Alex Beauchamp, Lead Practitioner, Hunter’s Bar Junior School, UK; Expert CPD Adviser, Teacher Development Trust, UK
What’s more ironic than continuing professional development (CPD) on retrieval practice that gets forgotten? This article recounts the journey that the teaching staff at Hunter’s Bar Junior School in Sheffield went on over a three-year period of embedding retrieval practice across the curriculum. Retrieval practice is now so deeply embedded at the school that other schools in Sheffield are benefiting from the expertise that is offered.
Each CPD programme over the three-year period used Thomas Guskey’s ‘five critical levels of evaluation’ (2014). Building evaluation milestones into initial CPD design is recommended if schools want to assess how CPD ideas are spreading throughout the school and transforming teachers’ thinking and habits. Using the EEF’s ‘A school’s guidance to implementation’ (Sharples et al., 2019), the school defined a clear vision of what student habits and behaviours would look like by the end of the programme. This became the thread to follow. The vision was for students to leave in Year 6 with a deep understanding across the curriculum, built on durable and sustained memories. A strong vision for future student outcomes at the end of year one defined a clear end goal to help judge outcomes in the future. Fidelity to the agreed approach was achieved through defining the ‘active ingredients’ for delivering retrieval practice in classrooms. As a result, each teacher had the confidence of heading in the right direction based on the given evidence, but with the autonomy to make adaptations along the way to fit the context of their students. This we described as ‘tight but loose’.
Year one – book study and teaching learning communities
It started with the age-old frustrating problem of forgetting. Data analysis and staff and pupil interviews indicated that there was a problem, and it had been around for as long as any teacher could remember: student memory and retention. Through dialogue in professional development meetings, we discovered that there was a lack of staff understanding and awareness around how students learn and how they hold on to that learning. As a result, we directed our teachers to participate in a two-term CPD programme using the structure of teacher learning communities (TLCs), a mechanism that the school had used consistently for six years.
This cyclical and iterative programme centred on Daniel Willingham’s book Why Don’t Students Like School? (2010).
The TLC programme followed a clear structure. Each half -term:
- groups of teachers discussed the research within the book
- teachers looked at ways in which the research could be practically used in the classroom
- teachers deliberately used a research-informed retrieval approach inspired by the book (such as low-stakes quizzes or building background knowledge) and collected impact evidence from workbooks, quiz results and pupil interviews
- teachers took part in peer observations and structured feedback, which provided a level of safe accountability
- in the next TLC meeting, teachers fed back to their group about the impact of the techniques on their learners, particularly the most disadvantaged.
This tightly focused CPD approach was transformative for the school in that it allowed teachers to regularly explore their values, beliefs and misconceptions about how students learn. Teachers were given the agency (the capacity of individuals to act independently) to apply their thinking flexibly in the classroom.
As the year progressed, the principles from the book grew in value for the teachers. It began to change the way in which they approached their teaching practice, helping them to build new schemas around cognitive principles. As part of the TLC meetings, teachers were regularly asked to experience the challenges that ‘hard thinking’ presented to the students in their lessons. Such cognitive empathy helped teachers to experience the emotions caused by learning dissonance, seeing learning through the child’s lens.
At the end of the year, after a series of the TLC cycles, teachers took part in a TeachMeet to share their CPD successes and challenges. It provided the opportunity to evaluate the spread of ideas and identify subsequent CPD needs and interests. Teachers made the following points:
- Retrieval practice was not the same as recapping the same knowledge
- Studying the ‘testing effect’ and Ebbinghaus’ (1885) forgetting curve helped to understand why they were using retrieval practice
- Time spent retrieving knowledge was sometimes at the expense of covering new content: a tension was felt around these opportunity costs
- Greater confidence was being placed in the long-term promises of retrieval practice, where students require less re-teaching and have greater capacity to solve problems using more flexible knowledge.
Teachers and senior leaders had reached the consensus that helping students to build strong, lasting memories should become a major focus for future pedagogical development.
Year two – prioritising CPD leadership
As the CPD Leader for Hunter’s Bar Junior School and an Expert CPD Advisor for the Teacher Development Trust (TDT), I was given the time to research further into retrieval practice. I was given the opportunity to analyse and summarise reports by academic writers such as Rosenshine (2012), Dunlosky et al. (2013) and Roediger et al. (2011). The findings were then used to inform the CPD programme. Such time sounds like a luxury but it can be strongly argued that it is a necessity.
Findings from the TLIF-funded CPD Excellence Hubs project in Sheffield (TDT, 2016) show that effective senior leaders prioritise CPD in their schools by creating a dedicated CPD leadership post. This CPD leadership role involves the provision of weekly protected time to allow the leader to focus on CPD research, design and evaluation of programmes. Professional learning that is given the time, tools and energy from passionate CPD leaders will be given the best chance of achieving success.
Mobilising the evidence
Learning at any age and stage is difficult. Through frequent staff surveys, following professional development meetings, the senior leadership team realised that teachers, as well as their students, were experiencing extraneous cognitive load when taking on new learning. As CPD Leader, I was mindful of this and supported teachers in CPD sessions by making their learning manageable and being aware of working memory limitations – a key insight gained from Willingham’s (2010) book. Synthesising and simplifying the key principles from research using dual coding provided teachers with a way to access their learning of retrieval practice without watering down the key principles. The Noun Project website (https://thenounproject.com) provides a vast range of iconic images that can be used to help tether concepts and principles to a mental image in teachers’ minds, which makes it easier for them to recall and use in their own practice.
Reading further into retrieval practice research – and tuning in to leading educational thinkers such as Robert and Elizabeth Bjork (2011) on desirable difficulties, Claire Sealy (2017) on memory and the curriculum and Kate Jones (2019) on mobilising research on retrieval practice in the classroom – the leadership team considered the wider impact of retrieval across the curriculum. Pupil interviews were used to assess the depth of students’ understanding from themes taught a term ago. Which memories were still in place? How durable were they? How successful had retrieval been? Students from each year group spoke about what they had remembered from lessons earlier in the year and how it linked to what they were learning now. This provided rich, formative data for the school leadership team to use and proved to be an effective way to evaluate the impact of retrieval practice. Teachers then received feedback that their teaching had led to students’ long-term retention. As a result, confidence in the benefits of retrieval practice increased considerably across the staff.
As an evidence-informed school, teachers were supported to become evaluators of their own impact. They were asked at the end of each CPD meeting: ‘How will the experiences of vulnerable students in your class change if your professional learning from this session is successful?’ Regular reflection between colleagues helped staff to evaluate their own impact and foster self-efficacy.
Year three – engaging the teams
The most recent stage of the retrieval practice CPD programme was designed to galvanise year teams. The aim was to create collective accountability for embedding retrieval practice in year group planning. Each year group selected key knowledge that they wanted their learners to be able to recall three months later and planned an action research project to test the efficacy of specific retrieval practice methods. Collective accountability, where teachers regularly discussed the ongoing impact of the project on their students, helped the teams to keep their CPD priorities alive. Teachers reported that mutual support and peer motivation helped to achieve successful results in student retention of knowledge. Teams conducted the action research project and reported back to staff three months later. The impact was largely positive across the school and stimulated further dialogue around the robustness of particular retrieval tasks and the complexity of spacing out retrieval practice.
Creating a legacy for CPD practices
A major outcome from this stage of the CPD programme was that retrieval approaches were directly written into medium-term year group plans across the Key Stage 2 curriculum. There had been a shift from teachers experimenting with techniques on an ad hoc basis in their classrooms towards long-term commitment through planning. Fusing refined and agreed CPD approaches into the fabric of the school created the legacy of the CPD programme.
It is my hope that this three-year case study provides a strong argument that schools with the right tools and access to balanced and informed intellectual wisdom can make transformational improvements through strategic professional learning.
To conclude, here are 10 lessons learned from the retrieval practice CPD programme that can be applied to any CPD plan:
- Prioritise CPD. Effective headteachers provide CPD Leaders with protected non-contact time to explore, prepare and evaluate CPD programmes.
- Design and deliver a CPD cycle based on an iterative rhythm of input, deliberate practice, peer observation and review, delivered over a sustained period of time. This can be used to implement and evaluate any new CPD learning.
- Start with the end in mind. Define the change in students that the school wants to achieve (attitudinal, behaviour or academic). This will create a thread that ongoing evaluation can track throughout the programme.
- Match the pedagogical strategy carefully to the learning problem. Time spent diagnosing problems and exploring ‘best bets’ is likely to pay high dividends.
- Plan for the long term. Transformational change in teaching practice takes time.
- Create a legacy for the CPD approach by writing it into medium-term planning.
- Spend time unveiling staff misconceptions about learning before launching the CPD programme. For example, exposing children to previously taught material is not the same as retrieving the same knowledge without support.
- Choose your tools wisely. Tools such as the EEF’s ‘A school’s guidance to implementation’ (Sharples et al., 2019) and Guskey’s five critical levels of evaluation (2014) can help to plan and guide the initiative towards becoming sustainable and evaluative.
- Open up. Teachers’ belief systems may need to be sensitively exposed to reveal existing barriers and misconceptions likely to prevent successful implementation. Embrace this dissonance and engage in evidence-informed dialogue.
- Encourage senior leaders to openly support and model the desired learning behaviours and approaches expected of teachers. This will help ideas and CPD approaches to spread quickly throughout a school.
With special thanks to David Weston, Michael Watson and Naomi Beauchamp.
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