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For various reasons, I was utterly spent when we got to May half term. The short teaching block between Easter and the end of May really is intense and somehow surprises me every time. Accordingly, I’ve kept work over the break to a minimum.
Tom Sherrington’s book ‘Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction in action’ caught my eye just before the break, and I ordered a copy with a plan to read it on my return to school. However, I picked it up this week and discovered that, having previously read the 2012 Rosenshine article, Tom’s book was quick to read and powerful in extending from the Principles to practical classroom strategies.
Cue this blog, part book review and part reflection on Tom’s claim in 2018 that Rosenshine’s Principles are a “must-read” for all teachers. Can we really say this about any non-statutory reading?
Many teachers will already be familiar with ‘the Principles’, perhaps via Tom’s blogs preceding his book, or Oliver Caviglioli’s visual guide. However, we can easily get caught up in the social media bubble and assume that all teachers use Twitter: many do not. Here then are the Principles:
What tends to strike teachers about these Principles is that (a) they are seemingly easy to relate to classroom practice (b) they align well with our own perceptions of what makes for effective teaching. Some teachers I have worked with have reacted along the lines of “makes sense, but we do this already”. However, Rosenshine bases his Principles on a review of:
- Research in Cognitive Science: how our brains acquire and use information;
- Research on practices of ‘master teachers’: observational evidence comparing effective to less effective teachers (identified via achievement tests);
- Research on effective instructional procedures: for example teachers modelling work to students.
The Principles are therefore notable in that they are evidence-based, and may help us to understand why what works, works.
Our understanding of how we ‘learn’ (memorise) is commonly summarised as follows:
- We have limited short-term (aka working) memory, which is easily overloaded;
- We have limitless long-term memory;
- Learning (storing new information in long-term memory) requires:
- Retrieval of related long-term memories (‘prior knowledge’ / ‘schemata’) into short-term memory;
- Processing in short-term memory to combine new and existing information and transfer this into long-term memory (‘encoding’);
- Subsequent rehearsal (‘retrieval’ and use) of the new information, to strengthen how well it is stored in and accessible from long-term memory.
Our understanding of effective instructional procedures is aided by summaries such as the EEF T&L Toolkit, and associated Guidance Reports. As an EEF Research School we are sometimes asked “why doesn’t ‘Memory’ appear in the T&L toolkit?”, illustrating that we have more work to do to in order to improve understanding that the toolkit is a list of classroom approaches and interventions, rather than an underlying ‘theory of change’ i.e. it attempts to be the ‘what’ rather than the ‘why’. However, when we look at the Guidance Reports (the ‘how’) we see plenty of references to Memory, for example:
- “Tasks should not overload pupils’ cognitive processes, particularly when they are expected to apply new strategies” (Metacognition and self-regulated learning)
- “Spaced review involves revisiting a topic after a ‘forgetting gap’ and strengthens long-term memory. A simple way to manage this is to build in review time, including reviewing learning from the previous lesson at the start of the next one or over longer periods” (Improving Secondary Science)
The book review part
The book is written with time-poor teachers in mind: it is 84 pages long, however strip out the introduction and reproduction of Rosenshine’s 2012 article and this boils down to less than 50 pages of Sherrington adding ‘meat to the bones’. The introduction itself sets out the author’s belief in the power of the Principles to inform / enhance teacher professional development as well as the arguments for why teachers ought to invest their time in developing understanding of them. However, the author is quick to state that his book should not be seen as a full substitute to teachers actually reading the 2012 article, hence its inclusion as an appendix.
Sherrington’s experience of communicating the principles to others leads him to condense them into four strands:
- Sequencing concepts and modelling
- Reviewing material
- Stages of practice
For each strand, the author draws on his own extensive expertise as a teacher and later headteacher, in order to set out (a) implications for teachers to reflect on (b) examples of teacher behaviours and classroom techniques which deliver on the related Principles. What I found particularly useful here was Sherrington’s reflection on his experience observing both effective and less effective teachers. Just as students benefit from exploring examples, non-examples, WAGOLLs (what a good one looks like) and WABOOLs (what a bad one looks like); so too do teachers and teacher trainers. Things which particularly resonated with me were the author’s statements that effective teachers:
- make better judgements on how many worked examples to provide;
- check for understanding of all students using a range of effective questioning techniques;
- use retrieval practice for more than simple recall tests.
When it comes to providing examples of techniques which deliver on the Principles, the book signposts to a wide range of useful ideas, whilst acknowledging the limitation which come with its conciseness, for example:
- Techniques from Teach like a Champion (Lemov);
- Live modelling (consistent with EEF recommendations);
- Use of ‘Elaborative Interrogative’ questioning by students in pairs as a form of retrieval practice which strengthens long-term memories (Sumeracki and Weinstein).
As such, the book is a fantastic starting point, with an extensive list of references enabling follow up.
How we are using Rosenshine’s Principles at our school
Earlier this school year, we shared the 2012 Principles article with fellow research enthusiasts at Norwich Research Leads Network (#NorRel), our half-termly networking event for Norwich and Norfolk educators. What was striking was that most had not heard of the article beforehand, and quickly recognised its potential. NorRel is a diverse mix of Primaries, Secondaries and Special schools: the Principles appear to be relevant to all. Simply using the ten Principles as a basic self-reflection tool (download here – hardly rocket science!) led to really fruitful discussion.
Prior to this, within our own school we realised thanks to Sherrington’s blog that we’d read Rosenshine 2012, and then been guilty of filing it away as an ‘interesting summary’, along with a long list of research-related material. When I say ‘we’, I mean the minority of those in our school who actively seek out research material, as opposed to accessing it via our CPD framework. Fortunately, in every meeting of Heads of Department, we start with a thinkpiece and follow-up discussion. Our Research Lead chose the Principles as such a thinkpiece, which has led to a fantastic debate about whether our current in-school definition of ‘great teaching’ is consistent / compatible. We are now mid-way through a staff consultation on updating that definition, as part of a wider piece of work to update our Teaching, Learning, Assessment and Curriculum policy (along with every other school in the land..!).
Sherrington states in his book’s conclusion, “please, please, please do not corrupt the spirit and intent of ‘Principles of Instruction’ by turning it into a lesson-by-lesson checklist”.
In my opinion, a major risk with promoting the Principles could be that:
- Senior leaders have more time / capacity to read than classroom teachers;
- Senior leaders turn Principles into Quality Assurance checklist (observation forms etc);
- Classroom teachers exhibit surface-level compliance, without being supported to explore, understand, critique and apply in a way which benefits students.
You only have to look at the way that the Education system has previously used assessment data and work scrutiny (looking for written feedback), to realise that this fear for ‘Memory-informed teaching’ isn’t outlandish. The new Ofsted handbook contains six references to ‘memory’, which may inadvertently stimulate another knee-jerk reaction from schools.
Another really important point Sherrington makes is that teachers must be allowed to translate the Principles into their subject-specific contexts. This is nicely illustrated in a brief debate where he explores whether Science practical work is best done before or after related theory is presented to students. The correct answer is that ‘it depends’! The Principles may provide a general underpinning to Pedagogy, however theory and subject-specific practice need to ‘meet in the middle’.
There are some (perhaps obvious) ways to mitigate these risks in your own school:
- Implement any changes with care, treating Implementation as a process not an event. Read the EEF Schools’ guide to implementation for more information / recommendations on how to do this;
- Ensure that you allow teachers the time and support to develop understanding of the Principles, and how they may inform practice. Evaluate your current CPD framework against the Standard for Teachers’ Professional Development: will it enable a sustained change in practice for the better?
Is Rosenshine’s ‘Principles of Instruction’ a must-read for all teachers? Yes, provided that those teachers work in a school where the culture is such that they have sufficient time to discuss, check understanding, reflect, implement carefully with a narrow focus, and evaluate. Otherwise, good as the 2012 article is, its true potential is unlikely to be realised.
I am greatly indebted to Sherrington for writing such a concise reminder of why the Principles are so useful. I am also embarrassed that, as a school leader, I was not already making more use of them to inform my own practice, and that of other teachers, prior to this year. I humbly recommend that fellow school leaders read and carefully consider the Principles as a developmental tool for their staff, rather than shunting responsibility for developing understanding of them to their classroom teachers. We also need to work with training providers to ensure that the training provided to early career teachers is consistent with the best available evidence: the Early Career Framework represents a fantastic opportunity here. Why wait until its national roll-out in September 2021?