Willingham wobbles.

I feel like I haven’t blogged in an age. A couple of reasons for this – first just general busyness, but second, I’ve been thinking hard about a lot of educational theories and questioning myself without really coming to any conclusions.

Taking cognitivist theory on board in Spring term was undoubtedly a success. My half-term assessment results soared, with some massive turnarounds for some of my weakest kids. Reducing cognitive load, making things concrete, telling them things, and lots of practice works.

Wonderful stuff. But my lessons had become very boring. There wasn’t much to interest the kids, let alone inspire. Going down this train of thought is when I become much less sure of myself. I’m not an entertainer; I’m a teacher. But at the same time, if I don’t give the children something to be passionate about, intrinsic motivation and a cooperative classroom atmosphere are pipe dreams.

I definitely don’t want to sacrifice the Willingham formula that works. I don’t want to waste the students’ time doing something that doesn’t make them better at maths. And I don’t want to waste my time preparing intricate resources that add little to learning.

Something that doesn’t work is jazzy interactive whiteboard activities. One student having (maths-related!) fun dragging things about and tapping things while 29 others watch hasn’t been an effective use of lesson time. Recalcitrant students opt out completely, whilst the more competitive get antsy and overexcited.

Card sorts aren’t a solution, despite the PGCE tutors’ love for them. My year 9 set 4s are not suddenly fascinated by classifying statements about geometry because they are on small rectangular pink cardstock. In theory they make students think about topics more deeply, but I’m not sure this happens in practice. I think they often overburden cognitive load and are therefore not useful for students who do not already have a confident, solid, relational grasp of mathematics. And, of course, they fail the prep time test.

My best forays have been with hooks. They’re fast to plan and implement and they don’t detract from learning. It can be hard to find hooks for every topic though, and students who have chronically short attention spans – with no efforts across the curriculum to change that fact – are not always won over by them.

This is a topic I’m still grappling with. Would love to hear your ideas.

3 thoughts on “Willingham wobbles.

  1. Nick Daniels

    I’m not a maths teacher, but I’ve read a bit of Dan Meyer’s blog It seems like he uses hooks and then extends them using narrative. That’s one idea anyway.

  2. Harry Fletcher-Wood

    Really interesting reflections. I felt something similar this term as I worked really hard on implementing formative assessment techniques, to the exclusion of other (important) things – the trade off felt like: students were understanding the lesson content/developing the skills I wanted, but understanding why the subject as a whole mattered less.

    Nervously, I have a blog post starting to brew on problems with implementing Willingham’s ideas – or at least, the areas which they don’t cover.

    I think hooks are a really good thing to work on – it’s often said that if you get the hook right you can get away with more or less anything in the rest of the lesson (you can take that how you want, but repetitive practice activities might be one choice). Not only does that ‘not detract’, I think it adds significantly to the rest of the lesson.

    I have a presentation I did years ago on good hooks which tried to bring together all the different ways of starting a lesson in an engaging way I could think of. It’s for history, but you might find it interesting – if so – I think you get my email by my posting here (?) – contact me in some conventional way and I’ll send it your way.


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