There are no end of methods/attempts/strategies to improve pupils’ learning, outcomes and, often, specifically their writing. SOLO taxonomy, PEE/PEEL/PEA paragraphs, TOWER, sentence starters, writing frames, P4C, SEAL, TEEP, ITP/OTP, HOT maps/Blooms’ Taxonomy, Accelerated Learning. I’ve experimented with most of these – some more than others – and always had something nagging in the back of my mind. It’s only in the last 18 months that I’ve realised what the nag was.
Where’s the focus on language? Not the language of ‘multi-structural knowledge’ or ‘point, evidence, explanation’ or ‘analysis, synthesis, evaluation’, but a focus on the way in which we combine words to make meaning. Basically, where’s the focus on how language works? And more specifically, how language works in history, as distinct from science or geography or any other academic discipline.
This, for me, has been the elephant in the room in terms of my own practice as a history teacher. Let me tell you how I used to do it (and please excuse how inadequate this sequence is – and I thought I was a good teacher).
My class and I would explore a topic – say for argument’s sake why Henry VIII broke from Rome. We’d read up on it; pupils would complete various tasks researching different reasons; we’d look at some sources and discuss them as a class. Then I’d set them a writing task: ‘Choose one of the reasons and write a paragraph about it’. I’d give them the following guide:
Then I’d mark their books and think either ‘why have they copied my sentences, the lazy things?’ or ‘I showed them how to do it, why does their work not make much sense?’. After all, I was teaching them the history and then doing the literacy. Of course the reason why they were not able to write history as well as I would have liked is because my sequence was inadequate for the purpose of giving pupils control over the academic language of the discipline of history.
So this post is about the teaching and learning cycle I have adopted that makes the language features of any text – at whole text, paragraph, sentence and clause levels – explicit and leads pupils to genuine mastery of, and independence in being able to reproduce, such patterns. (A post on the bogus idea of ‘independent learning’, as opposed to learning leading to mastery – i.e. independence – is for the future…)
I’m sure many of you will be thinking ‘here we go again, another model’, but this is the only one I’ve ever seen that actually addresses that nag I had about language development. It is also absolutely clear that language is the principal way in which we make meaning – i.e. knowledge – and therefore language (or literacy) cannot be separated from, and bolted on to the side of, subject content.
The teaching and learning cycle replicates the natural way in which we all learn and particularly the way in which we learn language from early childhood. It also stands between and therefore beyond stale debates about transmission versus progressivism. It acknowledges that teachers have the knowledge and that this needs to be transferred to pupils, but is clear that learning is an activity that requires social interaction.
As I said in my previous post, this teaching and learning cycle draws on Vygotsky’s idea that learning occurs in the zone of proximal development i.e. new things that a pupil can do on their own – that are just ahead of what they can already do – are learnt through help from a more expert other. It is also founded on Bruner’s idea of scaffolding, that pupils can learn anything at any age (within reason) providing instruction is sequenced appropriately and temporary support is given until mastery is achieved.
The teaching and learning cycle is as follows:
I shall give an example of the cycle in action below but first it is important to note that it is not designed to take place over a single lesson, rather it describes the stages we need to move through in order for pupils to genuinely master (i.e. be independent in) any new knowledge, skills or understanding. Thus there may be several cycles within a lesson, or it may take several lessons to complete one cycle, depending on what is being learnt. At a scheme of work level the cycle describes how we need to lead pupils to independence in production of a particular genre of writing, based on a particular field of knowledge (say, if we take my example above, a factorial explanation of why Henry VIII established the Church of England).
To give an everyday of example of how this cycle works, imagine you had to teach somebody who had no knowledge of footwear how to tie a shoelace (unlikely, I know!). First of all you would show them the shoe, explain the various parts and what they were for and show them how it slips on to a foot. Secondly, you would show them how a lace is tied, explaining it to them step-by-step whilst you were doing it. Thirdly, you would probably then ask them to have a go themselves, but would talk to them all the way through, intervening where necessary to correct any missteps and providing an ongoing commentary (or formative feedback, if you like). Lastly, to check that they had mastered the process you would ask them to repeat the tying of the lace from the start, this time stepping back and letting them do it for themselves.
Read that sequence back and see how it follows the cycle above: firstly, setting the context and building the field (explaining the shoe, what it is and how it works); secondly, modelling and deconstruction (the demonstration of how to do it and the accompanying explanation); thirdly, joint construction (letting them have a go but continuing to give guidance – doing it together); lastly, independent construction (stepping back to let them demonstrate their new skill).
As can clearly be seen, the teaching and learning cycle is a process by which the learner is ‘apprenticed’ into new knowledge, skills or understanding by a more expert other – and this is particularly crucial in enabling pupils to independently control new language in new contexts (back to Halliday…).
What’s also important to say is that if any of the above stages are missed out or not completed adequately the learning becomes much more difficult to acquire. To go back to my earlier example, I can map my practice against this cycle:
- Exploring the topic through reading, discussion and source analysis: setting the context and building the field (though I would not be thinking explicitly about language or scaffolding pupils’ journeys from everyday to abstract at this stage – even though I should have been).
- Showing pupils my examples of how to write a Level 4, 5 or 6 response: modelling (though note no deconstruction i.e. talking through with the pupils how I produced the examples, or asking them what the differences between the levels were).
- Asking the pupils to produce their own paragraph: independent construction (no joint construction – I just expected pupils to be able to reproduce answers similar to those I had written as examples).
So, as you can see, my previous practice – though reaching for language development – was hopelessly inadequate in enabling my pupils to gain control over the academic language (and therefore abstract knowledge) of the reasons for the establishment of the Church of England. Slowly, I am adapting all of my classroom practice to follow the teaching and learning cycle, helped by wonderful colleagues Helen Handford and Paddy Walsh who have been doing this stuff for years and who are apprenticing me into using it successfully. Future posts will be a mixture of further explanation of our approach and the reasons for it and examples of my new-style practice that genuinely meets the language development needs of my pupils.