Graphic Organisers and Success Criteria

Evidence about what works best in the classroom already exists. John Hattie did his meta analyses of the research and found a way to rank interventions and outside factors for their effect on students.

Almost everything in teaching ‘works’, the trick is finding things with the largest effect size. The interventions with the largest effect sizes are those that provide formative feedback to students.

One that I am trialling right now is graphic organisers. I downloaded the free version of SimpleMind, a mind mapping application and was won over so quickly that I upgraded to the pay version. I almost never upgrade to the pay version for this sort of program.

Now, when I start a new topic, I make a concept map of the ideas I want to teach in the unit and share that with students. They are not exhaustive: I hope students will add new concepts as we go (and join up concepts with lines). One weakness of this means that I necessarily have to introduce new vocabulary before the students have learned it. My best work-around is re-visiting the map frequently. The more they learn in the topic, the more familiar these words become. It’s like when you read a fantasy novel with a map at the front, you have no idea what Gondor is like or what’s so great about Riverrun but as you read, you can go back and look at the geography of the story.

Another use for this application is making keyword maps for my English learners. In these mind maps, I try to join the keywords I want my students to know into categories. Then they can find the definitions of the words either in target or home language (depending on their facility with English). I’m not sure about these as I am sure that learning words in context is more powerful than as a list (even a graphically presented one).

Another intervention with high effect sizes is the use of success criteria. I have to say, my experiences as a teacher in the UK put me off a little bit. The research showed that informing students what they are supposed to be learning helps them learn it. Nothing wrong with that. But this was interpreted as “Every teacher must write the learning objectives on the board every lesson, all students must copy them down (so that management can check up on the teacher during random exercise book checks) and if you don’t: you need competency procedures”

This is clearly the worst thing about teaching in the UK. A sensible idea is taken and warped into a tool that proves middle managers are doing something. And the ‘something’ is generating mindless paperwork for students.

My problem with having a new learning objective every lesson is that lessons don’t work like that. Sometimes you have the same learning objective for a few lessons in a row, sometimes you want it to be a mystery. Sometimes you want to differentiate your learning objectives (something some schools insist on, so the students are copying down three sentences and not just one). Sometimes, whisper it, sometimes you’re not sure where the students will want to go with a topic.

I had to rehabilitate myself a little. Teaching in Danish public schools allowed me to try not giving learning objectives or giving them at the start of a year. Now, I introduce them at the start of the topic and relate them to what I will be assessing at the end.

Each learning objective has a check box beside it and students have the opportunity to check it off as they go.

I am all for this. Anyone can sit through a double lesson and check off the learning objective from that day if they have ‘got’ it that lesson. The powerful part is having to check it off a few days later. Can you still remember how to explain thermal transfer? If you can’t now but you know you could the other day, then you know you have some homework to do. The students who do the best at school apparently are the ones who go over what they did in class when they get home. Either by reading their notes again or just thinking about it.

My favourite part of presenting a check list like this is the motivation it generates. My students go through the list on a regular basis and talk to each other about what they have retained. The responsibility is on them. Where it should be.

I also like to use success criteria when I set longer assignments. This helps students shape their work up against what I am looking for. It also makes grading the work much more simple: I can copy-paste my criteria and tick them off as I go.

Whether it will make a difference to the outcomes of my students remains to be seen but I have enjoyed the difference it has made to my lessons.

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