Teaching by algorithm

This article was written for SecEd magazine 

In popular rhetoric, algorithms are something to be scared of, a form of artificial intelligence poised to take over the world. But are algorithms really to be feared? Or might they be helpful tools for automating regular, predictable processes so that we can speed up certain actions? And, if so, might we be able to make use of them in education to foster greater consistency, reduce teacher workload, and improve outcomes for pupils?

What are algorithms?

Although the word “algorithm” sounds somewhat state-of-the-art, it is in fact very old. It was imported into English, via French and Latin, from the name of the 9th century Arab mathematician al-Khwarizmi.

Originally algorithm simply meant what we now call the Arabic system of numbers (including zero). Later, it acquired a more specific mathematical sense denoting a procedure. So, put simply, algorithm is another name for a set of rules: “If this, then that.” And, crucially, these rules are written by humans not machines.

If we thought of algorithms as mere flowcharts or checklists drafted by people, we would be better able to see where responsibility really lies if, or when, they go wrong…

Algorithms are everywhere and we use them every day without thinking about it. For example, if you have ever used an online search engine then you have used an algorithm. Indeed, whenever you press a key on your keyboard, make a call, perform a calculation, open a phone app, or press a button on your television remote, an algorithm is triggered.

Knowing when to trust an algorithm and when to deviate from it and use human intuition is key to their success. When used wisely, they can help us be more productive.

How does this link to education?

So, with this in mind, how can algorithms be put to good use in education without losing our sense of humanity and professional autonomy and creativity?

To be clear, I am not suggesting we allow robots into the classroom and outsource teaching to automatons. Rather, I am suggesting that we can learn from the example of algorithms and create flowcharts and checklists (or what we might in education call “rubrics”) for all those regular routines we follow in school in order to help staff and pupils automate those processes and secure greater consistency.

Talking of which…

Recently in SecEd I explained why consistency was important in education (SecEd, 2019). Whenever pupils are learning in our classrooms, I said, there is a war being waged in their working memories. If we present them with unfamiliar tasks which contain entirely new information and which is presented in a new way, then we are placing unsustainable demands on their working memories and learning is likely to fail.

We cannot – and would not want to – eliminate all the cognitive load, I explained, because if everything was too familiar and undemanding – in other words, too easy – then pupils would not have to think at all and therefore would not encode anything into long-term memory.

Rather, work has got to be hard so that pupils are made to actively think about it. But we want the focus of their hard work to be on curriculum content not on having to contend with a distracting instructional style or learning environment.

Consistency is also key to ensuring we apply behaviour policies fairly and that every member of staff upholds high expectations – only by being consistent can schools create a culture of positive behaviour and win the war of attrition that is low-level disruption.

Algorithms for pupils

In order to help pupils focus on what matters most, we might draft rubrics that help them remember key routines or the ingredients of good work (e.g. 3B4me for independent study, STAR for self and peer-assessment, FACT for giving peer feedback, PEE or PEEL for structuring analytical essays, AFOREST for persuasive writing, etc).

We might create algorithms to help pupils focus on how to behave in school and how to contribute to lessons (e.g. CARE for attitudes to learning, PARTNERS or GROUP for pupil interactions, SLANT for class discussions, etc).

And algorithms that help them with their learning (e.g. mnemonics for remembering spelling rules such as “Big Elephants Can Always Upset Small Elephants” and how to proof-read their work).

The crucial point to make here, though, is not simply that mnemonics or checklists are helpful – teachers have been using these for years – but that all these rubrics must be the same across a subject and, where possible, across an entire school, rather than created or tweaked by individual teachers – because if everyone does something slightly different, pupils will suffer.

A school or department might usefully create rubrics to help pupils with the following:

  • Entering and leaving a classroom.
  • Behaviour expectations in and out of class.
  • Equipment requirements and respecting property.
  • Reporting concerns including bullying.
  • How to conduct research, including on the internet.
  • Note-taking.
  • Pair and group work.
  • Making presentations in class.
  • Critical thinking.
  • Class debate and discussions.
  • Self and peer-assessment.
  • Giving feedback.
  • Proof-reading and redrafting work.
  • Seeking help with work when stuck.
  • The presentation and submission of written work including homework.
  • Acting on feedback to improve work.
  • Independent study, revision skills and strategies.

Algorithms for new teachers

Algorithms can also be used to help new teachers learn about a school’s systems and structures, and policies and procedures.

In the same way as they help cheat the limitations of pupils’ working memories, checklists can help new teachers – who are not only new to their school, but new to the profession – to automate some regular routines so they can focus on the complex task of teaching.

For example, schools might create rubrics for lesson planning routines, resource-creation, behaviour systems (including how and when to apply rewards and sanctions), the setting, assessing and recording of homework, marking and feedback, and working with teaching assistants, to name just a few.

New teachers might also benefit from flowcharts to help them use the school’s data systems including for recording attendance and lateness, as well as to navigate the school’s procurement and reprographics procedures, and engage with performance management and professional development procedures, and so on.

Indeed, rubrics can form the basis of the new teacher’s induction handbook.

Algorithms for all

Checklists are not only helpful for new teachers, they can help all teachers to automate regular routines and ensure greater consistency between teachers and departments. Checklists may be created to help ensure meetings are productive and focused, for example, and to improve the effectiveness of quality assurance processes. They may be used to improve parental and community engagement, and to ensure the school complies with health and safety legislation, as well as child protection procedures including on school trips. In fact, the use of checklists is truly limitless!

How to write a rubric

Whatever you decide to write a rubric for, here are some questions to consider:

  • Why do I need this rubric? Do I have clear and concise objectives for its use?
  • What are the crucial steps people usually miss which I must include in my rubric?
  • Is this rubric as simple as it can be but as comprehension as it needs to be?
  • Can this rubric be read aloud easily and fluently while someone is performing the task?
  • Have I used simple sentences and short words?
  • Does the title accurately reflect the purpose of the rubric?
  • Does it fit on one page?
  • Is this rubric logically ordered and presented in a simple, uncluttered format?
  • Do I include natural “pauses” or checkpoints for long, complex processes and, if so, are there fewer than 10 actions between checkpoints?
  • Is this rubric likely to be contradicted or confused by another checklist or process, or to become quickly outdated?
  • Does the rubric include a creation date and the date it was last revised?
  • Does it make clear who the rubric is aimed at?
  • Have I trialled the rubric and modified it in response to any difficulties?

Above all, remember that good rubrics are precise – they do not try to spell out everything, they simply provide reminders of the most critical or important steps.

Some ideas for education algorithms

  • How to SOAR: Show integrity, Own your learning, Accept responsibility, Respect yourself and other.
  • How to SUMmarise: Shorter than the text, Use our own words, Main ideas only.
  • Take CARE: Courteous, Always prepared, Respect, Effort.
  • When in assemblies in the school HALL: Hands at your side, All eyes forward, Lips zipped, Low speed.
  • Effective GROUP work: Give thoughtful feedback, Respect others and their thoughts, On task at all times, Use quiet voices, Participate actively, Stay with your group.
  • How to work with PARTNERS: Participate actively, Ask questions, Respect your partner’s ideas, Take turns to speak, Never give up, Explain your answers/ideas, Respect others’ answers, Stay with your partner.
  • The POWER of planning: Prepare – list your ideas, Organise – structure your ideas into a response, Write the first draft, Edit the first draft, identify improvements, Re-write.
  • THINK before speaking – is it: True, Helpful, Inspiring, Necessary, Kind.

Professional algorithms

Checklists can also be helpful for the bigger things in education. For example, in previous articles for SecEd I have shared my checklists for the three-step learning process, the four-part teaching sequence, the five features of a growth mindset classroom, the eight cornerstones of excellent work, and the four Cs for working with teaching assistants. Here is a quick reminder…

The three-step learning algorithm:

  1. Stimulate pupils’ senses to gain the attention of working memory.
  2. Make pupils think hard but efficiently about curriculum content.
  3. Plan for deliberate practice to retrieve prior learning from long-term memory.

The process of learning: Part 3, SecEd, September 2017: http://bit.ly/30j2ptY

The four-part teaching algorithm:

  1. Tell: Make use of effective teacher explanations.
  2. Show: Use teacher modelling whilst thinking aloud.
  3. Do: Engage in co-construction with the class.
  4. Practice: Ensure pupils practice independently.

A four-step teaching sequence, SecEd, June 2018: http://bit.ly/2RPjbiX

The five features of a growth mindset classroom algorithm:

  1. Use frequent, formative feedback.
  2. High levels of challenge for every pupil.
  3. Explicitly welcome mistakes.
  4. Engage in deliberate practice.
  5. Reward effort not attainment.

Teaching strategies to create ‘growth’ mindsets, SecEd, May 2014: http://bit.ly/1fMLvuj

The eight cornerstones of excellence algorithm:

  1. High quality work.
  2. Genuine research.
  3. A real audience.
  4. In-built differentiation.
  5. Collective responsibility.
  6. Class critique.
  7. Modelling success.
  8. Drafting and redrafting.

Eight steps to teaching excellence, SecEd, September 2014: http://bit.ly/ZCVf3s

The 4Cs of working effectively with teaching assistants:

  1. Consistency.
  2. Communication.
  3. Clarify.
  4. Connections.

Working with teaching assistants, SecEd, November 2018: http://bit.ly/2V0NMwq

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