In my first few years of teaching I spent a lot of time trying to create an “outstanding” lesson. I used up hours planning individual classes and painstakingly making resources for every child. But I had no idea how to plan for learning over time.
It wasn’t something anyone had talked about during my training. Instead of looking at memory or how to help students build on skills incrementally, they threw around words like engagement, collaboration and learning styles.
My students’ assessments showed that the learning wasn’t sticking. I hadn’t realised what really constitutes outstanding teaching: instead of focusing on lesson-by-lesson experiences I should have been investing in learning over the longer term. Here are some ways to help build understanding of a topic over time.
Drill down to the essentials
What do you really want students to know? Try to distill a unit of work down to its essentials. It can be useful to collect all the information your class needs to know for a unit in a single document known as a knowledge organiser.
As you plan, return to the document periodically to help you prioritise what to cover in individual lessons. Joe Kirby, deputy headteacher at Michaela community school in north London, calls the knowledge organiser “the most powerful tool in the arsenal of the curriculum designer”. Work backwards
The more detailed your long-term plans, the better you can take charge of learning over time. To pinpoint the skills students need to develop at each stage, look at the assessment for a unit and work backwards.
This way, individual lessons need less planning and become one step in a bigger journey. You are able to judge what stage students are at and cover the skills needed at each point in the unit of work. Sharing your long-term direction with students means they know exactly where they are going and you feel more in control.
Mention tests to most young people and there will be groans. But racing through content without giving students a chance to review it results in them forgetting important information. Regular low-stakes (low-stress) quizzes can, as psychology researcher Henry Roediger and colleagues highlight in their research [pdf], “greatly improve performance”.
By starting each lesson with a short quiz on previous content you begin to strengthen students’ working memories and help them to retain information over time.
Simplify individual lessons
John Sweller’s cognitive load theory is an evaluation of how we should plan lessons to avoid overloading students. One of the important aims in developing students’ memories is to avoid excessive cognitive burden.
Streamlining your teaching – cutting out unnecessary distractions – will go a long way in helping students hold on to information. As Graham Nuthall points out: “Activities need careful designing so that students cannot avoid interacting with relevant information.”
Mix it upPractising two or more related subjects or skills in parallel, known as interleaving, can have a powerful impact on learning. As Peter Brown and co-authors highlight in Make it Stick: the Science of Successful Learning, “the research shows unequivocally that mastery and long-term retention are much better if you interleave practice than if you mass it”. When planning, build in opportunities to mix up the content of the curriculum over a period of weeks.
I regularly mix the literature texts we are studying in class: with my GCSE group we might go from Macbeth on Monday to An Inspector Calls on Wednesday. The students are aware that they need to revisit the texts independently so are primed to better recall information.