As a science teacher, it’s not always easy to put into practice what we know is important in terms of effective learning. We know the importance of repetition and regular practice, but with a content heavy subject and limited curriculum time, it’s difficult to put this into action. Similarly, we know that retrieval is an essential feature of effective learning (as discussed here by Andy Tharby), but again we don’t tend to provide opportunities for this, as we move from one topic, to another, to another, in a bid to cover the curriculum with this kind of approach:
This limits the opportunity for repetition and retrieval as there is limited ‘interleaving’ of the topics. If we compare this to subjects such as English and maths, this would not be the approach used. Having embedded essential knowledge e.g. factorising quadratic equations, and having this modelled with them, students would then spend a number of lessons practising and embedding this learning – the learning is straddled over a number of lessons. This lends itself to repetition, retrieval, deliberate practice and interleaving.
This half term, and unconsciously, my lessons have broken away from the topic by topic structure outlined above and have looked more like this:
So for example, topic 1 may have been looking at forces and resultant forces, but to embed this I carried it on into lesson 2. As it’s a fundamental idea, I wanted to ensure that students were confident with it, before moving on. This then went into looking at terminal velocity. Students seemed to pick this up with greater confidence than is usual, as we had spent longer embedding the surface knowledge of resultant forces. This was straddled across two lessons, before we went on to looking at ‘Hooke’s Law’. This involved a practical, which we did in one lesson, and then analysed the next. At the start of topic 3, Hooke’s Law, I asked students to describe and explain what happened as someone did a bunjee jump – in terms of the motion of the person and the bunjee cord. Ashley, a y11 boy who usually lacks confidence and is a typical C/D borderline student did a brilliant piece of writing. What was impressive, was that he started by using knowledge about the forces acting on a falling object/ resultant forces (from topics 1 and 2) before going on to talk about the forces acting on the bunjee cord (term 3). This made me think that this idea of straddling topics across lessons is useful – it stops students compartmentalising their learning and encourages them to make the links between the topics. I’m sure Ashley wouldn’t have brought in knowledge from previous lessons, if it hadn’t been so fresh in his mind – we had just finished it that same lesson.
It may take slightly longer to cover the content, but I’d argue that it’s time well spent.
Other reasons I think I’ll be doing more of this:
- Retrieval – if you are continuing with the same topic across lessons, students have to retrieve the knowledge from last lesson, to support what they are doing in the current. Retrieval aids memorisation.
- Interleaving – You are not limiting topics to individual lessons – they are being stretched over a number of lessons and so key ideas are being repeated. This supports the idea of deliberate practice.
- Makes links explicit – as ‘topic transitions’ are happening during a lesson, it enables you to draw out the links and common ideas between them – which then become more obvious for the students.
- Stops artificial ‘moving on’ – We tend to assume that the end of lesson bell, means they have ‘got it’ and so next lesson we move on to the next topic, regardless of whether they have grasped the idea or not. Straddling removes this artificial signal to ‘move on’ and encourages us to only do so, once the students are confident with it.
Clearly this has implications for planning. It’s easy to plan in terms of ‘I have X number of topics to fit into Y number of lessons’. But is this really supporting learning? So planning is a key consideration.
Whilst this happened by accident, I think it has a number of merits – and I’m beginning to see the benefits of it. So I’ll be doing more of it.