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Love Your Sequence of Learning

One of the key aspects highlighted by The Great Teaching Toolkit is that a sequence of learning has dependencies; when acquiring one piece of knowledge depends on another already being in place. This is when we see a correct sequence begin to reveal itself. This ‘seeing’ is important. It is the seeing that leads to the cognitive organisation of parts, then a deeper understanding of the interrelated parts. This is content knowledge. However, this content knowledge is all just intent unless one also knows how to get this content across to learners. Not any content, but this content; with all its specific and nuanced detail at the very heart of the bespoke transmission of knowledge from expert to novice. In this way, the atomised content knowledge blends with an extraction of the relevant features of more generic pedagogical knowledge to produce pedagogical content knowledge (PCK). Although it can’t exist without it, the PCK brings the sequence of learning to life!

This is why you must love your correct and detailed sequence of learning; the highest possible quality of teaching arises out of it. Here are four pedagogical places that it immediately clears the path towards:

i) Increasing learning opportunities; once dependencies are lined up through a sophisticated sequence, essential background knowledge can be tracked and checked to a truly meaningful degree. The basic idea that teaching builds new knowledge upon prior knowledge is then systemised and actualised. The impact of this is that learning opportunities for all students are maximised.

ii) Cognitive Load Theory (CLT); beyond the ordering of dependencies is the construction of learning tasks and activities that are built through the teacher’s PCK. A major part of this design is ensuring progression by reducing the intrinsic cognitive demand. Then, preparing for the reduction of scaffold and structure as the learner moves gradually into more independent exploration of increasingly unfamiliar contexts.

iii) Responsive teaching; the ambitious teacher aims to strongly guide their students along the sequence; constantly using questions and activities to reveal thinking that the teacher can then respond to in respect of this ambition. As Dylan Wiliam has been telling us for years, responsive teaching within a framework of cognitive progression is everything. Clearly, with increased PCK comes an enhanced ability to trigger and expose student cognition, to respond with impact and therefore to demand more of learners. As the truth of teaching becomes revealed further, Wiliam’s work appears to become ‘more true’.

iv) Retrieval practice; the more correct and detailed the sequence of learning, the easier it is for simple retrieval systems to be designed that increase the impact on embedding learning for the same expenditure of resource. Low stakes quizzes can be made more accurate, automatic and useful. The chronology within a sequence of learning also reveals precise points where current learning will be retrieved and transferred to new and unfamiliar contexts. Here, learning is simultaneously reinforced and extended…a win-win!

Of course, an atomised and correct sequence of learning sounds labour intensive. However, it’s not so much for a teacher to create but rather to acquire, and to study, and then to engage, with others, in the incremental refinement of it; in a Kaizen-type model. Even individual schools, or groups of schools, may not have the internal capacity to design and produce the high-performance engine. This is where EdTech comes in. More accurately, this is when EdTech comes in. For years, technology has threatened to transform teaching but hasn’t. Yet, now there is purpose. For, it is only a digital solution that can scale up the sharing of CLT-driven atomised sequences of learning in a way that provides resource, access and use, whilst avoiding increased workloads, and yet inherently shifting teacher attention to an enhanced use of Wiliam’s responsive teaching framework.

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