What I know about knowledge (or, How to put an end to pointless note taking and got pupils applying knowledge)
When I set out to write a new blog I had planned to write about Knowledge Organisers, what I thought was good about them and what I thought was truly horrendous. To do that wouldn’t fully reflect what I doing at the minute with my classes. Yes, I’m using knowledge organisers (or variations on the idea), but that’s just a piece of the puzzle.
I became interested in knowledge organisers because I started seeing a lot of Twitter activity with people talking about them, which coincided with my work planning for the new GCSE curriculum. I was myself planning out the key ideas and concepts that I thought my students would need to know. The first ‘knowledge organisers’ I made had been for my own sake, my own guide to the exam content. The process was enormously beneficial, on a few sheets of paper I had plotted out all of the key things that I was going to need to teach pupils. I had it in a beautifully succinct way, no fluff, just focussed knowledge.
As I started to plan lessons, I would refer to these ‘knowledge organisers’ I had made, crafting what I thought were some really good lessons, but as the course went on and as I began to check pupils books there were a few cases where I wasn’t entirely happy with the notes that some pupils had written:
Now, my approach could be described as Knowledge Organisers (in that some take the stereotypical style that can be found online) but it could also be described as a sheet of notes.
In describing this some teachers have nearly died of shock, arguing that it is doing too much for the students and that I’m doing their work for them. I would argue that they are missing the point of what is happening in my classroom and it is something I’ll try and unpack.
For each lesson, or sequence of lessons, I give pupils a sheet (either in Knowledge Organiser format, or as a sheet of notes and diagrams). It is their responsibility to learn this. They have a permanent homework to learn the key words, definitions and concepts. They are tested on these regularly (which is something that Dawn Cox writes brilliantly about here, here and here - sorry but Dawn's blog is one of the first I turn to when I need ideas/inspiration/good common sense).
Upon entering the class, pupils have 5QQ (Five Quick Questions, something many Maths teachers will be familiar with). This is on material that has been studied across the GCSE course, I make sure I keep a track of which questions are being asked and always focus on topics that misconceptions occur in. Keeping track means that you can respond to those misconceptions and that you don’t spend too long retesting on material that they are already confident with.
As the register is being taken, pupils read through the information, as they read through they highlight parts, write questions, expand upon point and make links to other information that has been studied.
Then, as a group, we discuss the information. They ask questions that they may have written down, we unpack ideas and I quiz them on the information that they have just been given. All this has happened within the first 15-20 minutes of a lesson.
Then it is time to apply the information, this can be to an exam style question, into a revision resource, with dual-coding, a debate or a whole range of other activities. It provides another opportunity for us to talk through the key material, for them to apply it and then for me to see whether they have understood the information.
Ten minutes, or so, before the end of the lesson we get an opportunity to talk through the ideas, maybe expand on some ideas (verbally, or written) and then for us to finish with a quiz on the material being studied.
Pupils know that their permanent homework is to revise the knowledge, which means that in class we can focus on applying it and testing it. I finish each lesson with a clear understanding of how well they are grasping the concepts and it frees me up to give individualised feedback.
I’ve discussed this approach with a few different teachers, many of whom react with shock, astounded that I just give pupils the notes. It is not that I think note taking isn’t an important skill, I do. I haven’t abandoned it, but I want pupils to be able to explore, discuss and commit this information to memory, not just for that lesson but throughout their course. As time progresses I’ll hopefully add some anonymised data to show how knowledge retention has improved over a longer period of time (i.e. a two/three year course of study) but it’ll be a while till I’ll have that.
The students have adapted to this process really well and it is certainly paying off with students, who are frequently saying that they understand the information much better now, something which is definitely becoming apparent in recent test results.
In summary, where’s what I like about the approach:
I’d certainly recommend this approach, but what you must ensure is that you are not just giving pupils the notes, telling them that they need to learn it and just leave them to it. The notes I give are referred to constantly throughout the lesson/sequence of lessons/from weeks or months ago. I’ll model how I would use the information by either projecting it on the board or using a visualiser to show them exactly how I am going to use, or manipulate, the piece of information. I’m giving them the notes so that we can be active learners, not passive ones.
Hopefully I’ve been able to outline/justify what I’ve been doing. If not, please leave a comment/tweet me (@MrMcKavanaghRE) and I’ll try to elaborate or send some examples of what I’ve been doing.
After rewatching Twin Peaks, the first time since becoming a teacher, in preparation for the latest series (which I am yet to get around to) there was something about Agent Cooper that really struck and resonated with me and I started wondering how I could teach like Agent Cooper would.
Those of you who have seen David Lynch’s masterpiece, might wonder how on Earth I am going to make my case, but I think that Coop has some pretty impressive qualities that not only help him solve crimes, but would also make him a hit in the classroom.
So what’s so good about Cooper, why would that make him a good teacher and how I am doing in trying to teach like Agent Cooper (I’m going to give myself a Cooper score for each).
Go grab a damn fine cup of coffee and a big old slice of Cherry Pie and I’ll explain.
Kyle MacLachlan’s character has an unfaltering positivity, even when things are looking bleak, he always has a smile and a big thumbs up. Not even when the case keeps heading off in the wrong direction and he seems further away than ever from solving the crime, he keeps exuding positivity. It is pretty infectious. Not that I was a massive grump before (although that might depend on who you ask) but it is quite nice to be nice and things just seem better when you’re being positive, a break-time duty on top of a five period day, a lunchtime detention and an after school meeting may seem pretty bleak, but being positive tends to make things that little bit better. Now, this is way easier said than done, and as term stretches on it becomes even harder to do, but then I think ‘What would Coop do?’ (WWCD bracelets coming soon), it doesn’t work everytime, but when you remember what an amazing job we have as teachers and the fact that we are making a difference to pupils’ lives (even if it doesn’t always feel like it) makes it a little bit easier to be positive.
My Cooper score: 4/5 (really positive, but it is harder at the end of term)
2. Attention to detail and seeing the bigger picture.
Agent Cooper shows a great attention to detail, but combined with that is his ability to see the bigger picture, as a teacher we need both but we need to get the balance correct, otherwise it is all work no play. As teachers in this data driven world it is really easy to obsess over the details, but sometimes we get too close and we miss the magic that is really happening in the classroom and what we are trying to achieve. It’s also very easy to obsess over that “outstanding” lesson observation making sure that it ticks all the boxes and shows that pupils made progress every few minutes and some peer assessment sheets that give the impression of genuinely good feedback, but are in reality just paying lip-service to it. And all the while you’re starting to miss the bigger picture, giving pupils a genuinely amazing educational experience.
That’s not to say that the little things don’t matter, but it’s about knowing when to stop. This was the hardest in my journey to teach like Coop, not getting bogged down in those tiny details, to remember the bigger picture and to try to get the right balance. If you can’t do that, then you won’t be able to stay positive for long and positivity is rule #1 in teaching like Agent Cooper.
My Cooper score: 3/5 (I get too hung up on the small details and lose sight at times)
3. Appreciate the little things
As a teacher you expend a lot of energy and there are so many things to try to stay on top of in the classroom. Sometimes it feels like that it goes to waste, so many deadlines, parents evenings and reports to write that you can lose sight of all of the wonder that you are creating in the classroom. It may feel like a battle at times, but you are changing lives for the better and you are helping to give pupils an education. You were never in the job for the praise, but day in day out as teachers there are miracles happening, you just might not see them. What makes things worse is the catalogue of teacher tweeters who are always posting up a pupil who came up to them and said that they were amazing, or they were the best teacher they ever had and you’re wondering why the kids are never saying it to you. Chances are the pupils think that you’re brilliant, they just have never thought of saying it to you, or if they have they’re too shy or embarrassed.
Learn to take pleasure from the smallest of things, the pupil who finally remembers their book after ten consecutive lessons of insisting that you must have it, the pupil who has started underlining their title, the pupil that goes from writing nothing, to one sentence to a whole paragraph. You caused those changes, they may seem small, but they are huge steps for the pupils.
Just remember, you’re doing one of the most important jobs and even if no one tells you, you have changed lives for the better.
My Cooper score: 4/5 (Genuinely feel like I’m making a difference and that this is the best job in the world, but sometimes forget it when a lesson doesn’t go to plan)
4. Going back to the drawing board
I’ve lost count of the number of times Cooper goes charging off on a new lead, often informed by a dream he had the previous evening, only to end up back at square one. Teaching can feel like that sometimes, you have a brilliant new idea and you want to try it out. You spend hours reading about it, you’ve even found a couple of blogs online explaining how they did it and it turned out wonderfully and then when it comes to your attempt...it falls flat on its face.
All of us would take a knock in this situation, but it is about understanding what you should do next which is important. If Agent Cooper hadn’t tried again and again, retracing his steps, reflecting on what went wrong then he would have never come close to solving the case (I’ll not explore this too much to avoid spoilers). It’s these setbacks and the resilience we develop in overcoming them that helps us to improve as teachers and to deliver better quality lessons to our pupils.
But how do we know what are the best things to be looking at anyway. For me, and I would argue it should be for all teachers, is the use of research. You need to find a basis for what you are planning on doing and whilst the latest Twitter guru may have fancy looking ideas, we should always look to see what the research suggests. From that you can start planning your own action research project as that will help you to decide what will work best for you in the classroom in which you are working. Better still, why not set up an action research group, you can work together with a small group of other teachers and you can discuss your findings as you work towards a combined aim. There will be dead ends and mishaps along the way, but that is all part of the process. You can go back to the drawing board, reflect upon what went wrong and approach the issue again. There is a whole load of research out there to get you started and it is amazing CPD.
My Cooper score: 4/5 (I like to think this is a strength, I’m always looking at ways to improve, there just isn’t always the time)
5. Calling on experts/others when you need them
As brilliant as Cooper is, he cannot do everything. Sometimes he has to turn to experts like Agent Albert Rosenfield as he respects and uses the key medical knowledge that he has. At other times he turns to the support of those who become his friends, like Sheriff Truman, Hawk and Deputy Brennan.
Cooper’s reliance upon Rosenfield should be like our reliance upon education researchers, yes our own views are important, but we need some basis and backing for them. I wholeheartedly believe that the key thing that we should be doing as teachers is engaging in research. There is a wealth of knowledge out there, we should be harnessing it and applying it to what we are doing. The difficulty is finding time and being able to navigate our way through the research to establish what we should do next.
But sometimes, the expert can be a bit closer to home. Every school is full of a wealth of experience that can come from those who can offer support and guidance. The views and experiences of others are important and they can help you get through those difficult situations.
Ultimately Cooper couldn’t solve crimes relying on just one, it was by using those around him and the help from experts that he was able to be the finest FBI agent I’ve ever seen on television. If we want to be the best teachers we can be, then we need to make use of experts and those with lived experience as well.
My Cooper score: 2/5 (I make good use of research, but don’t draw upon the skills and expertise of those I work with enough)
6. Know when to have fun
In my first year of teaching I didn’t appreciate this and I probably didn’t fully understand what it meant until into my second year. It definitely does not mean to have fun at the expense of everything else, nor does it mean that there should be chaos.
School shouldn’t be some draconian process where facts are drilled into pupils, but pupils need to buy into the teacher and what the teacher is trying to achieve. That certainly shouldn’t be a pally relationship with you as a pushover, but fun can be a vehicle for the learning. There’s no clear cut way that fun, learning and engagement should look. The learning process is messy, but every now and again there’s no reason why you can’t let your hair down and you just deliver those crazy lesson ideas where you know pupils are going to love it, you are going to love teaching it, the pupils will remember it for months (maybe years) and you’ll have all learned lots in the process.
My Cooper score: 3/5 (I definitely know what this means now, but sometimes I hold back on doing lessons that are a little ‘out there’ for fear of it going wrong)
7. Profound statements
I like to think that I am a wealth of deep philosophical insight, but I can never live up to Cooper with his frequent references to deep intellectual Buddhist philosophy. He spouts some pretty life affirming, sage-like sayings several times an episode.
In contrast, I attempted to give Year 8 an impassioned explanation of why we should do kind things for others. Their take-away was that Mr McKavanagh likes to pick up other people’s rubbish. In this case I had to refer back to #4 and to rethink what I could do to get that message across. The next time I saw them, I took another angle and now they get where I’m coming from.
I’m still a way off Agent Cooper though. Maybe I should try scripting what I’ll say before and practice a chin stroke whilst I say it.
My Cooper score: 1/5 (this is mainly because I didn’t want to give myself 0 and I’m trying to follow rule #1)
8. Recording on a dictaphone
One of my favourite things about Twin Peaks is Agent Cooper recording his thoughts on a dictaphone to the mysterious Diane. Now, it might be pretty odd if I started doing that in class, but I think that this represents something bigger.
For me an essential part of the teaching process is reflecting on what I have done in a lesson. How could I improve it, what things could I change, what was good about it, etc. This was such regular practice during my PGCE, but I got out of the habit and wouldn’t reflect on everything I was doing, maybe just the odd piece of lesson here and there. Only whilst doing the Masters in Learning and Teaching over the past two years did I get into the habit again of reflecting on what I was doing. You could call it field notes, you could call it a diary. Whatever you want to call it, this became a record of my thoughts and feelings on what I was teaching. It doesn’t look as cool as Cooper with his dictaphone and I’m not addressing it to a mysterious secretary, but it has certainly developed me as a teacher and it helped immeasurably as a researcher.
My Cooper score: 4/5 (I’ve got some pretty detailed reflections, but I’m missing the stylish dictaphone)
9. Coffee and Cherry Pie
No Twin Peaks reference would be complete without Cherry Pie and Coffee.
Neither of these actually have any impact on the quality of teaching and I cannot try and make you suffer through the possible tortured analogies I could try and construct to make them appear as if they are metaphors. But I do get through a lot of coffee, though there is never enough cherry pie in my life.
My Cooper score: 5/5 (I really like coffee, probably not as much as Cooper does, but pretty close)
Since I started teaching I always liked the idea of turning some of the bland and boring walls in my classroom into something more, well, interactive…
I’m not sure where I first saw the idea, maybe it was on Twitter, maybe in another classroom, maybe I dreamt it, but I decided that I wanted to turn one of my walls into a chalkboard, because who wouldn’t like to combine the urge to commit petty vandalism with the act of learning?
Now, the last DIY experiment I undertook has left my poor, unfortunate mother with recurring nightmares, but this time (with a little help from the site team) I was able to turn this dream into a reality. They painted my wall black, I went over it in the chalkboard paint. It didn’t take too long (maybe an hour), and the tin of paint was around £4/5.
The initial reactions were mixed, a group of Year 9 girls became excited at the idea that perhaps this new black wall was me expressing my inner emo (does that still exist?) and a burning desire for the dark arts, a few of them revelled in the idea of an RE teacher who might be in league with the devil.
Others, however, were perplexed as to why I would want to spend time and effort doing something like that when I wouldn’t be able to keep a record in pupils books as to what they had done in that part of the lesson, one or two thought it was just the quirky new teacher with his zany new ideas, but most took to it with intrigue and a growing desire to get their hands on some chalk.
So why did I want to do it in the first place. Well classrooms can be pretty uninspiring rooms at times, four walls a door a white board and some windows. Sure, there are display boards and you can start to bring the room to life, but in a school there are a lot of rooms like that. I wanted my room to be different and I wanted the pupils to be able to interact with the room and to create an ever changing and ever growing collection of knowledge and ideas. Ideas, who for some pupils, never get seen or heard outside of the leaves of their books.
There are so many factors that lead to successful learning in a classroom, but I feel that pupils they need to be inspired by their setting, not just by the people and ideas in it. In a RE (or this year History and Geography as well) lesson, I want pupils to be able to express their ideas in different ways, orally or through writing, through art, through drama. The idea of having to write all ideas in their books doesn’t inspire the pupils and it doesn’t inspire me. Learning isn’t just about being told ideas, it is about forming and developing your own. Yes, some of those do need to form a record within a pupils book, but sometimes we just want a short burst of ideas and the ability to build on what others have written, that’s not always easy with exercise books.
The chalkboard wall acts as a great way for pupils to put their ideas into writing, then to take a step back, and look at the other ideas their peers have. They can then build on each others ideas and then return to their original thought and see how that idea has developed and progressed. You, and they, can see how ideas grow, right in front of their eyes.
Aside from that there is a sense of novelty and excitement, once pupils have had a taste of it then you often get requests for when they can write on the walls again. The sense of fulfilment when a pupil who hates the idea of writing in their exercise book is desperate to do some writing is one that would be foolish to ignore. It’s a brilliant opportunity to tap into a pupil’s enthusiasm in the hope that you will see them start to flourish. Having a chalkboard wall obviously is not the solution to our education problems and their are undoubtedly pupils who would prefer to not do it and to just get on with writing in their books and then there will be the pupils who struggle to engage regardless, but the positive shift in pupil perception definitely took me by surprise.
Now, if you follow me on Twitter, you will have undoubtedly heard me complain of anecdotal accounts, and all I’ve done is give you an anecdotal account. Those of you who follow me will also have seen me apologise for my hypocrisy when using anecdotal accounts of my own. I am fully aware of the limitations of what I have talked about here. The delicate balancing of motivation, engagement, delivery of content, acquisition of knowledge, behaviour management and a catalogue of other things in a classroom is a delicate journey, but the impact on myself in using the chalkboard wall and through conversations with my pupils, I feel like it is having a positive effect on the classroom with pupils seemingly buying into what we are trying to do in the classroom. Learning is a messy process, and making the room an interactive learning environment is a way of ‘controlling’ that messiness.
When talking about this in the past a few critics have said that this is an attempt at style over substance, but that ignores the task design that goes into what you are asking them to write about. If you just said ‘Here’s some chalk, go wild.’ then likely it is pointless (though not always) but why would it be good practice if I asked them to mind-map ideas in their book, but is suddenly shocking if they are doing the same on the wall. If pupil engagement increases or they start discussing, explaining and defending their views to others, then that can only be a good thing. Like everything, I think it requires balance.
Now, I know not everyone works or teaches in a place where they would be allowed to paint their walls in chalkboard paint, but there are other things you can do.
Presumably (unless the budget cuts have somehow become even worse) you have tables in your classroom. A dry board marker allows you to write on and then easily wipe off if you want to write on those. Or, hopefully you have windows (if not then that feels like a pretty uninspiring place to learn) you can use chalk pens or a whiteboard marker on those - again it is easy to wipe off.
Sorry for the cheesy Charlie Chalk reference, it was the best I could do on the topic of chalk...