sections, which explain how real classroom teachers, with a variety of subject specialisms, have implemented particular strategies to improve their teaching.  Even if you are already using the techniques advocated in this book, the alternative stories and the ‘experience’ sections of the book are a good way of demonstrating how you can refine your classroom practice.  Staying true to the values of his previous book, Ticked Offthere are also checklists at the end of each chapter, demarcating the key steps to take in introducing a new technique – following these is a simple way for teachers to make sure that they make genuine, helpful changes in a way that is manageable.

The three manageable changes I especially want to make having read this book are:

  1.  Add information to my schemes of work highlighting common misconceptions that students have about topics, so that everyone teaching the topic knows what to debunk and when.  This was inspired by Fletcher-Wood pointing out that, although experienced teachers tend to have a lot of knowledge about what students get confused about, they don’t always think to share this information.  This makes it more difficult for people new to teaching (or new to teaching a particular topic) to anticipate and plan for errors.
  2. Rethink my approach to hinge questions.  (Hinge questions are carefully designed multiple choice questions in which all the possible answers are plausible but only one is correct.)  I have used hinge questions with my sixth form classes and found them really valuable in identifying what students have and have not understood.  A barrier to my using them more frequently has been that I find them difficult and time consuming to write.  In one of the ‘experience’ sections of the book, Damian Benney suggests that rather than write the hinge questions after planning the lesson, teachers should start with the hinge question in mind.  This is something I can’t imagine having thought of doing on my own but the logic of it is obvious.
  3.  Writing ‘Examiner’s Reports’. This is an idea from John Mason School in Abingdon, and involves ‘collat[ing]’ observations’ on the work produced by a class, for example, listing common strengths and weaknesses in essay answers.  The reports are then given to students, who are asked to work out ‘which strengths and weaknesses apply to their own work’.  I like the framework this provides for helping students reflect on their answers.  In addition, seeing how well students are able to relate what is in the report to their own work, should open up a dialogue with students about why some approaches are better or more successful than others.

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