How do primary children learn knowledge?

For some time, one thing I’ve been thinking about is the ‘pupil activity’ of a knowledge-based learning objective. Over the last couple of years, we’ve taken an approach of using questions to ensure children engage independently with the content we are teaching; some questions are more surface level to establish key content; and some have been designed to make children think at a deeper level. There’ve been questions about whether this is actually just ‘reading comprehension’ and doubts over the age-appropriateness of this approach, which have made me even less secure about selecting the best learning activities to ensure children ‘learn’ and then ‘remember’ the content of the lessons.

I feel that there are many ideas about which learning activities to avoid, but not so many about which activities actually enable learning. In the core subjects and ones where practice is more obvious, this seems to be less of a problem. In reading, we teach strategies and model approaches to reading which the children practise applying independently. In writing, we model writing which the children practise at varying levels of independence until they become secure with the strategies they’ve learned. In maths, we model strategies which the children practise and apply. In more practical subjects, there is a lot of teacher modelling followed by guided and independent practice and application. However, when our intention is for pupils to understand a concept or learn some facts about a concept or phenomenon, I’ve been left wondering which activities should be in our toolbox.


To answer this question, I’ve been thinking about Efrat Furst’s wonderful work about levels of understanding. She describes the learning journey as moving from knowing to understanding to using to mastering (I would 100% recommend digesting her blog posts). What I love about her model is that she emphasises the need for pupils to engage and process their new learning at a deep level in order to integrate their new knowledge with their existing understanding - their development of their schema. This resonates with some other reading I have enjoyed such as Fiorella and Mayer’s Generative Learning. Having read some of the research around the idea of ‘deeper processing’, it seems that the reasons for this need are not clear, but that does not preclude the usefulness of the finding for curriculum design.

For children to learn content, develop their schema and remember what they have been taught, they need to think hard about what they are learning - for “memory is the residue of thought”.

A lesson needs to activate pupils’ existing knowledge and understanding, introduce new content or ways of thinking in bite-size chunks, and then do something which supports the integration of this new learning with existing understanding. According to Furst, it is when the new and existing knowledge meet in the working memory that moments of changes to understanding occur. Designing an activity which provokes this cognitive response then becomes more obviously necessary.

But what does this activity look like? It’s not about building a cardboard synagogue or building a Stone Age house (as Mary Myatt and Jon Hutchinson have spoken and written about before). It’s about enabling children to make connections between what they have learned before and what they are learning now, in a way in which supports a change in their long-term memory. Without even considering how best we might instruct our primary pupils about the content of the curriculum, we are faced with a quandary about how pupils will actually integrate this new knowledge and thus extend or adapt their schema.

I’d like to offer some possibilities to respond to this problem.


Talk

Through talking about their new learning, pupils can ‘play’ with the new ideas and have multiple attempts at framing and reframing their new knowledge through discussing the new learning with others. Pupils will not only be able to make connections as they seek to construct spoken sentences about their learning, but they will also hear the connections and ways of thinking of others, thus potentially enriching their schema even further. We know that hearing others ‘think aloud’ is useful and so it is likely that this approach could bring benefits.

Talk is also a ‘high challenge, low threat’ scenario where pupils can play with ideas and try to use target vocabulary without fear of putting anything down on paper that might be marked incorrect. Teachers can also model the use of vocabulary and sentence stems to help children articulate their ideas and indeed practise using the language of the aspect they are learning about.


Concept Mapping

This is not something revolutionary, but it is something I think would need to be modelled very frequently in order to fully reap the benefits with younger pupils. Concept mapping involves listing ideas and then drawing connections between those ideas with annotations of the nature of these connections. I would suggest that in KS1 and probably most of LKS2, this would need to be guided by the teacher quite heavily as the organisational aspects of plotting ideas on paper and then writing connections might limit its potential for some pupils.


Storytelling

According to Mary Myatt, the act of listening to a story is a cognitive act in itself. I absolutely love this idea and think there is so much potential in the use of high quality texts - particularly picture books - to support pupils with learning the content of the curriculum. I’m certainly no cognitive expert, but I wonder whether the internal act of making meaning - the ‘language comprehension’ to quote the ‘simple view of reading’ - is the process which makes this phenomenon occur.


I’m not sure anyone really knows - or certainly agrees on - the exact mechanics behind this process, but I would suggest quite strongly that all comprehension activates our prior understanding; when we know and understand words, we naturally activate knowledge of the concept the word represents. Another thing to consider is that this does require the children to be paying attention to the storytelling - but, of course, paying attention is essential for any type of activity.


Teacher Explanation

Linked to the above, I think pupils listening to teachers’ explanations is also cognitive work. Great explanations work when they enable children to link their new learning with their existing understanding. Teachers who can use analogies, metaphors, concrete objects or whatever else makes the explanation ‘great’ can successfully transform pupil understanding. The act of listening to these explanations (or perhaps reading them) is another example of the cognitive work we need pupils to do in order to adapt their conceptual understanding.


Graphic Organisers

I’m always guilty of forgetting a notion which resonates with me so strongly, which is one by Oliver Caviglioli: he says that relationships between ideas are often spatial and so recording these as syntax can be problematic. Graphic organisers offer a solution to this problem and allow pupils to organise their knowledge, and be able to consider connections and think deeply about the content. These organisers can come in a variety of forms: cause and effect; Venn diagrams; flowcharts etc. Although pupils need to be taught the rubrics of these types of organisers, I think the level of thinking they require is useful as they make children think about the connections between elements of knowledge. To some extent, this will make them think about what they already know - or certainly require them to use their existing knowledge to make sense of their new learning. Whether they enable conceptual development is probably more likely to depend on individual graphic organisers and the context in which they are being used.


Written Responses

Although I really want to harness the power of a written response, I am often worried that children will make that dreaded response of “I don’t know what to write”. As soon as we ‘tell’ them what to write, we run the risk of turning the required ‘thinking’ into ‘copying’ which I think reduces the impact of writing as a learning strategy. For this reason, I think written responses - especially in primary - might be more useful at the sentence level. I love strategies such as ‘because, but, so’ from the Writing Revolution for this reason: they structure the content we want pupils to learning about and use specific conjunctions to prompt pupils to make relationships between ideas. I would suggest that written responses might be more appropriate later in a teaching sequence when pupils have more knowledge to make connections between and thus reduce the likelihood of pupils ‘not knowing what to write’.

I think it is important to design written responses very carefully, however, if we want to use them to support the acquisition of new knowledge. I would argue that it is vital that pupils have a strong understanding of what they’ll be writing about in order for the activity to be effective. It’s important for teachers to be aware of the connections we want pupils to make so that they have more chance of extending their understanding.

For example, if pupils learn about pharaohs when studying Ancient Egypt in Y3, a writing prompt such as…


Pharaohs were a type of monarch because …

Pharaohs were a type of monarch but…


…might be the outcome of one lesson, despite not looking like very much ‘work’. The children would need to use their knowledge of monarchs from EYFS and KS1 - kings and queens, Queen Elizabeth II (very likely), King Charles II (probably) - and integrate the new name and representation of a monarch into their existing schema. They might write “Pharaohs were a type of monarch because they were rulers of a country” or “Pharaohs were a type of monarch but they ruled in Ancient Egypt”. Even though at a sentence level this syntax is nothing special for Y3 children, in terms of understanding we are enabling young children to develop their understanding and thus grow their schema of ‘monarch’.


We could get a completely different response if Ancient Egypt were taught in UKS2. Assuming that pupils would have previously learned about how different types of rulers across history exercised power in different ways, we could expect more sophisticated responses (in terms of content rather than syntax, however).


Pharaohs were a type of monarch because they were the most powerful people in Ancient Egypt which they ruled with absolute power.


Pharaohs were a type of monarch but they were also viewed as being god-like.


(I apologise if this is a poor example and I could have written something more insightful about pharaohs - perhaps it’s telling that we teach about them in Y3)


In both cases, it is up to the teacher to bring to the forefront of pupils’ minds all of the existing understanding that would show that a pupil understands the content of their writing. I wonder for pupils whose responses suggest a lack of security, further discussion with a teacher where the pupil thinks hards about the ideas in such sentences, might still enable them to the make the connections we desire of them.


I think the above implication might explain some of the thinking from direct instruction and some of the teaching sequences designed by Engelmann where most of the content of a lesson is a revision of previouslyintroduced ideas. If we want children to make these rich connections, we must invest in revising important components which have already been learned and spend the time encouraging and prompting the children to think about their existing knowledge in order for them to be able to make the connections we want them to make as they develop their conceptual understanding.


 

I hope I've presented my thinking in a useful way. Obviously a big issue underlying this blog post is that of 'evidencing' learning, which might have been a reason for recording activities in the first place. I've avoided mentioning it above because I want to focus on the act of learning devoid of any external pressures or expectations. I have a strong feeling that schooling has been warped over the years by ways of thinking that respond more to accountability systems than to actually focusing on learning. This blog is not about that - it's about me exploring ideas in a public forum to try to clarify my thinking and hopefully start some conversations which I hope will be useful to anyone who wants to join in.

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