Review by Mary Hind-Portley

Assistant subject leader (English), Hillside High School, Bootle

21 May 2022, 5:00


Mary Hind-Portley’s blogs of the week, 16 May 2022

Building on what they know


Sarah Cottingham’s blog has been popping up on my timeline for a while now, and well it should. She provides succinct but never simplistic summaries of key research ideas in neuroscience and how they apply to classroom learning, going beneath the surface of many usual approaches (e.g. retrieval starters, quizzing, etc) to explore how memory works.

Not for the first time with Cottingham, this post is already instrumental in our department’s work of looking at how our pupils learn and what barriers they face in improving their progress. Tackling ‘reconsolidation’, she argues that simply reactivating memories through classroom activities won’t of itself strengthen those memories, and her neat solution is to focus on mismatch.

“If incoming information mismatches a prediction,” she explains, “we experience a prediction error.” In response, our brains reconsolidate and strengthen our memory to improve our capacity to predict. Cottingham goes on to explain the process step by step so that we can apply it in first teaching as well as corrective feedback.

Consider my knowledge of memory and retrieval reconsolidated!

Making the juice worth the squeeze: the anatomy of lethal mutations


How many times have teachers been guided or directed to adopt practices, only to find that these ideas have mutated from their original inception. Robbins’s key questions in this fascinating post are “how do we keep ending up here?” and “how can we stop it?”.

Providing a clear diagram of how ideas slip from their original iterations (“a gradual frame shift of community understanding”), the article had me reliving my own experiences of being introduced to approaches that were barely recognisable from their original uses by experts. Such experiences not only lead us to question the ineffectiveness of specific CPD activities, but undermine faith in CPD itself.

Time is the most precious (and expensive) resource we have in teaching, and we should not spend it on mutated approaches that won’t deliver what they promise. We need to create the conditions that secure against lethal mutations, and this post is an important primer for doing exactly that.

There must be a better word ̶ refining words


If, as an English teacher, you haven’t read Curtis’s blogs then you are missing out! Having said that, his most recent post focusing on how students write in exams and how we can help them to be more considered and skilful in their writing choices is relevant well beyond the confines of the English classroom.

Here, Curtis focuses on choice of words and whether students are sufficiently discriminating, and makes a compelling case that “refining [word choice] makes students explore and develop an idea”. He provides several examples and structures that relate to a specific exam question, but the central premise is valuable for any English exam and teachers whose subject demands extended and nuanced responses.

Change vs. Stasis: the tension at the heart of teacher development


Teacher development is a subtle and challenging process that leaders manage alongside their core job of developing pupils. But how do we disrupt established but ineffective practices without upsetting the delicate balance of departmental harmony? This post by Josh Goodrich has been shifting my thinking about how I approach this key responsibility.

Goodrich acknowledges the importance of stability and being able to draw on our automaticity in the challenging environment of the classroom. In that sense, stasis is a key part of our development as it allows us the space to think and focus on the variables, but it can become a barrier to improvement. The genius of Goodrich’s post is that he outlines how teacher educators can use stasis to support growth in a manageable way.

The latter, detailed section of the post shows how we can help move teachers from stasis, through managed disruption and back to balance and a new stasis. It’s a longer blog than most, but worth setting time aside to read and discuss with a colleague; a moment of stasis over a cup of tea will help you to brew up new approaches to teacher development.

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