It’s like a magic wand: Metaphor and analogy can improve learning

So here’s quite a bold claim from the wonderful article Humor, Analogy, and Metaphor: H.A.M. it up in Teaching:

…use of metaphors and other strategies can “increase retention by as much as 40%”.

Randy Garner’s wonderful article cites a number of papers that all show that use of humour, metaphor and analogy in the classroom can improve learning, increase retention, and give students a more positive view of the subject matter. I dealt with humour in my last post, but I think the other two are just as important.

What’s going on here? The educational psychology papers cited by Garner take a top-down approach, with some important caveats about using this method (including avoiding over-complexity, and being culturally sensitive). Excitingly (for me at least), there is similarly significant evidence in the bottom-up approach of neuroscience. There’s a wonderful quote from the Royal Society‘s fascinating Brainwaves 2 report on Neuroscience and Education:

When we sleep, walk, talk, observe, introspect, interact, attend, and learn, neurons fire. The brain has extraordinary adaptability, sometimes referred to as ‘neuroplasticity’. This is due to the process by which connections between neurons are strengthened when they are simultaneously activated; often summarised as, ‘neurons that fire together
wire together’

I believe this is also known as Hebbian Theory. Essentially by expressing a new idea in terms of existing mental scaffolding and well-understood vocabulary you associate the new concept with existing knowledge. By talking about the new idea and the old at the same time you get the neurons to ‘fire together’ which gets them to ‘wire together’. This provides a great starting point for the brain to construct its own understanding.

I certainly remember university lectures where the professor would begin with a vast tranche of new vocabulary and proceed to describe new ideas with these terms and concepts with which I was completely unfamiliar. Result? Total disengagement – i.e. I fell asleep.

I remember well being shouted at in the middle of a lecture theatre of 180 students for being ‘bloody rude’ and blearily remembering where I was and noticing the incomprehensible notes on the board, while simultaneously observing how I had dribbled on the lecture notes I had taken so far. I’m sure you’ve encountered students similarly engaged when they missed out the building blocks and cannot access the higher content.

In my teaching I absolutely adore using analogy. I’ve been given quizzical looks by my students after describing particle theory and gases using the analogy of “a bunch of predictably mad 11-year olds who’ve been let out in to the playground”, or describing electronic drift and current in terms of slightly spaced-out festival goers wandering from stage to stage. It did seem to work though, and it certainly stuck.

Of course, these models, analogies and metaphors are starting points. It’s just as important to look at their shortcomings too, but if we begin our teaching of new topics using analogies then students have something to get their teeth into while they build up their mental map.

Incidentally, yes I know my title contains a simile and not a metaphor. Forgive a poor Physics/Maths teacher a minor transgression.

Make ’em laugh to make ’em learn.

I’m continuing my lessons from Neuroscience theme again in this post. In the fascinating article Humour, analogy, and metaphor, Randy Garner explains that scientific studies have consistently shown that a little humour in the classroom actually increases interest in learning, strengthens information recall, and encourages longer and deeper retention of knowledge. According to one paper he cites:

“teachers who use strategies that promote the connection between humor and learning usually provide students with their best school experiences”

I bet many of you already have your corny jokes ready to roll. Some of my terrible Physics/maths favourites:

  • Gravity? Depressing subject! Gets you down…
  • Student: “Sir, what (sic) is the unit of Power?” – Sir: “Correct!”
  • Why did the chicken cross the Mobius strip? To stay on the same side.
  • What happens if you cross a Physics teacher and a Geology teacher? They talk about Earthquarks
  • What happened to the criminal mathematician? He went to prism!
  • What’s the cheapest sub-atomic particle? Neturons! They have no charge..
  • How do you neutralise an enemy air base? Use an air acid!

What are your favourites? Let’s share and use! I’m suggesting the use of #teacherjokes on Twitter as a great way forward…

Some great contributions:

  • @doc_gnome: we’ll be looking at splitting long hydrocarbons into more useful substances; it’s going to be a cracking lesson.
  • @BeckyBoooo: did you hear about the mathematician with constipation? He had to work it out with a pencil.
  • @slkslkslk: The Red Room and The Tell Tale Heart are similar because in both the climax happens in a bedroom.

The big learning style myth

The UK’s Royal Society released a brilliant summary of the key lessons for educators from modern neuroscience called Brainwaves 2.  This had some amazing findings, which I’ll return to in future blog posts, but I wanted to pick up on an article from The Psychologist it referred to: From Brain Scan to Lesson Plan by Prof. Paul Howard-Jones.

A fascinating statistic:

“Myth: 82 per cent considered teaching children in their preferred learning style could improve learning outcomes. This approach is commonly justified in terms of brain function, despite educational and scientific evidence demonstrating the learning-style approach is not helpful (Kratzig & Arbuthnott 2006).

Ever since I studied VAK learning styles during my teacher training I remember thinking that it was a load of bunkum that was based on such a tiny study and then cited so many times people assumed it was a concrete fact.

The number of teachers I meet today who insist on measuring their students’ learning style and trying to force certain types of activity on them is astonishing. I hear that teacher training courses still push this rubbish as fact. What will it take to get it out of circulation? This is harmful stuff! We should be giving every student a rich, varied diet of educational styles and allow them some choice in the way they consume their learning.

Are you one of the 82%, or do you know someone who is? I’d be interested to hear your comments and experiences.

Habitual Complainers

I just read a fascinating article that had been tweeted by @gcourous“Finding fascinating goals”. This great article contains a little gem:

“Habitual complainers usually have more goals for others than they have for themselves.”

This is a lovely statement, and if you listen to habitual complainers you would certainly think this was true.

However, I am confident that if you dug a little deeper in to the brains of these critics and cynics you would find just as many goals. The difference? These people are losing faith in their ability to meet them, and have been so stung by criticism and nagging self-doubt that they are lashing out other people instead.

Really, it’s just a version of “it isn’t fair!”, or at an even more basic level, complainers are voicing their basic low-level fight or flight response.

Listen to any prominent education critic on either side of the debate and somewhere underneath the self-righteousness there is someone who desperately wants to make a difference and improve things. The more viciously they are attacked for their suggestions the more aggressively they will fight back, complain, and criticise.

In both the USA and the UK I’ve seen prominent figures on both sides of the argument struggle to make their arguments under a siege of criticism. Each side sees the other as habitual complainers and attacks them. Many of them stop even trying to engage with their opposite numbers and start preaching to the converted instead. This inevitably ends up with a lot of one-sided I-told-you-so-isms and I’m-more-on-the-side-of-kids-than-you-ness.

On a lower level we see the same in schools. Leaders pushing unpopular reforms end up becoming entrenched and sit with their colleagues and criticise ‘problem’ staff and lick their wounds. Teachers sitting in staff areas laughing and criticising management as part of their daily routine. Both sound dismissive of the other, but they all really want the school to be a better place despite the rhetoric.

Of course everyone needs to blow off a little steam at times, but where jokes turn in to a destructive habit, there’s something wrong with the culture.

It starts at the top. If teacher, unions, media and politicians could stop attacking each other for cheap point-scoring then they’d start to see that their targets have just as many goals and dreams as they do. We need to get less defensive, admit our own mistakes, and make ourselves feel better by helping others with their own goals.

I’d love to see the teaching unions engage alongside the government instead of both sides accusing the other of greedy and wicked hypocrisy and assuming any new measure is a weapon to be used against them. I’d love to see the Twitter community engage in finding the hidden gem of an idea in the tweets of people they dislike, instead of ganging up and attacking them (as I blogged before)

I saw a great quote in Richard Branson’s book Business Stripped Bare, where he recounts something told to him by the Dalai Lama:

“If you wish to experience peace,
provide peace for another.
If you wish to know that you are safe,
cause others to know that they are safe.
If you wish to understand seemingly incomprehensible things,
help another better understand.
If you wish to heal your sadness or anger,
seek to heal the sadness and anger of another.

Those others are watching you now. They are looking to you for guidance, for help, for courage, for strength, for understanding, and for assurance at this hour.”

Definitely food for thought.

I hope I’m not just being overly optimistic or idealist.


Help wanted – any statisticians out there?

We know that a great teacher can make a huge difference to a class, and the whole debate today focuses on the way to get more great teachers, and allowing them to make even more impact.

The thing is, data I’ve been looking at seems to suggest to me that the variation in any teacher’s quality is pretty huge compared to the variations between teachers. This would suggest that many teachers are capable of delivering some great lessons, but that most of them are inconsistent. If this is true, the focus could be much more about collaboration, about getting teachers to have more great lessons, and less on the blunt “good teacher/bad teacher” labels.

Trouble is, despite being an A-level maths teacher, I wouldn’t say my statistics is top-research-quality, and I wondered if there was someone out there who might help me?

What happens when government looks at the long-term?

A few weeks ago I blogged that government needs to engage with long-term outcomes in education, similar to the long-term survival statistics that we see in the health sector. Thanks to @LeeDonaghy for pointing out a fascinating piece in the Guardian saying that they are now planning to do just that, by linking two government databases together and finding out the destinations of school-leavers.

It is brilliant that government is taking up this agenda, and should be welcomed. I can’t entirely understand why Christine Blower of the NUT said:

“I cannot see what relevance this information would be to government, except to use as yet another measure against which to judge schools”

Surely if the government are going to judge schools against something, then long-term outcomes are something that schools can be more proud of than raw exam results? Personally I’d love to see the extent to which schools are raising the aspirations of their students – i.e. do a comparison of parental education/jobs and students’. A great school may be in an incredibly deprived area, and still doing very well by their students who are going on to be in better-paid jobs, more highly qualified, with happier lives than their parents.

So, this measure is a great start, but to go further we need to see it taking account of parents and local area. I would also like to see some ‘soft’ statistics such as confidence, health and happiness. I know that these would be controversial, but I for one would love to see government and schools working together to raise aspirations and produce students who are happy, self-confident, fit and healthy.

The easiest way to encourage reflective teachers – beta testers needed!

Have you ever wanted to know:

  • Do my students do better in my subject than their others, or worse?
  • What subjects are my students good at, and which ones do they struggle with?
  • How does my set compare to the others in the year?
  • Are my students on track to get the grades they are targeted?

Until now the answers to these questions were beyond the reach of most teachers, but I’m a firm believer that teachers want to reflect on their practice, and they need a system that doesn’t require any training in order to do so.

Enter Skoovi, my attempt to create that solution. It’s already being used at my own school, and I’ve had some incredibly positive reactions from some ordinarily sceptical colleagues.

  • “Wow, I had no idea that X did so much better in my subject than his others – I must remember to encourage him”.
  • “This is so easy to use!”
  • “Hey, this is amazing, I love being able to see which students are under-performing in my class – I wish this had been available all year.”

I’d love to find a few partner schools who would be interested in helping me develop this product further, and who would be interested in having this product for free in their schools for a few months. As part of my role as an associate researcher at Brunel University I’d like to evaluate its impact on teaching and the culture of continuous learning.

Have a look at the demo video at:

and try username test and password test to have a go yourself with some dummy school data.

I’d love your feedback and your help. Why not get involved? I’m looking for some schools to participate in the free beta testing phase.

Collaborate your way to more great lessons

What’s the first thing you would do if I gave everyone at your school a list of all classes and their value-added?

I suspect that most of you, with a slightly tight feeling in your stomach, would scan down the list to review your own classes. “Please don’t let it be bad”, you’d think. If you’re anything like me you’d go straight to the class that you think is going to be the worst.

If it confirms your suspicions then you’ll get that sinking feeling. All the nagging doubts will come out. You’ll reflect on whether you’re a decent teacher, you’ll bring back all the other times that you’ve doubted yourself, and you’ll feel terrible.

Next comes the thought that the managers and all of your colleagues will see the same thing. Maybe you’ll feel scared, maybe you’ll feel angry. Perhaps you’ll start finding those reasons why it isn’t fair. You’ll probably feel angry at the kids, angry at the school, and angry at yourself.

The thing is, most of us will go straight for the negatives. Whether its exam results, value-added scores, internal tracking data, pupil satisfaction surveys or anything else, we beat ourselves up, and label ourselves a ‘bad teacher’.

The fact is, the huge majority of teachers also have really great classes. Every year they deliver inspirational lessons, beautiful lessons, and I-wish-someone-had-observed-that lessons.

For any teacher to have stayed in teaching for more than a year they must have had a few of those amazing moments where the students’ eyes lit up, and ‘Aha!’ moments were occurring all around the classroom. Teaching is just too hard for anyone to survive without them.

The data cannot tell you if these wonderful things are going on in a classroom. No one piece of data tells the whole story, but it can reflect some of the realities in the classroom and can be useful when the class teacher uses it to constructively reflect. But if the process stops there, you’re wasting an opportunity.

In the classroom where things aren’t working perfectly you may just need a nudge in the right direction. A little bit of inspiration, and maybe some support, and things could really turn around. Maybe one of your colleagues has the answer, but in the ordinary school culture you’d never know, and you’d be scared to ask for fear of looking weak.

If we could create environments where teachers could proudly share their best ideas, and could confidently ask for help, we could all have more great lessons.  We must foster a supportive culture that eliminates the fear of sharing ideas and data. If teachers can collaborate then they can grow.

Data by itself is not enough. Replace fear with sharing, and keep thinking review, reflect, and collaborate.