Well I am 6 months into my journey using retrieval practice, so I thought I would write a blog to follow up my previous musings about embedding retrieval practice across the curriculum. The research I based my work on came from reading Tom Sherrington’s excellent book Rosenshine’s Principles In Action and Kate Jone’s equally good book Retrieval Practice. I also used Oli Cav’s Dual Coding With Teachers as an excellent source of inspiration. All three books are well worth purchasing. Before I begin, one important thing to mention, which I was guilty of at the start in my enthusiasm to crack on, is that heavy focus on retrieval of prior learning should not over shadow the delivery of that knowledge. To ensure a novice learner can successfully encode and store that knowledge is crucial to enable retrieval to happen. Creating lessons that usefully use the limited storage capacity of a young child’s working memory is paramount to the success rate of later retrieving that knowledge. Reducing cognitive overload in lesson delivery goes hand in hand with revisiting and the ability to retrieve that knowledge.
As I previously mentioned, retrieval practice was an area I had seen discussed and consistently used within the secondary sector but hadn’t filtered into primary school settings. I’m pleased to say that I am seeing many more primary school teachers embracing and understanding the importance of it, but it still is a very different lion to wrestle in a primary setting compared to secondary. These are a few of the things that I have felt helped me manage the enormity of it.
The Primary School Conundrum
The biggest issue I faced when I sat down to plan last summer was how on earth to tackle the enormity of retrieval across a vast and varied primary curriculum, when time is precious and so many subjects are covered. My knowledge of topics previously taught was ok (as I have worked across most year groups in school) but deciding which content was the most important to recap and which year groups to focus on was huge. How does one review science knowledge taught when it is a lesson covered once a week? How do you apply retrieval in more creative subject areas such as art and music?
My biggest tip is to not try and do everything at once. You can’t possibly try and tackle all subjects straight away and the children will find it as overwhelming as you do. I started with maths as it was easy to add into our daily routine at the start of the lesson. Four questions that focused on last year, last term, last week and yesterday. I also decided it would be impossible to try and cover all the leaning from every year group so kept it to content from year 4. As mentioned in my previous blog, I didn’t create resources and slides, and simple wrote the questions live under the visualiser or popped them up on the white board for them to use. The children, far from hating the testing, really enjoyed it and would actively take part in the process by informing me which content they were still unsure of that they wanted woven into the questions I gave them. The low stakes nature of the tests allowed all children to feel comfortable and they knew the science and reasoning behind why we were doing it as I felt it was important for the children to understand how their memory works. They take great delight in telling visitors who come into the classroom about their 4 memory slots and how they need to review material to ensure they remember it. Understanding purpose is paramount to active engagement with learning.
The results for November data drop one in maths showed a considerable improvement between the number of children reaching the pass mark. My teaching of the subject was the same but I now was consistently undertaking daily retrieval in the maths lessons. You obviously can’t compare a cohort from one year to the next but on paper, they both are very similar children in terms of ability, gender and SEN ratios.
By the March, I had 87% of the class already reaching the expected standard or above. Unfortunately due to school closures I am unable to know what the class end data would look like but I’ll take those figures with bells on.
Once the routine of maths was up and running, I started to branch out into our literacy lessons. I think it is very important we don’t force a text book approach to how we deliver our retrieval sessions. What works for one subject, may be unsuitable for another. There is a danger to fit a model to roll out and I personally feel variety and reflection of delivery, adapting and changing to suit your class, is far more important than trying to force a model across all areas. In literacy lessons for example I will use the low stakes quizzing as part of my canon of techniques but also use drama, dual coding, games and group work. This approach helped me when I started to roll out into other subject areas. I decided that each lesson would start with retrieval of some form even if only taught once a week. To begin with, science and humanities subjects I kept it to content we had done from year 5 but eventually I started putting questions in that pulled on their knowledge of year 4 work.
Using a knowledge organiser effectively is a great way for children to independently focus on key areas to remember. Again, reiterating the point I made at the start, how we present that information to a novice learner is vital to ensure they successfully can access that material. By using icons and creation of their own images, children can more readily access the content given.
Before the school closures, I was looking at ways to make retrieval of art skills previously taught workable and not time consuming. This is something I will be experimenting with when we get back into the classroom.
My take home messages from my journey are as follows:
- Make sure how knowledge is delivered to a novice learner is weighted as equally as how knowledge is recalled in your pratice.
- Focus on one subject to begin with.
- Make sure all children are actively involved.
- Make sure you vary your method of delivery to ensure work load is managed and an understanding ‘one size doesn’t fit all’ is applied.
- Involve the children within the marking and reflecting of their work.