Building a teaching and learning policy from a single idea: The genius of Prof. Daniel Willingham

I’ve recently been reading “Why don’t children like school?” by the incredibly insightful Professor Daniel T. Willingham. It’s amazing! I wish I had read it years ago. While there are lots of ideas that I am now familiar with, through CogSciSci and reading other books and blogs, it’s great to read Professor Willingham’s perspective on these things.

Professor Willingham is famous for what I regard as the most important sentence in a education:

Over the last 18 months my eyes have been opened to the true extent of this sentence.

In the summer term I began to work with my department to evaluate our teaching and learning policy. I was inspired by a conversation with Matthew Benyohai about the concept of principles vs practice. As a department we tried to discuss the various principles that we think should permeate our teaching. When we came to discuss the practices we used, it became clear that we had some differing and strong feelings about which practices were best.

This is a complex issue in education. Often we move towards the concept of homogeneity as a way of controlling the quality of teaching. I think this is often done with good intentions: reducing teacher workload and ensuring an efficient use of curriculum time. One of the unintended consequences can be a shackling of teachers, stifling their chances to develop their own pedagogical approaches and have ownership of their development.

My way of trying to tread this fine line is to agree a list of common principles with my department. I also share what I consider to be best practice, be it my own (BIGHEAD!), those of edutwitter, or teachers within the department. When it comes to resources I provide central resources through our scheme of work (booklets mainly) but staff will be free to use them how they wish.

The more I think about Willingham’s quote the more I realise that that is the principle around which all my decisions have revolved.

As I unpick the sentence it seems to seamlessly justify the changes I have made to my teaching and my vision for where I want the department to go.

The implications of “memory is the residue of thought”:

  1. Students remember what they think the most about
  2. Teachers need to do all they can to make students think about the right stuff as often as possible

The principles of teaching and learning that this creates:

Regular retrieval practice: I’m sure all of us do this now. One of my department’s principles for this year is that this should be used in every lesson. How it is done might vary. I will provide knowledge organisers and retrieval roulettes to reduce workload and provide a scaffold.

Keep the science the main thing: This is to do with planning for engagement. We will try to avoid ‘jazzing up’ the content in ways which distract from the important information. This has wide-ranging implications beyond the classic “Harry Potter potions lesson”;

  • Framing content around the students’ interests seems like a good idea, but it’s not. It runs the risk of making them think more about the window dressing. Writing a Facebook page for Charles Darwin and Jean-Baptiste Lamark risks the students spending more time thinking about Facebook than evolution.
  • Practical demonstrations need to be carefully considered. I would love to blow something up every lesson. However, we have to consider carefully ‘what will the students be thinking about?’ We need to choose demos which illustrate concepts in the lesson. A example of good intentions gone wrong can be found in Bob Pritchard’s blog.
  • Class practical work also needs to be considered carefully. Practical work is great for student engagement. Ask any student what they want to do in science and they will say “more practical”. We need to consider what the students will be thinking about during the practical. If we try and use a discovery learning approach then chances are they will be spending more time thinking about the instructions and not the science (as they don’t know it yet). Practical work is best chosen to embed concepts taught and to practise clearly defined practical skills. We have these mapped out at KS3 so we can be precise with each practical’s purpose.

Avoiding distractions in the classroom: There are huge implications for classroom management in this idea. One of the most difficult is that sometimes as teachers we distract our students. Here are two common ways it happens:

  1. We tell a long-winded anecdote. They do provide a useful teaching aid (more on that later), but as soon as the students spend more time thinking about ‘Uncle Jimmy and the skateboard’ instead of friction then we have sabotaged our aim.
  2. We spend too long building relationships by talking about football, Love Island, older siblings you taught or telling jokes. I love a good joke in class. They are a captive audience and their attention and polite laughter is addictive. BUT I NEED TO DIAL IT DOWN. It’s getting in the way of them thinking about the science. So I need to pick my spots and my time. I need to accept that it’s not about what makes me feel good, it’s what they need to be their best. On threshold and break duty are perfect times. In the middle of independent practice time is not.

This doesn’t mean teachers should go out of their way to be monotonous robots or miserable old hags. We should aim to hit that sweet spot of warmth and politeness without doing more harm than good. Students perform best when they feel like the teacher is a decent person, with their best interest at heart, but also capable of organising the knowledge delivered in the most effective way. In the end it’s the teacher’s effectiveness that builds the strongest relationship.

Use storytelling structure in our explanations: This might seem like a contradiction from what I’ve just written above. The reason it’s so important to avoid long-winded anecdotes is because stories are easier to remember than anything else for the brain. Instead we need to make the science the story. Willingham suggests the following four aspects of a stories structure:

  • Causality: Things have to matter and have consequences
  • Conflict: There has to be an opposition to provide challenge
  • Complications: It’s not an easy path
  • Characters: There has to be ways of identifying the different things in the story and their qualities.

I’m not 100% sure all these things can be done for the entire science syllabus without over-complicating things. But, there are some areas which teaching in this structure would be hugely valuable. Dr Bill Wilkinson has written up his fascinating talk at the CogSciSci conference this year here.

Homework makes sense: Our homework needs to encourage the students to think about the content at a later date, encouraging spaced practice. We mainly use knowledge organiser quizzes and SLOP questions

Be mindful of cognitive load theory: We need to avoid overloading the working memory when delivering new information. This is a key principle that might involve considering:

  • Chunking
  • Organising information by activating prior knowledge
  • Dual coding
  • Faded examples
  • SLOP
  • I, We, You and other modelling strategies
  • Concrete examples

I think by anchoring all we do on this one simple, but profound, idea we can maintain a set of shared principles whilst preserving professional autonomy. I’m hoping this will help all my department follow me on this journey to improved learning for our students.

To ensure clarity I also have a policy about the ‘nuts and bolts’ of teaching in terms of which syllabus, scheme of work and assessment etc. should be used. These all feed into our marking and feedback policy.

This blog does not discuss classroom climate and behaviour, which are hugely important. Clearly there are large overlaps. I feel there is a lot of good writing on behaviour and climate, some examples are here, here and here.

3 thoughts on “Building a teaching and learning policy from a single idea: The genius of Prof. Daniel Willingham

Add yours

  1. My trick for success has been down to not being too good. I was at a Science Fair as 3 brilliant presenters did everything right but in the breaks in between there appeared to be more important learning.

    In conclusion if I explain/etc something badly no worries


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