I just finished my fifth week of ReBuilding A Thinking Classroom in Mathematics. In certain ways, it has been harder than Building the first one from scratch. At the start of last year, I didn't exactly know what a Thinking Classroom could really, truly deliver.
This year, however, I know exactly what it can deliver. My students really learned and retained a lot last year. And they kept doing so! Plenty of credit goes to the practices of Building A Thinking Classroom In Mathematics  which I did for the first time last year. But I made another big change last year, too, and I have a feeling that it might have contributed as much or more to those results. I (more than) doubled down on retrieval practice. Thinking Classrooms in Mathematics differ from traditional ones in myriad ways, but I think it is important to keep in mind that great teaching and great classroom experiences share certain features that don't differ regardless of style, philosophy, or framework. In Teach Like A Champion 3.0, Doug Lemov and tells us that:
"there are teachers who without much fanfare take the students who others say 'can't'  can't read great literature, can't do algebra or calculus, can't and don't want to learn  and help, inspire, motivate, and even cajole them into being scholars who do."
In these classrooms, he goes on to tell us,
"the activities differ, but the techniques are the same.... My goal was to find as many such teachers as I could and to honor them by focusing on and studying their teaching. What I found is that while each great teacher is unique, as a group their teaching held elements in common..... In the aggregate, a story emerged. There is a toolbox for excellence... it turns out" (pp. xxxvi  xxxvii).
One of the tools in that toolbox, he found, is that great teachers provide plenty of retrieval practice (Technique #7).
What is Retrieval Practice?
"Recall practice occurs when learners recall and apply multiple examples of previously learned knowledge or skills after a period of forgetting" (p. 84).
First, forgetting. People forget things. Most things, in fact. Evolutionary biology would teach us that our brain is literally programmed to forget things that aren't essential to our survival. We tend to think of our brain's purpose being thinking, but our brain's purpose is actually to prevent us from needing to think as often as possible. In the words of Daniel Willingham, "brains are not designed for thought, but for the avoidance of thought." They sort out survivalessential sensory input (like seeing a pack of wolves in the distance) from nonsurvivalessential sensory input (like the barely perceptible humming sound of your refrigerator that you didn't notice until I just pointed it out) so that we don't have to waste energy thinking about them. The wonderful, xinterceptlocating benefits of factoring a quadratic equation fall squarely into the nonsurvivalessential category, and thus it is students' brains' responsibility to forget it to save energy for more essential inputs. And that's why being a teacher is hard. We need students to remember things that their brains should forget. In Teach Like A Champion 3.0, Lemov provides us with a "forgetting curve"  a beautiful graphic that shows just how quickly and just how certainly forgetting takes place (p. 83).
Looking at this curve, and using an example I provided in a previous post, let's say that today I taught my kids the five biggest cities in Africa. According to forgetting curve, by the end of their next class period, they'd probably remember three. By tomorrow's class  two. By next week  just one.
This is normal. And this is predictable. People are supposed to forget things. Unless we practice remembering those things. Enter retrieval practice. In its simplest form, retrieval practice is simply practicing remembering. We simply give students repetition at remembering. It isn't at all intuitive to me that recall practice should help memory. Let's say, for example, that I only remember one of those five biggest cities in Africa, and you ask me to try to remember the other four (which I don't). Trying to remember  whether I remember successfully or not  literally does help me remember better down the road. I don't know enough brain science to tell you why, but it does. And I'll forget a little more slowly the next time. The derivative of that second forgetting curve is a little less negative for any given value of x than the first, if I'm remembering my calculus correctly. Retrieval practice is just that  practice remembering. It can be done on paper or verbally. It can be quickrecall stuff like vocabulary or full on problems to work. Math teachers, more than other teachers, I often hear refer to "spiral review." That's retrieval practice. You learned something. You probably forgot it. Here's a chance to remember it. Why Is Recall PRactice Important In A Thinking Classroom?
We're asking a lot of students in a Thinking Classroom. As I mentioned in the previous section, Willingham teaches us that brains are not designed for thinking.
Yet we're trying to build entire classrooms centered around thinking. Liljedahl often talks about the "closing activities" (consolidation, notetaking, checkyourunderstanding questions) as serving to take the "messy" understanding of the day's learning formed in the thinking groups to a "neat, tidy" understanding that the students own for themselves. In a sense, I think he might say, they complete the learning that took place during the thinking task. There's more work to be done, however. Forgetting will set in quickly, and if we really want to "complete" the learning, retrieval practice is going to be needed. I find that students usually remember the concepts learned in a Thinking Classroom with better probability than they do in a traditional classroom. Figuring out something on your own seems to create a more durable, memorable sort of learning than mimicking does. However, I find that this durability really "seals" after the first round of recall practice. Often times, there is still a certain "messiness," as Liljedahl calls it, to the kids understanding even after the previous day's closing, and the next day's retrieval practice really finishes the job of tidying that up for good. On the flip side, however, since students often create an understanding through that "figuring it out" process that doesn't involve academic vocabulary or mathematical conventions, I find that those need even more recall practice than they do in a traditional setting. Traditionally, I'd lead with vocabulary and conventions and then use them throughout the lesson. But in a Thinking Classroom, vocabulary and conventions come after the concept, simply naming and formalizing what students have figured out for themselves using other language and notation; the bulk of their thinking and work together takes place without knowledge or use of them. Retrieval practice is really the secret sauce that:
How and When Do I Use REcall PRactice In My THinking Classroom?
Personally, I do the bulk of my retrieval practice and spiral reviewing in what my district refers to as "CQI time," which is a period of time each day dedicated to review/intervention/gapfilling. Many schools and districts, I know, have a period of time like this. I do a really, really targeted spiral review during that time that involves:
I try to balance long, worky questions and quick, simple recall questions to make it roughly 10 minutes of individual work. The kids spend 10 minutes working on their own, about 5 minutes reviewing it with their thinking groups, and then 10 minutes reviewing it with me whole group, where I sneak in some additional recall practice and "stretch" questions in our discussion. The last part happens standing and clustered so that it can lead seamlessly into the task launch. I save the question for last that I can use as my "you can already..." example, then transition to the "...so what about..." question that launches the day's thinking tasks. Here's what it looked like on Thursday:
I've figured out how to make the most of the time available to me  both class time and "CQI time" to get in a lot of recall practice. If I didn't have CQI time, I'd have to be pretty crafty about it. I'd probably cut it to 5 minutes, and limit my questions to:
What Are the Qualities of Good Recall Practice?
The most important quality of good recall practice is merely that it happens at all. It matters more that the kids get the chance than exactly when or how it takes place.
It can be very fast, too. I do a big formal todo each day because I have the time to, but it certainly doesn't need to be that way. For example, if I were shorter on time, I think that asking kids "what IS a greatest common factor and how do you find one?," which is just a few second question, and which is 90% as good as asking "what is the greatest common factor of 36 and 84"  a several minute question. Good recall practice also highlights multiple conditions/situations when possible. For example,
Will REcall Practice Really Help Build A Better THinking Classroom?
Building my Thinking Classroom in Mathematics last year produced countless benefits for my students. I documented them throughout the year and continued to enjoy each new wonderful surprise perk.
One that I ended up being the most impressed with was just how durable the kids' learning seemed to be. When I say "durable," I mean a combination of strong and lasting. The kids sought to understand concepts and processes with more depth than I was ever able to get them to through mimicking (even with a strong commitment to concept depth over procedural routine). It appears as though a relentless commitment to thinking from start to finish in class every day really does produce strong, deep learning. Building a Thinking Classroom deserves all the credit for the improved depth of learning I enjoyed last year, and while I think it played a role in the retention of that learning, recall practice really completes the picture. Think. Close. Recall. It's the icing to the Thinking Classroom's cake.
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About MeI'm an awardwinning teacher in the Atlanta area with experience teaching at every level from elementary school to college. Categories
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