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, 23 May 2018

Trawling for our PCK: A tool.

Planning lessons is so much more than just creating structures and frameworks. Good planning involves us employing our pedagogical content knowledge; it dances at the intersection of our knowledge of:

  • Our subjects.
  • How our subjects are learned: the common misconceptions, threshold concepts and difficult ideas.
  • How students learn.
  • How (or whether) specific teaching strategies work.
Consider the following PCK extraction device as a net to cast over the recesses of your mind to capture  the nuances of  how we need to be able to teach a concept/ idea well.  It is based upon the bloody marvelous tools developed by John Loughran in ‘Understanding and Developing Science Teachers’ Pedagogical Content Knowledge:  though it’s not just for science teachers, this tool has a finely tuned "Cod End" in which the tasty teaching morsels can be captured. A good net is always going to be a compromise between having holes  which are too large and everything can merely pass clean through, and one with too small holes that captures everything in the most cumbersome fashion possible. I believe this set of questions provides an useful balance for  thinking and planning. It’s not a checklist, and there’s no need to use each question: choose which prompts are most useful to you, your students and the content,  as although the example below gives many questions that appear helpful, it’s best targeted at areas where important, difficult concepts or misconceptions lie.

Aspect of PCK
What is the concept to be learned? (a single concept works best for clarity)
What should students know before learning this?
What might they already know?
What misconceptions might they have?
How will you find out about student ideas?
What will they find difficult? Why will it be difficult?
How can this be made easier to learn? Is this idea so important that you will deliberately manage the number exposures over coming lessons?
How will you represent this knowledge so that it is unambiguous to students?
Why is this knowledge important? Is this one of the main concepts of your subject?
Where is this knowledge going? How might it be used in future learning?
How will teaching and tasks/activities help students engage with this idea?  Why have you chosen these activities?
What caution do you need to exercise? How might you teach a misconception?

What else might influence student thinking on this? How might they know what they know?

Although the example given below is a science one many of my colleagues across all areas of the curriculum have found it a useful prompt to thinking about their teaching and a way of pulling ideas together before they plan lesson sequences

Aspect of PCK
Science example
What is the concept to be learned? ( a single concept works best for clarity)
How dissolving takes place. Year 7 beginner science.
What should students know before learning this?
Particle model will help students understand how this process takes place.

Key terms: Solvent, solute and solution
What might they know?
Lots of examples of things that dissolve things and things that are dissolved.
What misconceptions might they have?
That the material being dissolved disappears when in solution.
Students find the change of state of the material being dissolved confusing, often think of it as melting.
This is exacerbated by
How will you find out about student ideas?
Ask them to predict the 100ml of water to 100 ml of ethanol. Do they know taht particles can be different sizes in different materials? How aware are they with the spaces between the particles?
What will they find difficult? Why will it be difficult?
Visualising what is happening to the particles do when in solution.
Distinguishing the key terms due the similarity.
When materials dissolve they, on the surface, look like they have disappeared.
How can this be made easier to learn? Is this idea so important to manage the number exposures over coming lessons?
Rice and Pea model will help visualisation.
Multiple exposures over several weeks to the terminology.
Work from concrete (examples) to the abstract (particle model)
Will have a venn diagram activity (on stand by for this lesson) for when we study changes of state to distinguish between dissolving and melting
How will you represent this knowledge so that the it is unambiguous to students?
Rice and Pea model.
Concept map of key terms.
Discuss examples of solutes, solvents and solution before defining them.
Why is this knowledge important? Is this one of the main concepts of your subject?
2/3rds of the earths surface is a solution. Living things rely upon solutions for transport and function.
Lots of complex science is based upon this.
Where is this knowledge going? How might it be used in future learning.
Students will soon learn about the factors that affect the rate of dissolving.
Students will use this knowledge to separate the soluble and insoluble substances (i.e. is a property)
Later students will study ideas about concentration, osmosis, rates of reaction.
How will teaching and tasks activities help student engage with this idea?  Why have you chose these activities?
Rice and pea makes what is happening accessible and a reference point. As does the simple summary solute+solvent=solution.
A brief practical on dissolving ( and its subsequent write up) allows for plenty of application of new  language and ideas.
What caution do you need to exercise? How might you teach a misconception?
Care must be taken when talking about the rate of dissolving. Using terms such as “fastest” are misleading, but will be part of student every day language.
Important for the knowledge to be applied in different situations so it does not become “inert”. Practicals will help with this.
What else might influence student student thinking on this? How might they know what they know?
Lots of TV adverts proclaim fast action, when they mean in a short period of time.
Kitchen/cooking experiences maybe provide some useful start points.
Reminding of the taste of sea water will remind them that solutes do not disappear.
What signs might students show that they are “getting it”? What questions might they ask that anticipate next steps?
Students refer to “the solute” as opposed to sugar/ salt, and “solvent” instead of a water

Are all solvents liquids?

Are only solids dissolved?

So are some particles smaller than others?

Are the solute particles fitting in between the “gaps” between the solvent particles?

 Understanding and developing Science teachers Pedagogical Content Knowledge by John Loughran et al. 2006 Sense Publishers.

Sunday, 20 May 2018

What is Pedagogical Content Knowledge?

Pedagogical Content Knowledge (PCK) is our professional knowledge. All of the planning, and perhaps, all of our teaching decisions  are made based upon our Pedagogical Content Knowledge . PCK is what we know about how learning happens, how our subjects are learned and what we know about the learners in front of us. It is practical knowledge.

It is not merely subject knowledge. It is how we transform the subject knowledge into multiple ways of representing it in teachable ways. It is how we take the implicit expert thinking of a subject specialist and make it explicit through modelling. It is how we find out student prior conceptions and tailor their experiences in order to learn, and potentially reorganise their understanding when their preconceptions turn out to be misconceptions. Knowing how to do this is PCK. Clearly PCK’s role in planning is central, to access it we have to stop and think and reflect on what students tend to already know, what students find difficult, what has helped in the past, what are the parts that make up the whole knowledge, what sequence should the concepts be taught in. To access this knowledge may require some research and discussions with other subject specialists. It takes time, but as a consequence our PCK grows to be rich and deep.

PCK was developed by Lee Shulman in 1986 and is a blend of our subject knowledge, our pedagogical knowledge and our knowledge of the context in which learning is taking place.We can also add to this our knowledge of the (ever changing) curriculum and the assessment of the subject.It is all of these things and more; describing it as a ‘blend’ does not really do it sufficient justice.

The great potential for formalising our use of pedagogical content knowledge is that we can move from using it instinctively and inconsistently to being able to plan with it systematically. Perhaps most importantly, it helps us to become more aware of what learning might look like in the classroom: sensitising us to misconceptions when they arise and turning them into teachable moments.
PCK most commonly manifests as one of four interacting forms:

1.    Knowing how to represent knowledge so that it can be learned. The content being taught determines our choices although there is a need for us to have multiple representations at our disposal to ensure we can be flexible and responsive to student needs.This is context dependent, with the teachers’ prior understanding of their class(es) being a key part of how we go about representing this knowledge.
2.    Knowing how to organise or sequence knowledge so that it can be learned. Here, we have to see how the knowledge is connected to other knowledge, other concepts. This involves both the macro and the micro: the connection to the overarching idea and the interrelatedness of underlying details.
3.    Knowing which concepts and ideas are difficult to learn and, subsequently, how to help students learn them. This includes knowledge of likely student misconceptions.
4.    Knowing which knowledge is important. This includes threshold concepts.

It is our pedagogical content knowledge that differentiates us, as teachers, from our equivalent non-teaching specialists (scientists, writers, mathematicians, economists); it is our pedagogical content knowledge that compels us to organise the transmission of knowledge in the way that we do. It is our own pedagogical content knowledge that we must employ in our planning, and it is the lens through which we must view students’  knowledge in lessons, so that we can respond, astutely improvise and ultimately help them learn.

Friday, 18 May 2018

Teacher clarity: Don’t be vague.

Don’t be vague, is a pretty vague way of saying how to improve teacher clarity, but it is not without validity. Unclear language, in explanations, has a negative effect upon student learning (Hargie 2006)

Given the amount of talk teachers do it is inevitable that vagueness will occur to a certain extent,. It only becomes a problem  when teacher explanations have excessive amounts of vagueness (in excess of 7.2 vagueness terms per minute). At this point student achievement and perception of clarity in the lesson are negatively affected.  Errors are more common than we think, with an average of from three to five vagueness terms per minute of teacher talk, and an average of four word mazes per minute of teacher talk. (Snyder 1991)

Vagueness can be located in the two facets of teacher talk: What is said, and , how it is said. 

The following table categorises vague terms and teacher errors made during presentation or explanations, not as a checklist to plan what to say, but more as a way of focusing where professional learning might be most useful. The signs are that even a narrow focus on one aspect can have a positive influence on teacher clarity.(Smith 1982)


Vagueness terminology
Teachers may...
Examples of terminology
Using approximation with setting definitions or with quantities.
Lack specificity in what is communicated.

Not set clear boundaries of where rules apply.
Other people, somewhere, under certain conditions. pretty much, nearly, almost, sort of.

A bunch of, most of, a couple, some.

Bluffing phrase that make uncertain things sound certain.
Lack sufficient PCK.

Be ill prepared for a complex explanation.
Actually, and so forth, anyway,
As a matter of fact: Of course...
When we describe possibility.
When a negation evades a clear response.
Indicate a lack of clarity or lack of definite knowledge.
lead to reduced student confidence in teacher.
Maybe, might, could be, Chances are, Perhaps
not always, not quite, isn’t necessarily
When a multiple ideas are needed at once.
May gloss over complexity
aspects, types, lots, factors, kinds
Generally, often, probably, Ordinarily
Use excessive pronouns rather than a direct reference to the content. This may make the explanation more difficult to follow.
I, she, he, the former, the latter, them.


During explanations, novice learners can be distracted by accidental teacher word mazes. Student can get lost, and miss the point we are trying to make in the twists and turns of what is said. This can be as simple as repeating a phrase, repeating a phrase, that can then disjoint, can then disjoint, the meaning of the sentence. (You see what I did there)

Presentational Vagueness
Teachers may...
Lose track of where the explanation is heading.
Anyway, to cut a long story short, you know, do you understand?
Admission of Error
break fluency

reduce student confidence
I guess.., I’m sorry, Excuse my mistake, I don’t know
Utterances such as vocal fillers
break fluency making it more difficult to follow the ideas.
Urn, Err, Basically, Em. Look, Right, Well and stuff.
Word mazes that confuse the meaning of your statements.
make a false start to an explanation.

not make sense

halt in speech
Repeating phrases,
Improper pacing occurs
speak too quickly or do not allow sufficient time for students to process information.
The last five minutes of the lesson and you realise you have not explained something...
Express our reservations
lead to doubt of a point of view or fact.
lead to student being less likely to accept the information as helpful.
apparently, appears, relatively, seems

To reduce our, unintended, vagueness is once more about professional learning. As Smith concludes:  

“Teachers can be trained to significantly reduce the frequencies of vagueness terms they use. Such training involves intense focus on vagueness terms per se and on preparation of lessons to eliminate vagueness terms. Interestingly, it appears that teachers can reduce mazes by-simply presenting lessons and reviewing their presentations.” 

Listen: Teachers can use more signalling to increase their clarity.

Teacher clarity comes from many sources:
1. Being clear about what you want your students to know and be able to do
2. Clearly explaining new content to students
3. Clearly demonstrating relevant skills and processes that you expect students to do
4. Give students practice tasks clearly focused on what you want them to know and be able to do
5. Checking that students have a clear understanding of the new material

 And as Shaun Killian says in this excellent blogpost accentuates we have, perhaps, been a little too focused on structures and uniformity and not the skill of how we actually deliver our explanations. This is particularly strange when we consider that 10% and 30% of lesson time being spent explaining (Brophy & Good 1986) and so it is easy to agree with the findings of Fendick that the biggest single aspect of teacher clarity comes from teachers speech.

 A simple device can quickly improve our clarity.That being signalling, and we now that expert teachers use more signalling during their explanations (Brophy & Good 1986) and so should become part of our pedagogical content knowledge.

 There are five ways we can effectively signal important information to students (Hargie 2006). in using these, we indicate new terminology, definitions, examples, connections, or relationships. We also signal changes or transitions in information during our explanations .

 1.Signposting statements that set the structure and the direction of the explanation such as, “I would like to now explain the seven steps that lead to a pregnancy”,or, “We’ve just seen that the ground up sugar dissolves faster than the sugar cube. Now we want explain why this happens”

 2.Framing statements signal the beginning of a sub-section to a complex explanation such as, “So those are the main causes of the Cuban missile conflict. Now let’s look at how the events unfolded during the crisis.”

 3. Foci statements draw attention to key ideas such as, “So this is very important”, or, “Be careful not to confuse …”

4.Linking statements connect different parts of the explanation, such as, “This leads to…” or, “So when this happens, it causes…”

5. A written cue can be simply noted upon the whiteboard or found in a task sheet or on a PowerPoint slide to draw attention to exactly what students are supposed to do or know.

Developing this skill will start in our planning, where we need to identify the features of the content to allow us to consider potential turns of phrase that would increase its clarity. This leads us to these planning questions.:
 1.- How does each activity connect to the next? What information in one activity is useful in the next?
2.- What is the context for each activity or explanation?
3.- What are the main ideas? What are the potential difficulties?
4.- What are the “chunks” of the explanation? How can these be connected?

As always teacher reflection will be a key to developing this skill. Since what you say is one of the few moments when the art of being a teacher becomes concretely visible recording ourselves and listening back to what we say or have a trusted colleague listen to you and write down what you say we can quickly get access to how well we already use this skill.