Saturday, February 28, 2015

What can we learn from the Million dollar teacher?

Richard Spencer's a science teacher from Middlesburgh, who teaches biology using dance, songs, games and so on. He’s up for the $1 million Global Teacher of the Year Award. I’m not sure about these awards, another is the WISE Prize for Education at $500k. For me it’s all about the learning not the teaching. By focusing on the teacher, the articles read like lottery winner stories with no real analysis of what they do. Most teachers will know about the $1 million prize and Richard has had lots of publicity, but how many teachers actually know, in detail, what he or his students do? How many are replicating his methods?
Theory and practice
Richard's work does surface some important pieces of learning theory that fly in the face of those who see teaching as a craft, not to be polluted by science, research or learning theories. He teaches biology which, at A-level, has some pretty complex language, structures and processes, primarily in molecular biology. Rather than stand and talk at his sitting students, hoping that this stuff will stick, he 'elaborates' the concepts so that they really do stick, in the practical sense of retention and recall. In short, he uses some pretty basic psychology and learning theory to blend his courses.
Blended learning
What does he do? Well it’s neither new nor radical. It’s a ‘blend’ of experiments, videos, models, role play, games, poems, songs and dance to make his lessons more memorable for students. He refuses to just lecture, although he does include some straight talks in his teaching. Cleverly, for some complex processes he recognizes that role-playing those processes will result in higher retention and recall. For example, in his songs and dances, they wear coloured bibs to represent chromosomes and DNA neucleotides. In his DNA Boogie, the structure is made explicit by becoming part of the molecule and in the Meiosis Square Dances, students act out how chromosomes are shared between cells as tissue grow. The students become the chemical structures, then move and interact with each other to represent what happens in that biological process. He claims that, “years down the line they can still recite the songs, even after 15 years”.
What is actually going on here? In terms of learning theory his method could be summed up as the use of blended learning that includes lots of ‘elaboration’ to improve retention and recall. He is optimising his blend, matching elaboration techniques with the learning outcomes. For simple naming the learners stand and chant the structure using their bodies and arms as cues. For processes, they line up and move around. For chemical interactions, they start to interact with each other in groups. This is not blended teaching, it’s blended learning. There's a difference.
What helps here is a simple understanding of Declarative (semantic & episodic) and Nondeclarative (skills, priming, conditioning) memory. Put simply, the difference between knowing that and knowing how. Once you understand these different forms of memory you can blend more successfully, even using one form of memory to help another. Elaboration, along with spaced practice is little understood in education but it can be incredibly useful for novice learners, who, despite what we think of the curriculum, do have to retain and recall large amounts of knowledge across a wide range of subjects.
Body as a cue factory
In singing songs and using your own body as a “basic memory trigger’ Richard Spencer is using the theory of ‘cues’ to improve memory. This theory was expanded by Tulving and others to show that recall is aided by ‘cues’ which are a bit like the handles on suitcases, in that they can be used to haul out larger amounts of content. Cues can be things that you already know, such as your own body, episodic memories such as the route you take to school or the layout of your own house. In particular, the body can be used for a huge amount of any biology curriculum. The advantage of using your own body is that this is the one thing you can take with you into any exam. It’s a travelling cue factory. 
Learn by doing
Then there's a well researched area, that is largely ignored in teaching practice, learning by doing, The simple idea that ‘doing’ results in deep processing, by using other channels and forms of memory, is well known. Yet we insist on getting students to sit down for hours on end while we ply them with information that appeals to only one form of memory – semantic. What Richard is doing here is linking semantic information ‘words, concepts and processes’ to songs and dances that act as cues for recalling that semantic knowledge.
An additional benefit of Richard's blended, elaborative, cued approach, is that the learners can go off and practice these songs and dances themselves, even if it is just recall and rehearsal in their heads. They offer ample opportunity for rehearsal and practice, leading to reinforcement into long-term memory and better recall.
Richard is not charismatic, he’s enthusiastic. In fact he’s so ordinary, if you watch the videos, it all seems a little gauche. As he says “It’s not about creating a celebrity teacher but good teaching…. getting people to talk about teaching globally”. But the key issue here is that it’s not about him, it’s about what the learners DO. That’s why I think these prizes are misplaced. This is not about great teachers, it’s about better learning. This is not about blended teaching, it’s about blended learning by DOING, with a hefty dose of elaboration – well known and researched topics. The problem is the lack of good theory informing practice and relying on excuses, such as 'teaching is a craft or practice'. This simpely begs the question - what practices? Wouldn’t it be better, not to send Richard careering round schools, teaching other teachers his dances, but to capture this stuff and share it through online CPD? To this end I’ve tried to collate a few links that may be useful.

DNA Boogie dance

Meiosis Square Dance

For a step by step explanation of the dance:


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