Harder, better, faster, longer?

Rebecca Foster explains how to introduce ‘desirable’ difficulties into your teaching – and why learning shouldn’t be easy.

‘The mistake we pop stars fall into is stating the obvious. “War is bad. Starvation is bad. Don’t chop down the rainforest.” It’s boring. It’s much better to hide it, to fold the meaning into some sort of metaphor or maze, if you like, and for the listener to have to journey to find it.’

Sting

The fetishisation of ease is ubiquitous: you only need to look down at your smartphone to see how advances in technology have converged to squeeze a multitude of processes into one hand-held device for your convenience – a camera, easy access to cat videos and social media all in one place! We don’t even have to get up from our sofas to change the TV channel or rely on a map to get us from A to B anymore. But at what cost this ease? In making life as easy as possible, what are we losing? Aren’t some difficulties in fact desirable?

These are questions we ought to be asking of our classroom practice too. When we make learning easy in the classroom, what is the cost? The work of Bjork and other researchers suggests that practices that ‘appear optimal during instruction’,1 such as massing study sessions and blocking practice, ‘can fail to support long-term retention and transfer of knowledge’. Whereas introducing certain difficulties that ‘slow the apparent rate of learning’, such as reducing feedback to the learner and interleaving practice on separate topics or tasks, ‘remarkably’ has the opposite effect.

Bjork asks the question why, ‘if the research picture is so clear’, are ‘massed practice, excessive feedback, fixed conditions of training, and limited opportunities for retrieval practice – among other nonproductive manipulations – such common features of real-world training programs?’2 One answer, in school contexts, might be a type of ‘operant conditioning’ teachers are exposed to. Several school systems serve to reinforce practices that encourage the teacher to increase the performance rate of their students to satisfy a demand for ‘rapid progress’. For example, frequent data-trawls encourage teachers to teach in a way that will maximise the short-term performance of their students. If I have to enter data on a student six times a year, and especially if that data is used to judge my performance as a teacher or inform the pay I’m entitled to, am I not motivated to do what’s necessary to push students over short-term hurdles? Notwithstanding the perfectly admirable desire as a teacher to see my students perform well.

It’s a bit like confiscating everybody’s satnavs: probably not a great idea if their timely arrival on a certain day is important; but if you want people to get better at finding their way in the longer term then it’s a sensible strategy that has merit.

As teachers we may also be led to favour practices that increase performance at the acquisition of learning stage because many of the ‘desirable’ difficulties Bjork suggests will produce ‘the best retention performance’3 result in ‘poorer performance’ at the point of learning new information. It’s manifestly unintuitive to a teacher to degrade the performance of students in the classroom. It’s a bit like confiscating everybody’s satnavs: probably not a great idea if their timely arrival on a certain day is important; but if you want people to get better at finding their way in the longer term then it’s a sensible strategy that has merit.

While short-term performance goals are understandable, our sights as teachers need to stretch far beyond the end of the lesson, unit or course of study. With supportive whole-school structures, teachers can be freed up to introduce desirable difficulties that may impede short-term performance but have long-term positive impact.

I’ve been leading the English department at my current school for two years and have introduced a range of ‘desirable difficulties’ that have been a challenge for both teachers and students. However, the effectiveness of the learning taking place in the English lessons in my department is revealed by the level of retention demonstrated by our students over time.

Distributing practice

One of the biggest changes I introduced was a move away from massed practice or traditional term-long units of study. In the past students might study a novel for a term and then move on to study creative writing followed by four other units – each conveniently one term long. I can only assume that the rationale for the length of the units was because that’s how the year is broken up and an end-of-unit assessment would fall just before a data drop, with all of the work leading up to that building the knowledge and skills necessary to perform well in that assessment. However, when that topic was returned to a year or more later, students’ long-term recall or performance was hindered by this approach.

Now, at KS3, we have two key units that are studied for roughly half of the year: a novel and a Shakespeare play. These are interleaved with studying poetry, fiction writing, non-fiction writing and analysis of both fiction and non-fiction. In practice this means that no two English lessons within a single week are on the same topic. Whilst this was a real challenge for teachers at first, our students haven’t been in the least bit phased and we’ve seen the impact this model has had on the development of our students’ knowledge and skills.

Of course, were I working in a school that demanded an assessment every six weeks, I may find myself in hot water; but thankfully, I work in a school that only requires one data entry a year at KS3 and two or three at KS4.

Using tests as learning events

Lots of evidence points to the idea that recalling information is more effective than a further study event and also serves the purpose of providing feedback to students about their current knowledge or a given topic. In my department, we have introduced a range of tests as learning events, including retrieval practice starters and knowledge tests. One of the most effective things we’ve introduced, after reading Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers: The Michaela Way, is self-quizzing homework. Students are required to test how much they can recall from their knowledge organisers and then, in a different coloured pen, fill in any gaps or make corrections. Not only is this weekly, structured activity improving students’ learning of key knowledge, but it’s also providing regular feedback to both teacher and learner about what they know or don’t know. Furthermore, it has the added benefit of not needing to be marked – a difficulty that is certainly not desirable!