Subject

5. Acquisition before application

Video transcript

Presenter intro: Chloe Wardle

We want pupils to use what they learn in lots of different ways. We want them to develop complex mental models so that they can use them beyond the classroom, but learning something new takes time. Before we ask pupils to apply what they have learned we need to ensure that they have acquired it securely in the first place. Acquiring knowledge takes repeated exposure across a sequence of learning.

Presenter main

Before applying knowledge on their own or in different contexts, pupils need to gain knowledge in the first place. This takes time and effort. For example, pupils need to know the rules for applying speech marks before applying them accurately in story writing or pupils need to know that rainforests support a vast number of different plants and animals in order to fully recognize the impact of deforestation. Relevant foundational knowledge needs to be secure before pupils encounter more complex content or think critically, but acquiring knowledge takes time and some content will require more time and practice to become secure.

Teachers need to ensure that pupils acquire knowledge before they ask them to apply it. In practice they need to think carefully about how they will teach key knowledge and how they will check that pupils have obtained it.

In the early stages of learning, teachers need to give pupils plenty of opportunities to acquire knowledge. We also want pupils to retain what they learn. To help pupils both acquire and retain content, we need to identify relevant prior knowledge to build on and provide a careful balance of exposition, repetition, practice and retrieval. During the exposition stage, it is important to build on what pupils already know, and break down learning so that it is manageable. Explicitly teaching pupils the knowledge and skills they need to succeed in a subject can be beneficial. Repetition of content should be spaced out over a sequence of learning to ensure that pupils have to think hard about what they are learning. During the practice phase, it can be effective to stick to the same task and context as the exposition. Concrete representations of abstract ideas can help pupils in the early stages of acquiring knowledge. For example, in an earlier setting a teacher might ask pupils to recognise the number of oranges in a bowl in order to practise the abstract concept of subitising, recognising number through visual arrangement. And it is important to come back to the same knowledge again to get pupils to retrieve it from their memory, especially after a little time has passed. The short period of time allows a degree of forgetting to set in, which makes the act of retrieval harder and therefore strengthens retention of knowledge. The psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus illustrated this in a graph known as the Forgetting Curve. After an initial period of practice sometimes called massed practice, spacing practice out to allow some forgetting to occur helps pupils to remember what they learn.

The next step in the journey from acquisition to application is to check pupil understanding. Before teachers ask pupils to apply their knowledge in a different context, they need to check the acquisition is secure. Of course, teachers will be checking for understanding as they go, but it is still important to carry out a check before setting a task that gets pupils to use this knowledge in a different way.

Ultimately, we want pupils to apply what they learn in many different contexts; this enables them to solve problems and to think critically. In order to do this, pupils need to have a secure understanding of knowledge within the subject area they’ve been asked to think critically about.

Presenter exemplification framing

In the next example, you will see a model of checking for how securely pupils acquired some content. As you watch, pay particular attention to how the coach does the following:

  • Identifies essential concepts, knowledge, skills and principles of the subject and provides opportunity for all pupils to learn and master these critical components
  • Sequences lessons so that pupils secure foundational knowledge before encountering more complex content

Exemplification: Ambition Institute coach

Imagine that I am teaching a year 5 science lesson. The topic is adaptations and we’re looking at how plants and animals have adapted to extreme environments. Now in the first lesson, I introduced the concept of the food chain, the key vocabulary and the flow of energy through that food chain. And at the end of the lesson last week, the class showed a good level of understanding. However, I want to revisit some of those key concepts through doing some retrieval practice and checking for understanding as this is core knowledge which will be built upon later in the unit. I want to ensure that every pupil has a solid understanding of the content and embeds the ideas into their long-term memory. I’m going to ask questions and pupils will show me their answers on whiteboards and this is a routine that is now really well-established. And I want to check that pupils know the following:

  • To know that a producer is a living thing that produces its own food from sunlight
  • To know that a consumer is a living thing that doesn’t make its own food and gets its energy from eating either plants or animals
  • To know that a primary consumer eats the producer

“Okay, so the last time we did some work on this, we did some thinking about food chains. Now food chains are an energy transfer from one species to another and all living things need energy for growth and for health. Now we’re just going to check some of your knowledge on that before we build on it with new content and so we’re going to do a retrieval quiz.

In a moment, you’re going to see some questions on the board. There’ll be three options to choose from, one of those will be correct. So you’re going to have A, B and C and only one will be correct. To show me what you’re thinking, I want you to write down the letter on the whiteboard of the response that you think is the correct answer. And then I will count down as usual from three, two, one, and then say, show me.

So if you get your whiteboard and pen and you’ll have 20 seconds to do that and then show me you’re ready by folding your arms and facing this way. Okay. Go.

[Pupils get whiteboards ready]

 Right, so we’ve got question one here, and we’re thinking about what is the definition of a producer? Option A is: A living thing that does not produce its own food. Is it B: A living thing that produce its own food from sunlight, nutrients and water? Or is it option C: A living or non-living thing that produces its own food from sunlight, nutrients, and water. You’ve got five seconds to write your answer on your whiteboard. Three, two, one, show me.

[Pupils hold their white boards up and teacher scans the class]

Okay. Demi, now you’ve chosen option B, just talk me through why you didn’t choose option C.

[Pupil gives response]

Okay. Great, I’m really pleased that you pulled out the fact that a producer is a living thing that produces its own food. Great. Alright everyone, so here’s our next question. Which animal in this food chain is the secondary consumer?

(A) Grass     (B) Caterpillar   (C) Black Widow Spider 

Write down your answers. Three, two, one, show me.

[Pupils hold their white boards up and teacher scans the class]

Okay. So it looks like a lot of us here have selected option B. It’s not actually the correct response but I need to understand why we’ve chosen it. Is there anybody willing to share their thinking? Mohammed thanks, what do you think?

[Pupil gives response]

Right, okay, I can see what you’re thinking. B is a consumer but is it the primary consumer? It’s the first one in the chain to eat the producer. What we’ve got here is the next one in the chain and this would be the secondary consumer. What’s confusing though, is here it’s number two in our list. What might help is if I pop some headings above.

[Teacher annotates example on whiteboard] So here, we’ve got our producer. Our first consumer, it’s eating the producer so we call this one, our primary and then the answer to our question that we were looking for is the black widow spider, is our secondary consumer.

Okay, so let’s look at another one. Which animal in this food chain is the secondary consumer? Is it A: grass, B: grasshopper or C: frog?

Grass – (B) Grasshopper – (c) Frog – Python – Eagle

Write your answers down. Three, two, one, show me.”

So I’d like to draw your attention to some key points in this model. So first, before designing my check for understanding questions I thought about the essential knowledge of this unit which the pupils need to acquire. In this case, I identified that it’s essential that pupils know what a producer and a consumer is, and that they can explain the difference between a primary and a secondary consumer. I prioritized my questions on this because I need to be sure that my pupils are secure about this particular content.

Second, I sequenced this lesson to check that pupils were secure about this foundational knowledge right from the beginning. So any gaps or misconceptions at this stage could cause problems later in the topic. And also if pupils are under-confident with the knowledge itself, they would not be successful at the independent practice later in this lesson. It’s crucial that I check the most important content before moving on and getting them to apply it.

When designing the questions I considered some of the misconceptions that were common and rational and included these to check that pupils had a really secure understanding of the foundational knowledge. I was conscious that if I included false statements that were obviously false, the pupils may guess the answers and that could really get in the way of understanding how pupil learning is going.

By checking for gaps in knowledge or misconceptions, and then addressing them, I can increase the chance of pupils’ success in future learning.

Presenter key ideas

In this video, we have explored why it is important that pupils acquire knowledge before teachers ask them to apply it and some of the ways in which teachers can tell that knowledge is secure. Before we finish, take a moment to read over the key ideas that we have covered. Which of the following ideas do you think that the example best illustrates?

  • Identifying essential concepts, knowledge, skills and principles of the subject and providing opportunity for all pupils to learn and master these critical components
  • Sequencing lessons so that pupils secure foundational knowledge before encountering more complex content
  • Balancing exposition, repetition, practice and retrieval of critical knowledge and skills

Presenter summary

Learning something new takes time. We need to be patient and allow for lots of opportunities to practice because this hard work will be worth it. Acquiring knowledge securely helps pupils to apply it in lots of different ways.

 

Download this module (PDF)

Teaching challenge

Ms Smith has a clear sense of her learning goals and is confident at breaking the curriculum down into small, meaningful components. However, she struggles to know how quickly can she get pupils doing complicated thinking and when she should introduce more sophisticated tasks.

Key idea

Students must develop solid foundations of knowledge through carefully sequenced teaching and practice if they are to develop and apply sophisticated mental models.

Evidence summary

Mastering foundational knowledge and linking using core concepts

Ms Smith is already aware of the value of building her pupils’ subject knowledge, the risks of pupils’ misconceptions and the potential for knowledge gaps. She wants her students to solve problems and think critically, but they cannot do so if they have critical knowledge gaps and she has noticed that weak prior knowledge leads to misconceptions. This is because pupils use knowledge integrated in their long-term memory to learn more complex ideas and successfully apply what they have learned (Deans for Impact, 2015).

This implies that:

  1. The sequence in which knowledge is introduced is crucial. For example, pupils are likely to struggle to evaluate the effectiveness of international aid if they are unclear about the challenges facing developing countries. They are likely to struggle to master algebra if their grasp of number is weak. This means Ms Smith needs to sequence the introduction of new ideas carefully so that foundational knowledge is introduced first. It also means she needs to check pupils have relevant prior knowledge before she introduces new ideas.
  2. Ms Smith needs to highlight the link between past learning and new ideas to pupils – or help pupils to make those links themselves – so that they gain a deeper and better-organised understanding of the subject. Pupils learn new ideas with reference to what they already know (Deans for Impact, 2015), but Ms Smith cannot be sure they will make these links unprompted. Using core concepts help with these links.

Having broken down the knowledge she hopes pupils will gain and sequenced this carefully through one or more lessons, she can identify effective ways to introduce these ideas.

Teaching abstract ideas

Ms Smith needs to ensure pupils acquire foundational knowledge and core concepts successfully, and that she does not begin more complicated activities too soon. It’s easy for a relative expert in a topic – like Ms Smith – to grasp the abstract concepts and apply them. For example, she sees ongoing struggles over how much power ordinary people have throughout the political events of the nineteenth century; she uses symbolic representations of chemical reactions to understand what is happening in an (invisible) chemical reaction; and she can use the slope and intercept within a line graph to write an equation for that graph. However, for novices, abstract ideas can be particularly hard to grasp. If Ms Smith opens each of these topics with the abstract ideas, pupils may struggle to grasp them.

Concrete examples are much easier to understand (Willingham, 2009): in each case, pupils are likely to find it easier to first encounter the concrete example then to identify the underlying abstract principle. For pupils to be able to use both, Ms Smith needs to connect and integrate abstract and concrete ideas, and show the links between them (Pashler et al., 2007). An understanding of the abstract features allows pupils to successfully apply subject knowledge and concepts in new situations: for example, an understanding of the structure of a narrative can help them comprehend a new text.

Checking pupil understanding and offering opportunities for practice

Ms Smith needs to check pupil understanding before beginning tasks which ask pupils to apply their new learning. She could use diagnostic questions, presenting pupils with several options, working with colleagues to identify answers which are either correct or common misconceptions. Pupils’ responses allow her to identify pupils who hold misconceptions and ensure they have grasped key ideas before continuing (Christodoulou, 2017). Ms Smith needs to ask herself, “how would I know pupils have acquired enough knowledge to practise successfully?”

Once pupils have enough knowledge, Ms Smith can ensure pupils practise applying it through meaningful tasks which promote their learning of new ideas (Willingham, 2009). Although pupils will initially have inflexible knowledge – knowledge which they struggle to apply to new contexts – through continued thinking and processing of new ideas, they will come to use this knowledge increasingly flexibly (Willingham, 2002).

Nuances and caveats 

Ensuring pupils have mastered foundational knowledge and core concepts depends on first identifying what is core – fundamental to understanding the topic and discipline – which she will return to many times to ensure pupils have successfully acquired them.

Key takeaways

Ms Smith can help pupils to acquire and apply ideas by:

  • Sequencing subject knowledge and concepts and linking them to pupil prior knowledge.
  • Modelling new processes and ideas, linking concrete and abstract models.
  • Checking pupil understanding before encouraging independent practice.

Further reading 

Pashler, H., Bain, P. M., Bottge, B. A., Graesser, A., Koedinger, K., McDaniel, M., & Metcalfe, J. (2007). Organizing Instruction and Study to Improve Student Learning. US Department of Education. bit.ly/ecf-pas

References

Christodoulou, D. (2017). Making Good Progress: The Future of Assessment for Learning. Oxford: OUP.

Deans for Impact (2015). The Science of Learning. bit.ly/ecf-dea

Pashler, H., Bain, P. M., Bottge, B. A., Graesser, A., Koedinger, K., McDaniel, M., & Metcalfe, J. (2007). Organizing Instruction and Study to Improve Student Learning. US Department of Education. bit.ly/ecf-pas

Willingham, D. T. (2002). Inflexible Knowledge: The First Step to Expertise. American Educator, 26 (4), 31-33. https://www.aft.org/periodical/american-educator/winter-2002/ask-cognitive-scientist-inflexible-knowledge

Willingham, D. T. (2009). Why don’t students like school? San Francisco, CA: Jossey Bass.

Check

Answer the questions in the quiz to check your understanding of the evidence summary.

Take the quiz

Reflect

Reminder of key takeaways

Ms Smith can help pupils to acquire and apply ideas by:

  • Sequencing subject knowledge and concepts and linking them to pupil prior knowledge.
  • Modelling new processes and ideas, linking concrete and abstract models.
  • Checking pupil understanding before encouraging independent practice.

Reflect on the following questions

  1. What did you see in this module that you already do or have seen in other classrooms?
  2. What do you feel is the gap between your current practice and what you have seen in this module?
  3. Which of the ‘key takeaways’ do you need to focus on? Where and when might you try to apply them to your teaching?