Innovating Pedagogy 2017 – Spaced Learning

Within education we always have to be careful. Although essentially stoic in its approach to learning, education, at all levels, is frequently bombarded with a range of innovated approaches which practitioners are encouraged to engage with and adopt. While teaching in the primary sector, there were often new ideas which landed in my pigeon hole requiring attention and implementation, all promising significant improvements to both my own practice and the progression and depth of the children’s learning. However, I learnt very quickly that ‘not all that glitters is gold’ and that before being swept along with the tide of innovation, and the promise of new shiny equipment, it was important to take a step back, evaluate and consider these new approaches for their longevity and impact on learning. The Open University recently published their 6th Innovating Pedagogy Report. In their own words ‘This series of reports explores new forms of teaching, learning and assessment for an interactive world, to guide teachers and policy makers in productive innovation.’ But rather than just hopping onto the innovation bandwagon, I have decided to engage with some of these in order to see how they will or will not, impact on my own practice. First up, Spaced Learning.

Spaced Learning is an approach for learning facts better. If you think back to your GSCE revision, or in my case O’ Levels – you were always encouraged to revise in short, sharp sessions rather than long ones which lasted into the middle of the night! Coupled with this is the understanding that breaks from learning or revising can be beneficial, especially if the learner engages in some sort of physical activity during this time, like a brisk walk. Spaced Learning brings all these together to form the basis of a lesson structure. To summarise, the teacher will give the information pertinent to the lesson within the first twenty minutes, after which the learners take a ten minute break to indulge in some form of unrelated practical activity such as aerobics. Then there is another twenty minute session when the learners are asked to recall the key information from the first session, followed by another ten minute break. Finally, if you are still with me, the learners apply their knowledge through problem solving activities within the final twenty minutes of the lesson. So for a total of one hour twenty minutes (if my mathematics are correct!) three lots of twenty minutes ‘learning/recalling/applying’ and twenty minutes of exercise. So what do you think?

Initially I must admit I was somewhat unimpressed with this so called ‘innovating pedagogy’. But as I started to think more about it I did decided that there was some value within it. I have to admit at this point, that I am not too sure where this report is focused within the broad range of education. The research supporting spaced learning within the report was from secondary education so I am not sure whether this would be the target audience or education in the broadest sense of the word. For the purpose of my following points, however, I wanted to focus where my current interests lie – within the area of higher education.

Within my teaching sessions on the undergraduate programme, the amount of ‘facts’ I present I feel is getting less and less. You might assume since I teach mathematics that the sessions would be full of properties, equations and reams of proofs, but this is not the case. Within my sessions that focus is less on the learning of facts but more on the critiquing, evaluating and reflecting of ideas. Yes there is always a realm of quotes and statements, but these are not for the students to remember and/or regurgitate at a future date. These are for the students to engage with and involve themselves with and to actually think about. For me, learning in higher education is less about facts and more about engagement. I want to encourage learners to think of the answers for themselves rather than expecting me to present them for them. With this in mind, I am not sure spaced learning has a place in my sessions at all, although it was while I was thinking about the timings which I suddenly realised that I might be already engaged more with this innovative approach than I realised.

I’m currently working on a research project about people’s views about mobile phones within sessions. I read once, and I wish I could find the link for this waffle but I have been unsuccessful, about the reasons why students pick up that phone or try to secretly slip it out of their bag and use it underneath the table. Most of the reasons within this aforementioned report related why students use their phones not to the students themselves but to the skill and ability of the actually tutor. (That’s it I have just lost half of my readership – just one reader left now!) I will write about this report, if I can find it again, sometime in the future, but as a reflective practitioner some of the points did ring true to me. When delivering a session I know that unless it is something mind blowing exciting, 20 minutes is probably the longest the learners will be engaged with me before I will start to lose them. Not literally of course, but I know their concentration will start to fade and, as it does so, their phones become inviting. I often use how many of the students are actually reaching for their phones an indication that I might have been talking for too long. Interestingly enough, after about 20 minutes of me talking, sessions are designed for a practical activity. The students make lists, discuss what they think or even engage with an activity relating to mathematics. Now, although the spaced learning report suggests juggling, I did realise that I am indeed following roughly the timings throughout my sessions. The students do not go off and start juggling, but they do engage with something which is semi-practical which will allow them to concentrate more so in the next input. Coupled with this revelation was the realisation that the sessions actually allow them to engage with theory, discuss this and then apply this to their own practice – a possible similarity to the final application part of the spaced learning approach?

So I have to admit I have come full circle. From initially thinking that spaced learning was a completely a new ‘fad’ which I should avoid and pass by to a semi-understanding that I might actually be using elements of it in some form already. At this point I had a small shudder down my spine – why? – well does that mean I am actually being innovative?

I am sure that many of my colleagues have their own views about spaced learning or my thoughts about it and, if you do, please sign up to the site and add them in the comment box below. Although they are worth nothing at all, you might even be rewarded with a waffling open badge! As always, all thoughts welcome and if you want to get an email when I next post then please remember you can subscribe to the site by adding your email in the box in the footer.

So until my next waffle, have fun and I’ll catch you later and, until then, consider yourself waffled!