Making learning ‘stick’

My basic teaching philosophy

In my teaching, I always seek to facilitate learning and increase independence. I like to promote teamwork within the class and I like pupils to have the opportunity to learn for themselves, not just find out answers when I stand at the front of the room and tell them. After all, what’s the point in that?

In order to do this successfully and avoid passive learning, you have to provide the right environment and resources. We live in a technological world and the current pupils we teach are all too happy to simply ask the web for the answer to a problem without really thinking for themselves. Whilst I am not in any way against technology (I am head of computing and am a keen advocate for the use of technology in lessons), I want pupils to at least have the chance to think for themselves, communicate with their peers and attempt to solve problems before asking Google.

An example of making learning ‘stick’ in a primary history lesson

In one activity I taught this week, I wanted my class to order the main periods in British history from the Bronze Age to the current day. I could have just given them a sheet with this information on, but what would the likelihood be of any of them being able to recall these facts later on that day, let alone next week? Highly unlikely I thought!

So instead, this is how I carried out this activity that meant that at the end of the week, they were able to recall these facts:

  1. Each group were given a set of historical period cards.
  2. I gave them a period of time to discuss with their group the order they thought the cards belonged in.
  3. Each table ordered the cards after coming to a consensus with the members of their group.
  4. I asked each group which time period they believed was first and last. We found that we had a consensus here – a good start!
  5. I then asked which period came after the Bronze Age – here we had vastly differing opinions amongst the groups.
  6. At this point, rather than giving them the correct order, I gave each group a tablet computer and an extended period of time to find the correct order. This encouraged teamwork and those who worked effectively with their peers ended up with more cards in the correct order than those who had struggled. (If you don’t have access to computers, the information could be provided in the form of text books or information from the web printed and placed around the classroom.) Whilst some pupils chose to search each time period individually, those who chose to search instead for an online timeline of these periods found the answers to their problems more speedily.
  7. Once the time was up, we went through the order together as a class. Those who had any cards in the wrong places were encouraged to move the cards around so as to have a full set of cards in the correct order.

The pupils enjoyed this activity and several days later, when I asked them to recall the correct order, collectively they were able to do this.

By creating activities that are memorable and involve discussion with peers and pupils actively participating in the learning, it makes sense that the learning ‘sticks’.

Promoting teamwork during activities

One of my favourite tools to do this is the Class Dojo app – an online reward system. I edit the rewards to promote teamwork and make sure that the app is visible on my board during these types of activities. Additionally, I use raffle tickets to reward characteristics of learning, such as teamwork or independence, depending on its suitability to the activity.

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Using apps to improve writing and increase engagement

Epic Citadel
Epic Citadel
Riven
The sunners in Riven

Tim Ryland’s blog contains so many links to wonderful websites and apps. From here I learnt of the fantastic apps, Epic Citadel and Machinarium, in addition to Riven. These are fantastic ways of boosting writing skills and engagement. Pupils love to explore the worlds and are then able to use this inspiration to significantly improve the quality of their writing.

For children who spend so much of their time playing computer games and are able to relate easily to them, I would recommend the use of apps and games as a way of encouraging normally disengaged pupils. If you have a group of boys, whose writing is a concern, you may find (as I did) that their increased engagement has a major impact on their writing quality.

Epic Citadel

epic citadel appI built upon Tim’s ideas from his blog, and we used this app to focus on narrative writing. Pupils loved to walk around the empty city. It provoked questions about where the people had gone and it certainly stirred pupils’ imaginations.

This was a fantastic app to develop vocabulary and write descriptions of settings. I took screenshots from different places around Epic Citadel and pupils used thesauruses and word banks to gather language to use in their writing. We also developed our sentence structure using some of Alan Peat’s exciting sentences, so that we not only had a bank of great vocabulary to use but a bank of sentences to adapt and include in our writing. This was a fantastic way of scaffolding their writing and enabling all pupils to work towards improving their writing.

Riven

I built upon @GnuBee’s unit of work that had originally been used in a writing booster class to boost pupils from a Level 4 to a Level 5. We focused on different text types and included the following:

  • A description based on initial exploration of the islands.
  • An advert for a pod house.
  • A mystery story based around going through a gate on Jungle Island.
  • Instructions informing visitors how to operate the transportation system, the MagLev.
  • A non-chronological report based around the history and features of the MagLev.
  • A non-chronological report about the creatures on the island, known as sunners.
  • A complaint letter sent to the island after visiting and standards were not up to scratch.
  • Diary entries (before and after) about moving to Riven

All tasks were adapted from past SATs writing tasks. As the SATs writing test is no more, I decided to elevate the status of this writing topic to make it more of a project and I gave each pupil a brand new book to complete their work in. Here is my tube map learning journey that I created (Riven Learning Journey to map our way through our Riven project

Example of a learning journey
Riven Learning Journey

The quality of the work that was produced was fantastic.

Machinarium

machinarium-wallpaper-cover-1280x1024This is a lovely app with great artwork, based around a little robot in a steampunk world. We explored the start of the game together so that we were able to gather ideas and vocabulary about how the robot moved.

I used this app with a mixed Year 5 and Year 6 group of children as part of a blogging story writing project.

We began by looking at images of the landscapes within the game (I had a series of screenshots). I had A3 sheets of paper around the room with different images in the centre of each page. The class moved between the different images to gather vocabulary and phrases for each of the images that they wrote around the images. We kept all of their ideas for future lessons so that they could use any that they wanted to. We later did the same with images of the robots features in the game. I provided word banks with adjectives and adverbs, as well as thesauruses for pupils to refer to.

Firstly pupils wrote a setting description. The second writing project was a character description. We next used Talk4Writing story mapping techniques to plan out the quest narrative. The final part of the writing project was to write the story on the blog. We promoted the writing on our school Twitter account and encouraged other classes to read their writing and post comments. The group of bloggers also self-assessed and peer-assessed their writing on the blog.

How I structure writing projects, built upon Talk 4 Writing principles:

  • Explore the app
  • Gather vocabulary, phrases and sentences in pairs or groups
  • ‘Magpie’ ideas individually to ensure all pupils have a bank of ideas
  • ‘Cold writing’ of a specific text type
  • Look at examples of the text type and explore features
  • Story mapping including annotations of ideas already gathered
  • ‘Red hot writing’ (writing after having explored the text type) alongside a checklist of the features of the text type
  • Self-assess and peer-assess (use checklists)
  • Self-assess and peer-assess using WWW, EBI and Next Steps

Using QR code to increase engagement

The children we teach are constantly surrounded by technology. They are used to finding out instantly what they want to know at the touch of a button, as most of them will have a smart phone or tablet to hand. QR (quick response) codes can be used effectively to engage pupils, who may prefer to engage with their phones and social media as opposed to their work, especially for homework.qrcode

Some teachers may find the idea of introducing QR codes into their teaching as daunting, or perhaps even unnecessary, but when you consider how easy they are to generate, combined with the high interest from pupils that they generate, I would recommend their implementation as a fantastic way of increasing engagement in learning.

What are QR codes?

A QR code is like a bar code and it contains information. You can easily generate your own to show information you want them to see. When they are scanned by someone (a pupil) that information will be displayed to them.

How QR codes can be used:

There are plenty of websites that allow you to create your own QR codes. I use http://goqr.me/ but there are many other alternatives.

I tend to use QR codes in two ways: to take a pupil to a website and to display a piece of text.

You can add printed QR codes to your displays to link to class blogs or additional information. Additionally, they can be used as a way of increasing engagement and communication with parents by displaying QR links to topics being studied in class. You could send home printed QR codes of these topics to parents if your classroom environment or school routines (e.g. maybe parents don’t wait by the classroom to collect their child) prevent you being able to display the QR codes in a place easily accessible to parents.

QR codes in lessons:

If you are fortunate enough to have access to a class set of iPads or tablets, or your school allows pupils to use their own devices, then a simple QR scanner app would mean that you could introduce QR codes into your lessons, instantly making them seem more appealing to pupils. You could be setting what could be seen by many as a fairly mundane task, e.g. answering questions, but the technology element would elevate its interest to your pupils.

You may have heard of QR treasure hunts, where pupils answer questions from QR codes around the school. Websites like this: http://www.classtools.net/QR/ make a QR treasure hunt an easy lesson to organise. The most time-consuming element would probably be putting the QR codes up around the school! Adding a small incentive for completing the task first, (e.g. house points, raffle tickets or something that fits in with your own school’s behaviour system) you may find that pupils who would normally struggle to complete tasks, will be more successful in this activity due to its competitive nature and the added element of moving around the school.

QR codes for homework:

You can use QR codes in a similar way to how you would in a lesson. One way would be to give them a sheet with printed QR codes that lead to questions being displayed. They then bring their answers back to school or write them on an answer sheet that you provide them with.

I find that pupils are much more likely to visit a website that I provide to them in the form of a QR code, than as a URL. You avoid typos this way and the time spent in accessing the homework is reduced (something that will also appeal to your pupils!).

Sometimes I produce a sheet of QR codes that lead to additional websites that aren’t necessary to complete the task but are related to the topic we are learning about. I find pupils are more likely to engage with this additional information when they can scan it on their smart phone and browse at their leisure than if I give them a list of websites. If you provide a list of websites, pupils will have an idea from the URL what it is you are asking them to access. However, if you provide a sheet of QR codes with no additional information about where they lead, they will be far more likely to visit all of them, therefore engaging with far more material than they might initially choose to.

Flipped or blended learning

If you are in an environment where you are able ‘flip the classroom’ (supportive parents, engaged children, home access to internet etc.), you may find the use of QR codes a useful tool.

You could generate QR codes that link to videos, photographs, websites or texts and if not providing a hard copy of these to your pupils, you could always add the QR codes to your school’s VLE (if you have one) so that they are stored for future use.

Use of computers / tablets for research in lessons

SurfaceA few years ago, I attended an INSET with Chris Moyse (@ChrisMoyse) about independent learning. One of the things I took from it was the use of computers for research within lessons (I think pupils had been asked to find specific answers to questions). In the scenario given, pupils had to find answers to a range of questions in the context of a Science lesson and given the opportunity, pupils would go straight to the computer instead of accessing the other resources provided to find answers. Their skills when it came to the effective use of a search engine were slightly lacking and as a result, pupils who had opted to use the other resources provided (printed information and books) were far more successful in the task.

A great focus in my teaching is in creating an environment that benefits and encourages independent learning, and in facilitating learning, without me constantly standing at the front talking at pupils.

I am fortunate in that I have access to tablet computers for use in class, without having to relocate to a computer room. Bearing in mind what I learnt from Chris, in research-based lessons, I provide a range of resources (books, printed information, sometimes a list of websites etc.) but I also provide access to a few (2 or 3) tablet computers. Whilst sometimes I find that it is beneficial to provide each group with one or more tablets, in the type of lesson I refer to, I limit the time pupils can access the tablets for to a 5 minute period. (I provide stopwatches for timing, and if the IWB isn’t needed for other uses, I have the number of interactive stopwatches that I have tablet computers displayed on the board). This means that all pupils in the class are aware when they can access the internet if they choose to. They write their names down on the board so there is an obvious order to the computer time, and groups can decide whether or not the use of the computer is beneficial to them. I often find that pupils initially opt for the internet, but soon find that their time is more effectively spent finding out the information in other ways.