This is the first in a series of weekly blog posts in which I show how a journal article or book has inspired me to improve my teaching practice. Each post ends with a practical resource or activity. Today I show how an article by Nick Dennis (2016) inspired me to improve my planning of assessment activities, a year in advance, to help Year 7, 8 and 9 to make a success of their examinations.
One of my first tasks as a trainee teacher, as I sat wide-eyed and unworldly in an orderly university seminar room (before being unleashed upon the chaotic world of class 9D), was to read a newspaper article by Counsell entitled ‘The march of Mutlin’. This article presented the story of one pupil’s confusion, at the end of their history education, about the periods and personalities studied, which had led them to fuse Mussolini and Stalin into a single, fuzzy, ahistorical figure (‘Mutlin’). The story of this pupil was used to reflect a much wider issue: that of helping pupils (especially those who give up history by age 14) to remember something of what they had been taught.
I worry that there are several Mr and Miss Mutlins silently leaving my classroom every year with fuzzy images of nationless dictators and random rebels. In a recent observation by a senior member of the school, I was asked searching questions about the performance of a low-attaining Year 8 student, who struggled to remember any factual information about Oliver Cromwell beyond his warts. I therefore decided that I needed to think more carefully about securing substantive knowledge, and a recent article by Nick Dennis in Teaching History seemed to be an excellent place to begin.
For me, Dennis’s article provides a very helpful bridge that connects recent attention to cognitive psychology and the use of regular testing (or ‘retrieval practice’) with existing discussion of the power of secure substantive knowledge in history education circles. The contributions of Christodoulou and Kirby have been extremely helpful, yet not specific to history. Another strand is, of course, the impact of recent curricular reforms driven by Gove and Gibb, which makes Dennis’s article particularly timely. Dennis is alert to history teachers’ frustration with Gove’s first national curriculum (February 2013), because of Gove’s implication that an emphasis on substantive knowledge in history education was new.
I do not intend for these blog posts to provide a comprehensive (or even a skeletal) review of a book or article. I intend merely to show here which parts of Dennis’s article helped me to create something that I have named the ‘test-demo’ (see the link to this resource below), a practical assessment activity that I hope will help circumvent the march of Mutlin. There are many other fascinating questions and conclusions that Dennis discusses in his article that go way beyond the scope of my post, and I warmly encourage you to read it if you have not already.
Dennis reflects on the work of Donaghy (2014), who was inspired by English teacher David Didau’s work on how regular testing can help pupils retain and recall knowledge. Donaghy’s research with his GCSE students suggests that students can, through regular testing, improve their contextual knowledge of the historical periods studied. Donaghy’s students were required to continue to take the same tests until they had achieved ‘mastery’ (full marks). Dennis sensibly raises the question of whether testing could lead to effective recall of knowledge after an extended period of time – after six months, for example, rather than at the end of a unit. This was the million dollar question for Ms Mutlin – could the use of regular testing have secured Mussolini and Stalin more distinctly in her mind?
With this question in mind, Dennis discusses the idea of knowledge transfer – moving learning from one context to another – and he uses a taxonomy for ‘far transfer’ devised by Barnet and Ceci to illustrate the complexity involved. This illustration of the variety of temporal, functional, social, physical (and so on) contexts serves as a stark reminder of the issue of trying to make knowledge durable and transferable across the many demands we make of history students – from discussing a fact as a class to recalling it during a test, from creating a causal explanation to handling source material, from the start of Year 7 to the end of Year 9.
One of the most interesting findings from Dennis’s Masters research study into regular testing (which forms the basis for his article) is that when his students’ knowledge was deployed to answer a question that was very different from both the initial short-answer facts tests and the common assessment task, the performance gap between those students taking regular tests and those students who did not take tests was very narrow. This led Dennis to conclude that low-stakes testing can help to secure and promote student recall of key information in historical answers that are similar to the original tests and that are taken relatively soon after the initial teaching and testing. Crucially, Dennis reflects that ‘the use of low-stakes tests is not sufficient to secure knowledge and effect ‘far transfer’ of that knowledge’.
One of Dennis’s solutions appears to be the use of ‘interleaved practice’ (changes of task so that the student is constantly confronting different instantiations of the to-be-learned information). Brown, Roediger and McDaniel discuss the benefits of interleaved practice in their book Make it stick. As Dennis comments, ‘I now have a greater range of strategies to deploy and an improved understanding that to help students enjoy and learn history, multiple approaches are necessary.’ Recognising and embracing complexity appears to me to be key. Progression in history is all about increasing complexity, according to the editors of the journal Teaching History, and this is one of the key reasons why we should be resisting simplistic assessment systems in our schools. Indeed, two of the editors, Christine Counsell and Elizabeth Carr (2014), champion the idea of a ‘messy markbook’ and a mixed constitution of assessment, to avoid dependence upon one lone evidence base of progression. The results of weekly factual knowledge tests therefore do not appear to be sufficient in capturing pupil progress; they certainly cannot help determine pupils’ performance in terms of the interplay between substantive knowledge and conceptual understanding.
In summary, the most important conclusion to be drawn from Dennis’s work is, for me, that securing knowledge in one format does not necessarily ensure that it will be used effectively in another. Students need to be supported, according to Dennis, in developing and storing knowledge in meaningful ways and in transferring that knowledge from one temporal/social/physical/functional (and so on) context to another. How can this be done?
My solution was to come up with something that I have named the ‘test-demo’ (which you can find here: year-7-test-demo-1). It is not a wholesale solution to the very complex issue of knowledge transfer, yet for me it is a start. The idea is simple. At the end of their weekly facts test, pupils fill in the gaps in a piece of historical writing (such as an introduction or conclusion to an essay, or even a paragraph within it) with several of the key terms, dates and names that they had used to answer the short-answer questions. In this way, I model how the information that they have learnt can be used in a different modal context (from short answer question to historical essay). The benefit of doing this at Key Stage 3 is that pupils are often unsure as to what an effective historical essay looks and sounds like. Consequently, the test-demos help the students in two ways – first, in terms of learning the knowledge necessary to do well in later assessments, and second in terms of learning about what effective assessments look and sound like. I also hoped that demonstrating the value of learning knowledge for later assessments would have a motivational impact – something that Dennis also discusses in his article.
The test-demo is just one part of my arsenal however; one piece of my ‘mixed constitution’, one column in four in my ‘messy markbook’, one of multiple approaches to helping my pupils grasp historical complexity.
Finally, I would like to return to the history student who had mixed up her dictators so dispiritingly, and reflect upon how regular retrieval practice could have potentially helped her. The main thrust of Dennis’s and Donaghy’s work appeared to me to be on the improvement of pupils’ performance in later assessments. In the rather more humble business of ensuring that Ms Mutlin is ‘getting it’ – that she is able to follow the main narrative of events as I unfold them, that she is able to endure the distractions of Mr Mutlin’s classroom antics and avoid getting lost – I think low stakes testing is probably extremely helpful. That is why I am making efforts to support my low-attaining pupils in completing retrieval practice at home, using Google Forms, so that they can practice retrieving information from often overloaded working memories at a time that best suits them (a link to what I have called ‘self-checking tests’ can be found HERE; these tests are based on pupils learning specific information from ‘knowledge organisers’, which can be found on my resource page HERE).
Dennis reminds us of Hirsch’s argument that knowledge is a form of emancipation, leading towards ‘cultural literacy’ and a place in the economic and political community. It is perhaps too late for Ms Mutlin, but it is certainly not too late for many others.
Download the ‘Test-Demo’ practical resource: year-7-test-demo-1
Main Reference: Dennis, N. (2016) ‘Cognitive psychology and low-stakes testing without guarantees’ in Teaching History, 164, Feedback Edition, pp.22-28. Find it HERE.
Brown, P.C, Roediger, H.L. and McDaniel, M.A. (2014) Make it stick: the science of successful learning, (Boston: Harvard).
Carr, E. and Counsell, C. (2014) ‘Using time-lines in assessment’ in Teaching History 157, Assessment Edition, pp. 54-62. Find it HERE.
Christodoulou, D. (2016) ‘Herbert Simon and evidence-based education’ [Blog] The Wing to Heaven. Available at: https://thewingtoheaven.wordpress.com.
Counsell, C. (1996) ‘The March of Mutlin’ in Times Educational Supplement.
Didau, D. & Rose, N. What every teacher needs to know about psychology, (Woodbridge: John Catt).
Donaghy, L. (2014) ‘Using regular, low-stakes tests to secure pupils’ contextual knowledge in Year 10’ in Teaching History, 157, Assessment Edition, pp. 44-51. Find it HERE.
‘Editorial’ in Teaching History, 157, Assessment Edition, p.2.
Hirsch, E.D. (1988) Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know, (New York: Random House).