Now that I’ve laid out my general views on truth and on the purpose of education, I feel like I can write almost at random about any aspect of education. What to pick!
One of the least controversial but perhaps most useful ideas on my list-of-blogs-to-come is an idea about a teaching aid that I’ve developed and used this year, which I’ve called ‘hooks sheets.’ (I’ve put an example of them at the end of this post.) They’re a tool to help students access, consolidate, and retain knowledge as efficiently as possible. (If they already exist under another name, I do apologise; rest assured, I’ll feel suitably embarrassed when it turns out everyone else has used them for years.)
Before anyone criticises this idea on the grounds that it doesn’t teach students to think for themselves, I would like to say: yes, this tool is specifically knowledge-focused. Yes, it revolves primarily around facts, not skills. As I hope was made clear in my previous post though, I don’t see the acquisition of knowledge as the purpose of education, but I do think it’s an essential (and sometimes neglected) part of education. A person can’t have informed, reasonable opinions on anything if they don’t know about the thing about which they’re being asked to form an opinion. (Besides, I actually also use hooks pages to help with skills, as I include knowledge about the skills in them, e.g. steps they can follow when evaluating a philosophical belief.)
Bearing all that in mind, here’s the context: I have just 30 minutes per week with each KS3 group. In addition, these year groups are only allowed to be given homework once every few weeks in non-core subjects. When these limitations were first introduced, they presented me with a huge challenge. How on earth could I impart a lot of knowledge, make sure that students had a real understanding of what they were learning, show them how to analyse and evaluate the ideas fully, and enable them to then express their understanding and opinions in writing, with only about seventeen hours of teaching time over the whole course of the year? As Martin Robinson (@SurrealAnarchy) and many others have pointed out though, boundaries and limits encourage, and indeed are necessary for, creativity; I think this applied here. The limits did make me think more creatively than I had done in the past, when I’d had more contact time with each class.
At the same time as first facing these constraints, I was reading Hattie’s and Yates’ Visible Learning and the Science of How We Learn. One thing that seemed to hit me again and again while reading this was the idea that we only learn a new fact when it links to previous knowledge. This in itself was very useful to consciously note, but it also made me think about all the times when students hadn’t understood something because there’d been a gap in their knowledge that I hadn’t known about, and so they had nothing onto which they could ‘hook’ the new bit of knowledge I was trying to convey to them.
Because of the time limitations, I wanted a way to ensure that students did indeed have all of the base knowledge I was assuming they had, and that they were linking every new idea to previous knowledge at every possible point. I wanted the most efficient way possible for them to learn new facts. Eventually, I came up with the ideas of ‘hooks sheets.’
Hooks sheets are basically just checklists of individual facts that students should know, used in a particular way. I know other teachers and textbooks use similar things at the ends of topics, so that students can tick off what they know and check they’ve achieved their objectives, but hooks sheets are a bit different. A hooks sheet is a list of ‘atomised’ facts (i.e. each bit of knowledge is broken down into its most basic possible forms, as far as is reasonable), which the student reads, and if they understand the fact, they simply tick it. If they don’t, they seek help from previous hooks sheets, their notes, a friend, or (finally, if necessary) the teacher. For example, the sentence, “Christians believe that Jesus was the Christ,” can be broken down into about fifteen different facts, all of which contribute to a proper understanding of that statement. These facts include things like, “Jesus was Jewish,” and “The word Christ comes from the Greek Christos,” and “The New Testament was written in Greek,” etc.
The list of ‘atomised’ facts on each hooks sheet covers two things: firstly, things that students should’ve learnt by the end of the lesson they’ve just had, and secondly, facts that are necessary in order for the next lesson’s content to make sense. The first facts (relating to the lesson just learnt) break down everything that was covered in the lesson into individual facts, and allow the student to recap what was covered in a methodical, logical way. Each fact ‘hooks onto’ the previous one, and so if they didn’t see how something was related to something else while they were in the lesson, this helps them to see the link now. In theory, if the previous hooks sheets and the lesson itself did their job, the student should be able to happily tick all of these facts. If they can’t, the hooks sheet allows them to identify specifically what they didn’t understand; usually, when this particular fact is identified and explained, the others fall into place more easily. This is (I think) a pretty efficient way of allowing the student to check very precisely what they do and don’t understand, and gives them a way to fill in the gaps and form their knowledge into schema more effectively themselves.
The second set of facts (those relating to the coming lesson) is, I think, even more important. These facts are things that new facts are going to rely upon, or ‘hook onto.’ Crucially, they’re also the facts that teachers might simply assume the students know, and that therefore they wouldn’t spend lesson time explaining; they might not even acknowledge them as facts to be learnt, rather, just weave them into explanations of new, bigger ideas. (Hattie points out that experts literally forget how hard it is for novices to learn, and so teachers do sometimes skim over things when they shouldn’t.) If students don’t have these very basic facts though, the lesson content just won’t mean anything to them. For example, if I were teaching a lesson about the historical evidence for Jesus’ existence, right from the outset of the lesson, students would need to know that Jesus is the central figure in the Christian religion, and that he lived roughly 2000 years ago. They would also need to know the meaning of the word ‘evidence,’ and the word ‘historical.’ The hooks sheet, therefore, provides students with a list of facts that they must understand, in order for them to be able to access and follow the lesson from its outset. This part of the list usually consists of things that students feel are utterly obvious, but not always – and it’s the times when they come across something new that makes them so worthwhile. Finding that gap before the lesson and filling it in is much more efficient than trying to identify it afterwards, and make up for the time and learning lost in the confusing lesson.
The way they work in practice is very simple. After each lesson, as their homework (I know I’m not allowed to set homework, but since these only take five minutes to do, no one’s complained so far!) students simply read the list of facts, and tick the ones that make sense. Usually, all of them do, and it’s been a quick and simple exercise that helps to consolidate their knowledge. When something doesn’t make sense though, it gives them the chance to check up on it, and thus either add to their learning from the previous lesson, or prepare for the next one. As an added bonus, they’re pretty helpful when it comes to revision (both for the individual and for use with a whole class), and they also lend themselves very nicely to helping to create detailed mind-maps. Also, they can help students catch up if they miss a lesson, which is handy.
I did start using them with KS3 as a way of trying to use every minute of lesson time as efficiently as humanly possible, but they were so helpful that I’ve started using them with my GCSE groups as well. This year was meant to be the trial year, and depending on how they go, I may well use them with 6th form in the future, too. (I’m positive about them at the moment, but there’s time for them yet to backfire or prove ineffectual after all!) Hopefully others will like this idea and maybe give it a try too; I’d be interested to know if anyone else thinks they’re helpful.