How to get students to evaluate – Teaching by concepts & transferring knowledge

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The new GCSEs are providing a challenge for many teachers especially in Religious studies. One of the many challenges is that there is more evaluation (some legacy specs were void of this). Many teachers have gone for teaching a superficial type of evaluation that often resorts to using a mnemonic for students to use for every question. I don’t have issues with mnemonic buts the ones I’ve seen don’t seem to get at the heart of evaluation. They encourage students to provide arguments for and against and then come to a personal conclusion. In my opinion, that isn’t true evaluation. I understand that this may be seen as useful for lower attaining students but does it allow the higher attaining students to show high level evaluation and does it prepare for A level?

From day 1 of deciding the new specification we’d follow, I’ve been pondering using key concepts for teaching and consequently evaluating the quality/strength of the concepts instead of the for/against arguments.

Key concepts

I’ve debated with myself and other colleagues what to call these. I’ve even asked the students. I keep coming back to ‘concepts’ although ‘themes’ and ‘ideas’ were mooted.

A key concept is a core belief or position that is the key point in a given argument. It is the ‘thing’ that is contentious and debatable. It’s the core idea that makes an argument arguable.

A simple example of concepts in the fox hunting argument would be:

  • Animal rights
  • Dominion over creation
  • Human traditions

You could then use these three concepts to argue for and against fox hunting and include a variety of views on each concept. At the end of each concept it is possible to pull together the various opinions and summarise which argument is more valid/strong/useful in the overall argument. The structure of argument lies in the concepts not for or against arguments.

At the end of the argument, instead of an opinion on the issue from the writer, it is an overall judgment of the quality/validity/strength of the concepts within the argument. One crucial point of the new specs, in my opinion is to move away from personal valued judgements to critical thinking and logical conclusions. No A level or high level essay requires personal opinions. I believe we need to start the process of academic writing in key stage 4. Students can give their personal opinions on an issue in lessons but in my class, not in their exam answers.

This is clearly more complex but much more of a true evaluation of the key arguments.

My thoughts are that this structure will allow the top students to access the top levels with more independence and flair than just using a mnemonic but it also means that the lower attaining students can ‘fall back’ on a simpler version of for/against, which is all they will need.

How to teach concepts

First of all I’ve introduced the students to what we’re calling a concept. I used a very simple, non-subject specific model: Pizza vs burger. This meant even those with limited conceptual understanding could access the idea. We looked at what the concepts for this argument might be, how we could strike the argument and how the intermediate and final evaluations might look. I gave them a structured template to use. They then chose their own topic and followed the same process, all the time being non-subject specific. To me it was important they understood what concepts and evaluation meant before applying to complex content.

In terms of lessons and teachings I am mixing the fors/againsts with concepts. I try to regularly ask ‘what might be an important concept in this?’,  to get them generating ideas and applying the skill of identifying them. In this way, they can always ‘fall back’ on the simple for/againsts.

This first map shows the traditional way of teaching by belief/religion:


Whilst links can be made, many times, the core arguments in the debate might not be pulled together.

However with the concept example, views can be compared and contrasted by concept and then used as paragraphs within the argument:


Example

At a recent gathering of RE teachers we discussed this question:


Colleagues lamented that their students wouldn’t be able to answer this as they could probably argue about prayer but wouldn’t be able to link it to an understanding of God. They didn’t think their students would also be able to identify other ways of understanding God.

In my opinion this is down to how you teach. If you do a lesson on prayer, a lesson on worship, a lesson on the bible and a lesson on Church leaders a student may not have the skill to synthesise these to apply to the question. But if you start this series of lessons with the question ‘How do Christians understand God?’ and evaluate each way on its effectiveness/pros/cons then they will be able to evaluate this question more easily.

The key to this is planning. Instead of planning a scheme by the topic elements, we need to plan with concepts. The lessons will be very similar but students will need to be asked to make links and identify the key concepts that these elements contribute to.

Knowledge transfer 

This structure also limits ‘box’ learning. I often hear colleagues saying ‘my students get mixed up if I don’t teach them as the structure of the exam’. Concept teaching pervades this notion of learning an element for a certain aspect of an exam. If a student has a clear understanding of the key concepts behind the beliefs and teachings they will be able to draw on this huge range in their answers, they won’t rely on rote answers/phrases. Their understanding will go from many individual elements of topics to concepts that interlink to make a whole ‘story’ that, in the case of religious studies makes a religion and it’s beliefs and teachings. This idea of making connections is important for learning.

In the case above, sanctity of life doesn’t just belong with euthanasia but also with abortion and capital punishment etc. They can transfer knowledge from one area to another with accuracy.

My next challenge is to pick out these key concepts in advance so I can be sure we cover all the possibilities.

Further reading

This blog from Lee Donaghy has been the first I’ve seen of others following a similar structure (he’s called them ‘abstract generalisations’, a term borrowed from @jcarrollhistory.) so I was very excited to read how it’s being done in History. It gave me confidence we’re doing the right thing.

This site is  great for suggesting how students can transfer and apply knowledge

A blog on ‘The Secret to Creativity, Intelligence, and Scientific Thinking: Being Able to Make Connections’

Structured revision lessons using retrieval, spacing & interleaving

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The problem with many revision classes is that many teachers think that students can suddenly self organise and self motivate. This is rarely the case. Last year I trialled a revision lesson structure and blogged on it here- Using research to design a revision session. The feedback from students was positive and I believe these had impact on their final weeks of learning before the exams. We use it for every lesson now and they can also use the structure for their own revision sessions. It’s based on cognitive science principles of retrieval, spacing and interleaving.

However, I wanted to improve the structure further this year. Here is the new structure:

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Over the series of lessons, each topic is covered a minimum of 3 times. First it is in a review, then next lesson that topic is the exam question and the lesson after it it the marking task. This is the spacing as determined by when I see them. So it might be 1 day, 3 days or 3 days, 1 week.

The students have already completed a survey telling me which topics they are confident in or not. An analysis of these highlights to me which topics most students need to cover in the remaining lessons.

 


I then went through the structure with them to explain how it works and why I’ve interleaved the topics. Each colour represents a different ‘topic’ within the spec. So in one lesson they can be covering up to 5 topics, depending on which they give me for ‘Challenge Miss Cox’. This is the interleaving; one lesson isn’t one topic but up to 5 topics.

Each section has a purpose:

  • Exam question – retrieve from memory, exam timing, exam question structure
  • Marking last question – retrieve from memory, application of mark scheme, empathy for markers (reading other people’s handwriting, unclear wording, unclear format etc)
  • Review of content – subject knowledge, deliberate repetition and conscious effort to remember
  • Transform – retrieve from content review, change format of info e.g dual coding
  • Quotes quiz – retrieve, repetition
  • Challenge Miss Cox – ‘perfect’ exam question structure, exam timing, meta cognition as I explain

For the transform section, I go through this PowerPoint with them. It’s up to them how they transform, but it absolutely isn’t a folding or colouring session.

This year I have added two more features. I initially added the ‘Challenge Miss Cox’ section as there are still some students that aren’t structuring their answers in a manner that makes their work clear to the examiner. I’ve done this a couple of times now but need suggestions of what they can do whilst I’m doing it. They could write it out but they will have done lots of writing in the lesson and I’d rather they watch me but some can’t concentrate for 6 minutes without nattering. Suggestions welcomed.

After this, I realised that they need more support with some Islamic quotes so I put in the quiz. It will be the same quizzes repeated over and over. They will be fill in the gaps exercises maybe mixed between paper and quizlet. This puts less pressure on them remembering the whole thing when I’ve asked them to retrieve a lot already in the session.

Before they leave in the summer, I will ask them to review the process so I can tweak for next year.

Homework continues to be online multiple choice quizzes – example.

Year 11 interventions, holiday ‘revision’ sessions & the alternatives 

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I’ve blogged about the need to ditch the idea of revision and how I think that learning should be specially planned and should start from day 1, but haven’t written my commonly tweeted thoughts on interventions.

Many secondary schools put in intervention in year 11. A teacher, or leaders, suddenly decide to do something about the students that haven’t been attaining or progressing as they should. It usually involves making things easier for the student and making life more difficult for the teacher.

My criticisms

We already know 

I invigilated a year 8,exam hall, controlled assessment style exam the other day. If you give me a list of those names, I could probably tell you who’ll be targeted for ‘intervention’ in year 11. The results of that assessment will probably also tell you who would be on the list. We already know, very early on in secondary, who has the potential not to make ‘expected’ progress. Why do we leave doing anything about it until year 11?

Staff pressures

These sorts of interventions put unnessecary pressure on staff to give up their own time. Whether it be a PPA, break time, after school or their holiday, it is unacceptable for teachers to feel they must do these sessions. Where SLTs direct them to do it is morally and professionally irresponsible.

Lack of responsibility 

These sessions make students ‘feel’ as though they are doing something and many will then justify the session, so they don’t do anything else. They expect staff to do this for them. It’s their excuse for not doing anything else.

It undermines learning and attitudes in lessons

If we allow students to think there will be after school revision for what they didn’t understand or didn’t do, it reduces the motivation for them to try hard in lessons. Lessons, homework and independent study must be the focus for learning.

It promotes cramming 

Sadly, cramming works. We’ve all done it. But as long as we keep doing it:

  • students won’t learn about learning over the long term
  • SLTs will attribute it to any success (false cause)
  • if we teach KS5, they won’t remember content from KS4.

Why do we get to this stage?

Planning

One key reason is that so many teachers and leaders see learning as a lesson, a unit, that has to be planned with activities, not a process of logical steps.

Take the new GCSE. Teachers were eager to plan schemes, lesson resources,find text books and look for grade boundaries. Key factors were time and money. Few planned for learning. And some that discussed possible models for learning retorted with ‘I don’t have time for that’ or ‘My students will get confused by that’.

Time

If teachers are spending hours on planning and marking throughout the year, it seems they are too busy fulfilling their SLT requirements instead of intervening from day 1. This spring term offers February half term, Easter holiday and a bank holiday’s worth of time. It’s the traditional time to put the favourite form of intervention; revision sessions.

Of course, unless it’s part of a planned stage of retrieval, it’s not really revision. It’s learning. The logic is: the student hasn’t learnt in the past two years of one hour, bitesize chunks, so we’ll compact it all into one day and they will learn it.

Confidence

Teachers- The exams are near. SLTs are asking for accurate predictions. Every little helps.

SLTS – Overall data doesn’t look good, ‘we’ need to do something…….

The solutions

  • We need to train students. From year 7, we need to train them and provide the structure they need to work with guided independence. For some reason at secondary, we have an unrealistic expectation that a young adult can manage 8-10 different subjects at one time without anything but a homework diary.
  • Early expectations, early consequences. In my department, if a student hands in their books without a title or date or incomplete notes or poor quality work or no homework, they will come at a break time to complete it. This starts day 1 in year 7. All staff have to do this. If not, students will ‘get away with it’ and will not form good habits.
  • Plan curriculum content and schemes to check learning across the weeks/months/years including key diagnostic assessment points. Deal with under achievement at that point.
  • Acknowledge that a teacher’s role isn’t just to teach, it’s to promote & do everything we know is possible to ensure learning. Last minute intervention isn’t promoting learning, it’s promoting cramming.
  • After a term of year 7, subjects to go through a simple but strategic process of analysis and diagnosis – who seems to be struggling? Why? HODS then meet with teachers to identify specific student needs. These can be a range of things e.g SPAG, presentation, comprehension, listening skills, behaviour, attitude to learning, completion of homework etc Those with an identified need are then allocated one action.
  • With students that are identified across subjects a team of people including SENCO, pastoral team/head of year/head of progress are to decide a core strategy of support. I’m not talking about pages and pages of PSPs, just one simple thing.
  • Check student work regularly (not necessarily marking). Check it for: quality, presentation, meeting expectations, completion. And then, crucially, do something about it. 


Checklist of year 7 ‘intervention’ I’ve used this year:

  • Schemes that support learning using long term memory  – no stakes spaced testing, retrieval, interleaved content
  • Moved seat in seating plan
  • Re-write piece of work
  • Add to work
  • Complete incomplete work
  • Do HW at break time
  • Email/call home
  • Speak to/email student’s tutor/SENCO
  • Answer student queries in class
  • Check student work as they’re working
  • Check books regularly
  • Discussion with student about expectations

None of these have required me to give up hours and hours of my time but make clear my expectations from day 1.