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Powerful Teaching

Updated: Dec 24, 2020

This has been a challenging year but lockdown has provided an opportunity to catch up on reading. There has been an explosion of interest in cognitive science within education but Powerful Teaching: Unleash the Science of Learning has proven to be one of the most enjoyable and useful education books I've read this year. A collaboration between cognitive scientist Pooja Agarwal and veteran K-12 teacher Patrice Bain, it is built around four 'power tools': retrieval practice, spacing, interleaving and metacognition. As they state at the very beginning, these are tools that teachers already use. However, by thinking more explicitly about how and why they work, we can begin to more intentionally make them a regular part of our classroom practice.

Crucially these are time efficient strategies, taking a small amount of class time and unlike assessment, do not require any data collection or grading, but are instead a learning tool that promises to promote better knowledge retention (alas let us not forget Ofsted's very definition of learning is “an alteration in long-term memory”).


I want to highlight four strategies that I'm looking to embed in my lessons next year.


Retrieval Guides


I've spent an enormous amount of time uploading my lecture notes, PowerPoint presentations and revision guides to compliment the textbook onto the website. I encourage pupils to revise actively, to test themselves on the material, and not to just passively read it.


However, the next step must be to aid pupils to do this through creating retrieval guides. With 10-15 carefully thought short-answer or fill in the blank questions for each unit, pupils can engage in retrieval practice, in class or at home. I've created a mock one using the template downloadable on the Powerful Teaching website, but I am keen to work with my department in creating these guides for each unit, and they will of course be uploaded onto Philosophy Cat.



Retrieval Grids

Some schools now request all staff to have a retrieval task as a starter, asking pupils to answer a question based on last lesson, last week and last month. Retrieval grids play off the same concept, adding a gamified element with points attached to each question.


Retrieval grids include spacing, with pupils challenged to retrieve concepts from different times and can include feedback, from each other or the teacher.


I've now created retrieval grids for each unit, and it has allowed me to think again about the sequence of learning within the curriculum, and what opportunities there are to encourage pupils to make synoptic links, by thinking what units can be paired together across time.



Brain Dumps


This is a remarkably simple idea. Pause your lesson, ask students to write down everything that they remember, then continue with the lesson. It can be as short as a few minutes and requires no class discussion afterwards.


To add feedback, paired discussion can follow the brain dump, and pupils can be asked to:

  • identify what they have in common

  • identify misinformation

  • add something they had missed.

It also provides an opportunity for metacognition, as pupils can reflect on why they think they have remembered what they did and take greater ownership of their learning.


To add spacing, pupils can be asked to write down what they can remember from yesterday or last week.


Similar to brain dumps, 'Cops and Robbers' (or my more grown up Cats and Robbers) similarly asks pupils to recall what they remember in one column and check what they've forgotten from their partner.




Two Things


At any point in the lesson ask pupils to write down

  • two things they have learned so far

  • two thing they learned yesterday/last week/this unit

  • two things they would like to learn more about

... and then once again move on.


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