Synergy – Direct Instruction part 2

Last month’s blog introduced the idea that Direct Instruction (DI) which is a highly structured form of teaching was a very efficient way of delivering information. The challenge was that in a world where knowledge is largely free “drilling” information using rigid methods does little to develop the skills most valued by employers.

Earlier this year in an attempt to identify some of these higher-level skills, I am not a fan of the term soft skills, LinkedIn analysed hundreds of thousands of job advertisements. They produced a top 5, which are as follows: Creativity, Persuasion, Collaboration, Adaptability and Time management. We might add to this, the ability to think for yourself which in some ways underpins them all.

The modern world doesn’t reward you for what you know, but for what you can do with what you know. Andreas Schleicher

This month I want to expand on what DI is but also add to the argument that DI (teacher led) and discovery based (Student led) are not mutually exclusive, in fact when used together they work better than on their own.

Direct Instruction is learning led
The main reason that despite its many critics DI fails to go away is because of the significant amount of evidence that proves it works. And the reason it works is because it presents information in a brain friendly way.

Cognitive load, this is a very common instructional terms and refers to the limitation of short term or working memory to hold sufficient information at any one time. As a result, it’s better not to bombard the brain with too much information, meaning its more effective for students to reduce distraction and be presented with content broken down into smaller chunks, sequenced and taught individually before being linked together at a later date. This is one of the most important aspects of DI. Avoiding distraction refers not only to external distractions e.g. your mobile phone but information that is not required or is unnecessary in arriving at the desired learning outcome

Retrieval and spaced practice are both used in direct instruction and have been mentioned in previous blogs. They are well researched and the evidence is compelling as to their effectiveness.

Using examples to teach is also something strongly promoted. It is argued that the brain has the ability to use examples to build connections, ironically without DI e.g. if we are talking about pets and we said that a cat is an example of a pet but we already knew a cat was also an animal we could link the two. Next time when the term cat is mentioned we would know it was both a pet and an animal.

Discovery based (Student led – Autonomous – Constructivism)
Many of the discovery-based learning techniques have their roots in the work of psychologists Jean Piaget, Jerome Bruner, and Seymour Papert. The core argument is that self-discovery and the process of acquiring information for yourself makes that information more readily available when it comes to problem solving. In addition, it encourages creativity, motivation, promotes autonomy, independent learning and is self-paced.

It is not however without instruction. Teachers should guide and motivate learners to look for solutions by combining existing and new information, help students avoid distraction and simplify what to a student may appear complex. To expect the student to figure everything out for themselves would be incredibly inefficient and although might lead to a truly original idea is most likely to result in a feeling of wasted time and solutions we already know or are wrong.

Critical thinking processes such as reasoning and problem solving are intimately intertwined with factual knowledge that is stored in long-term memory Daniel Willinghams – Why Students Don’t Like School.

2 + 2 = 5 = Synergy
DI and the many discovery-based learning methods can be used together because together they are far more powerful and effective. Think more of them in terms of a venn diagram with highly effective learning in the middle where the circles overlap and DI in one circle and discovery based in the other. The mix is up to the teacher which in turn is dependent on the time available, the nature of the subject, their judgment of the students and the desired outcome.

You cannot tell students how to think but you can provide them with the building blocks, helping them learn along the way before giving them real world challenges with problems they will have to solve for themselves. Then its into the workplace where the real learning experience will begin.

Learn faster with Direct Instruction – Siegfried Engelmann

What we need to learn is changing, knowledge is free, if you want the answer just google it. According to the World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs Survey, there is an ever-greater need for cognitive abilities such as creativity, logical reasoning and problem solving. And with advances in AI, machine learning and robotics many of the skills previously valued will become redundant.

No need for the Sage on the stage
These demands have led to significant change in the way learning is happening, no longer should students be told what to think, they need to be encouraged to think for themselves, Socratic questioning, group work, experiential learning and problem based learning have all become popular, and Sir Ken Robinson Ted lecture, do schools kill creativity has had 63 million views.

Sir Kens talk is funny and inspiring and I recommend you watch it, but I want to challenge the current direction of travel or at least balance the debate by promoting a type of teaching that has fallen out of fashion and yet ironically could form the foundation upon which creativity could be built – Direct Instruction.

Direct Instruction – the Sage is back
The term direct instruction was first used in 1968, when a young Zig Engelmann a science research associate proved that students could be taught more effectively if the teacher presented information in a prescriptive, structured and sequenced manner. This carefully planned and rigid process can help eliminate misinterpretation and misunderstanding, resulting in faster learning. But most importantly it has been proven to work as evidenced by a 2018 publication which looked at over half a century of analysis and 328 past studies on the effectiveness of Direct Instruction.

Direct Instruction was also evaluated by Project Follow Through, the most extensive educational experiment ever conducted. The conclusion – It produced significantly higher academic achievement for students than any of the other programmes.

The steps in direct instruction

It will come as no surprise that a method of teaching that advocates structure and process can be presented as a series of steps.

Step 1 Set the stage for learning – The purpose of this first session is to engage the student, explaining specifically what they should be able to do and understand as a result of this lesson. Where possible a link to prior knowledge should also be made.
Step 2 Present the material – (I DO) The lesson should be organised, broken down into a step-by-step process, each one building on the other with examples to show exactly how it can be applied. This can be done by lecture, demonstration or both.
Step 3 Guided practice – (WE DO) This is where the tutor demonstrates and the student follows closely, copying in some instances. Asking questions is an important aspect for the student if something doesn’t make sense.
Step 4 Independent practice – (YOU DO) Once students have mastered the content or skill, it is time to provide reinforcement and practice.

The Sage and the Guide
The goal of Direct Instruction is to “do more in less time” which is made possible because the learning is accelerated by clarity and process.

There are of course critics, considering it a type of rote learning that will stifle the creativity of both teacher and student, and result in a workforce best suited for the industrial revolution rather than the fourth one. But for me it’s an important, effective and practical method of teaching. That when combined with inspirational delivery and a creative mindset will help students develop the skills to solve the problems of tomorrow or at least a few of them.

The independent learner – Metacognition

Metacognition is not a great word but it’s an important one when it comes to learning, especially if you are studying at higher academic levels or on your own. Cognition refers to the range of mental processes that help you acquire knowledge and understanding or more simply, learn. These processes include the storage, manipulation, and retrieval of information. Meta on the other hand means higher than or overarching, put the two together and we are talking about something that sits above learning, connecting it by way of thought. For this reason, it’s often described as thinking about thinking or in this context thinking about how you learn.

Smarter not harder

When you have a lot to learn in terms of subject matter it may feel like a distraction to spend any time learning something other than what you must know, let alone reflecting on it, but this fits under the heading of working smarter not harder, if you can find more effective ways of learning that must be helpful.
As mentioned earlier cognition is about mental processes, storage and retrieval relate to memory, manipulation, to the shifting of attention, changing perception etc. But the meta aspect creates distance, allowing us to become aware of what we are doing, standing back and observing how for example perception has changed, this reflection is a high-level skill that many believe is unique to humans. One final aspect is that we can take control of how we learn, planning tasks, changing strategies, monitoring those that work and evaluating the whole process.

Keeping it simple

Its very easy to overcomplicate metacognition, in some ways its little more than asking a few simple questions, thinking about how you are learning, what works and what doesn’t.  Here are some examples as to how you might do this.

  • Talk to yourself, ask questions at each stage, does this make sense, I have read it several times maybe I should try writing it down.
  • Ask, have I set myself sensible goals?
  • Maybe it’s time to try something different, for example mind mapping, but remember to reflect on how effective it was or perhaps was not.
  • Do I need help from anyone, this could be a fellow student or try YouTube which is a great way to find a different explanation in a different format?

Clearly these skills are helpful for all students but they are especially valuable when studying on your own perhaps on a distance learning programme or engaged in large periods of self-study.

Benefits

There are many reasons for investing some time in this area.

  • Growing self-confidence – by finding out more about how you learn you will discover both your strengths and weaknesses. Confidence isn’t about being good at everything but understanding your limitations.  
  • Improves performance – research has shown that students who actively engage in metacognition do better in exams.
  • Gives control – you are no longer reliant on the way something is taught; you have the ability to teach yourself. Being an autonomous learner is also hugely motivational.
  • The skills are transferable – this knowledge will not only help with your current subjects but all that follow, not to mention what you will need to learn in the workplace.  

It will take some time initially but, in a way, metacognition is part of learning, it’s an essential component and as such you will end up knowing more about yourself at some point, even if you don’t want to, so why not do it sooner rather than later.

And just for fun – Sheldon knows everything about himself – even when he is wrong

Intelligence defined – Inspiring learning leaders – Howard Gardner

Intelligence is a term that is often used to define people, David is “clever” or “bright” maybe even “smart” but it can also be a way in which you define yourself. The problem is that accepting this identity can have a very limiting effect on motivation, for example if someone believes they are not very clever, how hard will they try, effort would be futile. And yet it is that very effort that can make all the difference. See brain plasticity.
I wrote about an inspiring learning leader back in April this year following the death of Tony Buzan, the creator of mind maps. I want to continue the theme with Howard Gardner (Professor of Cognition and Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education) who I would guess many have never heard of but for me is an inspirational educator.

Multiple Intelligence Theory (MIT)
Now in fairness Howard Gardner is himself not especially inspiring but his idea is. Gardner is famous for his theory that the traditional notion of intelligence, based on I.Q. is far too limited. Instead, he argues that there are in fact eight different intelligences. He first presented the theory in 1983, in the book Frames of Mind – The Theory of Multiple Intelligences. 

This might also be a good point to clarify exactly how Gardner defines intelligence.

Intelligence – ‘the capacity to solve problems or to fashion products that are valued in one or more cultural setting’ (Gardner & Hatch, 1989).

Multiple intelligences

  1. SPATIAL – The ability to conceptualise and manipulate large-scale spatial arrays e.g. airplane pilot, sailor
  2. BODILY-KINESTHETIC – The ability to use one’s whole body, or parts of the body to solve problems or create products e.g. dancer
  3. MUSICAL – Sensitivity to rhythm, pitch, meter, tone, melody and timbre. May entail the ability to sing, play musical instruments, and/or compose music e.g. musical conductor
  4. LINGUISTIC – Sensitivity to the meaning of words, the order among words, and the sound, rhythms, inflections, and meter of words e.g. poet
  5. LOGICAL-MATHEMATICAL – The capacity to conceptualise the logical relations among actions or symbols e.g. mathematicians, scientists
  6. INTERPERSONAL – The ability to interact effectively with others. Sensitivity to others’ moods, feelings, temperaments and motivations e.g. negotiator
  7. INTRAPERSONAL- Sensitivity to one’s own feelings, goals, and anxieties, and the capacity to plan and act in light of one’s own traits.
  8. NATURALISTIC – The ability to make consequential distinctions in the world of nature as, for example, between one plant and another, or one cloud formation and another e.g. taxonomist

I have taken the definitions for the intelligences direct from the MI oasis website.

It’s an interesting exercise to identify which ones you might favour but be careful, these are not learning styles, they are simply cognitive or intellectual strengths. For example, if someone has higher levels of linguistic intelligence, it doesn’t necessarily mean they prefer to learn through lectures alone.

You might also want to take this a stage further by having a go at this simple test. Please note this is for your personal use, its main purpose is to increase your understanding of the intelligences.

Implications – motivation and self-esteem
Gardner used his theory to highlight the fact that schools largely focused their attention on linguistic and logical-mathematical intelligence and rewarded those who excelled in these areas. The implication being that if you were more physically intelligent the school would not consider you naturally gifted, not “clever” as they might if you were good at maths. The advice might be that you should consider a more manual job. I wonder how that works where someone with high levels of physical and spacial intelligence may well find themselves playing for Manchester United earning over £100,000 a week!

But for students this theory can really help build self-esteem and motivate when a subject or topic is proving hard to grasp. No longer do you have to say “I don’t understand this, I am just not clever enough”. Change the words to “I don’t understand this yet, I find some of these mathematical questions challenging, after all, its not my strongest intelligence”. “I know I have to work harder in this area but when we get to the written aspects of the subject it will become easier”.

This for me this is what make Gardner’s MIT so powerful it’s not a question of how intelligent you are but which intelligence(s) you work best in.

“Discover your difference, the asynchrony with which you have been blessed or cursed and make the most of it.” Howard Gardner

As mentioned earlier Howard Gardner is not the most inspirational figure and here is an interview to prove it, but his theory can help you better understand yourself and others, and that might just change your perception of who you are and what you’re capable of – now that’s inspiring!

MI Oasis – The Official Authoritative Site of Multiple Intelligences 

Dont worry, Be happy

It’s so easy for well-meaning people to say don’t worry, it’s not bad advice it’s just not very helpful. Firstly, as I have mentioned in previous blogs anything framed as a don’t is difficult for the brain to process. Far better to tell someone what to do than tell them what not.

Secondly If you look up a definition of worry it will say something like, “thinking about problems or unpleasant events that you don’t want to happen but might, in a way that makes you feel unhappy and or frightened.” What a strange concept, why would anyone want to do this?

Having started but I hasten to add not yet finished the second of Yuval Noah Harari’s bestselling books Homo Deus, it’s hard not to question the reason we might have evolved to hold such a strange view. What possible evolutionary purpose could feeling bad or frightened serve?

Don’t worry be happy, In every life we have some trouble. When you worry you make it double.

Worry can be helpful
The truth is worry can be helpful, it’s a means by which the brain can help you prioritises events. It’s not a nice feeling but ultimately humans have evolved to survive and reproduce, they are not meant to be vehicles for happiness. Think of all that goes through your head in a day, the words, the emotions, the noise. How can you possibly figure out what is important and what is not unless you have a little help? Worry does just that, it helps us think about an event in the future that might happen, this heightened focus puts it above the events of the day giving us a chance to do something about it.

Action is worry’s worst enemy – Proverb

Worry, stress and anxiety
Worry tends to be specific; I am worried that I won’t be able to pass the maths exam on the 23rd of September. Worry is future based, it anticipates a problem that has not yet happened, the main reason is to make you do something about it today. Stress on the other hand is relatively short term and arises when the gap between what you need to do and are able to isn’t enough. For example, I haven’t got time to learn everything I need to pass this exam, there is just too much to learn. After the event, the stress level will fall. Anxiety is the big brother of them both, it is far more general than worry, for example, I am not very clever and never have been. You’re not really sure what cleverness is, but you’re still able to be anxious about it. Both stress and worry can lead to anxiety if they are intense or go on for too long.

Worry can wake you in the night, asking your brain to solve the problem. However, unless fully awake It’s unlikely you will be able to do so, instead you will simply turn the problem over in your head again and again and deprive yourself of that all-important sleep. Best put it to the back of your mind if possible, think of something else, the problem will feel less important in the morning and after a good night’s sleep you will be far more able to solve it.

It helps to write down half a dozen things which are worrying me. Two of them, say, disappear; about two of them nothing can be done, so it’s no use worrying; and two perhaps can be settled – Winston Churchill

What to worry about
The human mind is so creative it’s possible for it to worry about almost anything. As one worry is resolved another can appear.

  • Don’t know what to do – where do I start, what should I learn first
  • Don’t know how to do it – how can I get this into my head, what is the best way of learning?
  • Don’t know if I can do it, self-doubt – I am not clever enough. This can lead to anxiety.
  • Don’t know how long it will take, what if I don’t have enough time?

One technique to change these from unknowns to possibilities is to follow the advice of Carol Dweck who suggests you add a word to the end of the sentence – the word is YET. For example, I don’t know what to do YET! Although this may seem trivial it moves the worry from unsolvable to something that if you spend time on can be achieved.

The list of “dont knows” are all triggers to help motivate you, they are calls to action, the only way to reduce the worry is to do something, even if as Churchill suggest you make a simple list. However, there are situations when you can’t take action or at least not an obvious one, perhaps when waiting for exam results. It might seem that all you can do is worry. The bad news is, putting yourself in what can feel like a permanent state of worry can result in anxiety and won’t turn that fail into a pass. But all is not lost, planning for the worst whilst hoping for the best is sensible, coming up with a plan that is achievable can remove the pressure, leaving the feeling that even if you do fail there is a way forward and you can do something about it.

We can end with another quote from Winston Churchill who I am sure had a few worries in his time.

Let our advance worrying become advance thinking and planning

Exam resits – getting back on the horse

resit

Failing an exam is not something people plan for but it happens. In fact, I have blogged about it many times because at some point almost all students will have to deal with it. The overriding message is that you should learn from your mistakes and move forward. There are two parts to this, firstly learn from your mistakes, after all you don’t want to make the same ones again, secondly pick yourself up and put together a plan that will take you towards your goal of passing.

Failures, repeated failures, are finger posts on the road to achievement. One fails forward toward success. C. S. Lewis

In the exam world after failure comes the resit, another exam on the same subject sat at some point in the future. But what are the stages in between, how best should you study for an exam that you have already sat and might have only narrowly failed.

Emotional reaction

Imagine the email has arrived and you have failed, as with other challenging situations there are any number of different emotions you might experience. These will depend to some extent on your judgement as to how well the exam itself went. If you didn’t make any huge mistakes, were not fazed by many of the questions and completed them all, you were in with a chance. As a result, you might be shocked, angry, disappointed, frustrated and then you will begin to think about the implications, sitting the exam again, how much time it will take, the costs, having to tell people etc. If on the other hand you thought the exam had gone badly, the result simply confirms you were right. That said the email has taken away that small hope you might have been wrong or in some way fluked it, after all exams have gone badly before and you passed them, so why not again.

Either way, eventually you will end up in the same situation and need the best approach to sit the exam again.

The best approach

  • Mindset

A mindset is little more than a series of assumptions and beliefs that lead to an opinion. What’s important here is to recognise that they are only assumptions. Carol Dwecks work around Fixed and Growth mindsets provide us with evidence as to the importance of having the right mindset and how best to think about it. Dweck argues that students who believe their abilities are carved in stone, intelligence fixed and failure not just a setback but proof of your ability, will find it very difficult to move forward. Alternatively, those with a growth mindset believe they can improve, that intelligence is not fixed, (brain plasticity) and that failure is something to learn from will be in a far better position to learn from their mistakes and try again.

The difference between average people and achieving people is their perception of and response to failure. John C. Maxwell

Failing an exam is a fact, why you failed and what caused that are often assumptions. The secret here is to revisit your assumptions, what you think they mean and change the negative mindset to a positive one. It is very easy to think you are fooling yourself, this is not about putting a positive spin on a set of poor results, if you didn’t do enough work telling yourself it will be better next time will achieve little. The positive mindset here is to recognise that working harder will give you a better chance of passing which of course it will.

Another reframe is to take the advice of the famous behaviourist B.F Skinner, a failure is not always a mistake, it may simply be the best one can do under the circumstances.

  • Learning from your mistakes

Rather than making emotional assumptions as to why you failed far better to spend that energy figuring out what exactly caused the failure. Was it for example lack of work, be honest, was there one area or topic that you simply had no idea what to do, did you run out of time?

Examiners reports and where possible script reviews can be very helpful. One word of caution, script reviews are not remarking exercises. They are there to provide personal feedback on your exam performance. Also, in professional examinations they can be expensive, are not always returned promptly and can sometimes offer little more than what is said in the examiner’s report.

If a script review is not available you could sit the exam again but this time in the comfort of your own home. The purpose here is to provide some insight as to what went wrong, it’s better if you can get your answer marked by a third party, this doesn’t have to be an expert e.g. teacher but it will help. Don’t worry that you will know the answers, think about this in the same way that the police reconstruct a crime, its to give you insight. Not knowing what you did wrong makes it very difficult to do something differently next time.

  • Studying

Firstly, remember you have done this all before, you have a base knowledge of this subject, you’re not starting from scratch. This means you will already have materials, revision notes and a bank of past questions. If you don’t then the good news is you now know exactly what to do!

Past papers – analyse what came up in your exam and add the findings to your existing analysis of past papers. With objective tests or where getting past papers is not possible try and think was there anything different in terms of style, complexity etc.

Revision notes – Although you will have an existing set of notes, it’s a good idea to start with a clean sheet of paper and rewrite them. By all means use your existing notes as a template or guide but re-reading your old revision notes is not particularly effective. You might also want to consider an alternative note taking style for example mind maps.

New question bank – as with revision notes you will also have a book of past questions, get a clean copy e.g. one with no workings or writing in the margin. This is a mindset trick; a clean copy will make each question feel new. Also consider buying or borrowing a completely different set of questions.

Timetable – having a timetable was important last time, its essential for a resit because you are more likely to have limited time available so need to maximise what you do have.

All that remains is for me to wish you the best of luck with the resit and take note of what Zig Ziglar said – failure is an event, not a person.

The learning brain

Brain 5

There are a number of books that not only taught me something but helped shape the way I think and opened up a whole new world. One such book was Mapping the Mind by Rita Carter, not as you might imagine a book about mind mapping but the Brain. Rita Carter is a science journalist rather than a neuroscientist and understands that it’s not about what she knows but what she can explain.

Having a better understanding of how the brain works will help do far more than improve your grades in a biology exam, you will develop insight as to why something works not only that it does. As a result, you can be confident you are using the most effective brain friendly learning techniques.

The infrastructure Brain 2
Rita Carter provides us with an excellent description of the brain, that it is as big as a coconut, the shape of a walnut, the colour of uncooked liver and consistency of firm jelly.

Imagine a cross section of the brain, taken from the side, alternatively look at the diagram opposite.

The cerebrum or cortex is the largest part of the human brain and is associated with higher brain function such as thought and action. It is divided into four sections.

  • Frontal lobe – associated with reasoning, planning, some speech, movement, emotions, and problem solving
  • Parietal Lobe – associated with movement, orientation, recognition, perception of stimuli
  • Occipital Lobe – associated with visual processing
  • Temporal Lobe – associated with perception and recognition of auditory stimuli, memory, and speech

The cerebellum coordinates movements such as posture, balance, and speech. Next to this is the brain stem, which includes the medulla and pons. These are the older parts of the brain and evolved over 500 million years ago. In fact, if you touch the back of your head and bring your hand forward over the top towards your nose, this effectively maps the ages in which the brain developed.

The Limbic system is largely associated with emotions but contains the hippocampus which is essential for long term memory and learning.

Synaptic gap – Cells that fire together wire together (Hebbian theory)
Although learning is complex, a large amount takes place in the limbic system because this is where the hippocampus sits. Here our memories are catalogued to be filed away in long-term storage across other parts of the cerebral cortex.

What comes next is important because it’s here within the hippocampus where neurons connect across what is called the synaptic gap that learning arguably begins. Synaptic transmission is the process whereby a neuron sends an electrical message, the result of a stimulus across the synaptic gap to another neuron that is waiting to receive it. The neuron’s never touch, the gap is filled by chemicals referred to as neurotransmitters examples of which include dopamine and serotonin. These are often referred to as the body’s chemical messengers.

Learning is making new connections, remembering is keeping them

When the stimulus is repeated the relationship between the neurons becomes stronger and so a memory is formed and learning has taken place. The whole process is called long term potentiation (LTP).

How does this help?
All a bit technical perhaps but very important as it explains so much. It is the reason that repetition is so valuable, for example, if you are reading something and it’s not going in, you need to fire those neurons again but perhaps using different stimulus. Try saying it out loud or drawing a picture alongside the text.

Don’t forget the blog I wrote in January 2018 that explained brain plasticity and how the brain changes as those new neural connections are made, a process called Neurogenesis.

The neurotransmitters, those chemicals released to fill the synaptic gap are also important as each one is different. For example, in addition to making you feel good, it’s likely that when you feel anxious your brain is releasing high levels of serotonin.

Although it’s fair to say there is still much we don’t understand about the brain, I  hope the blog has helped remove some of the mystery of learning, it’s not a magical process but a scientific one.

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Dedicated to my dog Jack – our family dog and best friend