Variability – keep it fresh

In my previous post, I discuss the need for change in terms of systems and measures within the workplace that improve validity, efficiency and effectiveness (see Dogma – a call for change). However, in this post, I am discussing the importance of keeping current systems fresh, engaging and refined.

For example, the typical image of a teacher at the front of a class teaching is still good practice in imparting knowledge to the class/audience. This is not a case of dogmatism as it is proven still to be an effective measure and often delivers the intended results. This also links really well to having well established routines that allow cognitive efforts to be on the content rather than the process (e.g. being ready for the learning content in a familiar environment without having to worry about where you sit, class expectations, how to access class resources etc.). However, standing at the front talking at your audience does not always mean it is most effective in transfering knowledge and helping them making meaningful connections with existing knowledge at every teaching opportunity.

The spoken word is ephemeral: Sweller explains that after approximately 30 seconds, your audience will struggle to remember anything else without interaction or alternative stimuli. Anyone who has a basic understanding of cognitive load theory and dual coding will know that accessing both the visual (what you see) and auditory (what you hear) channels whilst ensuring the working memory is not overloaded is crucial for effective learning. Of course, an awareness of the different cognitive effects is also important, for example, transient, redundant etc. (see Inner Drive’s blog for more information, or refer to the research of Sweller, Kirschner and Clark and/or Sweller, van Merrienboer, and Paas for more research),

But, whatever your pedagogical approach is (traditional VS progressive; explicit VS inquiry), carefully chosen variability can aid engagement. The phrase you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink is very prevalent in teaching. You can have all the best intention and lesson design, but if the children aren’t engaged, they won’t drink from your fountain of knowledge. This links greatly to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, but for the purpose of this blog, I will assume all basic needs are full-filled.

I am a true believer in live-modelling and have seen the power the visualiser can bring into the classroom empowering expert teachers (see Visualiser blog for more details). However, I do recognise the caution that there is a chance it can be death by visualiser, as per powerpoint, if this is the only measure. Teachers must always be alert and question how best is it to impart the knowledge. I know for leaders, it can be very hard to get a developing body of staff at the necessary standard and so more simpler and consistent measures are required.

Because of this, variability is often not spoken about. And quite often, to achieve consistency requires careful planning, a lot of time and monitoring that it can be too risky to change anything at the chance it could undo months/ years of hard-work. However, in my opinion, the key is to achieve consistency in understanding, rather than just practice.

By developing clear Teaching and Learning principles, I have seen a collective understanding of how pupils’ learn from all staff members. They are supported in drawing upon research, each other’s experiences and their understanding of their context to make the best choices for their classroom. As a leader, I truly believe that when I teach or cover a class, I will never be as powerful as if I was their full-time teacher as although I have the research in understanding how pupils’ learn in addition to my experience, I do neither have the contextual details nor relationships to really inform my teaching. With this ‘informed practice’ , teachers are skilled to make the best pedagogical decisions for each lesson that will best support their learning: this is often planned but sometimes, requires on the spot adaptations (see The Invisible Lead Balloon).

Whether it be using different colours, pictures, drawings, taking the children outside, varying your voice, adding a dramatic pause, acting, changing positions (teacher and children), swapping with another teacher, artefacts, starting with a story, or using different stimuli, a small amount of variation can have a great impact.

Variability is rarely spoken about as it can be risky, but it can also be highly effective if used in the right way.


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