Guaranteed success

This one weird trick will enable to you teach almost anything

There are a number of sources* a teacher may consult on explicit teaching. One is Rosenshine’s excellent Principles of Instruction. Although brief, it does not need to be any longer because it clearly summarises all of the key findings from the process-product research of the 1960s up to the present day. If you want to dig a little deeper into the process-product evidence, then I recommend Teacher Behavior and Student Achievement by Jere Brophy and Thomas Good. Whichever you read, it is important to bear in mind that the work of translating these general principles into implications for your Year 7 Philosophy class on Wednesday afternoon still rests with you or, if you are part of a high-functioning team, you and your colleagues.

One such principle may at first seem most peculiar. Rosenshine suggests teacher must ‘obtain a high success rate’. Maybe we can recognise this as desirable, but how? As an observation, is it not obvious, trivial and unhelpful? Brophy and Good expand on the evidence when discussing the Texas Teacher Effectiveness Study: “High SES students progressed optimally when they answered about 70% of… questions correctly, and low SES students when they answered about 80% correctly.”

What do we do with that?

The fact is that in the weird world of education research, Rosenshine’s is not a trivial observation. Some have extrapolated from research on learning lists of words or retrieval practice to insist teachers must introduce ‘desirable difficulties’ into their instruction. To be fair, this is not wholly inconsistent with Brophy and Good who continue by arguing that, “These data suggest that learning proceeds most smoothly when material is somewhat new or challenging, yet relatively easy for the students to assimilate to their existing knowledge.” So although the general principle is to obtain a high success rate, if it were too high, we presumably might want to mix things up a little.

Others suggest strategies such as ‘productive failure’. The basic idea is that students should be given the chance to struggle and fail to solve a problem before being given explicit teaching on solution methods. Although advocates claim a body of experimental evidence, I am not personally convinced by it and I found the reverse effect when I investigated productive failure for my PhD research.

So if we can avoid detours into desirable difficulties and productive failure, and all agree that obtaining a high - but maybe not too high - success rate is desirable. How do teachers go about doing this? How is the success rate within the teacher’s control?

Rosenshine suggests that:

“The most effective teachers obtained this success level by teaching in small steps (i.e., by combining short presentations with supervised student practice), and by giving sufficient practice on each part before proceeding to the next step. These teachers frequently checked for understanding and required responses from all students.”

Essentially, given that explicit teaching is effective, if we want to obtain a high success rate, we should use explicit teaching. This is a rather iterative argument but also notice that Rosenshine is writing in the context of teaching a concept rather than, say, reviewing it at a later date when our expectations of success may be different.

In a recent maths meeting, I posed the problem, “Solve for x if 2x-5=x+1”. I then asked teachers to instruct me in a series of steps to solve this problem on my mini-whiteboard, assuming that I understood English and could follow instructions but had no maths understanding at all. One teacher suggested something like, “Write +5 under the -5 and +5 under the 1. Now, -5+5 equals zero so cross those out…” and so on. Eventually, I went through all the steps needed to obtain the correct answer.

What was the point of this? It is certainly not the way I would advocate teaching, but it does demonstrate that the success rate of students is something that we can control as teachers. If we wanted to, we could wind pretty much any task right back to a series of ‘do this’ and ‘write this’ statements - provided it is a teachable task and not a vague exhortation to think mathematically or something. As teachers, we then need to judge how far along the continuum from that absolute set of instructions we should pitch our teaching and the rough-and-ready figure of 80% success that emerges from Rosenshine, Brophy and Good gives us our guide. If we are achieving 100% then perhaps miss a few steps out. 50%? Break it down a little more.

What would the equivalent of my maths task look like in the subject you teach? It may be something worth figuring out yourself or with your team.

*Including, of course, my book on the subject