After reading Tom Sherrington’s Rosenshine’s Principles in Action, I was acutely aware that there was one area in my teaching that was not as consistent as it should be. Retrieval practice. I have always dropped in sessions around retrieval to make sure I was checking on the prior learning and utilised end of unit assessments to identify gaps, but how often did I revisit that knowledge? How often did I look back at areas which I felt the children were secure in to see if they still were 2 months later? Was I looking at prior knowledge from the academic year before? Were the lessons I taught with central ‘doing’ activity backed up enough with retrieval sessions to remind the children of the knowledge they had acquired in that session?
I am notoriously hard on myself and spent a few days feeling a bit of a failure for not thinking about this before, but after I stopped beating myself up, I started to get quite excited about the new academic year. I spent the summer reading the research behind why it was important and found it fascinating looking at how the struggle and challenge to recall knowledge is in fact strengthening our memory and enabling us to identify gaps. The more I read, the more I realised there was definite changes I needed to make to ensure the knowledge I carefully planned and lovingly executed was locked away in their long term memory and not filtered out over the years. I dedicate the time to lovingly prepare, plan and execute these lessons and now knew I needed to give that same love and commitment to retrieval practice.
The first thing I knew I wanted to do was make it a daily exercise in maths and English sessions, and each other subject would start with a retrieval session before the lesson began. I also decided I wanted to look at what the children had learned the year before to really make them stretch, challenge and strengthen their memory. Historically I know I have been guilty of doing the odd oral retrieval sessions in topic lessons and because Jack, John and Margaret can tell me 6 habitats, I mentally tick off in my head ‘ We’ve nailed that’ as a class. I wouldn’t do that in maths or English so shouldn’t do it in topic work. The final thing I felt was paramount was to share with the children the reasoning why I am doing it and how it will help them so knew I wanted to share the language of cognitive science with them.
So began the new academic year. Maths. Lesson one. I started with 3 questions under the heading ‘something I did last year’. My fresh-eyed eager new year 5s looked at me with disdain and I could see a mixture of puzzlement, frowns and the odd ‘huh’ comment. Then one child put her hand up and in her politest voice said ‘Miss Eccles, we’re in Year 5 now, We did this last year.’ I smiled to myself and said ‘I know, I’m just doing an experiment’ and the children settled down to answer the work. When we marked together, more than half had gotten 1 or 2 questions wrong and this is where I could step in with my spiel about long term memory, retrieval and cognitive science. I haven’t had a single child question why we are looking at historic learning ever since.
I have found the key to effective retrieval is mixing it up a bit and doing it in a variety of ways. The easiest way to deliver retrieval practice is through little tests. You can identify gaps and see which children really need more help. Interestingly I found some of my able mathematicians were not able to recall old knowledge. The power here was that the child could identify that and it made them more determined to improve and have active ownership over their education. Much to my shock, the children adored low stakes testing. It isn’t threatening. Is just a few key questions, and because it is delivered in a ‘high challenge low threat’ environment they relish it and have that ‘yaaaaaassssssssss’ hiss buzz around the room when they mark their work. They understand why it is important, how it will benefit them and see the tests as completely normal.
The maths daily retrieval has become a bit of a game. I don’t premake the questions. I do it there and then under the visualiser with the children. Have a running dialogue with them.. ‘What shall I pick from Year 4’… When they cry out ‘NOOOO’ to a suggestion I tell them ‘I’m now 100% going to give you that juicy one because if we can’t pull it out of our memory today, we will by the end of the week.’ High challenge low threat. When marking, I silently show the children my thought processes and how I work the problem out, and I now have children beg to come out and be ‘silent teacher’ to do the same. The retrieval practice has become so much more. It has become engrained, inclusive and an exciting component of the lesson, that not only secures the knowledge, it allows the children to become peer mentors and their confidence and self-belief to soar. I do find it ever so slightly disconcerting seeing my mannerisms spookily acted out by the children and sit there thinking ‘is that really what I do!’ The power of modelling personified.
As mentioned earlier, I do like to mix up retrieval and find dual coding vocabulary helps the children remember the words, as does drama play around that word and matching images through games. These are all useful exercises. Those oral sessions where you ask questions can still be used but it imperative to ensure all children are answering, which can be achieved by simply giving them all a white board to record their responses on.
Another excellent retrieval exercise that works well is holding a celebration of the learning at the end of the topic, where all their books are put out and they walk around and share and discuss everything they have done. The buzz and bubble of excitement is tangible but ultimately the conversations you can hear are around the knowledge they have acquired. The ultimate retrieval demonstration is the class assembly where knowledge is visible and transparent to parents and peers. A sure sign the knowledge has been retained when it can come out under pressure.
Adopting this approach to retrieval practice has completely changed my teaching and ‘we did this last year’ is a moment I won’t forget.