Desirable difficulties

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I first heard about this very recently. Earlier on this week, I was talking to blogger and pedagogue, our very own Andy Tharby. Whilst discussing various topics, Andy introduced me to the concept of ‘interleaving’. I thought: ‘Wow, he sounds very clever!’ I wanted to know more in order to be in a position where I could sound clever too! So, right after lunch duty, I googled ‘interleaving’. I then read about ‘desirable difficulties’ and it’s been a Eureka moment since then!
1. What is a desirable difficulty?
(a) A situation which makes something harder to learn initially (harder to ‘encode’), but nevertheless makes it easier to recall and apply at a later time (easier to ‘retrieve’).dd1

(b) It is basically the idea of ‘No pain, no gain’. For example in cycling or running, doing hill repetitions once a week to gain muscle strength and cadence or leg speed even though your race is not necessarily a stage in the Alps or a mountain marathon.

2. How can we do it?
Dr. Robert Bjork, a cognitive psychologist (UCLA) has been conducting research on remembering, forgetting and desirable difficulties. Here are some of his suggestions for some successful desirable difficulties:
A. Spacing learning episodes apart rather than massing them together
B. Interleaving topics
C. Testing
D. Having learners generate target material
E. Making learning materials less clearly organised

3. In the MFL classroom
I have started to use some of these strategies this year (without even realising what they were, just because it made sense). Here are some examples of how I have used them and the outcomes and / or ideas on how to develop some of these suggestions in our curriculum.
a. Spacing:
Constantly revisiting a topic (eg: environment) or a grammatical point (the past tense). We all have told our students at some point in our careers: ‘Oh come on Yr10, you know this! You’ve seen it in Yr8!’. But actually, you have taught this particular topic (environment) in Yr8, your students at that time understood (encoded) the new vocabulary and any grammatical structure involved with this module very well. They all did really well at the assessment that was at the end of this module, and then have stored it somewhere in their memory. You are now expecting them (2 years later) to retrieve this particular vocabulary.

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This year with the KS4 groups, I have focused a lot on vocabulary learning in order to tackle our weak area: the listening and reading exams. We decided to have weekly vocab tests that would be recorded on a tracking document and measured against the students MEGs. All these vocab tests were out of 30. Fairly basic stuff.
The only twist was that instead of doing these vocab tests in a purely massed manner (only the environment), I was mixing them with other topics. This was a way to keep the students always on their toes and revisiting vocabulary that we had seen a few weeks, months earlier.
This has worked extremely well this year, and I feel that I have never prepared a Yr11 group as well as this year. The results were not great to start with, but as we progressed through the year, both classes became better at it.
b. Interleaving
There is quite a lot of research on the effects of interleaving versus blocking. Basically, most of the time we tend to block the learning. (aaabbbccc vs abcabcabc)
Let’s take an example, in our current Spanish schemes of work, the Unit 4 from Mira 2 is ‘La comida’. This means that we are going to be talking and learning only about food for a whole long half-term. Once the students have successfully completed their assessment, we will consider this topic covered.
However, recent evidence suggests that it may be more beneficial to present different concepts or topics in an order that is shuffled and less predictable.
Last year, I decided to change the French schemes of work as they were dated and not very engaging. I went to a very successful MFL department in a very successful school to get some inspiration. Most of their schemes of work were about context and not topics. For example, they had some units about history or geography or even art.
We decided to try these topics this year. I have to recognise that I was very anxious about it, as we did not have the comfort of a text book or an active teach software to rely on. However I think that these more creative contexts (‘Dans la jungle’ and ‘L’art’) have been received really well by the students and have been beneficial on several levels. Following on from this I decided to write another unit of work based on the documentary ‘Maradona by Kusturica’ which involves different topics such as health, personal relationships, home environment and social issues.
These units were interleaved, we covered various topics within each of them. In the Art unit, we covered landscapes, colours, past tense and feelings and emotions. It resulted in an engaging unit and also enabled students to apply different topics to one written assessment.
I also think that the students were very positive about this unit as it was not too repetitive. Indeed the risk with a blocked scheme of work is to see one topic until the students get bored of it. As MFL teachers we are always aware about engagement, as in the back of our minds we always want to find any opportunities to hook the students to languages and therefore have greater numbers at KS4. I sincerely believe that interleaved schemes of work can help with the enjoyment and the engagement of our students.
c. Testing

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Another very interesting fact is about testing. First, which of these patterns (above) of study do you think is more likely to be the best in the long-term learning?
Quite surprisingly, it is 4. Bjork’s idea is to make testing an entire part of our practice. He suggests we keep testing low-key and very frequent.
As I mentioned earlier, I have been vocab testing our KS4 groups (especially Yr11) a lot this year. All groups had their weekly vocab test. I think that the impact it has had on the students’ learning is huge. The results were quite negative to start with. It was a joke with the class to see how red the spread sheet was! But by January more and more green was appearing on it. By the end of the year the spreadsheet became exclusively green with the odd amber patch. I even think that my Yr11s secretly loved them!

D and e. learners generating target materials and making materials less clearly organised
I have not tried these two techniques but I can totally understand how they could benefit our classes.
For the first one, we want the learners to make the intellectual effort to understand a concept or learn some new vocabulary (‘encode’). If we just give them the new vocab, tell them ‘ pantalones are trousers in Spanish’, they have not had to make an effort to encode this information however if we give them this sort of vocab list:

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This would give a ‘desirable difficulty’ in the students’ learning and therefore they would have to make an intellectual effort to ‘get it’. This effort would make the retrieving process easier.
The last suggestion is very similar. By making the learning materials less clear, the learners would have to make another effort to encode the new concept. These techniques would also build resilience in the learners.

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To conclude, I think that to truly adopt these ‘desirable difficulties’ we need to abandon the idea of demonstrating progress every 20 minutes in our lessons. Is it realistic to expect progress every 20 minutes? If yes, are we teaching or is it more a performance? Bjork says that ‘the most fundamental goals of education are long-term goals. As teachers and educators, we want targeted knowledge and skills to be acquired in a way that makes them durable and flexible.’

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4 thoughts on “Desirable difficulties

  1. Pingback: Spacing and Interleaving | Class Teaching

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