The 8 Strategies Teachers Can Use to Improve Learning Mastery
A generative learning walk through
You are an educator and part of your role is to help those in your care learn.
Not just learn to retain information or skills in the short term, but to make meaning and be agile in the transferal of knowledge and skills to new scenarios.
For researchers, Logan Fiorella and Richard Mayer, this is called ‘learning as a generative activity’.
Fiorella and Mayer state that
Learning depends both on what is presented and on the learner’s cognitive processing during learning
Therefore, according to this instructional design approach, there are elements of direct instruction or teacher-led instructional teaching that are as important as the choices, collaboration and sense-making that the learner will experience in a lesson.
We have come a long way from simple rote learning as demonstrable learning and appreciate that for young people to thrive and survive now and in their futures, they must be afforded opportunities to become creative problem solvers and critical thinkers.
In terms of generative learning, this can be achieved when learners become sense-makers.
The 8 principles of sense-making
Fiorella and Mayer propose eight principles to help learners make meaning from new information:
The Mighty Ms
What needs to be present throughout these processes noted above is motivation and metacognition, what the researchers call the ‘Mighty Ms’ because they power learning.
Without motivation a learner cannot feel energised to learn and make sense of new material. Without metacognition, the learner cannot control the cognitive processing that needs to take place for learning mastery to occur.
Testing the 8 principles and the Mighty Ms
I decided to test this generative learning process with two hour long Citizenship lessons with children aged 13–14. These children were of mixed gender and ability with relatively strong social bonds as they are taught most of the time in school in this grouping.
The class had already been taught about the main principles of democracy and had a basic grasp of direct and representative democracy including examples of these forms of democracy in practice both historically and in a contemporary setting.
I began the lesson by linking back to our bigger picture question:
“Is democracy the best worst form of government?”
This was what their series of lessons were guiding them to think about and while each lesson tackled different issues, all roads led back to this guiding question. I wrote about establishing a bigger picture question here.
The first aspect of the lesson was an introduction of a 500-word text based source which I read aloud to the class. The read-aloud process has significant benefits to literacy development. When I first began reading aloud, I was concerned it may come across as me infantilising my learners. The reverse was the experience for everyone.
I modelled varying my tone, pitch and the learners could hear my fluency and expression. Although this is anecdotal, there is evidence that backs up the read-aloud model of instruction that shows that reading aloud can lead to attitudinal and motivational outcomes for young people. This is because it can impact their desire to read and create a positive attitude toward reading.
The text relayed Plato’s interpretation of democracy which I read as if it were a story. Helpfully, I was able to bring the ‘story’ to life as Plato uses an analogy of a ship with inexperienced sailors at the helm.
The learners perhaps didn’t even realise they were learning about political theory from one of philosophy’s heaviest hitters because they are engrossed in the story of capsized vessels, thunderstorms and sirens calling the ships onto the rocks.
If you want a quick relay of the analogy of the ship of state, the video below is fantastic:
The learners were then asked to go through the text and select the most significant themes and or words that were important to Plato’s interpretation. Some used a highlighter pen, others underlined or annotated the text. By doing this they were mentally organising the content with which they had been presented.
Some used a highlighter pen, others underlined or annotated the text. By doing this they were mentally organising the content with which they had been presented.
The next phase involved the learners writing a summary of Plato’s interpretation. The constraint they were given was that the summary had to be no more than 250 words.
When they had done this, I asked them to reduce this summary down to 100 words. An additional step could be to ask them to write a six-word story to convey the interpretation. I wrote about how to do this fun and creative activity here.
The learners were then asked to ‘sketch note’ what they understand about Plato’s vision of an effective ship of state and his warnings about democracy in the hands of the masses.
I wrote about sketchnoting here and you can see one of these illustrations below:
Once they had completed their illustrations, they communicated verbally with the person next to them to explain what they had drawn. Their partner then relayed to the rest of the class what their peer had drawn and the themes they chose to explore.
Each learner was asked to say what they found interesting about their partner’s illustration and the questions they had asked if they needed further clarification.
The learners then progressed onto thinking of examples of how democracy has resulted in the ‘tyranny of the majority’ (i.e. what Plato warned against) and examples of how democracy has offered stability and greater representation. They drew upon their prior knowledge gleaned in their previous lessons.
In this aspect of the lesson the learners were making sense of Plato’s theory by trying to apply and test it in a real-world situation. Another iteration of this imagining phase could be to ask the learners to imagine a world that was led by the philosopher kings as espoused by Plato.
Perhaps they didn’t need to imagine what it would be like to imagine a government led by people inexperienced in statecraft as some would argue the UK government, at least, has ministers leading departments in which they have no former experience or knowledge…but I digress…
This next phase required the learners to construct three of their own higher order thinking questions to probe deeper their grasp of Plato’s theory. I used the Essential Questions model from McTighe and Wiggins that I use frequently with all levels of learners.
I handed each student the following text on a crib sheet to help them with their wondering:
What is a good question? A good question….
- Is open-ended.
- Is thought-provoking & intellectually engaging, often sparking discussion & debate.
- Calls for higher-order thinking, such as analysis, inference, evaluation, prediction. It cannot be effectively answered by recall alone.
- Points toward important, transferable ideas within (and sometimes across) disciplines.
- Raises additional questions & sparks further inquiry.
- Requires support and justification, not just an answer.
- Recurs over time; that is, the question can & should be revisited again & again.
- How would it be different if….?
- What are the reasons….?
- Suppose that….?
- What if….?
- What if we knew….?
- What is the purpose of….?
- What would change if….?
- Had…..would…..have occurred?
- How influential was……in……?
- How does…..relate to…..?
- How might……help us to understand…..?
- What does…..reveal about…..?
- Could……have happened without…..?
- Does…..matter when trying to understand the reasons for….?
The learners were then encouraged to answer their questions. This could be done in written or verbal form.
The learners were then asked to prepare to teach a peer about Plato’s interpretation. They were advised they would need to explain the main ideas and principles to another learner and interact with them.
They were not simply going to tell the story; they were going to offer analysis of the theory and add in examples for added vibrancy and illustration. I used the worksheet below as a scaffold:
The learners could ask each other questions to deepen further the cognitive processing. This is because they were encouraged to reflect and elaborate. They were thinking about their thinking, which is where the metacognition kicks in in earnest.
This final part of the generative learning process supports the learners to use their prior knowledge to connect abstract concepts to concrete objects and actions. There are a few ways to do this. I chose LEGO.
I presented the learners with a selection of LEGO pieces and characters and asked them to build a representative model of Plato’s interpretation of democracy which they would then explain verbally.
What this process fuels is their construction of meaningful mental and visual representations of the material covered in these two lessons.
I hope you found some value and ideas for moving forward your teaching in the generative learning space. It can feel repetitive, but this is essential for learning mastery. These strategies can be applied to any school subject or supra curriculum offering.