How to facilitate learning

This is a version of an article written for SecEd Magazine and is the seventh instalment in a 9-part series.

This series from Matt Bromley reminds teachers of key practical lessons from the ITT programme he delivers. Having discussed the planning of curriculum learning, he now turns his attention to key approaches to facilitating and delivering that learning in the classroom

I am lead lecturer on an initial teacher training programme and it occurred to me recently that some of the content would be useful, not just for those new to the profession, but for all early career teachers and indeed seasoned professionals in search of a refresher.

And so in these nine articles being published in SecEd, I am sharing my ITT journey in the hope it provides some useful opportunities for you to reflect on your own professional practice and encourages you to try out some new strategies in your classroom.

A quick recap: in my first article, I set out a list of strategies and traits that all expert teachers have in common. In my second article, I focused on the application of theories and models of learning. In my third article, I explored a teacher’s roles and responsibilities in ensuring that learning happens – namely, we must identify needs, plan learning, facilitate learning, assess learning, and finally evaluate learning. I then focused on identifying needs through initial and diagnostic assessments.

In my fourth, fifth and sixth articles, I examined planning learning and suggested that, if we looked back at the features of effective teaching from article one and regarded them as success criteria, then we might conclude that an effective plan is:

  • Ambitious.
  • Broad and balanced.
  • Sequenced.
  • A means of ensuring equality and equity.
  • A means of assessment.
  • A means of embedding retrieval practice and modes of feedback.
  • A way of handing ownership to students.
  • Varied in the learning activities it includes.
  • Shared with and understood by students.

I will let you go back and read these pieces in depth, but in particular, I argued that:

  • We need to start at the end. In other words, we need to identify the success criteria.
  • We need to cover a sufficient breadth of subject knowledge.
  • We need to lay our curriculum out in a logical order for teaching.
  • We need to provide equality by not dumbing down or reducing the curriculum for some students. We need to ensure equity by using adaptive teaching approaches and additional intervention strategies.
  • We need to use our curriculum as a means of assessment to help ensure we assess the acquisition of knowledge, skills and understanding rather than something arbitrary.
  • We need to build students’ independence over time.
  • We need to provide a variety of learning activities over time in order to gain our students’ attentions, engage and intrigue them, and motivate them to learn.
  • We need to share our curriculum journey with students so that they know the destination to which they are headed – what success will look like.

From planning to facilitating learning

So let’s explore ways of translating those curriculum plans into classroom practice – facilitating and delivering learning.

I have written many times before about facilitating learning. My thinking on the subject is heavily influenced by Cognitive Load Theory (CLT) – a term coined by Dr John Sweller in 1988.

Indeed, in my ITT lessons on facilitating learning I started here. Dr Sweller developed CLT out of a study of problem-solving, in order “to provide guidelines intended to assist in the presentation of information in a manner that encourages learner activities that optimise intellectual performance”.

In cognitive psychology, “cognitive load” refers to the amount of working memory we use. There are three types of cognitive load: intrinsic load is the amount of effort associated with a specific topic; extraneous load refers to the way information or tasks are presented to a learner; and germane load refers to the work put into creating a permanent store of knowledge (sometimes called a schema).

Dr Sweller argued that better instructional design – in other words, better teaching – can be used to reduce students’ cognitive load.

CLT is often viewed alongside the Multi-Store Memory Model proposed by Richard Atkinson and Richard Shiffrin in 1968 (also known as the Atkinson-Shiffrin Model).

This model asserts that human memory has three separate components:

  • A sensory register, where sensory information enters memory.
  • A short-term store, also called working memory or short-term memory, which receives and holds input from both the sensory register and the long-term store.
  • A long-term store, where information which has been rehearsed (explained below) in the short-term store is held indefinitely.

Information may only be stored in long-term memory after first being attended to and processed by working memory. Working memory, however, is extremely limited in both capacity and duration. These limitations will, under some conditions, impede learning – something often referred to as “cognitive overload”.

The central tenet of CLT is that the quality of our teaching will be improved if we consider the role and limitations of working memory.

A three-step learning process

For my 2018 book, How to Learn, I developed a three-part learning process to help explain how memories are formed within the context of the classroom. Briefly, it is as follows:

  1. Create a positive learning environment to stimulate sensory memory in order to gain the active attention of working memory.
  2. Make students think hard but efficiently in working memory in order to encode information in long-term memory.
  3. Plan for frequent retrieval practice to activate prior learning in order to improve storage in, and retrieval from, long-term memory.

The act of acquiring new knowledge and skills is the start of the learning process. It is what happens (or begins to happen) in the classroom when a teacher – the expert – imparts their knowledge or demonstrates their skills (perhaps through the artful use of explanations and modelling, of which more later) to their students – the novices.

Next, students store this new information in their long-term memories (via their working memories) where it can be recalled and used later.

The process of storing information in the long-term memory is called “encoding”. The process of getting it back out again is called “retrieval”.

A student could demonstrate their immediate understanding of what they have been taught by repeating what the teacher has said or by demonstrating the skill they have just seen applied. But this immediate display is not necessarily “learning”. Rather, it is a “performance”. It is a simple regurgitation of what they have just seen or heard and takes place in the working memory, without any need for information to be encoded in the long-term memory.

We can all repeat, rote-like, something someone else has just said or mimic a skill they have just demonstrated. But unless we can retain that knowledge or skill over time, we haven’t really learnt it. Nor have we learnt it if we cannot apply that knowledge or skill in a range of different situations.

However, if we simply repeat the information over and again verbatim, we will only really improve students’ surface knowledge of that information. To improve and deepen students’ understanding, we need to teach curriculum content in different contexts. We need to model examples of its use in a range of situations. And when we repeat learning, we should do so in different ways.

The process of learning, then, is the interaction between one’s sensory memory and one’s long-term memory.

Our sensory memory is made up of:

  • What we see – our iconic memory.
  • What we hear – our echoic memory.
  • What we touch – our haptic memory.

Our long-term memory is where new information is stored and from which it can be recalled when needed, but we cannot directly access the information stored in our long-term memory.

As such, the interaction that takes place between our sensory memory and our long-term memory occurs in our working memory, or short-term memory, which is the only place where we can think and do.

Hence the three-step process I outlined above. I have previously shared 30 “top tips” for putting this three-step process into effect. Find this article here.

A four-part teaching sequence

Coupled with this, and in order to facilitate learning, I recommend a four-step teaching sequence to my trainee teachers to be used whenever they introduce students to new information – those four steps are:

  1. Telling.
  2. Showing.
  3. Doing.
  4. Practising.

Briefly, here’s what each step entails…

  • Telling or teacher explanation works best when the teacher presents new material to students in small “chunks” and provides scaffolds and targeted support.
  • Showing or teacher modelling works best when the teacher models a new procedure by, among other strategies, thinking aloud, guiding students’ initial practice, and providing students with cues.
  • Doing or co-construction works best when the teacher provides students with “fix-up” strategies – corrections and “live” feedback.
  • Practising or independent work works best when the teacher provides planned opportunities in class for extensive independent practice.

I do, we do, you do

Some people refer to this teaching sequence as “I do, we do, you do” whereby the teacher gradually hands ownership of learning to students. The teacher starts the journey as the arbiter of knowledge and carefully controls the flow of information, including by presenting information in small chunks and periodically checking for understanding. But gradually, students take over and complete tasks by themselves.

In the “I do” stage the teacher explains what students need to understand and/or models how to complete a task. This stage draws on Albert Bandura’s Social Cognitive Theory which involves:

  • Demonstrating what to do by working an example.
  • Thinking aloud in order to share your thinking.

The best explanations activate prior knowledge, are as simple as possible, break information down into small steps, outline any potential difficulties, and show how concepts are distinct from similar concepts so as to unpack common misconceptions.

Then, in the “we do” stage the teacher helps students by providing scaffolds such as prompts or partially completed tasks. While worked examples are an important aspect of the “I do” stage, “faded” worked examples are key to the “we do” stage. With faded worked examples:

  • The teacher completes some of the steps.
  • Students complete the remaining steps.

During this stage students need to actively think about the information they need to learn. To help, we can get students to:

  • Consider how new information adds to and/or alters prior knowledge.
  • Think about what makes new ideas distinct from similar ideas they have already studied.
  • Access information without having to remember it (e.g. by annotating, note-taking, mind-mapping, etc.)

We can also help students to retrieve information by:

  • Recognising material (e.g. through the use of multiple-choice questions, card sort activities, etc).
  • Recalling material with prompts (e.g. through the use of cloze activities, mind-mapping, etc).

Finally, in the “you do” stage, students complete the task on their own or demonstrate their understanding of the task in other ways but, crucially, this should only be tasks similar to what has been covered in the earlier stages of the process.

Following independent practice, the teacher gives students feedback on their work and students act upon that feedback.

So, that’s facilitating learning. Next time, in article eight, we will look at assessing learning.

Follow Matt on Twitter @mj_bromley for more teaching tips like these.

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