Science Labs in Primary School: Structure and Routine

Process and content knowledge are in the foreground because they are what students do or produce. But, both become possible only when structure and routine are operating in the background.

One of the primary ways teachers can shape the structure of their class is by how they manage it. How you choose to reinforce positive behavior and discipline negative behavior has a substantial effect on learning. There are many ways and approaches to this, but the best fall closely in line with the approach of authoritative parenting. Warm/Strict is a popular application of this method. For more, you can read about it here, here, and here.

Some Principles of Classroom Management

Essentially this means teachers should manage the class…

  • with clear, high expectations (behavioral and academic)
  • with support students to help them achieve expectations
  • with clear, fair rules enforced with fair consequences
  • with an understanding of extenuating circumstances
  • with everything done in genuine warmth towards the students

The bookends to the above list are the most important because when paired, they make the rest possible. High expectations without genuine warmth all too often leads to more authoritarian approaches. And, to say it simply, genuine warmth towards students without high expectations is flat out impossible. This is a false warmth. If you are treating students “warmly” but not demanding students work towards a high bar, you aren’t being kind or caring for them. Instead, you are actively working to reduce their potential.

Structure Puts Principles Action

Principles are not put into actions by pasting posters on the wall or even by telling students the rules and enforcing them. They are only put into action if you model the principles and support students as they strive towards them, providing discipline when needed.

One simple way to put the first three principles in action is with facial expressions and gestures. It may sound strange, but getting a variety of expressions and gestures down will make your life as a teacher better and will make handling disruptions smoother. These small routines provide structure that gives your students the support they need to reach the high expectations we must have.

When a student is off task, catch their eyes and give them the look. When they acknowledge you, nod and move on.
When a student isn’t writing and they should be, catch their eyes and pantomime writing with one hand holding a pen and the other being paper.
Etc.

What is key here is that students understand what the signals mean. If students are guessing the purpose, it will not be effective. Introduce the signals and tell students what they mean. Take guesswork out of the equation. This allows you to redirect students quickly, directly, and subtly.
*Note: These work best for minor disruptions, you will need other tools to deal with more significant problems.

In addition, these signals make transitions easier. Something as simple as a 3, 2, 1 Stop! (slightly increased pitch on the “Stop”) accompanied with a hand countdown makes it very clear to students that they need to finish and look at you. Whatever you choose to use for transitions, be consistent and make sure students know what the signals mean.

These structures are supports. They allow students to put their efforts towards achieving academically because they provide focus. They allow students to reach that high behavior bar you set because they provide clear direction, making it easier for students to stay on task.

Structure in the Lab

We must bring these established structures and routines to the lab with our class. The strategies are versatile enough to survive the new and exciting environment. As you enter the lab, expect for your students to be excited and to need a bit more correcting and time to settle in/transition than normal.

Stick to your already established structures and routines. Your students will adjust. Labs are naturally a bit more chaotic than a normal class. This makes structure and routines all the more important. Settle your students down by using the countdown or some other method. Then give instructions (verbally and written). It will be best if you can pass out a small sheet of paper with the instructions. This gives students a reminder that stays right in front of them.

Make sure all eyes are on you as you model step one. Be explicit about your directions. Say something like, “You have 15 seconds to set up step one, Go!” Then bring attention back to you with whatever already established method you’ve chosen. Once everyone is refocused, go on to the next step, and so on.

Keep a snappy pace. This will keep faster students focused. And students who move more slowly will be able to follow along just fine because they will have your model for each step.

Transitioning into Less-Structured Activities

Follow a similar structure when you are moving from one part of the lab to another. Once the setup is done and the experiment is ready to begin, you will still want to have teacher led transitions. This reduces confusion. 

Chaos is more susceptible when students are making observations or inferences. There is only so much we can do here. I like to preface these activities by briefly reviewing whatever we have learned and having students reread their hypotheses. I find that this helps transition their minds go from setting up the lab to being ready to actually do it. Then I say, “You will have 2 minutes to make observations. You have to talk to your partners, but you must talk like you are in a library. Do you understand?” 

My students are familiar with this routine and know to respond with a whispered, “Yes, we understand.” I often have to repeat this part a second time because they respond at a normal or even excited volume. But, this makes my expectations explicit. There is no guesswork and, as a result, my students work quietly and are focused during observation time. Then I set them loose to make observations or inferences with a hand signal.

Long Term Goals

Remember, we have primary students, they are not experts in the lab. The lab is still relatively new and mysterious to them. The structure is there to help them succeed. As you do more labs, you can gradually give students more freedom. But make sure they can succeed with it. We don’t want free students that drown in freedom. We want them to swim in it. And the best way to do that is for them to internalize the high expectations, structures, and routines you choose to create.

So give your students freedom by ensuring they have the necessary process knowledge and content knowledge for the lab. Give your students freedom by providing structure and routines. When they are ready, let them swim.

Science Labs in Primary School: Content Knowledge

This is part two in a three part series.

Part 1. Science Labs in Primary Schools: Process Knowledge


The Second Key: Content Knowledge

If you want your students to be able to succeed in the lab, they need to know the science. Do not have your students “discover” the main idea or key concepts in the lab. This will work for some students, but not for struggling students. Teaching with this type of discovery in mind widens the achievement gap. Instead, teach your students the key vocabulary words and concepts before the lab. 

Giving Content Knowledge Requires Structure

The best way to give your students knowledge and skills involves a structured approach to teaching (The Third Key). This structure need not create a stiff, cold environment. In fact, if your structure creates this type of environment, I’d argue that your structure is bad and that you need to adjust your approach to classroom management.

Essentially, this means being an authoritative teacher. Or, in the vernacular of Teach Like a Champion, it means being warm/strict. But more on this in post three.

Instruction and Content Knowledge

We must help our students become critical thinkers if we want them to have a chance in the lab, because a lab is essentially applying background knowledge through critical thinking in order to solve a problem. Luckily for us, the research here is relatively clear. Critical thinking happens with what we already know (Willingham, 2007). 

A tried and true method that helps students learn more is the I do, We do, You do model. In this, we essentially do what it says. The teacher explains and demonstrates, then there is some sort of group work, and after several checks for understanding and feedback, students are ready for independent work.

I am partial to the Explicit Instruction model, which is essentially a detailed version of I do, We do, You do. Here is an overview of Explicit Instruction.

Checks for Understanding: No-Stakes Quizzes

One way I like to check for understanding is by giving a few no-stakes quizzes in the week or two leading up to a lab. Click here to see how I go about using no-stakes quizzes. In our checks for understanding, regardless of the format this takes (quiz, groupwork, assignment, etc) we should mix in a  variety of factual recall and transfer (application) questions covering the same content in different contexts.

Factual Recall Examples:

What is a convection current?
What causes a convection current to form?
Why does change in temperature cause convection currents to form?

Transfer (Application) Examples:

Describe how a convection current forms in our atmosphere.
How does a convection current form in the geosphere?
Explain how convection currents affect the ocean.
Why does your soup have convection currents?

This mix of questions helps to make knowledge flexible, meaning that students will be more likely to successfully apply what they have learned both in the lab and in their daily lives. This is the goal right?

Knowledge in the Lab

So, after we have taught in a way to ensure our students know about the content, they are ready to test and apply it in the lab. By having background knowledge, we are changing the type of questions our students will ask and therefore, we are changing their hypotheses.

For example, if we take a more discovery based approach to labs, we may have our students investigate the following question, “What happens when a heater is placed under a glass of water with dye at the bottom?” 

Whereas if we use a more explicit approach, our students will not ask this question, because they will already know what will happen and why it will happen.

Instead, students with greater background knowledge can ask more involved questions such as, “Will a larger temperature difference change the size or speed of the convection current?” “How will obstacles affect convection currents?” and many more.

This type of question is worth spending a lab on. The first question, “What happens when a heater…” is not worth a lab. It is worth a teacher demonstration. 

Help your students think critically, redeem labs by teaching knowledge. Give your students knowledge so that they may apply it.

Science Labs in Primary School: Process Knowledge

Doing a science lab with younger children can be stressful even to think about. I have made the choice to avoid labs before because I couldn’t figure out  a way to do it without wanting to rip my hair out.

But as my own hair is starting to fall out of its own accord, I have learned how to make labs with primary students relatively painless and certainly useful.

As I see it, there are three key parts of a successful lab with any age of students, but these components are even more important for young learners: process knowledge, content knowledge, structure and routine. 

The First Key: Process Knowledge

Students must understand the process of science before they can reasonably perform a lab. This will look a bit different depending on the level you teach. But the overall ideas remain the same. Our students should be familiar with an appropriate version of the scientific method.

By appropriate, I mean that we can adjust it to our students. A seven year old doesn’t necessarily need to memorize every step in the scientific method. But the seven year old should understand the scientific method to be something along the lines of, “I use what I know to make a hypothesis. Then I test it. I write what happens. I test it again and write it down again. Finally I say why my hypothesis was right or wrong.”

Content Light On Purpose

When I am introducing the scientific method, I want my students to focus on the scientific method, not the “science content”. I go about this by doing what I call a “content light” lab. This is on a topic I am certain my students have good knowledge on. This allows them to better focus on following the steps of the scientific method without being distracted by complex procedures the experiment’s outcomes.

For example, I would not teach the scientific method with a chemical reactions lab. Mixing acids and bases is great fun, but it would not lead to a focus on the scientific method. Students would likely be distracted by the complex procedures and or the novelty of the experience.

Content Light Labs

For a content light lab, we take notes on one step of the scientific method and then we immediately apply it in short steps. One of my go to’s for this is a lab on gravity. My students already have background knowledge (Second Key), the testing procedure is simple, and it is fast. All of this works together to allow students to focus on the scientific method.

Example

1a. Define background knowledge: what you already know about a topic
1b. What do you know about gravity? Jot down this info as a class below the definition

2a. Define hypothesis: Using what you know to to explain what you think will happen in a testable and repeatable way
(This takes longer as you have to explain testable and repeatable)
2b. If I drop ‘Object A’ and ‘Object B’ at the same height, then “Object A/B’ will fall to the ground at a faster/slower/same rate.
(Feel free to adjust how you require students to form their hypotheses. But I do recommend always writing them in the same format. This makes it easier for students to focus on the science, not the writing.)

3a. Define procedure: steps to perform the experiment
3b. Grab two objects (not a single piece of paper) and drop them from the same height, then record the results.

4a. Define test: Doing the experiment
4b. Perform the procedure

5a. And so on…

The most challenging part here is step 4b. This is where the lesson is most likely to crash and burn. The way you can avoid this is with the third key, structure and routine. I will write about this more in a future post, but in brief here is my advice.

Have students perform step 4b in unison by following your direction.
Ex: “Ok, grab the two objects you decided to test. Everybody ready? Ok, good. Now hold them up, make sure they are the same height. Now, when I say go, drop them. Ready? 3, 2, 1 Go!”

The Second Key: Content Knowledge
The Third Key: Structure and Routine

Reading in Science Class

I have experimented with incorporating more reading into my 5th and 6th grade science classes. This started with a desire to have my students see how the science we were learning was connected to their everyday lives. So, I would find popular science articles for them to read and take notes on.

Class 1: The Trainwreck

However, during this first lesson, I found out that I cannot just give them an article, even when I have already taught the vocabulary and background knowledge. I did not realize that notetaking was such a complicated skill and as a direct result of my ignorance, this lesson failed. So, after trying to salvage the trainwreck of a lesson I went back to the drawing board. 

Class 2: Prepping for Reading

My new, more thought out approach was to print out a shorter article and go over how to read and take notes on it in a very teacher led fashion. I started by teaching a simplified MLA citation. I explained that you can normally find the author at the top or bottom of an article. Then we looked at the article and students raised their hands when they found the author. The students followed my lead as I wrote the author’s last name and first name on the board. We quickly wrote the title of the article. Finally, I showed them how to identify the website name. Annotation 2020-06-30 140658

With that we were finally ready to start our notes. Just kidding. I still needed to teach them how to take notes from a longer text first, because this is where it really fell apart in the first lesson. I had wrongly assumed that since we take notes each day, my students would know how to create their own. This assumption was far from reality. 

My approach to this involved pulling up some of my own powerpoints and having students open their books to the corresponding page in their textbooks. I asked whether they would prefer to write the paragraph in the book or the phrase on my powerpoint. Then we talked about how to summarize and take notes from a longer piece of writing, and I gave them two simple rules.

  1. No sentences allowed
  2. Do not just write down a word, you must explain it

After going over this and practicing a bit in our textbooks with familiar material, the class was over.

Class 3: Moderate Success

As the next class began, we reviewed the two notetaking rules from the previous class and I gave my students a warm up where they took notes on a paragraph. We reviewed what they wrote and then I passed out the article from last class. We were finally ready to take notes. As students were looking over the article, I drew attention to some text features (headings, links, underlined/highlighted words) and mentioned that they were very similar to the text features in their textbooks. 

I read the first two paragraphs out loud and we had a class discussion about what to write down. I wrote on the board and my students wrote on their summary sheet. After this, I allowed my students to work in pairs. The quality of this first, reading and notetaking activity was disappointingly low.

I still had about half of my students focusing on minor details or on only the interesting parts of the article, neglecting the important parts. Others continued to copy complete sentences from the article because paraphrasing is much more difficult than simply copying what you read. But I still consider this lesson a success because it was the first time my students have had to do anything like this, in any subject. I should expect it to be a bit rough in the beginning.

Feedback and Progress

I decided that this was worth trying again because I want my students to read challenging content in my subject area (Their textbooks are not so challenging). So, I gave feedback and a few weeks later, we tried it again. This time the results were much better. Students were generally following the instructions (no sentences, and giving explanations) and while some were still getting lost in the weeds, I was happy with their overall progress.

I noticed that many of my students needed more guidance on formatting their notes, just telling them to copy my format was not enough instruction. This led to another mini-lesson where I taught how to use bullet points and indentations in their notes, and to link each section of notes with a heading in the article. (This is a work in progress.)

As time went on, my students were able to complete their notes faster and with greater depth. This encouraged me to continue with it. I ended up making a Google Site in order to give my students a limited range of choice and to save paper. Ultimately, we read and summarize an average of two articles per chapter.

My Own Reflection

In science I am fairly skilled at breaking down concepts or skills into bite-sized chunks. Unfortunately this did not really transfer over when I tried to teach reading and notetaking skills because I overlooked how complicated they were. I am a science teacher and I was simply viewing the skills as a vehicle for learning my content.

Once I took the time to properly break down the skills and pre-teach each step, my students were able to find success. But, my pre-teaching in this area tends to be a bit rough as I am still learning how to teach the more technical parts of notetaking while balancing the need to cover material. Teaching is tricky stuff, but I’ll get there.

 

EduTwitter Tiffs: Drill-work

Recently there was another EduTwitter Tiff. This one was about drill-work in schools. Essentially, one side was saying that drill work serves a useful purpose. The other side said it was outdated and promotes mere rote memorization without helping with understanding.

The meaning of a drill is relatively straightforward. But to make things explicit, here is how an education researcher defined ‘drill’. Schofield (1972) defined drill as “the formation of good or bad habits through regular practice of stereotyped exercises.” 

If we can agree on the definition above, it is clear that drills on their own are neither good nor bad. It depends on how they are used. 

Basketball Drills

Sports are famous for their drill-work. Steph Curry has his own MasterClass full of shooting, dribbling, and passing drills. It should be obvious with a bit of thinking that drills have proven themselves to be an important factor is Steph Curry’s ability on the courts, and it takes only the tiniest bit of transfer to see how drills are valuable for anyone in sports, whether a beginner (a young child) or an expert (Steph Curry).

As education is primarily a mental activity, the value of drill-work is less obvious than in sports, but no less important. In education, drills play an important role in learning facts, concepts, and procedures.

  • Facts and Concepts

Drills are great for memorizing facts and concepts. *Flashcards are a classic example of drill-work in education. Flashcards and all other types of drilling are effective because they combine spaced practice (practicing over time) with retrieval practice (calling something to mind). These are two of the most studied and most effective learning strategies
*both physical and digital flashcards are effective

  • Procedures

Drills are also great for learning procedures. If you teach young children, you have probably taught them how to clean up, line up, etc. Teaching these procedures involves drill-work. You say a statement and demonstrate it, then the students follow your lead.

But drill-work is useful for more than physical procedures. We can (and should) use drills to help students learn academic procedures as well. 

When students are learning to write the alphabet, we give them drill sheets to practice writing. We give memorization drills when we require students to memorize PEMDAS. We give application drills when we give students order of operations worksheets. 

More Than Memorization

Done halfway well, drilling leads to much more than rote memorization, it leads to understanding and transfer. The research backs this up. If we want understanding and transfer, then we ought to incorporate drilling into our teaching.

Feedback: The Secret Ingredient

Drills on their own will not make you into a basketball star or a scholar. Going through the drills did not make Steph Curry a basketball star. His being focused while going through the drills coupled with receiving actionable feedback and then working to immediately act on said feedback helped make him a basketball star.

Learning works the same way. If we do not incorporate actionable feedback into our drills, then we will be helping some students develop and ingrain bad habits.

My Stance on Drilling

We should regularly use drill-work in our classes. Drill to kill ignorance and inability. Drill to thrill by unlocking possibilities and unleashing creativity.

When we drill for facts, concepts, and procedures we are killing ignorance by helping students gain knowledge. This is also a key step in destroying inability because drills are focused and explicit, helping students gain the ability to read/write/apply concepts more quickly.

Once our drill-work has killed ignorance and inability, we are able to use it to thrill. Drill-work is thrilling not because it is always exciting in and of itself, rather, drill-work is thrilling because it leads to the ability to thrill. 

The hours of drill-work Steph Curry and Lebron James put in behind the scenes are a large reason we find it thrilling to watch them play basketball. Likewise, drill-work unlocks academic thrills because it unlocks possibilities. The more we know about facts and concepts, the more likely we are to use them in creative, cohesive ways. The knowledge and abilities provided by the drill-work helps unlock our students’ creative potential.

Get Drilling

If we want our students to succeed, we should drill them, give them feedback, and give them many opportunities to respond to said feedback. This dovetails nicely with research on explicit instruction that I have tried to summarize here

If your whole teaching process can be summed up as drill-work, you are a bad teacher because teaching is so much more than drilling. However, if you avoid drill-work, then you are not helping your students as much as you could be. That is also a problem. So, get drilling, judiciously.

Citation
Schofield, H. (1972). The Philosophy of Education An Introduction. London: George Allen and Unwin Ltd.

Reading is Rocket Science

I just read a research summary by Louisa Moats from 1999, Reading is Rocket Science. It was an eye opener. But, it shouldn’t really have been. I have looked into the research of explicit instruction, and as a profession we have ignored that research for years. So it shouldn’t really have been a surprise that we would choose to ignore the research on how children learn to read, especially when the research calls for explicit instruction as well. We just ignored the same thing twice.

Ignore it no longer! If we would use research backed teaching methods, it is estimated that 95% of students could learn to read. We knew this in 1999. 

USA: Land of Below Proficient Readers

  • 65% of 4th grade students are below proficient in reading. 
  • 66% of 8th grade students are below proficient in reading.
  • 63% of 12th grade students are below proficient in reading.

proficient readers

We have chosen to ignore the evidence. We have chosen to harm our students. We have chosen to harm your children. Hopefully as these sad statistics become more well known, more teachers will choose to care about students, to care about your children, and to teach them how to read.

The Research Is The Remedy

Research has found that we must utilize teacher led instruction for decoding, comprehension, and literature appreciation. A reason we ought to use teacher led instruction is because students benefit the most when lessons are systematic and children are taught the code of written English explicitly.

“For best results, the teacher must instruct most students directly, systematically, and explicitly to decipher words in print, all the while keeping in mind the ultimate purpose of reading, which is to learn, enjoy, and understand.” (Moates, 1999)

We must be systematic and explicit when teaching reading or writing because it is not intuitive. We do not naturally or easily learn to read and write. The rules are complex and we add obstacles to learning by making students infer the rules. 

We know that some methods of reading instruction are more effective than others because, “Emergent reading follows a predictable course regardless of the speed of reading acquisition” (Moates, 1999). Essentially, because emergent reading follows a predictable pattern, we can infer (and the research supports) a predictable pattern of effective instruction.

Teacher led instruction isn’t the most popular right now. But we shouldn’t let ideology or pop-education culture get in the way of effective instruction. Unless, of course, your freedom of choosing your preferred teaching method is more important than children learning to read. Make your choice.

Research Summary

Teaching Reading is Rocket Science is available for free. I strongly recommend you read it.

 

More Resources

Reading Rockets
Bringing Words to Life
Explicit Instruction
The Reading League

Book Review: Powerful Teaching

This book was written by two powerful educators.
Pooja K. Agarwal, Ph.D., a cognitive scientist and founder of RetrievalPractice.org
Patrice Bain Ed.S., a veteran K-12 teacher with more than 25 years of teaching middle school social studies.

In chapter one, they introduce “power tools”. These are research backed, classroom proven strategies that lay the foundation of all powerful teaching and then they spend the rest of the book unpacking the how-to’s and implications.

Power Tools

  1. Retrieval Practice
  2. Spacing
  3. Interleaving
  4. Feedback-Driven Metacognition

They translate the research-ese behind each power tool into lived, teacher-friendly examples that go beyond explaining the academic benefits you would expect research based strategies to yield.  For students, the beyond academic benefits are significant. Students who are taught with power tools remember more and get better grades. Importantly, this includes SPED, ADHD, and ESL students. In addition, students taught with these strategies show a decreased level of anxiety. Us teachers benefit from using power tools as well! If you utilize these free strategies, you will be able to spend less time grading, and more time refining your practice.

What’s not to love about this? All students learn more and are less anxious while we spend less time grading. Win-win. And while all of this is super valuable, the best part comes next, where they apply the research to their own classes. 

Powerful Tools in the Classroom

Agarwal, Ph.D. applies each strategy in a university classroom while Bain, Ed.S. applies each strategy in a middle school classroom.

For the busy teacher, this is a goldmine. When you read through this book, you will not have to think too hard about how to use the power tools because the authors have already shown the way. What is important is for you to understand the framework the book develops. Once you understand this, you are ready to rock and roll.

Final Thoughts

Powerful Teaching has had a significant impact on my classroom because it has helped me refine my practice. It has confirmed some things I knew subconsciously, allowing me to move forward with confidence in what I had already been doing. While also surprising me with new information. Helping me “redeem” some of my more ineffective practices. 

This may be the best education book I have ever read. I cannot recommend it highly enough. You should buy this book. You will benefit from it.

Rating (out of 5):⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

Powerful Teaching (Amazon Link)

Explicit Instruction: Opportunities to Respond

Posts in this series…

  1. What is Explicit Instruction?
  2. Explicit Instruction: Segmenting Complex Skills
  3. Explicit Instruction: Teacher Talk and Equity
  4. Explicit Instruction: Modeling
  5. Explicit Instruction: Concreteness Fading

At this point, we have already looked at each individual component of explicit instruction, what remains is effectively putting each component together. As we segment complex skills, we should provide instructional breaks where we “stop teaching” and have our students apply what they are learning. When we do this, we are providing them with opportunities to respond (OTR), a key part of learning. 

  1. Teacher Directed OTR (TD-OTR) improves academic performance (Blood, 2010; Haydon & Hunter, 2011)
  2. Increased TD-OTR increases academic engagement and decreases disruptive behavior (MacSuga-Gage & Gage, 2015)
  3. TD-OTR improves behavioral outcomes for students with emotional and behavioral disorder (Lewis et al., 2004)
  4. TD-OTR improves academic and behavioral outcomes for students with EBD, in addition it also results in increased efficacy in the use of class time (Sutherland & Wehby, 2001)
  5. Ensuring high success for students with academic deficits and behavioral issues requires implementing flexible, universal interventions that address varied student abilities. They must be easily implemented within any instructional content area (Sprick, & Borgmeier, 2010)

In one sense, this is a case where the research backs up common sense. Of course students need to respond to the material and use it to learn. But, if it truly were so simple, then one would expect our students to be learning more. One glance at test scores shows us that there is a significant disconnect between research and practice.

Ideal Rates and the Problem

The disconnect is that while OTR, and especially TD-OTR work, they need to be used more often and in a more structured way than we tend to be comfortable with. Researchers estimate that the ideal OTR rate is roughly 3-3.5 per minute for general education students (Stitcher et. al, 2006; Stitcher et al., 2009). For students with high incidence disabilities, the ideal rate is even higher, somewhere between 4-6 OTR per minute (Council for Exceptional Children, 1987). But unfortunately, these children only receive about one OTR every twenty minutes, or about two opportunities per class (Hirn & Scott, 2012; Van Acker, Grant, & Henry, 1996).

The problem is that while all teachers provide their students with some form of OTR, we tend to only give students an OTR when the opportunity arises naturally. What we ought to do is build TD-OTR into our lesson plans to reinforce key concepts and give students chances to apply what they are learning. 

Using Teacher Directed Opportunities to Respond

It can be helpful to think like a coach. A baseball coach who says, “Keep your eyes on the ball.” or “Swing!” will only be of limited help. A good coach anticipates problems and breaks down the mechanics by explicitly explaining and modeling each part of the swing and having the child apply it in actionable segments. As the child gains proficiency in his or her swing, the coach puts more segments together until the child is ready to hit a pitch in a game.

***Notice, this follows the key pillars of explicit instruction outlined by Charles Archer.  Pillars of explicit instruction

A good teacher will do likewise. Don’t just ask a question once you finish your explanation. Use what you already know about your students and ask questions as you go. Don’t just call on volunteers. Then you will only be requiring students who raise their hands to engage and think deeply. Use alternative strategies to engage more students. Think-Pair-Share, choral response, and no-stakes quizzes are great tools for teachers to have at the ready.

 

Simple and Flexible 

One reason TD-OTR works is that it is flexible. This allows it to be effectively used with students of differing abilities, across grades and subjects (Sprick, & Borgmeier, 2010). TD-OTR is flexible because it is simple. The teacher asks students to respond, and then the teacher gives feedback (Ferkis et al., 1997). Pretty simple.

However, the fact that the method is simple doesn’t make implementation simple. TD-OTR must be structured. In order to develop structure, teachers should explicitly define the routines and expectations, provide feedback on expectations and performance, actively supervise students, and provide a high rate of OTRs (Simonsen et al., 2008). Essentially, explicit instruction is helpful not just for teaching our content, explicit instruction is also helpful for teaching our students class routines and expectations.  

The Two OTRs

There are two typical ways teachers use OTR. The first is to elicit an individual response. This happens when a teacher cold calls or asks students to raise their hands and calls on a volunteer. As one student answers, the rest of the class is ideally listening and still thinking. But this is the weak point of individual responses. How do you ensure that all students are thinking about your lesson if you only see what one student is thinking?

The other type of OTR is a unison response, where the teacher requires a group of students, or the entire class to respond.

Verbal Examples: Choral response, Think-Pair-Share

Non-Verbal Examples: gesture responses, written responses, response cards

The key to making this effective is structure and expectations. The students must know how to respond. For choral response, give students clear cues for when to start speaking. I prefer to use a hand gesture coupled with slightly raising the pitch of my voice. When using Think-Pair-Share (TPS), be sure to model it for your students first and let them practice using it and then give your students feedback on how to use the method of TPS better. This is particularly important because you do not want the share portion of TPS to devolve into chatting. One type of unison written response that works particularly well is no-stakes quizzing. (See my article for CogSciSci on how to use the above methods effectively).  

Your OTR

I find that the largest obstacle to effectively using TD-OTRs is myself. Thinking of good questions takes time. Thinking about how to frame the question (individual or unison, written or verbal) takes time. Learning how to teach your students to use the method effectively takes time. Then, it takes a bit more time still for your students to get used to TD-OTR. But it is worth it. See the list of 5 items at the start of this article if you are unsure.

I am getting a new curriculum next fall, so I have an ideal time to rethink how I should go about my teaching. My basic plan involves coming up with a list of concept questions with different scenarios.

Ex: Many questions about animal adaptations in a desert, rainforest, tundra, etc

Then I will use a smattering of different TD-OTR strategies and have students answer the questions and apply their learning.

How will you intentionally use TD-OTR?

 

Sources:

Blood, E. (2010). Effects of student response systems on participation and learning of students with emotional and behavioral disorders. Behavioral Disorders, 35, 214–228.

Council for Exceptional Children (CEC) (1987). Academy for effective instruction:

Working with mildly handicapped students. Reston, VA.

Haydon, T., & Hunter, W. (2011). The effects of two types of teacher questioning on teacher behavior and student performance: A case study. Education & Treatment of Children, 34(2), 229–245. https://doi.org/10.1353/etc.2011.0010

Ferkis, M. A., Belfiore, P. J., & Skinner, C. H. (1997). The effects of response repetitions on sight word acquisition for students with mild disabilities. Journal of Behavioral Education, 7, 307–324.

Hirn, R., & Scott, T. M. (2012). Academic and behavior response to intervention project. Louisville, KY: University of Louisville.

Lewis, T. J., Hudson, S., Richter, M., & Johnson, N. (2004). Scientifically supported practices in emotional and behavioral disorders: A proposed approach and brief review of current practices. Behavioral Disorders, 29, 247–259.

MacSuga-Gage, A. S., & Gage, N. A. (2015). Student-level effects of increased teacher-directed opportunities to respond. Journal of Behavioral Education, 24(3), 273–288. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10864-015-9223-2

Simonsen, Brandi & Fairbanks, Sarah & Briesch, Amy & Myers, Diane & Sugai, George. (2008). Evidence-based Practices in Classroom Management: Considerations for Research to Practice. Education and Treatment of Children. 31. 351-380. 10.1353/etc.0.0007. 

Sprick, R., & Borgmeier, C. (2010). Behavior prevention and management in three tiers in secondary schools. In M. R. Shinn & H. M. Walker (Eds.), Interventions for achievement and behavior problems in a three-tier model including RTI (pp. 435–468).

Stichter, J. P., Lewis, T. J., Richter, M., Johnson, N. W., & Bradley, L. (2006). Assessing antecedent variables: The effects of instructional variables on student outcomes through in-service and peer coaching professional development models. Education and Treatment of Children, 29, 665–692

Stichter, J. P., Lewis, T. J., Whittaker, T. A., Richter, M., Johnson, N. W., & Trussell, R. P. (2009). Assessing teacher use of opportunities to respond and effective classroom management strategies: Comparisons among high- and low-risk elementary schools. Journal of Positive Behavior Interventions, 11, 68–81.

Sutherland, Kevin & Wehby, J.. (2001). The Effect of Self-Evaluation on Teaching Behavior in Classrooms for Students with Emotional and Behavioral Disorders. Journal of Special Education – J SPEC EDUC. 35. 161-171. 10.1177/002246690103500306. 

Van Acker, R., Grant, S. H., & Henry, D. (1996). Teacher and student behavior as a function of risk for aggression. Education and Treatment of Children, 19(3), 316–334.

Explicit Instruction: Concreteness Fading

Posts in this series…
1. What is Explicit Instruction?
2. Explicit Instruction: Segmenting Complex Skills
3. Explicit Instruction: Teacher Talk and Equity
4. Explicit Instruction: Modeling

Concreteness fading is exactly what the name suggests. You start with a concrete example, and once your students have grasped it, you fade it out for a more abstract representation. The purpose behind this strategy is that abstract representations are more generalizable than concrete ones.

When teaching a concept you should use an example with strategically extraneous details. It sounds strange, but it’s true. Concrete examples help students with initial learning because they have extraneous details (Glenberg et al., 2004). These details help “ground” the concept in the familiar, allowing students to grasp the example. 

However, the extraneous details making up a concrete example hinder generalization and transfer (Petersen & McNeil, 2013). Hence the need to fade from concrete representations to abstract ones.

Useful Definitions

We do run into a bit of an academic language problem when talking about concreteness fading. Technically, abstract representations do not exist because, whenever you describe something, or write, or draw it, parts of that idea become concrete.

In their 2018 paper, Fyfe and Nathan propose a simple linguistic work around. Instead of referring to examples as concrete (specific and non transferrable) or abstract (general and transferrable) we instead identify them as less idealized (concrete) or more idealized (abstract). 

Concrete Examples (Less Idealized)

Not all concrete examples are created equal. Concrete examples that are less idealized add seductive details that make it more difficult than necessary in order to learn and generalize the example (Sundararajan & Adesope, 2020). So when we are crafting our concrete examples, we should be careful with the type of extraneous information we include, that extra information might not help initial learning.

We ought to include the extraneous information that improves initial learning (It isn’t really extraneous then, is it?). There are two types of information to be wary of: perceptual and conceptual.

Perceptual information pertains to the physical properties of the example. This could include 2D or 3D representations, visual surface features such as patterns and how real an object looks. Researchers have found that 3-Dimensional representations are generally more effective than 2-Dimensional objects, at least in math (Carbonneau, Marley, & Selig, 2013). In addition, representations that are particularly rich in visual surface features have been found to inhibit learning compared with less perceptually rich objects (Kaminski, Sloutsky, & Heckler, 2013).

The solution to this isn’t to only use 3-D or less perceptually rich representations. It is simply to be smart about it. 

What are you teaching? What is the main idea of the concept? Does the picture/diagram allow students to make incorrect inferences? How much explanation will students need to understand your concrete example? Is the “extraneous” information in this representation directly relevant to the concept?

Conceptual information is trickier, because it is learner dependent. Conceptual information depends on the background knowledge your students bring to the table. If your students are very familiar with an object, it is often difficult for them to think about that object abstractly (Petersen & McNeil, 2013).

Abstract Examples (More Idealized)

A good abstract, or idealized representation allows students to make the intended generalization with the least effort. Essentially, in a more idealized representation, your students will be more likely to successfully transfer their learning to a new context. We should also expect for students who are more novice to struggle with transferring their learning, even if they are able to think about the underlying ideas of the representation (Koedinger & Nathan, 2004).

The purpose of an idealized representation is to encourage generalization and transfer. Idealized representations achieve this by moving the focus from the what representation is to what the representation does. Idealized representations are able to do this because they lack the extraneous details of less idealized representations.

old lady or hag

The extraneous details of a less idealized representation help to ground the example in the familiar and the relatable, thus, providing a fertile context for initial learning (Glenberg et al., 2004; Schliemann & Carraher, 2002). And it is this same grounding that reduces transfer of learning. Think about an optical illusion. If you see the young lady first, it can be hard to then see the old hag, and vice versa. When we use more abstract, more idealized representations, we make it easier for students to generalize and transfer their learning.

Three Concrete Goals

According to Fyfe and Nathan (2002) three goals of concreteness fading are to

  1. Promote initial learning with a meaningful, less idealized representation of the concept. (grounded context)
  2. Promote transfer of learning by ending a learning sequence with a generic, broadly applicable idealized representation.
  3. Draw connections between less idealized (concrete) and more idealized (abstract) representations to create a well developed schema.

Concreteness Fading (Less to More Ideal)

Concreteness fading aims to take advantage of both concrete and abstract representations. The extraneous details of a less idealized example help the student to learn the concept, but these same details prevent students from transferring that concept, it is inert, inflexible knowledge (Schliemann & Carraher, 2002). However, if after initial learning you begin to use more idealized examples by reducing the extraneous details, your students will be more able to generalize and transfer the concept, making their knowledge applicable and flexible (Kaminski, Sloutsky, & Heckler, 2008).

As we fade from the less ideal to the more ideal, we don’t simply want to focus on the idealized examples. Concreteness fading is not a checklist procedure to follow, the initial concrete examples are still true, they are still valuable. 

The concrete examples help provide a continued grounding for the abstract ones, so we should ensure our students know not only the concrete and abstract representations of the concept, but we should also ensure they understand the connections between concrete and abstract representations by making the connections explicit. 

Fyfe and Natan encourage teachers to use a 3-step progression starting with a grounded, less idealized representation before fading into an abstract, idealized one. In order to do this successfully, teachers must reduce the perceptual and conceptual information their examples contain. 

The classic example of this 3-step model is in math. You start with a 3-D manipulative and go to an image on the paper and you finally conclude with just numbers. concreteness fading

This 3-step strategy can be applied in many other classes and age groups as well. In science, you could start teaching about a food chain by showing a video of a gazelle grazing in the savanna being silently stalked by a cheetah. Next, you could show the classic image of a food chain and then, finally, have your students generalize the pattern of food chains to any environment (producers to primary consumers to secondary consumers, etc).
1. Springbok Antelopes vs Cheetahs (Antelopes are a type of gazelle)
2. gazelle food chain
3. Producer –> Primary Consumer –> Secondary Consumer

*Note: You should use the correct vocabulary throughout your examples, whether they are concrete or abstract. Ex: The bush is a producer, the gazelle is a primary consumer, the cheetah is a secondary consumer.

This will give your students more exposure to the vocabulary in context, which will also make transferring their knowledge easier.

Concreteness Fading, Research, and Teachers

Concreteness fading is not an end all be all for education, it alone is not a silver bullet. But, if we want all of our students to know our subjects deeply, it is vitally important. The methods proposed by Fyfe and Nathan will also give our students exposure to multiple models of a concept, this likely increases the flexibility of their learning (Jacobson et al., 2020).

By teaching with methods aligning to research, we make the curriculum more accessible for all students. When we deviate from research and go with mere instinct, we increase the likelihood of creating an inequitable learning environment. Research alone is not some paneca of perfection, but without it, what are you going on beyond experience?

We should understand the broad principles of research and apply them to our context with nuance.

Sources

  • Carbonneau, Kira, Scott Marley, and James Selig. 2013. “A Meta-Analysis of the Efficacy of Teaching Mathematics with Concrete Manipulatives.” Journal of Educational Psychology 105 (2): 380–400. doi:10.1037/a0031084.
  • Fyfe, E. R., & Nathan, M. J. (2018). Making “concreteness fading” more concrete as a theory of instruction for promoting transfer. Educational Review, 71(4), 403–422. doi: 10.1080/00131911.2018.1424116
  • Glenberg, Arthur, Tiana Gutierrez, Joel Levin, Sandra Japuntich, and Michael Kaschak. 2004. “Activity and Imagined Activity Can Enhance Young Children’s Reading Comprehension.” Journal of Educational Psychology 96 (3): 424–436. doi:10.1037/0022-0663.96.3.424.
  • Jacobson, M. J., Goldwater, M., Markauskaite, L., Lai, P. K., Kapur, M., Roberts, G., & Hilton, C. (2020). Schema abstraction with productive failure and analogical comparison: Learning designs for far across domain transfer. Learning and Instruction,65, 101222. doi:10.1016/j.learninstruc.2019.101222
  • Kaminski, Jennifer, Vladimir Sloutsky, and Andrew Heckler. 2013. “The Cost of Concreteness: The Effect of Nonessential Information on Analogical Transfer.” Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied 19:14–29. doi:10.1037/a0031931.
  • Koedinger, Kenneth, and Mitchell Nathan. 2004. “The Real Story behind Story Problems: Effects of Representations on Quantitative Reasoning.” Journal of the Learning Sciences 13 (2): 129–164.
  • Petersen, Lori, and Nicole McNeil. 2013. “Effects of Perceptually Rich Manipulatives on Preschoolers’ Counting Performance: Established Knowledge Counts.” Child Development 84: 1020–1033. doi:10.1111/cdev.12028.
  • Schliemann, Analucia, and David Carraher. 2002. “The Evolution of Mathematical Reasoning: Everyday versus Idealized Understandings.” Developmental Review 22 (2): 242–266.
  • Sundararajan, N., Adesope, O. Keep it Coherent: A Meta-Analysis of the Seductive Details Effect. Educ Psychol Rev (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10648-020-09522-4

Explicit Instruction: Modeling

In a systematic review of the literature, Hughes, Morris, Therrien, and Benson (2017) reviewed 86 studies and determined that explicit instruction has 5 Pillars. The first pillar is segmenting complex skills. The second pillar is large, so I divided it up into two posts, think-alouds (teacher talk) and modeling.

In order for modeling to be effective, a teacher must have their teacher-talk down pat. As we are communicating our model, our language must be concise, clear, and strategically repetitive. Being concise is essential because our students are novices and do not have a well-developed schema. Being concise saves their working memory for the content of our course and the repetition helps ensure the content is integrated into their schema. However, concise-ity alone is not all we need. 

We must pair our conciseness with clarity. To speak clearly you ought to plan ahead, avoid ambiguity, and use proper grammar. In addition, be careful with figurative language. If you must use it, and it’s quite likely that you must, explicitly explain the figurative phrases to your students. 

Modeling

Modeling is one of the most efficient ways to learn new skills or knowledge (Bandura, 1986). At its most basic, modeling helps students learn skills, procedures, or behaviors through observation rather than through direct experience (Salisu & Ransom, 2014).

Modeling is important because it increases access to the curriculum. When we leave modeling out of our instruction, less students will be able to acquire and apply complex comprehension strategies (Fielding & Pearson, 1994).

When to Model

Modeling has been found to be particularly useful for well-structured tasks. These are tasks that can easily be broken down into component steps. Math is the most obvious example, you have a standard algorithm to follow that can be broken down into smaller sub-steps.

Less-structured tasks are tasks that cannot be easily broken down into sub-steps. As a result, these tasks are seen as higher-leveled. Modeling with less structured tasks is likely to be more difficult and less effective because, in order to succeed, students will need to pull knowledge and skills from a variety of areas. 

How to Model

Before you start modeling a concept or skill, bring your students’ background knowledge to mind. This can be done through review, sharing an image or video, etc. I am partial to using a combination of choral response and think-pair-share as a way to bring background knowledge to mind. By having students think about what they already know, you are making it easier for them to integrate the new knowledge into their existing schema and allowing students to move forward with the least amount of confusion.

When we are modeling a concept or skill for our students, we should make it as short and simple as possible. Only include what is important, don’t go down the rabbit hole. Interesting asides can wait. In addition, check for understanding throughout the modeling process. Even if you have your teacher talk down pat and have a well planned model, don’t assume that you can just run through the model once and have your students understand. Even with the most precise, perfect model, you still need to break it down into small steps and check for understanding.

Steps to Modeling

  1. Bring background knowledge to mind
  2. Make each step of your modeling short and simple
  3. Check for understanding between the steps
  4. Give students guided practice with feedback

Modeling Behavior

Disposition Modeling: When done well, this helps convey personal values and thought processes. By modeling a disposition, we are often able to make abstract rules and expectations more concrete.

To model dispositions we can simply explain and act out what we feel or think when a student is misbehaving. It is very important to note that this is not done with a condescending tone. It is done to help students understand the expectations, not to shame or let off some frustrated steam.

Educational Modeling

As far as education goes, there are many different types of modeling.

Meta-Cognitive Modeling: This is the classic think-aloud. Teachers talk through their own thought process and intentionally make the implicit steps explicit. This is particularly useful for teaching students how to interpret information, analyze concepts, and draw conclusions.

Modeling as Scaffolding: This takes into account where individual students are in the learning process. This type of modeling is the most difficult, because different students have different levels of knowledge and differing knowledge gaps. So, in order to model as scaffolding, a teacher must not only know the curriculum inside and out, he or she must also know their students.

In order to scaffold effectively, it is useful to think about where you expect students to struggle. Ask yourself, “What makes this concept difficult? Will my students lack the necessary background knowledge?” 

This planning helps in at least four ways.
1. If your students lack the necessary background knowledge, give it to children so that they have a chance to understand the model and concept you are trying to teach.
2.  It reduces your stress levels. If you have additional explanations and models at the ready, you will not be racking your brain for an example to give a student in the middle of class.
3. By preplanning additional models or supplementary explanations, you will likely help your struggling students understand the materials better.
4. You may even find that all your students benefit from the additional models and explanations. When this is the case, everyone’s’ life is easier (teacher & students) because more students understand from your teaching (whole class scaffolding) and less students need customized help, improving class flow and learning.

Task and Performance Modeling: In this, the teacher demonstrates a task to students before they do it on their own. This is the type of modeling that teachers most often used in a preplanned manner.

For complex processes like the scientific method or writing, it will likely be best to break down your modeling rather significantly by teaching one step per lesson. 

For example, I have tried to teach students how to form a hypothesis in one day, and the results have never really been pretty. The reason for this is that making a hypothesis involves many sub-steps including: observations, inferences, background knowledge, and asking scientific questions. Each of these sub-steps is relatively complicated by itself, let alone when you combine them! When students new to the scientific method try to apply all those steps at once, they experience cognitive overload. And, even if they follow the steps correctly, they are unlikely to remember how to use the scientific method the next day.

When dealing with complex material, students need to be exposed to one idea at a time. They do not yet have a developed schema with which to hold all this information. We need to remember this, and to build their schemas over time, they need to know and understand each sub-step. And, as we teach, we build on the previously learned material.

So, after learning from my own teaching failures, I have changed how I teach complex skills. Now, when I teach the scientific method to 5th or 6th grade students, I will generally start by teaching observations and inferences. We spend nearly a full lesson on this. After my students understand both observations and inferences, I will then teach them how to transfer that knowledge into a hypothesis.

In strategically breaking down my model of the scientific method into multiple days by focusing on one sub-step at a time, I have initially made the choice to cover less content. I have found that this approach pays dividends quickly and repeatedly. Now, my students better understand the complex process that is the scientific method. In addition, their better understanding allows for us to move through the content more quickly, which also gives us more time to go deeper.

Sometimes less leads to more.

Other blogposts in this series.

  1. What is Explicit Instruction?
  2. Explicit Instruction: Segmenting Complex Skills
  3. Explicit Instruction: Teacher Talk and Equity
  4. Explicit Instruction: Modeling
  5. Explicit Instruction: Concreteness Fading

Sources

Bandura A. (1986). Social foundations of thought and action: A social cognitive theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Fialding, L. G., & Pearson, P. D. (1994). Synthesis of research reading comprehension: What works. Educational leadership, 51, 62-62.

Hughes, C. A., Morris, J. R., Therrien, W. J., & Benson, S. K. (2017). Explicit Instruction: Historical and Contemporary Contexts. Learning Disabilities Research & Practice, 32(3), 140–148. doi: 10.1111/ldrp.12142

Rosenshine, B., Meister, C., & Chapman, S. (1996). Teaching Students to Generate Questions: A Review of the Intervention Studies. Review of Educational Research, 66(2), 181-221. Retrieved February 19, 2020, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/1170607

Salisu, A., & Ransom, E. N. (2014). The Role of Modeling towards Impacting Quality Education. International Letters of Social and Humanistic Sciences, 32, 54–61. doi: 10.18052/www.scipress.com/ilshs.32.54