Review each lesson plan in terms of what the student is likely to think about

Last week Dan T Willingham was mentioned in the UK media quite a few times. Willingham is a cognitive psychologist at the University of Virginia whose research focuses on the ‘application of cognitive psychology to K-12 education’.

Last week, Michael Gove praised Willingham’s work in a speech. The Guardian wrote up this speech in an article here, and Minette Marrin of the Sunday Times wrote about it last Sunday too. Willingham responded to Gove’s speech here.

Here at The Curriculum Centre we are delighted that policy makers and the media are taking Willingham’s work seriously. Our curriculum reform work is heavily influenced by the research Willingham summarises in Why Don’t Students Like School. Teachers at Pimlico Academy (one of the schools we work with) were issued with copies of this book over a year ago. In this post from last January, I wrote that:

This is what I love about modern research into cognition. Reading it is like the moment when you read the end of a well-constructed detective story and go ‘Ah! Of course! That’s how it all fits together.’ Modern research in cognitive psychology offers a convincing theoretical framework that seems to me to make sense of so many of the apparently baffling things my students do.

Willingham’s work, and that of other cognitive psychologists, has given me much greater insight into how my pupils learn and as a result has led to me transforming my teaching practice. Let me give one example of this.

In Why Don’t Students Like School, Willingham says that ‘the most general and useful idea that cognitive psychology can offer teachers’ is to ‘review each lesson plan in terms of what the student is likely to think about’. I could not agree more. Last year I applied this idea to every single lesson I taught, and I apply it now to all the resources I design. It may sound obvious but it was not something I did before I read Willingham, and it absolutely was not something that my teacher training taught me to think about.

Students are more likely to remember something they’ve had to think about – or, in another of Willingham’s phrases, memory is the residue of thought. So we need to make sure that students are thinking about the right thing for the whole lesson. That way there is a better chance they will remember it. This approach also eliminates dull rote-learning. If pupils are always thinking about the right thing and thinking about its meaning, then they are more likely to remember it, and to remember it meaningfully.

Willingham gives a couple of examples of lessons where pupils are not thinking about what you want them to.

A teacher once told me that for a fourth-grade unit on the Underground Railroad he had his students bake biscuits because this was a staple food for runaway slaves…I pointed out that his students probably thought for forty seconds about the relationship of biscuits to the Underground Railroad, and for forty minutes about measuring flour, mixing shortening, and so on.

Here is a history lesson which was supposed to be about the Spanish Civil War.

The teacher took students to a computer laboratory to do research on the internet. The students in one group noticed that PowerPoint was loaded on the computers, and they were very enthusiastic about using it to teach their bit to the other groups. The teacher was impressed by their initiative and gave his permission. Soon all of the groups were using PowerPoint. Many students had some familiarity with the basics of the program, so it could have been used effectively. The problem was that the students changed the assignment from ‘learn about the Spanish Civil War’ to ‘learn esoteric features of PowerPoint’. There was still a lot of enthusiasm in the room, but it was directed toward using animation, integrating videos, finding unusual fonts, and so on.

I’ve certainly taught a lesson like that PowerPoint one, and I am sure many other teachers will have similar experiences.

Before I read Willingham, I used to teach a unit called ‘Writing Skills’. The aim of this unit was to get pupils to improve their writing skills. By writing skills, I meant things like correct punctuation, paragraphing, sentence structure and spelling. The aim was for pupils to learn the rules of how to use capital letters, commas, full stops, apostrophes, etc., and to apply such rules properly. In order to achieve this aim, the pupils needed to be thinking about capital letters, commas, full stops, apostrophes, etc., for most of the lesson.

However, the activities I chose for these lessons meant they were not thinking about these things. I designed the unit so that it was organised around a project. The project was called ‘The Village’. Each pupil had to be a character in a made-up village. They worked in groups and each group was a family in this village. There were activities on defining a family, defining a community, and on filling in a questionnaire about their made-up character. It wasn’t until week three of this six week project that I even mentioned actual writing skills. They had done some writing before this, of course, but the aim of the writing hadn’t been to improve their writing skills – it had been to think about this village project. From week three onwards, I did include some specific activities on capital letters, commas and sentence structure. But these activities were always starter activities and never took up more than 15 minutes of an hour-long lesson. The main part of the lesson always involved something to do with the village. I remember one particularly distracting lesson that was meant to have a starter on the apostrophe and then a main part of the lesson on the news that the local MP wanted to cut down an ancient tree at the heart of the village. I remember that at the end of the lesson there was a highly distracting argument about which pupil would get to cut down the tree and whether they would use a chainsaw or an axe. The poor old apostrophe was lost in the confusion. The problem here is that I had taught an entire 6 weeks’ worth of lessons that were supposed to be about writing skills. But in reality, the pupils had actually thought about writing skills for perhaps 15% of that lesson time. They’d spent most of the time thinking about the made-up village. And as memory is the residue of thought, when you asked them at the end of the 6 weeks what they’d learnt, they’d generally say something about their made-up family, or the made-up village, or the axe or chainsaw. They had certainly learnt something. But they hadn’t learnt what I had intended them to learn, and what they had learnt was of questionable value.

Since reading Willingham, I have radically revamped that Writing Skills unit. There is now no made-up village and no made-up people. Each lesson deals with a particular aspect of written accuracy. Some aspects get more than one lesson. I’ve sequenced the topics logically so that they build on each other. The pupils are always thinking about the aim of the lesson, and as a result they are much better at recalling and applying the content of the lesson.

How prevalent are projects like my old ‘village’ project? That is, was this just a case of me being an awful teacher? If this were just a case of me being awful, I would be delighted. However, I fear it isn’t. First of all, I didn’t get the idea of the ‘village’ project from nowhere – this is the way I and my fellow trainees were encouraged to teach. Secondly, a glance at some of the lessons which are praised by Ofsted will show you that such distracting projects abound in English schools.