Blog Archive

Thursday 29 April 2021

How do we support the principles of metacognition within the nurture classroom/with SEND students?

Helen Gathercole writes: At the risk of alienating my audience in my first outing as a Staff Classroom blogger, I’d like to start with a humblebrag. The fact that I am writing this piece began when I overheard a conversation in which I was the subject - I won’t name names, you know who you are - that went something like this: Person 1 “Helen’s good with metacognition, perhaps she could do something on it.” Person 2 “Yes, that would be good.” Realising that I was imminently going to be asked to do something publicly, and recognising the inherent potential for embarrassment in that, I decided that I had better do some rapid reflection and research. I’ll put my hands up, metacognition is not a word that I used every day (until about 2 months ago) and I needed to make sure that my understanding of what metacognitive strategies looked like matched what this person had seen and liked in my practice.

The Education Endowment Foundation defines metacognition as “the way in which pupils monitor and purposefully direct their thinking and learning” and their Teaching and Learning Toolkit rates metacognition and self-regulation as one of the most impactful strategies for accelerating progress; second only to feedback. Helpfully, the EEF goes on to list 4 recommendations that classroom teachers can adopt in order to develop the metacognitive strategies of their students. Sadly, they decided not to augment these recommendations with examples of what these strategies might look like in practice.

Metacognition is something education professionals usually do very well; ironically, we probably do it intuitively and automatically most of the time. As highly educated people our ability to plan, monitor and evaluate - metacognitive strategies - our learning are so embedded we probably don’t even realise how our thinking has led us to a decision or an action; at least until we are taken out of our comfort zone (for example, when someone asks us to write a blog for whole staff consumption) and have to be very explicit with ourselves about how we are going to be successful. Now imagine that pretty much every lesson every day feels like you are way outside your comfort zone. Many of our SEND students have the strategy of ‘needs a checklist’ recorded on their MINT profile; they need a list of what is going to happen in the lesson just to enable them to be able to stay in the lesson without panicking, acting out and ending up removed. Student’s whose minds are already in a state of near panic over the learning they already know they will find hard cannot recognise, absorb and develop metacognitive strategies unless we teach them in a very explicit and very scaffolded way; unless we make them feel safe to ‘think aloud’.

I’d like to try to show how I’ve interpreted the 4 EEF recommendations with the SEND students in the Nurture classroom. Hopefully some of this will be strategies you recognise from your own practice, be something you would be happy to try or be something you feel would support all SEND students. And, as we all know, what benefits SEND students benefits all students. Being able to plan, monitor and evaluate - to think about thinking - are skills for life.

The first EEF recommendation is to “explicitly teach pupils metacognitive strategies, including how to plan, monitor and evaluate their learning”. In the Nurture classroom, I interpreted this as something I call ‘steps to success’.

This strategy is very good for process tasks, eg an operation in Math's. I create the steps with them, refer to the steps during modelling and constantly prompt them to refer to the steps to guide my modelling or complete the task themselves. The steps are a good at scaffolding their responses when I ask “what do we do next?” and they can be used to self prompt when stuck. The process becomes embedded as steps are gradually removed until they are no longer needed.

The second EEF recommendation is “model your own thinking to help pupils develop their metacognitive … skills”. I try to do this in the Nurture classroom by using something I refer to as ‘thinking steps’.

This strategy is more suited to creative tasks. I create the steps as I model, usually in the form of a flowchart, and I refer to them throughout any modelling; essentially rather over-acting my thinking aloud. They are a good scaffold for students to be able to respond to questions, eg “How do you know this is a complete sentence?” As with ‘steps to success’, the thought process gradually becomes embedded the more it is used.

The third EEF recommendation is “promote and develop metacognitive talk in the classroom.” Or, as I think of it, ‘sound like an annoying toddler’: How did you…? Why did you…? What if…? Why isn’t…? How about…? It’s about creating a climate in the classroom where students feel safe to think, decide on an idea and share it. In the Nurture classroom the students were very passive and silent because they were worried about having a go and failing. I often used odd one out games that weren’t curriculum related just to get them talking before moving onto odd one outs relating to the curriculum. Make sure there is more than one possible answer and it becomes low stakes; students soon learn that, so long as their reason makes sense, there are several acceptable answers. Plus, having a variety of possible answers, really allows us to see what knowledge they have absorbed on a topic.

The final EEF recommendation is “explicitly teach pupils how to organise and effectively manage their learning independently”. I felt that this was all about teaching students to choose the right organisation tool; many of which are things we recommend to aid revision, eg mind maps, planning frames, graphic organisers.

These can be great tools with the capacity to be differentiated for SEND students by having headings or other information prefilled. As mind maps lend themselves to organising large amounts of knowledge over a broad subject, eg the Tudors, and graphic organisers (like the one above) are more suited to showing understanding of a specific topic, e.g. maths concepts, it’s about being really explicit about why they are being asked to use a specific organisation tool. If we are really explicit about why, students will begin to make appropriate independent choices.

I suppose the recurring theme here is the need to be really explicit; to show SEND students, through modelling, how we think. We need to understand that when we model we are not just showing students how to do something; we are showing them how we thought about how to do something.

Sunday 4 April 2021

How do we redefine retrieval for an SEND audience?

Retrieval improves retention, it seems simple really. But not for everyone. Whilst I have written many times about the merits of retrieval and the need to relay knowledge from our working to long term memory stores, we do not often consider how this strategy should be adapted for an SEND audience. 

12 times. That is how often the average human must retrieve knowledge to feel it is competently stored - but what about SEND students? Many assume it must be more, but is that always the case?

On occasion I mention my own children in this blog and it is them I should give credit to for this piece. Bear with me! My eldest (7) is dyslexic and my youngest (5) has HFA. I do not reveal this for sympathy - my boys are amazing. I say this as it is them who have given me the biggest insight into how learning for an SEND student must be 100% personalised, modified and adapted. Whilst they have been intermittently home-schooled like thousands of other children, I found my usual teacher techniques had little effect on their progress.  Despite the 2.5 year age gap, my sons are reading at a very similar level. Whilst my youngest merely seems to have to glance at words to have them committed to memory, my eldest has to retrieve, retrieve, retrieve which results in a huge amount of frustration. 

Long story short, this opened my eyes to the need for retrieval activities that fed into the stimulus to succeed for every child. With emphasis on low stakes/low pressure but ensuring continual looped retrieval and interleaving. 

In a 2019 blog post for the EEF, Prof. Rob Coe warns that 'teachers might generate retrieval questions that focus solely on the factual recall rather than promoting higher-order thinking' when designing a low stakes quiz with SEND students in mind. He goes on to state 'questions might be too easy and boost confidence without providing real challenge' - which leads me to question are we producing retrieval tasks for SEND students to ensure they feel they are making progress whilst remaining engaged? Are we prioritising confidence boosting over challenge and therefore doing little to actively close the gap?

To avoid focusing on service level knowledge, I have trialled a few alternative retrieval techniques that I found provided the appropriate scaffolded support for SEND students whilst still promoting the standard to 'teach to the top'. The first is 'Go for Gold'. Taken from a podcast by Kate Jones (guru of Retrieval Practice), she outlined how providing the tiered vocabulary of gold, silver and bronze ensures that all students recognise the complexity of terms needed, whilst not switching off those who may struggle to use the higher tier vocabulary appropriately. We have used this with our Year 11 students in geography in preparation for the ICA's, alongside the use of I do, You do, We do. I have had SEND students producing more structured and complex paragraphs as a result and their first batch of ICAs show students with complex SEND needs producing logical paragraphs with clear attempts to use subject specific vocabulary.

I have shared the 'memory lane' concept before. This was a new strategy for me during our most recent session online, that has successfully been transferred from live lessons to the classroom. Using another Kate Jones idea of 'Cops and Robbers’ but adapted to specific foci, memory lane provides the opportunity for five key sub topics or knowledge segments to be retrieved. It provides the necessary challenge of 'what can you retrieve independently', partnered with the 'now share with a partner and steal some ideas'. Again, this provides the correct level of challenge and engagement for all students but my main tip is to ensure it is used close to the initial learning episode of the new knowledge - one week to two weeks afterwards seems to work best. If you wish to extend this task, prompt students to use their memory lane to write a ‘Speedy Summary’ in which they must articulate their knowledge using compound sentences in 50 words exactly. 

The next idea is called 'Two Things' - the quickest and easiest strategy I have used yet. It requires minimal teacher talk and can be used at any time in a lesson. Simply pause and ask any of the following:

1. What are two things you learned so far today?

2. What are two things you learned yesterday (or last week)?

3. What are your two takeaways from today?

4. What are two ways today's topic relates to previous topics?

This strategy supports cognitive science research that states that retrieval should be interspersed throughout the lesson, and students can benefit from quick retrieval without taking up too much lesson time. In addition, if you feel feedback should be provided on these 'two things' then ask students to pass their books to each other, noting down their 'two things' using one of my favourite Kagan structures 'Simultaneous Round Robin'. 

The ultimate aim with retrieval practice is to avoid cognitive overload. This is especially important with SEND students, who when faced with the bombardment of lots of information can result in creating learning stresses.  In chapter 4 of 'Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning' the authors outline the need to avoid an environment where students don't make errors. Errorless learning, as they call it, is not conducive to progress and in fact we learn better from mistakes we have made. Relating back to my children now, this one was most pertinent for my eldest. His complete lack of confidence with all things literary led to minimal progress being made. He was reluctant to make even a single mistake and therefore reverted to not trying at all. The same can be said for a core group of students in my Year 10 GCSE class. They are inherently convinced that making a mistake is embarrassing and as a result shrink further away from independent learning. I have had to build strong 1:1 relationships to harness any opportunity presented to check their knowledge and understanding away from the whole class questioning moments. 

This meant a culture shift within the classroom (and around my dining table!) was needed. To show it is okay to make mistakes, I needed to do so myself. This is where 'make it better' came in. Instead of producing the perfectly modelled answer, provide students with an imperfect piece of work and ask them to consider how they would improve it. Remove the mental block that arises from a blank piece of paper, steer more towards the tools needed to develop a piece of work first and then reduce the quantity you provide students with to 'make better' each time. 

My final thought for this post considers the fine balance between retrieval, challenge and offering the appropriate scaffolded support. 'Think and Link' is a strategy that promotes retrieval of tier 3 vocabulary and knowledge whilst also carefully blending the requisite challenge that comes with exploring the links between what were previously compartmentalised pieces of knowledge. Identify two to three key pieces of knowledge, ask students to recall as much as they can about said content. Then ask them to explain how they think they are connected. It may be wise to start with two concepts first, and to model said links using I do, We do, You do again - before bringing in a third or even fourth idea. For example (using the key vocabulary below):

I do - The greater the food miles associated with the importing of food, the larger the environmental impacts. Lamb can be imported from over 11,000km away to the UK and with this comes a large carbon footprint as it is often transported by air. Air travel releases the greater quantity of carbon emissions into our atmosphere of all types of transportation.

We do - Sourcing food locally therefore brings advantages as...

As always, many of these approaches came from reflection - a process, tool and ethos that I believe is vital to teacher development. The impact of said strategies can only truly be felt through time and patience. Do not rush to implement everything in one go, and with every class/student. Personalisation is key.

To summarise:

  1. Consider the class and each student within it - building relationships that allow you to recognise which personalised approaches work best.

  2. Consider small tweaks and quick wins - retrieval should be low stakes and low stress, but with optimum challenge.

  3. Build in retrieval practice throughout lessons, not just as a tag on. Retrieval does not have to be fancy templates, consider adapting hinge questioning to build in some interleaving.

  4. Shy away from a culture of errorless learning to ensure students recognise the importance of learning from mistakes.

  5. Keep it simple - teach to the top, model and scaffold (Michael Chiles, The Feedback Pendulum, 2021).

Please do get in touch with your own ideas and strategies for supporting SEND students and with any examples you are able to share.