We tried to briefly summarise the key issues we discussed in our workshop below. All resources used in the session can be downloaded from www.innovativeICT.net.
Create learning that ‘sticks’ at GCSE
A Year 10 student told us a horrific story about several people being seriously injured at a water park in Portugal. On holiday they learned about people going to hospital with deep cuts caused by razor blades stuck to the walls of waterslides with bubble gum. You’ve might have heard this urban legend too. It is absolutely 100% urban legend. Yet everyone seems to know it. It’s an idea that has stuck. Don’t you wish that the finer workings Renaissance Medicine or Weimar Government were recalled by students as easily as these silly ideas?
This seminar will open up a discussion and provide strategies for making KS4 more memorable and engaging – teaching that is ‘sticky’ and stays in the head of students. Using six clear principles, we aim to show how GCSE units can be developed and enhanced to create a more memorable learning experience.
Two big questions needs to be addressed by teachers each lesson:
• What’s the point of the lesson?
• Why should it matter – will it matter to the students?
It may seem obvious to many but it can be easy to forget when you have taught the same topic for several years. Why should they care that V. Frankl lost his manuscript on psychological well-being; that A bag of butter popcorn contains 37 grams of fat; that Einstein’s theory of relativity does not mean that everything is relative or that the skills of communication and synthesis are probably the most important skills they need in life? Those are fair questions. If we cannot provide a good enough explanation then what is the point?
Some lessons seem to ‘stick’ in students memories more than others, why? If we think about it, some information, facts, ‘knowledge’ is inherently interesting, whilst some will be inherently uninteresting. The million-dollar question is of course how we can ensure that all (or at least most – let’s be realistic!) lessons stick. For example, how do we get students to care about being healthy; relate to life in Warsaw ghetto in 1943; get them to really understand the notion of a mathematical function?
The brothers Chip and Dan Heath have explored the idea why some messages stick and why some disappear. They argue that the main reason why people, such as teachers, fail to create effective and memorable – ’sticky’ – lessons is because what they call ‘The Curse of Knowledge’. This refers to the notion that educators and presenters of information sometimes fail to see that abstractions, the wealth of knowledge which they have and which makes sense to them, may not make sense to the students. If you try playing the ‘tappers and listeners’ game you will quickly see how this problem could make it difficult to teach students:
Think of a tune, say Penny Lane, then tap the song using your hands on a table to another person – the ‘listener’. They now have to guess which tune you have in your head based on the rhythm being tapped. If you tried this with another person you will see that they cannot guess what song you were tapping. Research at Stanford University, USA, discovered that tappers predicted that 50% of listener would be successful in guessing their tune. In fact, only 2.5% of listeners guessed correctly. Why did this happen? According to the Heath brothers ‘the problem is that tappers have been given knowledge (the song title) that makes it impossible for them to know what it is like to lack that knowledge’, so the isolated taps that are so clear to the tapper make little sense to the listener . As teachers we are particularly good at combating this problem and we do so everyday. However, there are still aspects of this challenge, areas of our subjects, which we may find difficult to deal with so that students can conceptualise, comprehend or be able to retain what we teach them. If we are to ensure that our lessons become memorable and therefore ’sticky’, according to the authors, we need to consider six simple principles:
Some of these may seem fairly obvious to some (maybe you?). However, it is worth examining them in detail. Let us take a look at a few examples.
What is the core that students need to understand, the golden nugget, and how can you ensure they understand it? If you think about the topic ‘Titanic’ issues such as inequalities, poverty and social despair might surface. However, if you start the first in a series of lessons investigating the socio-economic problems of late Victorian period, you might see the enthusiastic spark disappear in many of the students’ faces. The core is of course social inequalities, but how will you reach the students? Titanic sank two hours and forty minutes after setting sail and 1,517 people died most of them from the working class. Why? Simple.
This one seems fairly obvious. Suppose you shock them with a terrifying story or image…that is unexpected, but that does not give them the key ingredient which they seek: insight. Instead, get the students’ interest by stimulating their curiosity through showing them there is a gap in their knowledge – how will it turn out? What is the answer? Using Thinking Skills mysteries in the classroom will achieve just that. There are lots of fantastic examples of how effective these can be, some of which are mentioned in this book (see p. xx-xx for an example of how they can be used in Modern Foreign Languages) and some which are published online.
Students’ experience of education can become abstract particularly during transition phases such as the beginning of their GCSE and A-Level, or when new units of work commence. Therefore, it is crucial that we make our messages, why it matters, clear to our students. In 1992, Art Silverman came across a situation where he had to make a seemingly abstract problem concrete which the general public would understand and remember. He worked for a charity which sought to educate the public about nutrition. He had been asked to inform people about the dangers of eating traditional cinema popcorn as a medium sized bag contained 37 grams of saturated fat. Such a statement would obviously change people’s cinema habits no doubt – ‘no more popcorn for me! The reality was of course much different. Eating this amount of fat is clearly very bad for you but the message was not concrete enough for anyone to really understand that it was dangerous. Silverman had a light-bulb moment. The charity called a press conference in which he explained:
A medium-sized ‘butter’ popcorn at a typical neighborhood movie theatre contains more artery-clogging fat than a bacon and eggs breakfast, a Big Mac and fries for lunch, and a steak dinner with all the trimmings-combined!
Making sure that students believe what you tell them generally is not a problem. Some research has suggested, however, that students more readily trust online material before teachers. Therefore, testing hypothesis is an important part of exam classes learning so they understand that ‘facts’ vary from source to source. If you asked students to decide which source of information is the most trust worthy which one would they choose Encyclopaedia Britannica or Wikipedia? Would they even trust information from Wikipedia? Research was carried out which compared the validity, the credibility, of Encyclopaedia Britannica (which costs to subscribe to) and Wikipedia (which is free). Interestingly, there was very little difference in the content both resources provided. By giving them the challenge to test a problem, students are more ready to believe as they are in fact assessing its credibility and make an internal judgment about its trustworthiness.
If we had time we could customise every example we gave to ensure students relate to our messages e.g. adding their names and names of their friends to maths examples. This would of course be next to impossible. Instead we need to try to give them more general examples without losing the opportunity for them to care. As a history teacher in Britain we have to, and rightly should, teach about the Holocaust. This is one example of how one school started the unit:
Question 1. How many people were killed during the Holocaust in the 1940s?
- 1 million
- 4 million
- 6 million
- 19 million
How far do you think students were able to relate to this tragic period in history? Not far. In fact, how could they relate to the deaths of more than six million Jews at all? Here is another example:
Fill a page with dots (full stops size 20, bold) and you will have approx. 600 dots and photocopy it 10 ten times. Give students a small piece of paper (no more than 2×2 cm) and ask them to draw one small dot for every person they know. Explain that most people probably have between 15-30 people they know incl. classmates, neighbours, family and friends, and that as a class you have about 600 people you know. If you put together everyone from school you will probably have several 1000s. Now scatter the A4 sheets across the classroom, nonchalantly, and explain that these sheets contain 6000 dots (names of people) and that in order to get the full extent of the number of people murdered you need to multiply this by 1000. Penny tends to drop after that.
We have come to know man as he really is. After all, man is that being who invented the gas chambers of Auschwitz; however, he is also that being who entered those gas chambers upright, with the Lord’s prayer or the Shema Yisrael on his lips.
Do you remember what Frankl lost, which was mentioned at the start of this section? Maybe, possibly not. If we had told you the following story then you probably would have remembered:Victor Frankl and his wife were arrested together with hundreds of other Jews in 1942, Vienna, Austria. Unbeknown to many, Frankl had developed a new theory of psychological well-being. Both he and his wife had anticipated what would happen to them so they had sewn the manuscript of the book he was writing into the lining of his coat. Victor and his wife Tilly were later transported to Auschwitz and the manuscript was eventually found and destroyed. Frankl began re-writing his work from scratch on bits of paper and he had to endure the death of his entire family – his wife, brother, mother and father all died in the concentration camp. When the allies liberated his camp in 1946 he had completed what was to become one of the most influential books of all time according to the New York Times – A Man’s Search for Meaning.
We know that planning all lessons based on a series of principles may not be possible all the time. However, by considering these ideas, coupled with lashings of our own creativity, we can produce powerful, purposeful lessons which contain enriching tasks that will ensure skills and learning progression for all classes.
Please visit www.innnovativeICT.net to download resources used in the session and for links to videos we used.
We hope everyone who attended found it to be an interesting session
Johannes and Neal
Edited by ahrenfelt, 07 July 2009 - 08:49 AM.
Fixing the hyperlinks