In much of what we do in education, there can at times be an increasing chasm between what we know to be true and how that transfers to how we operate in the day to day execution of our roles. Irrespective of how much we continue to read, learn, absorb from sharing with others, we do not always use what we know and apply it to our approach as a natural consequence.
And why would that be? Of course, there is an argument to be made with some certification that too much, too fast and with too little forethought will never be impactful, in any context: one-off CPD at a million miles an hour, followed by rapid implementation and sparse planning will seldom result in thoughtful and sustainable outcomes. Yet, when we are presented with research- informed strategies which seem to make a pressing case for a beat bets approach, or when a colleague proposes a different way of working to improve the quality of what we do, why might we find reason not to adapt and evolve the way we work?
When presented with even the strongest case for change, there seems to be a momentary pause, as we grapple with the current way of working and the one which is presented to us that acts to challenge what we have previously known to be true. More than mere bias, our professional belief system acts as a risk mitigation framework, to protect us from what we almost know to be true, by reminding us of what we knew to be true before. What a tricky spot to establish a point of balance- because to move forwards, we not only have to consciously reject what came before, but also admit to ourselves- and others- that we might have incorrectly predicted outcomes in the past.
Subsequently, therein creates a state of flux, and I would argue rightly so: after all, we are making calculated judgements about the most effective ways to teach, for students to learn, for what makes an environment to learn and also one of safety. These calculations are integral, but I’m most interested in when we stand still, and what makes the difference. What causes us to move past simply believing something to be an improvement in the way we work, and actually acting upon it?
Retrieval practice is a pedagogical principle which moves us beyond the performative facade of historic teaching and instead, uses the principles of cognitive science to demonstrate to both teacher and student that, in order to process and retain information in our long term memory, we would benefit from leaving an expanse of time before recalling information; we should encourage a high success rate on multiple occasions when retrieving knowledge; we will only know the impact of effective retrieval at a much later point, as opposed to learning then instantly applying the knowledge. With this in mind, teachers will teach new content and then expect students to use it within a piece of work successfully. Teachers will continue to encourage students to recall information once, maybe twice and consider it learned. Teachers will teach curriculum content as part of a unit, only to never use that information again to harness other aspects of the student’s curriculum menu.
We do this, regardless of the fact that we know what works. To set aside external impact such as whole- school policy which directs assessment models or data directives, for the individual teacher, what is standing in our way?
The ancestry of a curriculum model is a stumbling block which causes us to falter over what might be more effective. ‘We’ve always done it this way’ is a place of both safety and stagnancy, and far easier to pause there than move things forward. If the model in use was the work of one or two colleagues, then this becomes even more difficult to unpick, because it becomes the person and not the process. Why do we teach a four hundred page book and a one hundred page book over the same duration of time? Why teach to the assessment, without revisiting key vocabulary or concepts again with students? Why might we ask questions to the students we know will answer, and avoid asking the students who won’t? Because it doesn’t seem to not work, and it has been done this way without catastrophic results on the whole, only, that doesn’t make it effective. It makes it good enough. It is a place of safety, but certainly not betterment.
When we reframe our roles as continually seeking to improve, our mindset won’t settle for ‘not ineffective enough’ to feel worth a risk, but instead we learn that heritage and habit is no basis for our best work. Often, when we make changes to our practice, the way in which we work with colleagues or in the classroom, the changes are not the monumental shift that we imagined, but are instead micro-change, consisting of microscopic tweaks over a long period of time, spanning days into weeks into terms, until it materialises that the risk was never all that we imagined it to me, but actually rather minimal.
We also come to learn that failure is an inevitable part of this leap of faith: that when we make changes to the way in which we work, this simply exposes how a practice or process wasn’t quite right to begin with. Improvement is impossible without a quiet acceptance that things will not work when we adapt with a view to improve, because we need the mistakes along the way to recognise, review and refine what we are doing. Particularly within education, this is all the more pertinent- learning is difficult and messy. It should feel at times as though students’ brains are sweating to make connections, consider possible outcomes, make articulate predictions. When we seek safety in the classroom, we fall back to the performative facade of faux- teaching, which we all know so well. Everyone got it? Thumbs up, thumbs down? All up? Great stuff. Only it’s anything but.
Challenging ourselves and the way in which we continue to teach moves us beyond simply best bets: we also come away empowered to make more informed decisions in the future. We realise that any failure we experienced enabled us to continue to build a more accurate risk mitigation system, as we make real- time choice after real-time choice for students using that very system. To move towards practice which breathes a sense of automaticity into teaching, this requires a confidence in our ability to make decisions, but with the humility to identify problems and act accordingly to apply a beat bets rationale, governed by logic, reason, and a continual sense of intrigue to see how we might do better. Unsettling our belief system allows us to view it as a series of tectonic plates: sufficient stability that we know the points of pressure where we tread, but suitably precarious so that it urges us to continue onwards.
Barrett, L. F. (2017). How emotions are made: The secret life of the brain. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Duke, A. (2020). How to Decide: Simple Tools for Making Better Choices. Portfolio.
Nickerson, R. S. (1998). Confirmation bias: A ubiquitous phenomenon in many guises. Review of general psychology, 2(2), 175-220.
Roediger III, H. L., & Butler, A. C. (2011). The critical role of retrieval practice in long-term retention. Trends in cognitive sciences, 15(1), 20-27.