Words go in; words come out.
Words are the vehicles that transfer knowledge and ideas into the minds of learners. When we are reading or listening, words go in. We are consumers of words and the meanings that they contain. At a more advanced level, we must be critical of these ideas, and consider whether we trust or agree with them; however, at a more basic level, when the source of these words is a trusted authority figure (like a teacher), the learner’s aim should be to understand and integrate the new knowledge. We listen carefully to understand, so the incoming stream of words and explanations can find their resting places amongst our existing schemata of related knowledge. Internally, we test what we hear or read against what we already know, so the new learning can find the right sticking points in our minds.
This has implications for the quality of teacher explanations and the difficulty level of reading materials. When delivering explanations, concision, clarity and focus are highly desirable traits. The finite nature of working memory (or fluid intelligence) means that human beings can only concentrate on a certain number of items at a time. When explanations are unnecessarily lengthy, wordy or cluttered, an extraneous cognitive load is created, reducing the likelihood that listeners will be able to extract the essential meaning from the explanation. Therefore, teachers must be clear about the target learning that is being delivered through their explanation. Anything that learners think about that doesn’t assist them in understanding the target learning can be called extraneous cognitive load. In one sense, you could calculate the efficacy of a teacher’s explanation as follows:
Accuracy + clarity + concision – extraneous cognitive load (complexity, length, distraction) = efficacy of explanation
If we begin with the assumption that the teacher has crafted an accurate, clear and concise explanation (which is a challenging and highly skilled undertaking) we must next consider the role of the student as listener. To be good listeners, our students need to understand that they cannot sit passively and allow the teachers’ words to wash over them. I tell my students that nothing is free, and we pay for new knowledge by paying attention. To begin with, this means that students must understand the need to avoid all distraction. For me, it is unforgivable for students to talk during a teacher explanation, and I tell my students this is the case. I tell them that when they talk across a teacher explanation, they are stealing learning from the other students in the room, and it is a terrible and selfish thing to do. Silence during teacher explanations is an absolute prerequisite for learning to take place. If the behavioural systems are not in place to ensure that the teacher can bring the class to silent attention at will, then this is what must be fixed first. I have seen too many lessons in which students are eager to learn, and are yearning for the teacher to establish the disciplined and orderly environment that is needed for this. Instead, the hapless teacher bleats on ineffectually into a sea of noise in an unruly class. It is heart-breaking to witness. It is not good enough. A silent classroom is devoid of audible distraction, and it allows listeners to concentrate. Silence is the backdrop of concentration and focus. As a teacher, you must be able to achieve it in your classroom at will.
However, the distraction, the disturbance, the interference, the noise, the extraneous cognitive load, can come from within the teacher’s explanation. I’m sure we have all done it – sabotaged the clarity and concision of our own explanations with a lengthy and anecdotal diversion. Billy Connolly was a master of this kind of off-topic wandering during his stand-up performances, but he always, eventually, brought his audience back to the initial topic as he delivered the final punchline. Unlike the Big Yin, our job is not to entertain and amuse our listeners with cleverly complex and tangential anecdotes; our job is to deliver learning with clarity and concision. We must think carefully about the economy of our explanations, allowing our listeners to focus their limited working memory on a smaller task. If we hide the essential knowledge amongst a forest of related topics, as well as tangential and incidental additions, our explanations become opaque. The listeners can’t remember everything if an explanation is too complex and wide-ranging, and they expend cognitive resources in trying to identify the most important points to remember. This is related to the notion of expert blindness. Every speaker must estimate the level of expertise amongst the audience, in order to deliver an explanation that places the listeners within the zone of proximal development. In other words, the speaker must have a good understanding of the gaps in the students’ knowledge, to avoid baffling or overloading them, but they should also avoid simply repeating information that students have already mastered. Essentially, new information needs to be delivered in small chunks, in the most accessible way. Ten years ago, proponents of independent learning called this ‘spoon feeding’ and derided it as poor teaching. Instead, these proponents of discovery based learning felt that students needed to solve problems for themselves in order to learn. Ironically, most research informed teachers now see that this approach creates an extraneous cognitive load – the mental effort of finding the information makes students less able to retain the information once they have found it. Instead, so called spoon feeding is exactly what is needed. Explanations ought to be delivered to students in easily digested little portions. If the spoonful of new knowledge is too big, your learners will probably spit a lot of it out.
And so, when new learning is delivered through spoken words, we must make our explanations concise, focused and well-matched to the level of expertise among our students. These principles also apply when we want our students to engage with the written word. Like listening, reading is a verbal input. One difference between these two forms of input is that the written word is fixed. Words on paper lack the flexibility to adapt when, say, a student doesn’t understand the teacher’s first attempt at an explanation. Written words can’t answer students’ unpredictable questions. Often, when we engage with written materials in lessons, we talk around the text, explaining and exploring with the students, probing to find misconceptions and checking understanding. It would be unusual for a written text to be the only instruction a student receives on any topic, but whenever this is the case, it is essential that the written explanation is pitched at the right level of understanding. When students have the benefit of teacher support, they can cope with a tougher written text – it is desirable in fact – since this allows the teacher the opportunity for vocabulary instruction. As long as the students understand most of the text, they will benefit from access to new and more challenging vocabulary.
So far, I have asserted that listening and reading are verbal input processes. So far so good. Words go in. But do words stay in? Not necessarily. Listening isn’t learning. Reading isn’t learning. It is quite possible to read a page of text and recall nothing about its content moments later. We remember what we think about. For this reason, it is suboptimal to ask students to listen to you without prompting some reflection on what you have said afterwards. The same goes for having students read anything without directing them to reflect on its content. Listening without thinking is water poured into a leaky bucket. Thinking is the sticky web of consciousness that catches the juicy morsels of new knowledge. Forgive my mixed metaphors.
Our students must think, to engage with and retain what they hear or read. The trouble is, thinking is invisible. The cunning teacher must therefore find ways to check that thinking has occurred. It is probably not a good idea to ask students to take notes or copy down ideas whilst they are listening or reading. Notes aren’t knowledge. Words in a student’s exercise book are of little use if the words haven’t also found their place in the student’s mind. In fact, in my view, the task of mechanically copying or transcribing dictated words holds no cognitive value. Instead of thinking about the content of the teacher explanation, the students are forced to focus on the process of writing words down. I think this is a waste of time. Thinking – actual cognitive engagement with the concepts or ideas described – has effectively been deferred until some moment in the future, when students will, perhaps, read over their notes from the lesson. That’s not what’s called for. It is far better for students to concentrate on the incoming words – spoken or written – knowing that their comprehension will certainly be tested once the explanation or reading is finished. They are, therefore, compelled to give their full attention or face the consequences of failure in the impending comprehension task. They are compelled to think. The teacher may extend the thinking and test that thinking has indeed taken place with a quiz, or with spoken questions, or with a precis task. They may test it in any number of ways, if the chosen method prompts reflection upon or application of the verbal explanation. To summarise, reading and listening supply an incoming stream of words, loaded with potential learning. Next, the mysterious, internal cognitive process of thinking sifts, dissects and captures some of these words, extracting the meaning they hold and building this new knowledge onto existing schemata. It is the thinking that matters the most, but we cannot see it, so we need to check that it has taken place.
The output of words comes in two forms: writing and speaking. When we require our students to write or speak, we require them to articulate their thoughts in an organised and logical way. They manifest their thoughts into the world, providing evidence of the otherwise imperceptible process of thinking. And of course, the most important form of verbal output in examinations is writing. That’s not intended to diminish the importance of oracy. In fact, the ability to speak well is probably much more important, in day to day life, in the real world. Rather, I think we have to acknowledge the reality that our students will mostly be assessed through written work in exam papers in the majority of their secondary school subjects. When our students can recall what we have told them and they can demonstrate this accurate recall through speaking or writing, we can see that learning has taken place. There has been a change in long term memory. Of course, this can’t be a rote-like and repetitive retrieval process. Students must be able to draw on their knowledge in different ways, in different contexts and in response to different kinds of stimuli (such as a variety of different exam questions. A pre-prepared response to a predictable question only demonstrates empty memorization. That’s not good enough. We need to train our students to apply their knowledge with flexibility and intelligence. To that end, our schemes of work must include explicit plans to revisit each component that we teach. There must be explicit plans to make the students retrieve that earlier learning and demonstrate this successful (but invisible) cognitive retrieval through their verbal output – their writing or speaking.
The added benefit of requiring students to write or speak is that it requires them to order their thoughts. The subvocal internal monologue is not open to the scrutiny of other human beings. We often think in fragments and unfinished sentences. We may jump from topic to topic, and no one will hold us to account for our own soliloquy of secret non-sequiturs. When we order our thoughts into organised words, sentences and paragraphs, we are also tidying up and solidifying our own understanding of the topic in question. We are organising our schema.
Our subjects aren’t just about words. Our subjects are about stage performances, works of art, natural phenomena, global events. We teach our students about our human ancestors, the animals and plants we share the planet with, the beliefs of different cultures across the world and our insights into the workings of the human mind. Our subjects are wonderful and the phenomena that they describe are taking place right now, out there, in the world and in some cases across the universe. The opportunity for learning in school is immeasurable and sublime. When I say that your subject is made of words, I am not denigrating your subject. Instead, I am pointing out that through the improbably wondrous medium of language, you can transport students beyond the classroom and expose them, verbally, to the amazing phenomena of your subject. You teach them about your subject with words. They think about your subject with words. They show their understanding of your subject with words.
Words are your greatest asset. Value Vocabulary.
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