My interest in the idea of sharing pedagogical purposes comes directly with the contact I have had with the Project for Enhancing Effective Learning at Monash University in Australia. Now each of these teachers were very active in establishing learning agendas with their classes. The impact they were having was inspiring. Each classroom tool can have a purpose beyond delivering content, and this needs to be shared.
I suppose the purpose of this website is collate, crystalise and open dialogues about how to increase this within classrooms. As the quote from Carl Bereiter illustrates this classroom methodology can empower our students.

Wednesday, 17 July 2019

How good am I at explaining?

As teachers, our audience, our students can be a great source of feedback upon our craft. They see you teach more than you do. So one way to develop our ability to explain things well is not only in their understanding of the subject, but also in identifying what aspect(s) we need to improve upon. This may be a structural, signalling, clarity or supportive feature of your communication. Further details can be read here and here and here.

These features are broken down in the following student voice survey. As always I worry that a checklist in the wrong hands turns into a management tool, and that is not the intention here. So if anyone tries tell them to do one. This is a professional reflection tool, for teachers to check their own classroom practice on their own or with some feedback from their classes.
A downloadable version can be found here.

My teacher...
explanations are clear and understandable

goes at the right speed

teacher makes clear points

teacher loses track of what they are saying

teacher says urr, um, em during their explanations

teachers explanations emphasise important ideas

explanations contain extra, unhelpful, statements

Explanations review or summarise  key ideas

Makes mistakes when explaining

Finish the explanation

Build up/ breakdown complex ideas into chunks. 

Remind me of what we have already studied

link ideas together

Make clear what they are about to explain

Make useful notes on the board

Point/ highlight key parts of diagrams or idea on the whiteboard

Tuesday, 16 July 2019

John Loughran on Pedagogical Content Knowledge.

Revenge of the Vague Term

In the second post on the fascinating case studies presented by Professor Karl Maton this post focuses on a much poorer teacher explanation.

In this lesson the teacher sets out their stall in a theoretically good place, with a significant amount of time dedicated to student prior knowledge and misconceptions. However, there appears to be little in the way of structured challenge to these misconceptions over a protracted length of time (40 minutes). The opportunity for student talk and the sharing and reinforcing of misconceptions provides a sizeable opportunity for "deconstructively unalignment" to occur. Ican only feel that this at best is an opportunity lost.
A video is hown, as the previous teacher did, in the realms of “edutainment” as we have seen this worked for the last teacher who repeatedly and pointedly “brought the knowledge” home to where the learning intention was. This teacher also set a relevant directional focus with the instruction  "highlight on your list what is wrong". Yet it is unlikely that students will learn very much from this task as the cognitive demand of watching a video and assessing 40 minutes of self generated material on novice learners,( i.e. students at the beginning of a topic) would be too great. Like the previous teacher the "what and why" is present, but without the same impact, possibly as the students are described as watching the video for 45 minutes with teacher interjections. It is easy to see a lack of structure, and as a result  a lack of focus on content.

Following the video the teacher asks a  question which is tantamount to "what's inside the my head?" where the answer sought is a specific response as the sole cue to move the lesson. An answer that is not even part of the History curriculum, which makes it harder to return to the knowledge "back home"  This highlights that one of the parts of a teacher pedagogical content knowledge is the curriculum, I would speculate that this teacher is not as au fait as they could be, and have therefore headed down an avenue that on the surface seems to do as the previous teacher did, in building on students broader knowledge. The difference being that this teacher selected medicine as a focus whereas the previous one chose hygiene as a way of relating their experiences with teaching medieval history. As a non historian, this seems arbitrary but the difference it made to teacher dialogue and student learning is tangible.

This teacher then does talk of hygiene, and the phrase "it is not the most effective method" is certainly heading in the right direction, but it is too vague  to make the link back to the historical conditions of the time. A lack of detail prevents the students making the connection. Juxtapose this with the previous teacher who sagely link hygiene to the occurrences of a siege. What is said follows...

This has the effect of setting up the teaching focus well way from the "homeward" direction.
A quick review of the technical language reveals why. This  used in this input are as follows. 
  • medieval
  • European
  • ointments
  • antibacterial
Whereas the previous talked of
  • Siege
  • Castles
  • Disease
  • War
Making it abundantly clear that Expert teachers focus significantly more on content than on classroom processes. 

What appears to be clear is that this teacher has planned the lesson, or at least the tasks of the lesson. i.e. Students will brainstorm, then watch a video and then correct their ideas, but the plan has not considered how the content will work with this methodology. Indeed none of the talk mention the spread of disease- which may or may not be inferred; or the fact that they should be thinking about castles and sieges. Indeed the word "Garlic" appears three times. The content is simply not being attended to.

The final line of "Um we did watch some of this. do you want me to skip forward?" reveals an anxiety, and a lack of knowledge and direction. In fact the whole input  has many vagueness traits. 

These being:

1. “Some” : which is used twice, and is an approximation, casting doubt that any of the ointments work or not.

2. “Well... “ is the start of a bluffing phrase indicating that the teacher has insufficient Pedagogical content knowledge (PCK) and is ill prepared for a complex explanation. This is clearly evident. 

3. “Probably”, is used twice and is the expression of a reservation or doubt  which can lead to students being less likely to accept the information as helpful.

4.”I think it’s got more to do with…” Is another expression of doubt

5. Repetition. The phrase "antibacterial element" is used twice which constructs a word maze, signalling a false start to an explanation. The teacher could be aware that the explanation is not going where it needs to be. 

6. Anaphora. Approximately (sic) 8% of the words are pronouns. Using excessive pronouns rather than a direct reference to the content can make it more difficult for students to follow the content, albeit a small mercy in this case. 

7. “Um” is vocal filler also breaks teacher fluency

8. Recovering phrase "do you want me to skip forward?” is perhaps the clearest indication that this teacher has lost track of where the explanation is heading.

This is clearly a short extract, and to analyse this I am making a lot of assumptions, yet it is clear is that his explanation is off track, being made up on the spot without prior thought to the direction it needs to head. It is the sheer number of these behaviours that ring a bell for me in terms of the quality of this teachers talk. All in all it is the PCK that is missing. It is knowledge of how the subject is learned, what students will find difficult and how teach and activities support the learning of the content and would allow  a coherent purpose to the discussion.

Although only a short extract from a lesson the lens of LCT does help us examine our teaching and explanations. This non-example of good teacher explanations poses three areas for us to consider in our planning.
Firstly what is the PCK for this content. What exactly do the students need to know? What are the effective ways to breakdown and join up the content to students? What do I need to tell them? How do I make this clear? 
Secondly is the need for constructive alignment. How do I ensure that classroom talk, and activities support the intentions? What is the prior knowledge and experience that can be built upon to ensure students can access the ideas? How do I bring this knowledge “home”?  Constructive alignment sound slike the easiest thing in the world, but this example where a “lesson”, has been planned throws the difficulty into stark relief. It is hard and requires us to plan the learning of content rather than mere activity. 
Finally, the communication skills of the teacher are key. They are also telling about the lack of teacher preparation. A key aspect of teacher clarity is the avoidance of vague terms, so planning or teacher development needs to consider not just what to say but how to say it.

Monday, 15 July 2019

The hidden structure of teacher explanations

Purposes of teacher talk.
Before we can consider the structure of a teacher explanation we must first consider the purpose of that talk.
Teachers talk a lot. And so we should. Much of the visible art of teaching comes from the moments when we open our mouths. With between 10% and 30% of lesson time being spent explaining, we must be confident that this is time well spent and that our explanations are effective. Teacher talk is a mix of content explanation with talk of motivation, emotions, strategy, instructional guidance, questioning and feedback. As befitting something that is aimed at developing an understanding of other people, teacher talk is far from a simple construct. 
For me teachers talk mainly for the following 11 reasons: 

  • Context setting.
  • Engage and maintain interest.
  • Represent new information.
  • Emphasise the important.
  • Differentiation.
  • Build a narrative.
  • Sharing Procedural knowledge.
  • Guide students to generate the knowledge themselves.
  • Summaries and Plenaries.
  • Stimulate student thinking.
  • Build and maintain relationships within the classroom

Legitimate Code Theory as an analysis tool.
Although teacher talk is a very visible part of our craft, the actual structures within it are not, or at least they are shrouded in complexity. So stumbling around the internet the other day,  I came across the field of Legitimate Code Theory (LCT), which claims to among other things,to help to make the "invisible visible" in order to reveal the rules of the game. Now as a dyed in the wool Nuthalian this intrigued me. This blog, incidentally , is not about LCT, I know way too little to explain it or to have an opinion of its use, although there are some case studies of its use in classrooms that I would like to explore.  Being able to see why the art of teacher talk is successful is always an opportunity not to be missed. So, I watched this video, which is (hopefully) embedded to start at the relevant part, although watching it all is recommended.

Professor Karl Maton explains the background of this case study, describing the same class in the previous academic year as unruly and under-performing. They had been transformed one year later, with a different teacher. Now, teaching is complex and many factors may be at play, but due attention is made to the teacher. So they asked a the guiding question “Why did the teacher spend more time teaching content than the previous teacher?” To do this they attempted to isolate three simple focuses of  the content; the directions or instructions given; and the behaviour of the students. I like the simplicity of this and how they are able to track these through teacher talk with the LCT matrix. 

The matrix used to analyse the teacher talk and strategies requires some thought. I am happy to admit that I am below novice on the subject of LCT and this video is very much my introduction to it. So I hope that this simplified matrix  helps make clear what it looks like. I think it helped me follow what was happening and relate it to teacher skills. I hope it's not too simplified to be insulting to an expert in the field.

Maton uses the phrase a "autonomy tour" to describe the process of moving between the quadrants of the matrix. For instance starting talking about content, then leaving and talking about other concepts, process, ideas and then returning to the original content. Maton sees this as a way teachers can integrate knowledge. So in this case the content being taught is integrated with directions for students and expectations of behaviour. By doing so students see a model more than just the content, for instance how to select and use examples from sources as shown by the teachers use of video. Fellow Nuthalians will hear loud and clear Nuthall's first premise of "students learn what they do". Maton goes onto suggest that this teachers success with this class is down to this integration. I especially like Maton’s phrase "bring it back home" to emphasise that this teachers talk, although not exclusively about the target content, finds a connected way of returning back to what he was trying to teach. Everything is therefore about learning the content. It strikes me that this a method that Expert Teachers would use to increase the amount of redundancy in their teacher talk- they find other ways of saying the same thing. 

The teacher talk begins on content and solely about the content. Each picture will have the teacher talk, the current code or type and purpose of the talk and any moves that is being made across the matrix as the teacher takes a "tour". It is important to realise that the desired quadrant, that of talking about this lessons core content is only desirable for this lesson. Other situations will require talk or actions in differing parts, and indeed in this situation how other parts support the learning of the core content.

This is followed by content away from the specific content being taught, but it is still 

subject knowledge that the students will cover later in the year. So remains in the “home” quadrant, but with a lesser relationship.

Talk then stops even being about the subject, and is now about students own experience. Briefly leaving the home quadrant and where the importance of what is being said is beyond this lesson, but there is a link that the teacher is exploiting to bring student experience to mind. This is another feature of what I would recognise as an expert teacher strategy. Expert Teachers increase the relevance of the material being taught to the students. 

This is not just shallow, hat tip towards the kids, this relevance is used to engage the students, before returning back to the main content with the all important why. By stating this he is increasing the relevance of the content., another expert teacher behaviour.
He then goes out again to make clear some other knowledge, and everyday experience that will make subsequent content discussion more understandable. Again this is a nice example of an expert teacher making the content more relevance, but this time by establishing useful prior knowledge.

Once more the teacher talk returns to the core concept being taught, making this a good example of an expert teacher getting back on track. That is to say, despite the explanation necessitating an off topic idea,  in this case hygiene, it is woven back into the narrative of being under siege in a castle. The knowledge is once again brought back home.

Structure of the explanation
Hidden within this narrative is another Expert Teachers behaviour that of being able to problematise the concepts being taught. Explanations are composed of three simple parts; a problem to be explained, a person to do the explaining and someone to explain to.  Yet, I would wager that we teachers sometimes rush, or skim or worse still miss the problem part out all too often. The reason for this is obvious, we know the answer. The problem teachers face when dealing with this is desirability; our knowledge, the correct knowledge, is what we want our students to have. However, this ambition can cause us to forget that the vastness of the difference in the depth and quality of knowledge that we possess, as subject experts and that of our students. We simply see things in a more holistic, joined up and detailed way. The temptation to delude ourselves by telling students just ‘the facts’ is therefore pretty strong. So he sets  up a problem to teach to. The choice of reading material helps, by giving a bigger overview. This reminds me of Nuthall’ second premise “ effective activities are built around big questions.”

But the teacher spots the problem, or might that be an opportunity, to explain. The text only uses the word "disease" and this is what he focuses his narrative upon. He set it up, by following up the reading of the text with a context in which the students are to think and learn. He says something like " What this text is about is the importance of castles and what happens when the castle is under siege" This "what happens when" is the problem setting part of his explanation. This is one way Expert teachers problematise their teaching. 

The lesson moves on requires use of a video. In some ways, when teachers do this they are delegating responsibility for the explanation to someone else. Part of the problem is that videos will contain a lot more information than the core ideas the teachers wish to get across. Some of which will not be germane. So their selection, and use requires a great deal of thought from the teacher. In doing so this teacher demonstrates another two expert teacher behaviours: that Expert Teachers are more selective in the choices of example they use and they increase the relevance of the material being taught to the students. As this teachers talks he constantly talks about the content, the "what" and the “why”. He does this for both the content, directions and behaviour. It is in this talk that he directs students to the relevant materials and ideas. His direction towards the relevant bits starts with the simple prefixing of the video with questions
Importantly,  it is the teacher talk and discussion that ensures the knowledge is brought "back home". 
The video then takes us on a tour of the teacher instructional structure.
It starts with a directional focus
the video is then described as a combination of educative and entertainment content, that is not (yet) related to the core content being taught. It cross two quadrants as it is loosely content related and context setting.
The teacher then returns to the content by prompting students to answer the first question. At this point it becomes clear that this teacher is highly structured in his explanations/ lesson. Expert Teacher do provide more structured explanations than non expert. The intriguing thing for me, as a teacher, is that this is pretty much invisible in his communication, but by golly it is there. in his teaching...
... and in the elaborations he makes to the student responses. The knowledge is brought back home.
Another "autonomy" tour is then started  by setting directions and making clear the "why" of the process.

The conclusion drawn is that the teacher success comes from the integration of content, direction and behaviour so that:
I have just come across LCT as an idea, and it feels useful. Now I am not sure if this because I recognise, the behaviours and aspects of the teaching that allows me to follow Matons narrative, and whether I would see the "invisible" in a context that I am less aware of remains to be seen. But I am intrigued. What I find useful is the slowing down and examining of a teachers art to see the skills and behaviours that make what they do visible and therefore learnable.
Since watching, two strategies have become clear to making my explanations better. Firstly, I have been keen to ensure I keep purposes clear for students, giving clear why to content and to task. Secondly, I have been aware of where of the extra content needed to make new learning accessible and most importantly how to bring it back home. This requires thought of not only when to introduce it, but when to integrate it. This is pedagogical content knowledge in its purest form- how are our subject learned.