Responses to Rosenshine

My responses to Rosenshine’s Principles – Susanna Boyd

‘Principles of Instruction: Research-Based Strategies that All Teachers Should Know’ from American Educator (Spring 2012, pp.12-19, 39).

Strangely enough, Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction had passed me by the first time. I guess it must have been that they were published just at the start of my career, when I was moving into the second year of teaching and still working hard to master the rigours of my exam specifications and the behaviour management challenges that all new teachers experience.  I was therefore curious to explore these when we agreed that we would like to complete some research in to prepare for our Spring Teaching and Learning Clinics – I had no preconceptions and it was interesting to see what I would make of these ideas which seem very familiar to other teachers.

For those who are unfamiliar (as I was) with Rosenshine’s Principles, the original article lays out ten basic principles for effective teaching within the classroom (although Rosenshine also ‘unpicks’ these to make 17 in total) – drawing from: a) research in cognitive science (how our brain processes new and existing information e.g. schema theory, long- and short-term memory); b) classroom research (what Rosenshine defines as ‘master teachers’ who see a high rate of success in their students); and c) research on cognitive supports (i.e. scaffolding, modelling and ‘expert’ or metacognitive talk). While the majority of classroom examples seem to be drawn from the USA, there is at least one from Australia, and these also include mostly those from Mathematics but also some from English teaching.

Knowledge and knowledge organisation is key

One of the first most striking quotations to those who have been teachers for the last ten years or so is the priority which Rosenshine gives to knowledge rather than skills:

              ‘Education involves helping a novice develop strong, readily accessible background knowledge.  It’s
important that background knowledge be readily accessible, and this occurs when knowledge is well-
rehearsed and tied to other knowledge.’ (page 12)

This fits well with my own experience in the knowledge-rich (some might say ‘heavy’) subject of History. It is my experience (and the experience of classroom researchers such as Hammond, 2014) that students who have rich and varied historical knowledge do better when studying new historical topics. Indeed, Hammond (Teaching History, 2014) has demonstrated that students need rich layers of knowledge which include knowledge of the time period they are studying, knowledge of that period in the wider context, and knowledge of how the world ‘works’ (i.e. how democracies function, how elections are won and lost).

Rosenshine emphasises that this knowledge must be regularly revisited in order to enable student retention and thus the first principle is that each lesson should begin with a short review of previous learning. This, again, has certainly been my experience and something which I have started to do for nearly every lesson I teach. Experience has shown that students require a great deal of help remembering and accessing previous knowledge, particularly on the level of detail required for GCSE and A-level teaching, and thus so far this seemed very much like common sense.

What is more challenging to my own practice, however, is the emphasis within his fifth principle which states that ‘successful teacher spend more time guiding students’ practice of new material’ which also includes giving more time to students to process, elaborate upon and summarise the knowledge learnt. Within my own classes I tend to place more emphasis on this at GCSE and A-level than in Key Stage 3 but even then the sense of pressure to get through content often means that I do not always make time for building knowledge retention into the programme until designated revision time at the end of the course.

Direct teacher instruction is the most effective tool

More controversially, perhaps, is Rosenshine’s insistence that teachers need to spend more time instructing (even lecturing), demonstrating and directly questioning students. In one example, he cites a Mathematics lesson where 23 minutes of a 40-minute session was filled with these activities.

This principle is an interesting one which, I think, needs to be reflected on further by the teaching profession. Certainly in recent years it seems that direct instruction has fallen out of fashion within the classroom in favour of learning which encourages students to be ‘knowledge creators’ rather than ‘knowledge receivers. The well-worn phrase that a teacher should be a ‘guide from the side’ rather than a ‘sage on the stage’ is still an assumption in many observations and training courses, and indeed this seems to be the preferred learning method in the Middle Years’ Programme which Oakham is currently working to implement in First to Third Form.  However, in recent years there has also been somewhat of a backlash, led most prominently by the Michaela School and educators such as Daisy Chrisotodoulou who insist on a greater emphasis on direct instruction to support students who come from more disadvantaged backgrounds.

From my own teaching experience, and my own intellectual wrestlings with the implementation of programmes such as the Middle Years Programme, I have become convinced that teacher-led instruction is certainly essential, particularly at the early stages of learning or at the beginning of a new topic/programme of study. One area where I would urge caution, however, is in assuming that all lessons need to be exactly the same in the amount of instruction. Rosenshine does account for gradually removing support but there is little discussion in this article as to how effective teachers would do this. I also wonder whether there should also be opportunities for students to have to figure out their own working strategies without teacher-led instruction first, however, I acknowledge that in most scenarios this will not be the ideal (nor perhaps the most time-efficient) way of enabling students to progress.

Success in the classroom

Very interestingly, Rosenshine’s article also makes a great deal of reference to success in the classroom. Indeed, the article also claims that students should have an optimal success rate of 80%, although it is unclear whether this is referring to 80% of students within the class or whether each individual student needs to succeed 80% of the time. I was frustrated with this lack of clarity and also the lack of reference to the evidence base for this claim.

Firstly, I can see that human beings do need to feel that they are succeeding in activities in order to be motivated to continue – it is demoralising to fail time and time again, and there is plenty of research to suggest that those who feel labelled as ‘low achievers’ have less motivation to try to succeed and indeed believe they will not – thus it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy (see for example, Saeedi & Alavi, 2015 who examine the effect in Modern Foreign Languages). However, there is also research which suggests that we often learn more from making mistakes than we do from simply getting correct answers (see for example, Cyr & Anderson, 2017).  I would also be interested in how valid it is to ensure an 80% success rate for students all the time – do we actually need to be given a safe environment in which to fail and to become comfortable with learning being difficult? Are we preparing students for the ‘real world’ where they are likely to experience overwhelming situations which require navigating without guidance and support? It would be interesting to hear Rosenshine’s reflections on these issues, although I admit this is not the scope of this particular article.

Secondly, there is no reference to differentiation in Rosenshine’s article and therefore there is little clarity as to how this fits with the type of instruction which he advocates. Certainly the process of breaking new knowledge and skills into manageable ‘chunks’ and checking understanding before moving on to the next level (a ‘mastery’-style model) seems to be the ideal for ensuring rapid and retained progress, but how will this work in a mixed-ability class where all students may be at different levels? Is it helpful, for instance, to keep a whole class behind for one individual who doesn’t ‘get it’, or to hold back students who have already ‘got it’ for weeks while the rest of the class catches up? Again, this will require greater reflection by professionals as to how to implement this within differing classroom contexts.

Finally, I am concerned with the criteria Rosenshine uses to judge ‘success’ within the classroom. This is never made explicit, but there are a number of references to successful performance in tests which suggests that this is the basis by which success is judged. This is problematic as while it is certainly the role of the teacher to prepare students for tests and particularly external examinations, I am not convinced that this should be the sole measure of success. Surely, students could be seen to be ‘successful’ when they articulate what has gone wrong with an activity or where their misconceptions are, rather than simply getting full marks on a question paper. Could they not also be seen as successful when they ask questions in order to fill gaps in their knowledge, or formulate new theories to try to fit new knowledge into existing schemas, albeit coming to erroneous conclusions which they can then learn from?

Models of Progression: Mathematics vs History

My final thoughts concern the differences and similarities between applying Rosenshine’s principles within the context of teaching Mathematics (from which the majority of examples used in this article are drawn) and teaching my own subject of History. In this I freely admit that I only have a qualification in Mathematics to GCSE level and therefore never progressed to the higher-level and more abstract and investigative thinking which colleagues who studied at university have enjoyed. However, it seems to me that the step-by-step instruction which Rosenshine advocates is more easily realised within the Matematics classroom than the History classroom.

From my experience it is perfectly possible to teach Mathematics in a ‘mastery’ style whereby a student is introduced to a simple problem, is given a technique to solve this problem, is able to practice this problem numerous times, demonstrate their working, and then move on to the next more complex but still related problem. For example, for solving equations the level of complexity can be increased from a simple equation where the student needs to find the value of ‘x’, through to finding multiple values, through to finding the values in simultaneous questions, to transferring answers to a graph and so on. Many Mathematical problems require a step-by-step solution process and it is usually only at the higher levels that students might be expected to take a leap of intuition in order to solve problems or to apply complex layers of knowledge in order to come to a judgement.

In contrast, in History we expect all students to be able to use historical sources. At a basic level we might expect them to use them to find information to support a point of view. In this case they need to be able to de-code language, understand unfamiliar words, understand some seemingly common words in historical context (e.g. ‘religious toleration’ in the context of the 18th Century is a far different meaning to that today), grapple with archaic sentence construction, and finally extract information from this source and often put it into their own words. Already, even at the most basic level of comprehension, they are having to martial a diverse skill set in order to complete the task. Models of progression in source skills are also a hotly debated area. For example, is it more difficult to deal with the reliability of a source (broadly speaking, whether it can be trusted as a piece of information) or the utility of a source (what it can be useful for)? On the surface it might appear that utility is easier, however, a really good answer would need to take into account issues of reliability as well as looking beyond this to its ultimate utility to come to a reasoned judgement, while using all of the skills above. How, then, would a teacher of History create a ‘mastery’ approach to learning how to deal with historical sources when the knowledge and skills required are complex and multi-faceted? How would this apply to other knowledge-rich subjects such as Religion, Philosophy or Sociology? How also does this relate to the literacy demands of knowledge-rich subjects – how does one ensure success in the Humanities classroom when students are struggling with literacy more generally?

Concluding Thoughts

Overall I can definitely see the benefits of a number of the techniques given in this article. The importance of rich and varied knowledge which is retained and re-used by students is borne out by my own experience, and comments on the need to avoid overloading working memory is certainly something I came across over a year ago when I read Make it Stick (Brown, Roediger, McDaniel, 2014). The emphasis on the need to effectively demonstrate what it is we expect students to do in class and to enable plenty of examples, expert talk, and practice time are all excellent principles and something which I intend to challenge myself to do more of in my own lessons – although it will be quite a task to juggle the need to cover content with the need to practice and revise knowledge and skills.

Where I intend to be cautious, however, is in seeing this set of principles as a panacea for all lessons and activities. While it seems clear that chunking complicated topics and processes and enabling explicit instruction and plenty of practice time is beneficial, I still feel that there will be times when students need to be ‘thrown in the deep end’ in order for them to learn greater resilience and to have the freedom to learn from mistakes and enter into a spirit of exploration rather than simply learning the steps to get to the ‘correct’ answer.  I also intend to reflect more fully on what role differentiation plays in all this, as mixed-ability classes will need careful handling to ensure that all students make progress.