Welcome to my attempt to archive and share some experiences at making learning more visible in my classroom

Monday, 30 September 2013

Language for learning

Increasingly I am finding that I am planning lessons to improve my student's use of appropriate, academic, carefully chosen language in their writing.  A major part of learning to be an effective historian (or learner), is to learn to effectively communicate your ideas on complex topics. For years I have tinkered about with strategies and templates, writing frames and prompts.  Many of these have been useful and worked in the sense that they enable students to write with a slight degree of refinement but usually only for that particular task and not beyond that.  I want to begin to build a clear approach in order that my students begin to apply strategies for improving their writing in the longer term.

Of course, I have students read again what they have written themselves, redraft and peer assess.  I often show students examples of quality work and we use this to analyse the phrases, vocabulary, connectives and style of writing to create quality success criteria.   But, more often than not, this is only skims the surface.  I have found it more challenging to get students to look at their own work in such an intense way. It wasn't till last week that I began to see that by using a more simplistic approach students could begin to see the complexity of what they were trying to achieve in their writing.

The approach is simple:  I asked students to count certain words that they had written and award themselves 1 or 2 points every time they used that word or phrase.  This simple strategy did quite a few things at once:
  1. Identified vocabulary required for the task
  2. Allowed students to critically analyse their work
  3. Initiated a whole host of discussion about the use of certain words and phrases and how best to explain an idea (something that I have only ever managed to engineer with a clear pre-planned intention)
  4. Reduced the need for me to "mark" students work in the normal way I would.
This episode began when I wanted students to respond to the comments I would be leaving on their work from a previous lesson.  During the previous lesson I had asked them, as part of an ongoing attempt to focus on their level of confidence, to choose a coloured piece of paper to write their initial answer to the question: "What was the most important cause of the economic boom in America in the 1920s?"  Selecting pinky/ red paper meant they weren't feeling confident (this helped me go to those students during the task).  Selecting the beige / yellow colour indicated increasing confidence and so on through green and upto blue which we labelled as "Shoot me now, I can write this piece standing on my head".  One person selected blue.

To complete the task students needed confidence in what to write (the reasoning behind the different causes and the factual knowledge required) and they also needed some confidence in how to write it (the format, style and conventions of that particular piece of writing).  In order to build understanding of "what" to write we had spent the lesson examining the factual knowledge used to answer the question, discussing different approaches and breaking down the reasoning behind it.  Students had used a diamond nine activity to help them frame their thinking. In terms of the "how" to write part of the task we used our classroom talk and discussion to draw out the phrasing used by students to explain their point of view, which included some examples of tentative language ("probably the most important reasons was....", "I would have thought that...." and "it was unlikely that...").  We discussed the use of these phrases in talk and how they might be phrased in written response.  This lead us to a particular reminder about the use of the third person, past tense in historical writing:  no such thing as "I think...."**.  We also used our connectives mat to help identify examples of connectives that we could use to help frame our responses.

Students completed their written response and I took them in to look at before the next lesson.  I spread out the responses on a table to look at the similarities between students who had selected the same colour piece of paper.   The variation between responses was immediately obvious.  But also the similarities in quality answers were leaping off the page - repeated use of key vocabulary, certain words which signalled that pupils were actively explaining and the use of abstract concepts in the most confident of explanations.

I began to gather together all the words or language markers which set apart the quality responses and formed them into some categories which eventually looked like this:

Next lesson I showed students the chart of words above, 1 column at a time, and they awarded themselves 1 point for each time they used the words in the top half of the chart - specific language which has a function in the explanation.  They had to knock off a point each time they used a word from the bottom half of the chart as this was too general and did not form part of the academic code we were seeking.  We discussed the reasoning behind this as we moved across the chart.  Occasionally we would stop and I would ask certain pupils to read from their responses, for example James who had written an interesting example of how a sequence of causes helps build up a causal explanation - he used the phrase, "This meant that...." 3 times in his response.

We also discussed why the "analysing" phrases and the "abstract" ideas got 2 points each.  This was a chance to emphasise the need to compare and contrast the level of importance of factors as an important feature of the writing.  Moreover, most of the students could see immediately see that trying to explain how abstractions like "laissez faire" attitudes from the republican government were harder to explain than the concrete effect of the First World War and therefore were rewarded more highly.

When the exercise was complete the students had a clear idea of the "words" they were missing from their explanations and we set about having another go at the writing, now with a bit more clarity on "how" to write. I further drew out what we were seeking by having a closer look at one example of writing that had many good features, but also some room for improvement.

None of this is revolutionary.   The exercise was useful in getting the students to examine critically their writing in a quick, sharp way.  But in fact, what I have just described is pretty poor practice because if I had provided adequate scaffold for the writing in the first place and modelled good examples first, then I probably would have drawn up that list of words with the students during the modelling.  What's more, they may not have made the mistakes they did.  But that is exactly my point - I don't yet have an ingrained approach to teaching the academic style of writing I want my students to do.  I'm beginning to see the real reason why Geoff Barton told us in an excellent literacy training event last October, "Don't call it literacy".

So what are my next steps?   I'm writing some materials to look at causal language with my classes more deeply.  More importantly, last night I read this excellent blog post by Lee Donaghy on the use of genre pedagogy and David Didau's series of posts which follows up on this fascinating approach which essentially put together all those fragments of teaching writing in your own genre and gives it total coherence.

[**By the way, if your students find it difficult to ditch this phrase in your history lesson because they are encouraged to use it elsewhere then don't get them to ditch it straight away.  Students who write "I think it was Lee Harvey Oswald who shot JFK from the book depository window...." often find it hard to begin this sentence without "I think..."  Just get them to put a line through "I think" when they finish the sentence.  They soon begin to see how the tone changes]

Sunday, 29 September 2013

Encouraging confident learners

Man looking at camera: “I don’t think this is going to work?  Anyone think we should just stay stuck?”

Some classes gather momentum from day one and make leaps and bounds and bring joy to their teacher every lesson. Some do not and need a little help. I have a class at the moment that needs a little encouragement, to become a little more confident, if we are ever to get the point of joy and wonderment together.  There are a couple of things we need to work on together but issue Number 1, in my head, sounds a little bit like this:

“When you ask me for help you simply want the answer, without having to think at all.  I want to engage in a stimulating conversation about the topic with the cut and thrust of intellectual debate.”

You can see that this is as much a problem for me as much as the students.  In fact, the problem has been worse than this - most pupils didn’t ask for help at all.  Too happy to be stuck and wait for the answer, solution or thinking to be given to them on a silver plated, powerpoint based lecture from your's truly. I needed a way to get students to ask for help in such a way which would enable three things to happen:

  1. they would feel encouraged to seek help when completing complex tasks
  2. they would have the confidence to ask for help or ask a question without fear of making themselves look like a buffoon
  3. I wouldn't get swamped by loads of poor questions or requests for help which were disguised as just wanting the answer
and also it had to help me identify precisely what they actually, specifically required help with. Most importantly, we needed to all begin to form some habits and behaviours around asking for help.  

So make that 5 things. What better way to instil confidence but by giving students an indication of the kind of language to use in a particular situation. My starting point was around the solo taxonomy since not everyone requires the same level of help or support. I am calling it “Question casino”. On a slide it looks like this:

Solo Structured 

Students at prestructural level haven’t yet formed a clear understanding. Often this means: "I haven’t got a clue so I need some help from you but I am also not really sure what part of the task or thinking I am stuck with." The prompts I gave them in the first column help to pinpoint exactly what it is the student needs help with and avoid them saying:  “ I can’t do it” or “It doesn’t make any sense” or “I’m stuck”. So at the first level they are encouraged to ask CLARIFYING questions: like

“What does x mean?”  “I don’t understand x, can you explain it”  “I’m having trouble understanding what it means by X….”

Using  these low level questions or phrases gains a white casino chip worth $5. Whoop.

Students at unistructural level need to build up their ideas and knowledge:  For a student this might mean "I have one idea about this but haven’t yet built up a full picture; there are parts I don’t understand". So using the prompts encourages students to ask slightly more PROBING questions about a specific item. The students are probing me about something they want to know but they have to be specific. So, they are encouraged to ask questions which start with….


or say things like -

“there’s part of the source I don’t understand…”
“In this section it says, “xyz”... does that mean...?”

Using  these questions or phrases gains a Blue Chip worth $20. Whoot, whoot.

Students at the multistructural level have several ideas and pieces of knowledge but may lack confidence in connecting these or applying them in different contexts.  In History this can be an issue especially when investigating primary sources.  So students are encouraged to Check their Understanding and be asked a question. They are encouraged to use phrases such as:

"I think that x is correct because…. Do you agree?"

"I have written this but I am concerned about…"
"Can you settle an argument about….?"
"Am I right in thinking…?"

As a reward for doing the thinking and offering their ideas students gain a Red $30 chip. Hooray. 

Finally, students at relational level are usually knowledgeable and confident about seeing how their ideas link and are able to offer analysis of ideas. In theory this means they don't require much support so depending on the task I made the final category about getting on without any help but with the stipulation that they had to get the task 100% correct.  This would gain them a black chip worth an additional 20% on top of the highest score.  Risky but with a reward.

What happened when I introduced this?

I introduced it as I have described here - me to class “I need to understand if you are stuck and require help but you could think more deeply about the help you need, so here’s some language we can benefit from.  Use the phrases to receive a coloured chip worth the value of the request.  You may ask up-to 6 questions in a clockwise direction so that each person in the group is able to ask for help”.   Ignoring me, their eyes glazed over and were drawn to the pile of casino chips, sitting, without value at the front of the room.

I set it up to run over the course of a 15 minute activity  where students were investigating different primary sources and trying to put together a response to a typical 7 mark question:  "What is the message of the source?"  They were given a mark scheme and were familiar with the skills and writing required so that the Black Chip could definitely be obtained; some students could do the task unaided.  It also helped that each table had a different source so that the questions couldn't be repeated.

Two groups immediately announced their desire to go for the Black Chip and trump everyone else.  One table stayed the course and completed the task in the set time but did not get the task 100% correct.  They were upset when they got no chips at all and no dollars but immediately saw the value of asking for help, even if it was to clarify their understanding.  I gave them 50 bucks for their efforts as they'd had some excellent discussion on their table and given the task a good go independently. 

Another group used up their questions in rapid succession without thought, with each individual group member asking lower level questions.  Where it really worked is at the RED CHIP level, because students began to agree on what would be said as they had to take turn to ask their question.  Using the cues on the board students were keen to maximise the value of their questions and would ask me to check their understanding as they worked through the task. 

For many of the students this was the first time that they were engaging in a conversation with me about their understanding outside our regular norms of the question / answer repartee.  This pattern of verbal exchange spread rapidly across the classroom as more and more groups realised that by working together and figuring out the answers they could gain valuable chips by checking their thinking. 

This was beginning to have an impact for two reasons: pupils were actively working together to problem solve and support each other; students were initiating discussion with me about the topic in a way which was more adult and thoughtful; it allowed me to ask follow up questions if students hadn't explained themselves.  The chip would not be handed over until any subsequent questions from me were answered.

The class drew out in our debrief the success of the strategy and identified 2 key features of the way it helped the class:
  1. Forces everyone in the group to support each other and break the habit of a lifetime and ask for help in a meaningful way
  2. It means the teacher isn’t doing the thinking for the pupils
Over the next three lessons we used the strategy and refined it slightly each with some phrases being added to the board.  “Am I right in thinking….”   became rather over used!

Proof of the pudding is in the normalised use

I'm sure you're wondering - what happens to the racks of chips the students have won?  We kept a spread sheet showing the totals and at the end of last term the group who had accumulated the most chips got a round of applause from the class.  There was a clamour for sweets and chocolate as a prize, which was ignored by grumpy altar ego.

More importantly is the fact that, with only a picture of a chip on the board or a quick reminder the banter quickly now turns to, "Am I right in thinking that..." and "Sir, he is seriously suggesting that x is y...  Can you come and settle an argument?"  Of course I can.

Friday, 27 September 2013

The Shape of Things to Come

The last post I wrote about hexagons did encourage a few people to use the strategy to help students develop relational thinking in a visual way.

It has fascinated me seeing the extent to which an idea can travel and be used in a such a myriad of settings.  It's also amusing to see how an idea can embody annoyance with gimmicks in teaching.

Let's see how this one pans out. It involves hexagons.  It involves cutting out.  It also involves students literally getting to grips with a topic / subject / concept.  But it is also such a flexible starting point from which you can apply to any number of subjects and topics which is interesting.

It is called variously the hexaflexagon or the trihexaflexagon or the flexahexagon or flexagon.

The basic premise is that this simple, 2D paper cut out object will be a useful way to record small pieces of information about a topic in a mildly interesting way.  It is a two sided hexagon which magically reveals a third side once folded.  When I first showed it to students at lunchtime today they cried, "Burn the witch!!", which was frankly the nicest thing  anyone has ever said to me.

The very nature of the object makes it intrinsically interesting and something your students will fiddle about with for at least 8 or 9 minutes.  If you combine the hexaflexagon with some pieces of data or information that you require the students to remember for, say, a test - then they might actually read it during that 8 or 9 minutes.  Hey presto a revision tool.

Here's an example of how it might work in a subject picked at random such as... History.  Take a topic like the League of Nations.  There may be three essential questions to learn about this topic:
  • What were the successes of the League?
  • What were the examples of their failures?
  • What were the reasons why the League failed?
These three strands are of course, closely related.  Boil down the essential nuggets of knowledge about these strands and write them on one of the triangles of the flexagon.  Now you have a pocket sized revision guide for that topic.

What is more - you could make another one for a linked topic (The treaty of Versailles) and use them on the desk like a regular set of hexagons, building up sequences, creating links between pieces of your knowledge.

I reckon there are endless uses. Here are some templates to get you started:

Link to PDF Version with a blank
Link to Publisher Version to edit yourself

Best served just before an exam.  My next post might actually be about learning.

It would be great if you left a comment on this blog saying how you might use this in your subject!

If you really want to get your head round how it works watch this:

And here's a link to a nifty image generator.  Follow me on twitter here @clarky099