Knowledge is power: how understanding the science of learning can transform professional development for FE teachers 

By Ed Noon (English Curriculum Manager)

A few months ago, I came across Carl Hendrick’s LinkedIn blog post called ‘Why forgetting is so crucial to remembering’ – a distilled summary of roughly 100 years of research into cognitive science. At around the same time, Teacher Tapp shared their research into teachers’ views about professional development. Shortly before these events, Jonathan Kay approached us to present at the Development Wheel’s Beyond Boundaries conference, focusing on transforming education for English and maths students in FE. Putting these elements together, we knew we had something important to offer. 

It has been an astonishing year for us at Get Further. We now work with over 30 colleges across nearly 60 campuses. We employ roughly 200 tutors who support approximately 3000 students aged 16-19 resitting maths and English qualifications. Pass rates for maths students who attend for a full term of tuition are nearly double the national average for resit students, and pass rates for English students who attend for a whole term are around three quarters higher. We have been around for half a decade now and we strive to inform our curriculum, resources and tutor training on the latest research into what works when teaching resit students.

Herein lies the issue: according to Teacher Tapp, teachers report that INSET days have limited focus on classroom practice, and they question the impact of the professional development they do receive on enhancing their classroom skills. In comes Carl’s blog post on forgetting. Not only does this apply to students, but it also applies to teachers too. Teachers suffer from cognitive overload and split attention; they too need modelling, practice and feedback to improve – not because they aren’t good enough, but because they can improve.  

We set about producing a workshop for the Beyond Boundaries conference which would equip leaders in FE to provide effective professional development for their staff which enacts what we know about memory and forgetting, giving teachers the best chance to improve. In short, we focussed on John McGeoch’s findings that ‘memory is associative’ – we learn by making links and connections between what we already know and new material we are trying to learn. We shared William Estes’ research into learning as a cumulative process, not a single event. And, finally, we shared Robert and Elizabeth Bjork’s knowledge about retrieval practice as ‘part of the learning process’, not simply a test of what has been learned.  

Teachers need to participate in retrieval practice of concepts about their own memory and forgetting, not just to understand how their students learn, but how they learn too.

Taking this collective knowledge, we shared our approach to the professional development of teachers in FE. A teacher development curriculum cannot be covered in a single INSET day session; it must be sequenced at regular intervals over the academic year. Teachers need to participate in retrieval practice of concepts about their own memory and forgetting, not just to understand how their students learn, but how they learn too. Teachers need to be supported through a clear journey of professional development which includes opportunities to practise in and out of the classroom and respond to feedback. The learning must be intentional.  

At Get Further, we strive to have a tangible, positive impact on student outcomes – not just on our programmes, but across the FE sector. This drives us to continuously refine and develop our professional development offer for teachers in FE. We are ambitious for as many teachers as possible to know how we learn and understand which teaching methods are most likely to have an impact on maths and English resit students, ensuring they make progress and gain the qualifications they need and deserve. 

By Ed Noon (English Curriculum Manager)

Connect with Ed on LinkedIn here.