Direct Instruction Principles for Guided Writing Practice

stower_titanic_colourizedI’ve been a fan of Expressive Writing for a number of years. It is exquisitely designed, and like all of Engelmann’s Direct Instruction programmes, the principles on which it is based can teach us much about how to teach effectively across the board. It is particularly relevant, though, to how we think about practising writing.

David Didau recently blogged about what can be practised in English lessons. He argued against practising writing essays or analytical paragraphs on literature, favouring instead the teaching of sentence construction, as sentences are the building blocks of good writing. He also argued that it would be a good idea to use plenty of oral practice of good sentences, as this would result in better retention of knowledge.

I agree that we need to practise the components of writing, and we need to use plenty of oral drill, but it doesn’t have to be either/or. In Expressive Writing, pupils go through a carefully designed, incremental sequence of practice exercises, moving from oral drill, to editing sentences, to writing sentences, to writing paragraphs, to writing multiple paragraphs. The ultimate goal of the oral drill and the written exercises is to enable pupils to produce extended narrative writing fluently and accurately. This has to be our goal with analytical writing as well, and we can use similar methods.

Guided writing practice involves a series of steps. Let’s take the example of writing about An Inspector Calls, J B Priestley’s perennially popular piece of socialist propaganda. Our ultimate goal is that pupils can produce extended analytical writing on a given theme or character in the play. They might have to answer a question like this:

‘How does Priestley use the character of Mr Birling to present ideas about capitalism?’

In a lesson where our goal was for pupils to write a paragraph on this topic, we would teach specific examples of how Birling shows a complacent attitude. We’d teach (or revise) the definition of ‘complacent’ of course – ‘smugly satisfied with your own achievements’. We’d have the class chant that definition, and ask multiple pupils to repeat it using cold-calling. We’d chant key quotations, such as ‘the Titanic […] unsinkable, absolutely unsinkable’. We’d model how to analyse such quotations orally, having the whole class and individual pupils repeat sentences such as ‘Using this image, Priestley depicts capitalism as doomed to destruction’.

All of this oral drill would be done briskly, and no pupil would be able to hide, because they would all be expected to join in when the whole class chanted a particular word, phrase or sentence, and they would know that they could be cold-called at any time. Only after having been through this fast-paced, interactive whole class teaching would we ask any pupil to put pen to paper. And when they did put pen to paper, they would start by copying an opening sentence, to ensure that they began as we intended them to go on. The opening sentence could be something like this:

‘Priestley makes abundantly clear to the audience that Birling’s confidence is misplaced, particularly through Birling’s reference to the Titanic as being ‘unsinkable, absolutely unsinkable’.’

This sort of closely guided writing practice, preceded by fast-paced oral drill, means that writing is focused, and pupils are continually building knowledge and vocabulary as well as the ability to write analytically. It can be extended to essay length as time goes on, but always under the guidance of the teacher.

If we want our pupils to write well, they need to practise writing, but it doesn’t have to be mechanical Point-Evidence-Explanation; it doesn’t have to be a confusing and futile exercise in building a mythical generic skill of analysis; it doesn’t have to be a pretend mini-GCSE to generate junk data. It can be satisfying, interesting and effective, if we apply the principles of Direct Instruction.

Footnote:

British English:
verb – practise
noun/adjective – practice

American English:
verb and noun/adjective – practice

[Engraving by Willy Stöwer: Der Untergang der Titanic]

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Liberated by Cognitive Science

Understanding the essentials of cognitive architecture is a wonderfully liberating thing. So many of our misconceptions about education, our own and our pupils’, can be laid to rest.

The first, and most important principle is the understanding of what education actually is: changes in long term memory. This simple definition can and should be refined, but it’s an essential starting point. If you haven’t remembered it, you haven’t learned it. You were wasting your time, as teacher, as a pupil, if the knowledge which you were supposed to acquire has not at least begun to make its way into your long term memory.

This affects the questions we ask about teaching. Instead of chasing endless proxies for learning, we begin to focus on the thing itself. Instead of asking ‘were the pupils engaged?’ or ‘did they enjoy the lesson?’ or ‘did they write lots in their books?’ we can simply ask ‘what did they remember?’ In the end, that’s all that matters.

But that question logically leads to others. If we are interested in long term memory, we have to be interested in the long term. We are therefore liberated from the obsession with individual lessons as units of learning. We must ask ‘what did they remember the next week, the next month, the next year?’ Now we are able to see education as a coherent long term programme for building mental schemas in the minds of pupils, not a series of isolated fragments which could be judged as ‘outstanding’ or ‘satisfactory’.

These are just a few of the ways in which understanding cognitive architecture liberates us professionally. But there is a wonderful personal liberation too. So often I have complained over the years about how poor my memory is. Recently, when I was explaining to a colleague how much explicit memorisation I require of pupils, he said, ‘My memory’s rubbish. I suppose you have trained yours to be able to do this?’ From his tone, it sounded like he thought such ‘training’ would require Herculean efforts, beyond the capacities of most ordinary mortals.

But when we understand that we all have extremely limited working memory, but practically limitless long term memory, and that repeated practice and testing can ensure that anything can be securely stored, then we know that we do not have a rubbish memory. We have a human memory, and we face the same limitations and have the same amazing potential as the rest of the human race. The obstacles we face to filling our memories with countless treasures of poetry, history and science are obstacles that we, and our pupils, can overcome with persistent, faithful, steady effort.

It is also a wonderful liberation to realise that we have not, in fact, forgotten most of what we learned in school. Every well educated adult has a vast store of tacit knowledge which enables her to read a wide range of texts, as well as listen to other articulate, educated adults and take part in intelligent conversation with them. It is amazing to consider just how much we do, in fact, remember, but this also places a solemn duty upon us. When we realise how much we know, we appreciate how important it is that we should pass this on, so that succeeding generations can also take part in this conversation. And we’ll never succeed in doing this unless we talk to our pupils!

So with the excitement and liberation of discovering the reality of how the human mind works, come solemn duties: to pass on knowledge, and to fight against the ideas which prevent us, or our colleagues, from doing so, such as ‘education is what’s left when you’ve forgotten everything you learned at school’.

These ideas are so often glibly repeated in staff rooms or displayed on classroom walls, and they strike at the very root of what education is, and even what human beings are. To fill the mind with knowledge, and to treasure this knowledge and pass it on to succeeding generations, is to perpetuate human civilisation. To refuse to do so is to abdicate from one of the most fundamental human responsibilities.

Direct Instruction Transforms Behaviour

We must be very clear that the choices made by pupils are their own responsibility. If they decide to be rude or defiant, they have made that choice, and they must take the consequences.

But at the same time, we must acknowledge that the methods used by teachers will influence the behaviour of pupils. When teachers spend their time trying to entice pupils to learn something through an endless variety of activities, the implicit message pupils receive is that they are consumers of an education product. And the customer is always right. They are at liberty to ignore the teacher if they don’t ‘buy’ what the teacher is ‘selling’.

So the endless and exhausting task of trying to persuade pupils that learning is fun will have a serious negative impact upon behaviour. On the other hand, when whole class instruction is used, with regular routines and the consistent expectation of full attention from all pupils all the time, classes that seemed to be impossible when they were faced with edutainment can become calm and ordered places. It doesn’t happen overnight, but with firm and persistent effort over a number of weeks, behaviour steadily improves.

Behaviour improves with Direct instruction because all pupils know what is expected of them. A good course of direct instruction will include a large amount of repeated practice to ensure mastery. Not only does this make sense from a cognitive point of view, it creates calm and order, because the pupils are not only practising whatever element of the curriculum is being covered, they are also practising how to practise: how to focus the mind consistently on one clear area of study and repeat it until mastery is achieved. This kind of practice is methodical and reassuring, and satisfying in a quiet way. But no pupil could mistake it for entertainment, so they don’t respond as they would to entertainment: with boos, cheers or indifference.

Behaviour improves with direct instruction because when pupils are not practising, the lessons are directly led by the teacher, interacting with the whole class. The teacher stands at the front and expects every pupil to track her. She calls out key concepts and the whole class repeats them. She calls on individuals and they repeat the concepts, word for word; there is no ambiguity about what is expected of them. She goes through worked examples with the whole class, calling on individuals at key moments, without asking for hands up. Answering questions is compulsory, not voluntary. Everyone knows that if they are failing to pay attention, they will be spotted. No one is neglected. Everyone is included. Group work divides and excludes. Whole class interactive instruction is the most inclusive method possible: no one is left out, disaffected, labelled as useless, left behind, disenfranchised. No one has any of these common reasons to start misbehaving.

Behaviour improves with direct instruction because pupils are never asked to do things they cannot do. They are never asked questions to which they do not know the answer. The steady, incremental nature of a well designed programme of direct instruction means that pupils are never thrown in at the deep end. They gradually master each element of the curriculum, and the curriculum is coherently organised so that they are never required to run before they can walk. So often pupils begin to misbehave because they are baffled, so they give up and start mucking about instead.

If you want a calm, ordered classroom in which everyone can make progress, start using direct instruction. You’ll be amazed at how difficult pupils who ignored your every attempt to entertain them will quite contentedly work steadily on clear tasks with definite outcomes. They will gain the calm satisfaction of making progress, and happily leave behind the fraught and confusing role of consumer which had previously been forced upon them.

Understanding or Memorising?

Herbert_simon_red_complete

Herbert A Simon (1916-2001)

One of the most damaging myths in education is that there is a conflict between memorisation and understanding, when in fact, they go together, and are both essential. This is one of the ideas demolished by Daisy Christodoulou in Seven Myths, under the heading of ‘facts prevent understanding’. The classic piece of research by Nobel laureate Herbert Simon on chess players shows how memorising and understanding are not in conflict; rather, they are intertwined and interdependent. Chess grand masters can look briefly at a chess board and then remember the positions of the pieces far better than those not skilled in chess. But they could only do this when the pieces were arranged as they would be in a game scenario. When they were randomly arranged, the chess players performed no better than the average.

The chess grand master’s supreme skill is based largely on memorising tens of thousands of game scenarios. Most of the time, most of what a grand master is doing in a chess game is remembering. This is not in conflict with understanding. Obviously the grand master understands the rules of chess, but then so does someone who is only a beginner. What distinguishes the grand master from the beginner is the difference between their long term memories. One is well-stocked with chess moves and scenarios, while the other isn’t. If the beginner wants to advance, she needs to put in the effort and get memorising. She needs to be drilled, or drill herself. She needs to study hard.

This applies to every academic subject. Understanding and memorisation are both essential, but the majority of the effort must go into memorising, because a pupil can grasp a concept readily in a lesson, but quickly forget it, because she has not been drilled in class, nor has she been required to self-quiz for homework to consolidate the knowledge, nor has she been tested at intervals to make sure it does not fade. Drilling, self-quizzing, testing at intervals: these are the foundations of teaching which enable everyone to make progress, because memorisation is absolutely essential, and it strengthens and consolidates understanding. Without the knowledge in your mind, how can you think about it? It is the lack of these foundations which leads to the lament which I have heard so often in so many staff rooms: “I taught them that material. Why can’t they remember it? Why did so many fail the end of term exam?”

It is because of the false distinction between understanding and memorisation that teachers do not focus anywhere near enough time on making sure the foundations are in place. The bulk of class and homework time needs to be dedicated to making sure that core knowledge is thoroughly mastered. If this is not done, then only the most able and motivated will make much progress. The most able and motivated may well then go on to become education professors, and because they were not required to memorise, they’ll think that everyone else can just blithely sail along without the hard work of deliberately committing key facts and procedures to memory.

This is known as expert blindness, and the more gifted a person is, the more likely they are to suffer from it. But all teachers suffer from it to some extent, and to overcome it, we need good programmes of instruction which emphasise drill and repeated practice. We can’t depend upon our gut feeling, or even our ‘professional judgement’, to know when something has been practised enough.

(Image from Wikimedia).

 

Teaching Knowledge: Spoilers Are Essential

800px-london_hoefnagels_map_of_1572If we are reading a novel for pleasure, we want the plot to unfold, and we very much resent having the surprise undone by being told in advance what is going to happen. But when teaching complex works of literature, we must use spoilers. We must give the game away right from the start.

Knowledge of a Shakespeare play, like any other knowledge, must build on the foundations of what was previously learned. If we jump in and start reading through the play, our pupils will not be able to see the wood for the trees. Unless one has a good idea what one is reading about beforehand, one will struggle to make sense of what one is reading. This problem is particularly acute with Shakespeare, where there are so many other challenges in terms of language, densely packed imagery and allusion.

Therefore, it is essential to begin with an overview. Before studying a play in depth, I require pupils to memorise a summary of the main events. This provides the framework, the map, so pupils do not become lost and unable to make sense of their surroundings. Having memorised this overview, we can repeatedly return to it. I can pause when dealing with an important passage in the play, and draw pupils’ attention to where we are.

For example, if we are looking in detail at the scene where Macbeth sees the ghost of Banquo, I can say to the class, “We’re in Act Three. What are the main events?” At this point, I will fire questions at pupils, ‘cold calling’ them to give them the opportunity to recall and retain this key information. We’ll go through the murder of Banquo, the ghost at the banquet, and the news that Macduff has joined Malcolm in England. Then I’ll ask what these events have in common – and we’ll remind ourselves that at this middle point in the play, Macbeth is consolidating power, but also that his downfall is beginning, and will continue through Acts Four and Five. Then we can return to the banquet scene with a fresh sense of its significance as a key moment in which Macbeth begins to lose the support of the Scottish nobility, who will desert him in ever greater numbers as the play moves towards its tragic conclusion.

All this discussion depends upon beginning with an overview. It depends upon frontloading explicit knowledge of key facts, before going into detail, and requiring the memorising of those facts to the point of fluency.

With this map in hand, pupils can begin to explore the complex territory of a play by Shakespeare. Without it, they are liable to get lost in the undergrowth very quickly.

Direct Instruction: Getting It Right

Apprentice

‘The Young Sabot Maker’ by Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937).

For many, it is a truism that we learn from our mistakes. This leads to an approach to education which places pupils in unfamiliar territory which they have to explore for themselves. They may stumble; they may take wrong turnings, but that’s an accepted, in fact a welcomed, part of the learning process.

The intellectual territory which our pupils must explore is rugged. Many greater minds than theirs over the ages have ended up wandering down a narrow valley which turned out to be a dead end, and never getting out again. Many greater minds than theirs have fallen over cliffs as they stumbled across the terrain, without the lights to guide them, or the better paths, which later ages discovered.

It is our job as teachers to guide our pupils through this rugged terrain, as an expert guide takes uninitiated travellers over a mountain pass safely. He has the knowledge to make sure they reach the other side. He has the experience. He knows the pitfalls and the dangerous false paths that will lead to disaster.

Mistakes are not helpful for those at the beginning of the intellectual journey. Beginners need careful guidance, or they are likely to end up in all sorts of difficulties and picking up all sorts of misapprehensions. Of course, they will learn something, but it is just as likely to be the mistake as it is to be the right answer. Or maybe they will find their way over to the other side of the mountains by some miracle or slice of beginner’s luck, but they would have reached the goal more efficiently with careful guidance. And they might have done it once, but will they be able to do it again? A one-off lucky right answer is very far from secure mastery.

Direct Instruction is based on this principle: the principle of getting it right. When following a direct instruction programme of study, the carefully guided, incremental path that pupils take will mean that they very rarely make mistakes, and when they do, those mistakes are quickly corrected so that they do not solidify into permanent misapprehensions.

It is also part of the principles of Direct Instruction that you do not begin by scaling Everest. You practice repeatedly in the foothills, then you travel to the first base camp over and over again until you know the route inside out. You need to know that route, the route which wiser and more experienced travellers mapped out, and many other similar routes to other mountain peaks before you can begin to think about planning your own mountain climbing expedition.

It’s the age-old principle of apprenticeship. You learn first by imitating the masters that have gone before you, and you need to do that for years before you can begin to work independently. Once you do begin independent work, you will not be inventing it from nothing, like the mythical Romantic genius. Your work will be based on the solid principles that have been worked out through centuries of slow, painful human progress.

Memory and Liberal Education

This is the text of a talk I gave today at a conference on liberal education.

Liberal education aims for broad knowledge, so that students can gain a connected view of things, so that they can see the wood for the trees, so that they can escape the trap of being stuck in the present with no points of reference in the past, or the trap of being stuck in one place without points of reference around the globe.

Those who propose a liberal education for the young tend to be those who have acquired, to a greater or lesser extent, such broad knowledge. When they see a current political event, they have a rich range of comparison points from history, both modern and ancient. They want to share this richness with those who have not yet acquired it. But there are many obstacles to doing so. I want to focus on the importance of memory, and especially of the traditional practice of explicit memorisation, for overcoming these obstacles.

Cognitive science gives us many indications about how it is that a novice makes the journey to expertise in any given subject. The first thing to note is that knowledge is based within specific subjects. It is domain specific. There is no such thing, in fact, as general knowledge. Knowledge is always specific. In any specific domain of knowledge, the beginner must build up a foundation of overall knowledge which will help him to fit each successive new item into its place. This is called a schema. In history, he will need to begin with an overall understanding of the different eras in history. This knowledge needs to be firmly in place in order for him to make sense of the detail of historical events within each age. It needs to be mastered. It needs to be memorised so thoroughly that the pupil can recount it fluently, almost without thinking, in the way that we speak our native tongue. Only once this has been achieved can the pupil build on firm foundations in studying more detailed historical events.

A thoroughly memorised schema is vital for making sense of knowledge, for building it up in a connected way. But it is also vital for enabling pupils to really think in any given domain. Human working memory is extremely limited. It can hold between four and seven items at a time. Thus if we wish to think about anything broader than what is immediately in front of us, if we even want to understand a sentence that is more than a few words long, we must rely upon memory. For broader thinking about history, we must depend upon what we have stored in long term memory. We perceive a particular event, then we draw out various examples of other events that we have memorised. Without a large store of such material in our long term memory, we will be simply incapable of thinking historically.

The problem for liberal educators today is that it is very unlikely that they acquired their broad knowledge through an explicit programme of memorisation, as this has virtually disappeared from our general education system. Therefore someone who has acquired broad historical knowledge is, by definition, an exceptional person with an extraordinary amount of intrinsic motivation and intellectual capacities well above the average. When they attempt to pass on this knowledge to the young, they therefore have a tendency to expect such motivation and such capacities in them. In the vast majority of cases, they are disappointed.

If we want to extend liberal education to the large majority of young people, we must reintroduce thorough and systematic programmes of explicit memorisation. Young people must be drilled in the foundations of each subject discipline, and drilled so thoroughly that they have fluency in them. This is not exciting and thrilling in itself. It requires dutiful hard work on the part of teacher and pupil. But without this dutiful hard work, we are abandoning the vast majority of people to a narrow, intellectually crippled life.

The process may not be exciting, but the result is. I have seen myself, after a year of drilling my pupils in core knowledge of literature and history, how much they can learn when simple, traditional methods of memorisation and oral drill are used. I have also seen how capable they then are of making reasoned arguments based on objective truth, not vague waffle about their ‘personal opinions’.