Ever had a child in your class say, ‘I don’t get it,’ after you’ve lost count of the number of times you’ve been over it? Ever asked your class about what they learnt earlier and been met with silence and a tumble weed rolling across the room, as they look up at you with glazed over eyes? Ever wondered if, you imagined teaching your class that thing, that they all did awesomely the day before, as now they all are saying, “It’s too hard,” and giving up? We all have, and yes, sometimes, it might be because they weren’t listening, aren’t interested or aren’t ready for that next step, but usually it’s because it didn’t stick and that’s when you need to be creative and find a way to change that. Also, if they aren’t listening or interested, why not? What could you be doing to better engage your pupils?
Are you missing something?
If you want to make learning stick, especially if it is a difficult concept or content that can be naturally quite dry, you need a few tricks up your sleeve. The students need to use that learning, not just memorise it, and any independent work should show understanding, rather than them quickly writing it down before they forget what you just said.
I came across an article recently from a teacher in the US, called Jennifer Gonzalez, who was fed up with the way her daughter and many other pupils were being taught at school. One of the key issues that she mentioned was skipping an important learning phase which she called, ‘guided practice and application.’ Jennifer explains, “With the support of the teacher, students apply what they have just been taught.” She added that she noticed lots of teachers were jumping from ‘direct instruction’ to ‘independent application.’ In other words, teachers are explaining and perhaps modelling a concept, then sending students of to apply it independently, without any real support and practice time. Rushing into independent learning is certainly a factor in learning not sticking. How can children really work independently and successfully on something they don’t fully understand, and haven’t had time to use and process?
How can you make learning stick?
Jennifer also has a clear message running through her article that, ‘to learn, students need to do something.’ She’s right. Students need practical opportunities to use their learning, so they can really understand it. They also need a purpose. Why are we learning this? What is it all for? To have this understanding, learning needs to be meaningful.
If you want to make learning more meaningful in your classroom, here are some ideas:
- Sharing work with parents
If students know their work will be shared with parents this will motivate them to work harder, and therefore improve their understanding. Especially, if it is to help their parents learn something. For example, your pupils might love the chance to teach their parents all about online safety. Apps like ReallySchool, help you instantly share children’s learning with parents and carers, making this process quick and easy.
- Real life context
Giving learning a clear real life context makes learning far more meaningful and memorable for your pupils. For example, if your pupils are learning about money, then create a shop in your classroom. Give the students fake coins to buy items with price tags, where they have to spend the exact amount, or work out the change. If you use real food this will motivate them in their learning too. From this experience, they would know that the one of the purposes of learning about money is so they can buy things. They’d understand that they need to know what coins to use, if they have enough money for the item, if they will receive some change and so on.
Instead of learning one thing, then moving on to the next objective, and so on, link your learning together in to projects. This could be individual projects, group or whole class projects, where pupils need to use their knowledge over a period of time to create something. Also make sure to find opportunities to celebrate their projects- share them in assemblies, with parents, or other classes and display them proudly in your classroom.
- Explain why/ show why
When teaching something new to your class, explain to them or show them why they need to know it. For example, if you were teaching a lesson about adjectives you could say something like, ‘”Today we are learning about adjectives. Adjectives are describing words. We are learning about them, so we can make our writing really exciting for the reader.” Even better, you could give them two pieces of text, one with adjectives and one without, and ask them about what they notice. Then you can begin to explain what adjectives are. This is already more meaningful because they already have a base understanding of why and how they are used.
Before working independently, students need time to practice their skills. There are many ways to do this and this practice could be as a whole class, in groups or partner work with the guidance and support of teachers and teaching assistants. The most important thing is that students can access the support they need to practice these new skills. They need to get stuck, make mistakes, ask questions, try it in different ways and so on. I’m sure a lot of you, from growth mindset style training sessions, have been reminded time and time again, that we often learn more from making mistakes than getting it right the first time.
Give students choices about how they learn and their independent outcomes. Let them choose their activities and resources, choose different ways to show their learning etc. Giving them choice makes learning more meaningful, because it is better catered to individual pupils, and they enjoy having an input in the process.
Source: To Learn, Students Need to DO Something, Jennifer Gonzalez, 4/11/2018, https//www.cultofpedagogy.com/do-something/