Differentiation Part Two: How To Improve Writing With A Little ‘Know How…’

Know How
In the last post on differentiation I outlined the struggle I have gone through with differentiation and how oracy – when tackled in a ‘expert’ way (advocated by Ron Berger) – can give students the confidence to communicate and believe that they can do so effectively. In this post I want to explore how we transfer confident talking into confident writing.

We all know that some students struggle to put their ideas down on paper and that it hampers their progress in learning. Also, it affects their ability to enjoy the lessons we teach, because they ultimately know that they will not be able to create an effective end product. At the other end of the spectrum, there are students with great literacy skills who can’t achieve, because they find it hard to deconstruct second order concepts and historical writing. I will tackle these in the next two posts.

Understanding How To Write
Planning for progression in writing requires, in my opinion, a vast amount of preparation. The first stage is to make sure that students have a sufficient knowledge base to draw from. Johannes has recently written a brilliant post on this (see Maximise Retention of Students Long-term Memory Part 1). Students who know ‘how’ knowledge builds up and how to deploy it will be more confident writers. Having looked at the attitudes of reluctant writers from Year 7-11, I am convinced that a secure knowledge base is an essential precursor for confident writing. I will not go into vast amounts of detail about why this is so important here, instead, I will just give three short examples of how knowledge can be built up and constructed throughout the year.

Raiders and Invaders Song to Establish Chronology
The raiders and invaders of Britain can be sung to the tune of ‘Heads, Shoulders, Knees and Toes.’ Singing it regularly as you go through the units with students helps them to establish a chronology, especially when accompanied by actions:
Good Learning in History

This process can be strengthened by using a class timeline. At the start of the year I gave Year 7 a 21 event timeline and asked them to decide on the order they thought the events went in. Inevitably there were errors, but we have been correcting these in plenaries as the year has progressed. Asking the question, “So, do you still think our timeline is correct? Do we need to move something?” has enabled students to think carefully about what we have been studying on a regular basis and to review their historical knowledge.

Further to this, quick quizzes that add layers of complexity can also help. For example, start by testing the five groups, then move on to the dates that correspond to their dominance in Britain, next add in key individuals and then put key events in there too.

Planning for Knowledge
This year I have tried to map out the contextual knowledge that students will need to understand a key event and then to include that knowledge at an earlier point in the curriculum, so that students get a chance to experience it and work with it so that it is ready to recall when needed. Christine Counsell has been working on this concept and states understanding requires ‘fingertip knowledge’ and ‘residual knowledge.’ Here is one example of how I have tried to make this work:

I took an epic poem resource from the brilliant Thomas Tallis School Creativity Lab and made it into a historical exercise, by borrowing from texts like Beowulf (download epic_generator Saxons here). I asked students to create an epic poem for homework. Many did a great job and enjoyed the random nature of throwing dice to determine elements of the story. It was a fun way to get them engaged in Saxon culture. After marking the poems I got students to highlight three things in the text: positive characters, negative characters and emotive or revealing words. Below is a sample of the work from an EAL student:
Epic Poem Sample

We then went on to analyse what type of story it was and why the Saxons might have told these kind of tales, especially since it did not really fit with the evidence of the Saxons that we encountered in the archaeological evidence). Now that the students were armed with their own epic poems and an understanding of why they were written, they found it easier to comprehend why Harold Godwineson did not follow his brother’s advice ad remain in London when William attacked. This residual knowledge of Saxon epic poems helped them to grasp the choices made in 1066.

This kind of curriculum planning takes time, but it is essential to tie up knowledge so that students find it easier to draw on it and create better answers. Students get ‘blocked’ when they are not confident of the knowledge they need and whatever techniques for writing you teach them will be in vain if they can’t access the knowledge to create their writing.

Word Games
I would like to thank Don Cumming (@jackdisco) for many of the ideas that I have used to strengthen this part of my teaching. His session at Berkhamsted Learning Conference (TLAB 2015) was inspiring. The following example builds on the idea of instilling confidence that I talked about in the previous post of Differentiation (see ). The game ‘Splat’ requires students, in pairs, to race against each other to find a word that goes with a definition that you give. There are lots of ways to involve students: playing, giving their own definitions, suggesting and writing new key words. Activities like this reinforce the core knowledge of each topic.
splat words

I hope these three examples give a flavour of the knowledge work that can be done to prepare students for quality writing.

Structuring Writing: Functional Grammar
The remainder of this post is centred around my experiments with Functional Grammar. I am not going to give background into the strategy as Lee Donaghy does it brilliantly on his site ‘What’s language doing here?‘ What I want to add is why I think it is making a difference to many of my students and to share some of the strategies I have been using.

Firstly, to help explain the concept to students I created some props:

These were then used with classes to visually show the different parts of a clause and how they work. Elements of a sentence were written on post-its and students had to identify which elements they thought they belonged to. Having subject vocabulary broken down in this way was useful and scaling up discussion, from individuals, to pairs and then fours meant that students could explore what a participant, process and circumstance looked like. Ensuring that there was at least one example of each type in a four meant that whole sentences could be constructed, deconstructed, explained and then put back together. For example, the sentence…

John Ball preached radical sermons while travelling around East Anglia

can be broken down into…
The ‘Who/What?’ elements (participants) John Ball radical sermons
A ‘The Way Something Happens’ element (process) preached
The ‘Extra/Extra Information’ (circumstances) while travelling around East Anglia

These elements were then sorted and stuck to the relevant prop. Each prop as held by a student and they had to make a mental note of any element they thought was incorrectly placed. This added another layer to the discussion and deepened the understanding of the terms.

Students were then able to practise their writing in groups using A3 grids like these:
Peasants Revolt Lessons

Once they were confident, they could tackle their own paragraphs and write a final draft in their books. Use of highlighters to identify the three elements immediately shows if they are using the structure well. Asking students if they can see a ‘Sea of Green’ in their work helped them to focus on the History (and, yes, I did play them a clip from ‘Yellow Submarine’ – 2:00-2:05 mins)
Explicitly teaching Functional Grammar has had a direct impact on the work that students are producing. Sentence structure has improved and, most importantly, their work is more historical. Focusing on the ‘Extra’ information has meant that students are adding key dates and locations to their work in a way that they were not consistently doing before.

Take this example from an SEN student. Before using Functional Grammar to structure written work they were creating paragraphs like:

Edward the Confessor is King. Harold is ship-wrecked. He is rescued by William. Edward dies and Harold makes himself King. William prepares an invasion. He is delayed, but then the wind changes so William lands at Pevensey.

There are some clear issues with this paragraph about the causes of the Battle of Hastings, not least that it lacks historical depth. Also, some sentences are very short and do not deal with the whole subject matter. Now, consider this later piece of work by the same student. It is the final piece of work in the unit and represents several lessons of oracy, Functional Grammar and VCOP input:

Functional Grammar Example

Not only is the sentence structure better, but there is more historical depth to the answer. In addition, the student is clearly able to identify which elements are ‘Who/What?’, which are ‘The way something happens’ and which are ‘Extra, Extra Information.’ The reason why I think this matters so much is that it not only improves literacy, but also contributes to creating better History.

Understanding how language can improve their historical writing is really important for students if they are going to progress. Using continuums to ‘fine tune’ the accuracy of their claims has been crucial in getting stdents to create higher level responses. Take the following example:
Continuum eg

Students were now able to explore the extent of the similarity or difference and not just that it existed. Students were able to move beyond sentences like, ‘The rebels were similar,’ and create ones like, ‘The peasants and John Ball were fairly similar in their views about freedom, because they both strongly believed in peasants having more rights.’ Linking language to the development of subject writing and explicitly showing students ‘how’ it all works, means we can move away from surface understanding and embed the principles. The impact is then long lasting and allows students to reapply their learning in future situations.

The last level in my Differentiation quest involves deconstructing historical skills and writing still further so that students can begin to understand what it really involves and how they can make it fit together.

That will be the subject of the third and final post…

Maximise Retention of Students Long-term Memory Part 1

Always Seek Knowledge

There is an abundance of research, for example here, here and here, that point to the idea that reading comprehension and academic achievement can be vastly improved, and socio-economic gaps closed, by consistently increasing the amount of academic knowledge students learn starting from primary school. These theorists also suggest that knowledge builds on knowledge, cumulatively. So the more you read and learn about the world, the more you will be able to grasp. A good summary about the idea of core knowledge and the link to literacy comes from ED Hirsch, who states that:

Nearly all of our most cherished ideals for education – from reading comprehension and problem solving to critical thinking and creativity – rest on a foundation of knowledge.

As a parenthesis, in case you’re interested in a second perspective, see this critique of Hirsch. Some of his ideas can be interpreted as a tad elitist e.g. his books ‘What your child needs to know…’ series can testify to that notion. However, I still agree with his basic premise above.

A Knowledge Curriculum

I am interested in what we can do with a research guided approach to ‘knowledge’ in the classroom, beyond testing. Many may be familiar with Daniel T Willingham’s thinking around knowledge and intelligence. Willingham states:

..knowledge does much more than just help students hone their thinking skills: It actually makes learning easier. Knowledge is not only cumulative, it grows exponentially. Those with a rich base of factual knowledge find it easier to learn more—the rich get richer. In addition, factual knowledge enhances cognitive processes like problem solving and reasoning. The richer the knowledge base, the more smoothly and effectively these cognitive processes—the very ones that teachers target—operate. So, the more knowledge students accumulate, the smarter they become.

apple Let’s look at a concrete example of how this would work in practice. A weak reader with some background knowledge of the read topic will score higher than a stronger reader with little or no background knowledge of the topic. Why? Because, as Willingham has found, factual knowledge matter improves literacy and critical thinking skills. So with your own background knowledge, consider the word ‘Apple’. What comes to mind, a piece of fruit, Apple Watch or perhaps apple pie? But, your background knowledge goes deeper than that, of course. Let’s take a look at how language is further made complex by the absence or presence of background knowledge by examining the example below:

The hunter said “There’s a grouse across that field maybe 100 yards away.” His friend said, “well, shoot.” The sentence does not mean “fire your gun.”
Background knowledge = shotguns aren’t accurate at 100 yards. A grouse that has flown from cover is gone. “Well, shoot” means “too bad we missed it”. – D.T. Willingham

This is why “in-jokes” are only funny to those with the background knowledge to understand the underlying meanings.

So if we believe that factual knowledge is the medium of understanding, then what’s the problem? The problem for students lie in retaining this knowledge. Unfortunately for us humans, our working memory – the one we use remember and use relevant information while in the middle of an activity e.g. following instruction or remembering a phone number – is very limited. This is an area I have devoted some time to explore, particularly in terms of testing and spacing, but I’ll share my experience on that at a later date. For now, I’d like to share a pedagogical framework I have developed which looks to maximise retention of long-term memory for students; a ‘wrapper’ for a consistent approach to the way we teach – whilst encouraging teacher autonomy and teacher creativity. I have accessed recent research on core knowledge and instruction, all of the sources are listed at the end of this post.

There are five subjects in my faculty: History, Geography, Sociology, Law and Government and Politics. As a result, there’s a real opportunity to align our curricula according to the framework below. Here’s how it works.

retention framework memory2Conflict Planning

Our lessons are framed around a ‘hinge’ or key question which students investigate throughout the lesson. These questions provide a sense of meaning to the learned content and, if planned with conflict in mind, may make our lessons more memorable. Hinge questions work for any subject and are ideal for challenging students to think throughout the lesson. The ‘why, why, why, why?’ helps to provide tension in the learned content. However, in order for students to retain the new knowledge in their long-term memory, further tension is needed. If we treat each lesson like a good story with its predictable structure (see previous post on the power of stories in lessons), which focuses on the 4Cs of causality, conflict, character and complications, then this will help to refocus students’ attention on the core meaning of the lesson and therefore more likely for new knowledge to be added to their long-term memory.

Good modelling would ensure that the central meaning of the lesson is maintained by using concrete but subject relevant information.

Activating Prior Knowledge

This is of course a key component in any good lesson plan so that the teacher knows where to pitch the learning. However, activating is more than checking if they remember. When I use the phrase ‘to activate prior knowledge’, I am referring to a moment in the lesson when students use techniques to retrieve knowledge. This means that teachers need to train students ways to remember facts. In order to teach them memory retrieval skills I recommend you read any of the sources from this list:

One simple way to encourage students to practise memory retrieval is to engage them in gamification via tools such as Memrise or Quizlet. The latter is particularly good as tests are quick to set up and students really enjoy taking them due to their competitive structure. The real strength of these types of tools is the opportunity for self-testing, again and again.

Quizlet is a good tool to allow student self-testing.

We are also exploring using Knowledge Vaults with students, particularly with exam groups. This is a document which provides an overview of required knowledge we want students to remember. The Knowledge Vaults differ depending on the subject and Unit but would for example include terminology, quotes (from historians, sociologists or research), key studies and a timelines. Our Knowledge Vaults accompany the testing framework well, as you can imagine, and is an active component in the way we assess mastery.

Cognitive Support through Modelling

To make sure we offload as much of the cognitive load as possible, good teachers provide good quality modelling of tasks or activities e.g. working through examples on the board with the support from students. Some use examples that are relevant to students’ lives and to make the subject matter more enjoyable e.g. when teaching about the October revolution the teacher gets students to create an animation using stop-motion, which the teacher demonstrates how to do. Daniel T. Willingham reasons 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“. According to this argument, student would therefore remember how cool it was to create a stop-motion animation rather than, say, the causes of the revolution. Good modelling would ensure that the central meaning of the lesson is maintained by using concrete but subject relevant information.

Effective scaffolding teases out understanding rather than limiting it; creates opportunity rather than slowing thinking down; challenges students to struggle through their thinking.

Chunking and Supervised Practice

This is an essential part of the lesson. Our working memory is too limited to be able to deal with the vast amount of facts that teachers want students to learn. By splitting the new knowledge into manageable chunks, students are capable of working through each chunk by step without memory overload. After each new part has been looked at, students should practise with guidance from the teacher or peers. This is a crucial part of the lesson so that the new knowledge is not forgotten, or that misconceptions are not remembered. Techniques for supervised practice could include using graphic organisers to do various activities like 100 word summaries, venn diagrams, or by asking pairs to reason through a problem, with another pairs listening in, to gauge how far they have understood.

Supervised practice is key and links directly to the next step:

Deep Questioning, Deep Answers

In ‘Teach like a Champion (chapter 1)‘,  a teacher favourite across the globe nowadays, Doug Lemov shows how exceptional questioning can encourage the most stubborn student (or shy) to think hard; think deep. I think this strategy can be further improved by challenging students to support each other to build a deep answer. This is where the whole class actively listens and then provides examples of how to improve the verbal answer e.g. using subject specific terminology, connectives, examples and so on. Whilst this is a worthwhile cognitive activity in its own right, it also allows teachers to check understanding across the class, sort misconceptions and drive learning forward by showing students how to connect their knowledge together – both factual and skill(s).

Scaffold – allow thinking

We had an educational advisor come into our school to review teaching and learning (we are a Free School). One thing she picked up on was how different teachers provide support. The advisor commented that good scaffolding occurred throughout most of the school but there were instances when ‘students [had] no chance to think for themselves’. I’ve worked in several schools over the years and this way of scaffolding is not isolated to only some of our teachers. Because we want to makes sure all students progress, we differentiate and provide challenge where we require. Effective scaffolding teases out understanding rather than limiting it; creates opportunity rather than slowing thinking down; challenges students to struggle through their thinking.

Independent Monitored Practice

At this point in the lesson students know what they are doing and will spend time on their own focusing on completing a set task. Unlike supervised practice, independent practice involves more time for students to think and work without the support from peers. It does not really mean allowing students to ‘get on with it’ for three lessons without supervision. Regular reviews will take place to check understanding. Supervision of independent practice often takes shape as questioning and quick pitstop checks.

Retrieving Memories

By reviewing what students have learned during regular intervals e.g. weekly and monthly, we help them to strengthen their memories further. In fact, retrieval practice goes even further and:

  • Improves students’ complex thinking and application skills
  • Improves students’ organization of knowledge
  • Improves students’ transfer of knowledge to new concepts

So, retrieval doesn’t only help to improve long-term memory, it also increases our understanding. As Barak Rosenshine explains:

Students need extensive and broad reading, and extensive practice in order to develop well-connected networks of ideas (schemas) in their long-term memory. When one’s knowledge on a particular topic is large and well connected, it is easier to learn new information and prior knowledge is more readily available for use. he more one rehearses and reviews information, the stronger these interconnections become. It is also easier to solve new problems when one has a rich, well-connected body of knowledge and strong ties among the connections. One of the goals of education is to help students develop extensive and available background knowledge.

There are numerous ways of encouraging retrieval practice some of which have been mention above in ‘Activating Prior Knowledge’. This way of connecting knowledge, exponentially growing one’s understanding, is particularly effective if built into the curriculum for example via tests or an exam strategy that spaces learning across time with several opportunities to practice.

Next post I will explore how we will use the framework for maximum impact.

References and Further Reading

What makes great teaching? Review of the underpinning research by Robert Coe, Cesare Aloisi, Steve Higgins and Lee Elliot Major, Durham University and the Sutton trust, October 2014

Ask the Cognitive Scientist: What Will Improve a Student’s Memory? in AMERICAN EDUCATOR | WINTER 2008-2009 by Daniel T. Willingham

Why Don’t Students Like School? by Daniel T Willingham

How Knowledge Helps: It Speeds and Strengthens Reading Comprehension, Learning—and Thinking. By Daniel T Willingham, American Educator, Spring 2006

You Can Always Look it Up’… Or Can You? by E.D. Hirsch., American Educator (Spring 2009)