Teaching | Connection Cues

I’ve been thinking about how I use retrieval in the classroom, and how over time, this has become a much more responsive process, with a sense of automaticity that was certainly not there in the earlier years of my teaching practice. I thought it might be useful to share my thinking on how to set about the task of using retrieval in an organic way that pushes beyond substantive recall, and looks to achieve perhaps a little more than that at a conceptual level to aid delivery of the curriculum.

I wanted to explore the core components of the way in which I use retrieval in my explanation and questioning with students, as opposed to an isolated event at the start or close of the lesson. To be able to ascertain the process, I sought to first establish the stumbling blocks of why, whilst retrieval to engage students is effective and can be harnessed to retrieve knowledge that is intended to be used that lesson, we can perhaps do a little more here. There is also sometimes a danger of poor execution of retrieval practice itself, which can fail to move student’s understanding beyond a superficial level of retrieval. In English, we might ask who said what in relation to a quotation, and this might only be useful if the quotation is linked to the lesson itself. It becomes a fact check exercise, which can only do so much. If we do not bolster retrieval with an acknowledge to our own subject’s nuance, and perhaps look to draw connections between the process of retrieval and the bigger landscape, we may fall short in several respects.

Retrieval can sometimes act as an isolated event, disconnected from the learning about to take place. This can sometimes be as a result of an adherence to Ebbinghaus’ forgetting curve, but with a compromise to the current learning, in that it feels disconnected from the the main body of the lesson. It may be that we pose quizzes or questions to students related to prior learning which will then be set aside for the main learning of the lesson. That’s not to say this is futile- far from it- but it may mean that we lose the cohesion that might be useful when thinking around retrieval as an instrument for curricular connections.

Additionally, at times it may feel that retrieval is designed in such a way that it does not enable the teacher to be responsive to student need. Pre-designed retrieval is systematic and methodical in its approach, and when plotted out across a term, year or indeed the curriculum journey as a whole to ensure that the knowledge recalled is the core knowledge required for the student, at the point that they a) had the opportunity to ‘forget’ (not use) it and b) they might again benefit from recalling it for their current learning. This really is retrieval in its finest form.

However, as a classroom teacher, I would like the tight element of retrieval planning- the strategic, well sequenced retrieval that teases through knowledge taught before- balanced with the looser aspects that allows me to be responsive. If I have identified gaps in prior knowledge two weeks ago, retaught the knowledge, then I want to have the flexibility to be able to test student recall of it at a later date, outside of the confinement of a set quiz (I appreciate that this works far better in subjects outside my own, due to the cumulative nature of English, which is why nuance according to the discipline is king here). Therefore, I might look to other aspects of my teaching to attain that flexibility.

I watched Jon Hutchinson’s ResearchEd Home session earlier this year, which shared a short clip of a teacher making connections between one unit and the next with students. It was this clip that prompted me to consider how we ensure that we don’t leave conceptual connections to chance, but in fact, brought this to the forefront. How do expert teachers harness prior learning in such a way that students were not only being given a prompt to do so, but being trained to be able to make these connections with a sense of automaticity?

This explicit link was something I wanted to unpack to provide a more holistic, organic method of retrieval which would actively seek to make conceptual connections with students, and hopefully increase the possibility of assimilation to build a schema for that concept as a result.

I started by trying to map out the process but found it really problematic because there were so many variables for what could go wrong- it’s teaching, after all!- but also so many processes happening at once, such is the complexity of memory consolidation in action. I recorded myself mapping out my thoughts to outline the problem identified, the process as a whole and then the transference of information- what happened when, and how, in theory- to make sense of what I meant (if you have time on your hands, it’s here).

From there, Dave Goodwin kindly put together a graphic organiser to explain the process:

Kindly provided by Dave Goodwin

⁃ Student has gained prior knowledge during the curriculum journey

⁃ Teacher introduces new content

⁃ Teacher uses connection cue to explicitly link prior knowledge with current learning, focusing upon the conceptual connections between the two

⁃ Student maps through schema to establish: where have we seen this before? What does this remind us of? How it this similar or different?

⁃ Student makes a real time connection (indirect manifestation) using the connection cue to connect prior knowledge and current learning.

To take an example:

Year ten are studying Macbeth, having studied Merchant of Venice with me last year. I use MoV as an example not because it is another Shakespeare text- we want the retrieval and connection to move beyond placing one Shakespeare text against the other and drawing comparison, but instead make connections with the conceptual to aid assimilation of current learning and in turn, build upon prior knowledge to enhance current learning.

The start of the lesson will use a low stakes test to establish and activate prior learning. I want to test student’s definition of what it means to present as Machiavellian, what hubris is, then two examples of power within the play so far. I also explain that these will be relevant to the scene we discuss today.

We then read Act 3 scene 1, as Macbeth reveals his uncertainty and discontent at only securing the throne for a finite time, whilst The prophecy directed at Banquo by the witches threatens that. Macbeth’s soliloquy reads as bitter, frustrated and resentful, irrespective of what he already has. We then read that Macbeth plans to have Banquo and his son Fleance murdered to placate his paranoia.

At this stage of the discussion, I ask: where have we seen this resentment before? Where have we seen such Machiavellian behaviour? Students would then draw from their study of Shylock: the caustic yet understandable frustration that Shylock shares as he realises that in his haste, he has agreed to a contract without considering the loopholes of bleeding until in the court once we reach Act 4. Macbeth’s deceit is similarly short sighted, because he fails to recognise at this stage that the witches’ prophecies can be stemmed by his crude interjection. This is a consequence of the hubris that has manifested itself so that instead of recognising his power as artificially orchestrated, Macbeth believes he is the conductor of his own fate. What does this remind us of? Again, we use our study of Merchant of Venice to consider the way in which characters are led awry through hubris, as it distracts Antonio to take delight in manipulating others. To then draw similarity or contrast within our observations enables students to hold their connections up for a more intricate level of scrutiny. Students can consider how these characters or events are representations of concepts in a similar or different light; that their study of a text is not entirely new, but simply an enhancement of a previous one. By threading our understanding of concepts such as power, conflict, morality ( see here for more on this), students can begin to use their prior knowledge as a gateway to make connections between this and their current learning.

Why is this complex? It’s open to so many variables- as with much practice within the classroom- such as the placement of attention, plasticity of the schema the students will potentially utilise and of course, to what degree students successfully learned prior knowledge without misconception.

To counter this to a degree, I prepared students by explaining the purpose of the cues, with a view to ensuring that the process of retrieval becomes routine to them- habitual. Furthermore, by being explicitly taught how to plot connections, they might recognise the value of the process itself. I will survey students at a later point to gauge to what extent they understand the value, to provide further insight as to whether they might use this process of connection outside of my own subject.

The final contributing factor, of course, Is that an episode of connection cues also relies upon a well designed curriculum to ensure that conceptual connections can be made by students in a way that is meaningful to the learning of the moment, as a small moment of time that exists within a larger, more robust progression model. It is why I might assume that expert teachers explicitly make these connections with students without even knowing it- because you need to know your curriculum to be able to draw from other parts of it.

As a starting point, connection cues provide the opportunity to use retrieval practice in a holistic form, using explanation as a vehicle to create continuity from one point of the curriculum to the next. To view retrieval as both systematic in form, but enhanced with a deeper, conceptual linking from one moment to the next, embellished through discussion and contemplation, enables retrieval with flourish, strengthening understanding of our subject as a consequence.


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