Whilst learning isn’t linear it does have a structure and a necessary sequence. I must learn letters before I can write words. I need to have a knowledge of words before I produce sentences.
Determining the structure and sequence of the learning is a core role of teachers. These two are interrelated and whilst I’ve separated them out in the planning it helps to look at them together.
The schema for planning lessons moves from the Defining Excellence & Evidence to Structuring & Sequencing the learning. Assessment drives the curriculum and defines what excellence is. It requires the assessments to be pre-planned as they provide the milestones and end point of each particular learning journey. It is from these milestones and end points that the structure of the learning is formed and the appropriate teaching sequence developed. Assessment and the structure of the learning are intertwined and inseparable.
Assessment of students’ learning needs to be:
- Common across teachers, teaching the same schemes of learning, and cumulative so all the scheme’s learning is revisited
- Pre-planned to ensure all teachers are aware of the standards expected and curriculum excellence is defined.
- Analysed so errors and mis-conceptions are rapidly identified and acted on, to close the gap between actual and expected learning for each learner.
Structuring & Sequencing the Learning
Teachers tend to be quite expert in the subjects they teach. It’s very easy to forget the challenge of being a novice and make assumptions about prior learning or expect students to take massive strides too quickly.
Think about learning to ride a bike. The nervous feeling, steadying yourself, pushing off, maintaining balance, keeping the front wheel facing forward, judging stopping distances … but before long this all becomes automatic and done without thinking.
Students are novices and need learning stepping stones appropriately spaced and sequenced. It is too easy to forget this and fail to script the learning narrative for students.
Create Learning Gaps
Structuring the learning requires; building from facts, linking them together into ideas and concepts and then looking to apply them to new thinking at an appropriate pace. Pace is different from speed. Pace is about assessing where a student is up to and giving them the next step. Pace is not about going quickly through the learning. Equally when developing a complex skill (procedural knowledge) it needs to be broken down into the composite skills which can be practised until mastered.
Having used assessments to define the standard, what excellence looks like, the learning needs to be structured in such a way as to scaffold students towards it. The issues from cognitive science around learning gaps and cognitive load become increasingly important for teachers to understand.
If the new learning is not sufficiently connected to prior learning the gap becomes too wide for the student to bridge. Students may respond by working hard. Alternatively, they may quietly disengaging or become a nuisance, to prevent themselves from looking like a fool when they are struggling. Their response is uncertain and the outcome unpredictable. Connect new learning to prior learning.
The next stage in planning the learning is looking at the structure. The SOLO Taxonomy is the most useful and common sense approach that I have come across.
Particle Theory in Year 7 may go something like this:
- List the three states of matter and the processes of changing state (Multistructural)
- Describe the size, proximity, movement of and relative attraction between the particles in the three states of matter (Multistructural)
- Compare and contrast the physical properties of the three states of matter (Relational)
- Explain the different physical properties of the three states of matter based on the size, proximity, movement of and relative attraction between the particles (Relational)
- Hypothesise about why substances have different melting and boiling points (Extended Abstract)
In terms of sequencing the learning I would tend to move from the first learning intention to the third. Then back to the second and via the fourth to hopefully the fifth.
Some interesting things start to happen when you start to devise schemes of learning around assessment. This is a Year 7 scheme of learning on Cells. It was written by Katy Hetherington (Head of Chemistry, St. Mary’s Catholic Academy) using the SOLO Taxonomy:
This scheme has then been used to develop a Scheme of Learning for Year 7 Higher Attainers:
Targets & Learning Gaps – Some Additional Thoughts
An old post on targets and learning gaps, though dated, is still one of the most viewed on my blog. I thought I’d update it and add it here. The section on Agile Targets is most relevant to this post on the Structure & Sequence of the learning.
For the past twenty years or so targets have been more aligned to accountability than learning. We are moving into a phase where this can be rethought. This is not easy for many of us who have been programmed to churn data upwards through the hierarchy.
Targets need to be agile, flexible and adaptable to ensure there is always a gap in the learning. The gap in learning is produced by having a target that is always in advance of a student’s current attainment – not too close nor too far, get the learning gap just right.
These are targets linked to learning intentions and determined at the classroom level.
They form a part of all effective teachers’ repertoire. The teacher uses the learning structure and sequence to determine, “Where are you up to now?” And then “OK, this is where to next?”
The teacher can now work with the student to bridge the gap in learning created by the new learning intentions. A simple example of this in action is formative assessment with a student expected to respond to feedback by producing a new improved piece of work at a higher level. The teacher will then set a new target for the student to create a further gap in learning between her/his current attainment and future attainment. This continual revising of the learning (targets) intentions between teachers and students is agile target setting.
It has the greatest impact on learning. It is by far the most important of the three different types of targets. Dylan Wiliam (2014) questions whether for all the data schools have anyone reviewing it would be able to determine what a student knew, understood or could do.
“What these mark books hardly ever record is what the student can do, and what might be their next steps in the learning. It seems likely that whatever Craig Raine’s Martian did include in his postcard home about record keeping in schools, he would certainly not regard record keeping’s prime purpose as being supporting learning.”
William, D. (2014) Principled Assessment Design, p.71
I tend to think of these as numerical targets or grades that are part of teachers’ discussions with students during an academic year. Predicting or projecting a target for an individual student is notoriously difficult, even before taking into account the volatility of examination systems in England over recent years. In creating targets for students at some future point consider two issues:
How will the target identify or link to the learning that is required? This creates numerical targets or grades that have meaning with respect to a student’s learning.
When there is a significant time lapse between the point of target setting and the final assessment – start to end of year/key stage – think about setting the target as a range e.g. Your target is an A*-B, what you get will depend on the effort you are prepared to put in. As the final assessment approaches the range narrows.
Targets are often set for students at the beginning of Key Stage 2 or 3 or 4. Any review of them is likely to be infrequent at best. Once the target is set the student is stuck with it.
Wiliam (2014) suggests setting targets at an aspirational level (75th percentile) instead of the average. For each baseline grade/level/score students will attain a range of outcomes. As a rough (very rough) example, students getting a level 4 at Key Stage 2 are similarly likely to attain a grade D, C or B at GCSE. The average grade for a level 4 student would be a C but the aspirational one (75th percentile) would be a B.
Other schools have gone further and won’t set a GCSE target below a grade C – why target a “fail” for mainstream students. If you want to go to the extreme follow the example of Maestro Benjamin Zander. Set all students a target of an A* and then focus on helping them achieve it.
Less time on target setting. More time on target getting
Targets need to be much more about learning and students than schools and accountability. We’ve lost our way for a couple of decades now. It’s time to ensure whatever type of targets we are setting they clearly identify the learning expected.
This resource contains the following information:
A PDF of it is available for you to download here:
The other posts and booklets in the DIY Teaching CPD Series are:
DIY Teaching CPD: Pedagogy & Practice
Thanks to a few people for their thoughts and feedback on some early drafts of this section: