When checking for understanding is not Checking for Understanding, and why Knowledge Organisers are dangerous.

I wrote recently about the importance of ‘drilling‘, as part of Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction.  I think it is really important that children can recall information from their long term memory and I use a series of usually closed questions in order to do that.  However, recently I have been thinking about Checking for Understanding because checking for understanding does not always check for understanding, it sometimes just checks for recall.  These are not the same thing.

Rosenshine says that:

‘Effective teachers also stopped and check for understanding…by asking questions, by asking students to summarise the presentation up to that point or to repeat directions or procedures or by asking students whether they agreed or disagreed with other students answers.’

Tom Sherrington in Rosenshine’s Principles in Action says:

Checking for Understanding is ‘the core concept in the Principles…I’d suggest that CFU is probably the single biggest area for improvement in the teaching that I see.’ I totally agree.

I taught the Verification Principle to my 6th Form students this year:

‘Statements are only meaningful if they are analytically, or synthetically verifiable’.  It’s complex.  They have to understand a lot different concepts to be able to access this.  I take it slowly.  Eventually they get it – unless it is true by definition, or something you can empirically check for yourself, then it is meaningless.  And then I move on to Ayer’s modification of the VP: ‘Statements are only meaningful if they are analytically or synthetically verifiable, in principle.’  This, I think is an easy addition.  It makes music, art and history meaningful because although we can’t literally check that Henry VIII had six wives, we can be confident that he did.  So, I taught it in January.  The students learned it. They could all recite it and the criticisms of it.  And then in revision, this happened:

Me: What is the Verification Principle, Robin?

Robin: Statements are only meaningful if they are analytically or synthetically verifiable.

Me: What is meaningless, under this form of the VP?

Robin: Lots – even history, art and even that the moon is round is a meaningless statement, as is the verification principle itself.

Me: Well done.  How does Ayer try to overcome this problem with the VP?

Robin: He adds the phrase “in principle”.

Me: How does that help?

Robin: It makes things like art, and history meaningful because we can verify them in principle.

Me: Well done, excellent knowledge! You’ve got this.

Robin: Miss… I’m sorry I haven’t asked this before, but can I ask you a really stupid question?  What does ‘in principle’ mean?

I thought I had explained it.  I thought he understood it.  From questioning he appeared to understand it.  But appearances can be deceiving!

Similarly, I was observing an interview lesson for a History teacher recently on causes of the failure of the Spanish Armada.   The teacher had great subject knowledge, his explanations appeared excellent, his questioning was spot on.  And then, as the lesson was ending, one student called me over and whispered; ‘Miss.  What’s an Armada?’  The teacher had missed it.  I had missed it.  One of our excellent history teachers who was observing with me had missed it.  The teacher never explained what an ‘armada’ was and so some students had totally missed crucial information to access the lesson.

We must ensure that our questioning really checks for understanding, not recall.

And this is why I think Knowledge Organisers can be dangerous.  I love a good KO. We use them for all our schemes of work for homework and quizzing in our ‘Phil your memory’ low stakes tests that begin our lessons. But learning the words and definitions is not enough. Reciting the verification principle or knowing the reasons for the failure of the Spanish Armada is not the same as understanding it. In the same way that knowing that the definition of a sacrament is ‘an outward sign of inward grace’ doesn’t actually mean you understand what a sacrament is. Similarly, being able to say that Pythagoras theorem (as my mum sang to me for years) is ‘the square on the hypotenuse of a right angled triangle is equal to the sum of the square of the other two sides’ doesn’t mean that I know what on Earth that means!

We can set learning key words from Knowledge Organisers for homework. We can drill the concepts in lessons but we have to make sure that students aren’t just recalling information, that they really do understand what we teach them.

How do we do that?

Know where the misconceptions may be

I now know that some students find this phrase ‘in principle’ difficult.  I will remember this next time I teach it.  However, what about other words and phrases?  I need to remember how much of a novice my learners are, and so even phrases that I have automatic understanding of may be complex for my students.  When planning lessons, I need to think very hard about what might cause misconception.  For example, in a recent GCSE exam, many students were thrown by the word ‘relevant’.  A question that should be quite simple, became impossible to answer for some students because they did not know this word.  (Another case for making tier two vocabulary central to what we are teaching!)

Ask really probing questions

If I had asked Robin one more question – ‘Can you rephrase ‘verify in principle for me?’ I may have found out that he didn’t really know.

Use more concrete examples in explanations

Teach the definition: ‘in principle means in theory, or in essence” (remembering to make sure that students know essence)

Then use lots of concrete examples in sentences:

It is not possible to actually know that the Earth is round either analytically or synthetically, but it is possible to know it ‘in principle’. Then explain that I am standing on the Earth, I cannot see the whole earth and even if I go up into space and look at the earth, I will still only see the earth as a 2d object. And even if I circumnavigate the earth, I will still not really know that it is round! and make sure they really get that by asking questions about it.

Then do the same with other examples and get students to practice these independently.

It is not possible to actually know that Henry VIII had six wives. Then get Robin to explain why this cannot be true either analytically or synthetically.

It is not possible to actually know that all ravens are black, or all men are mortal, etc, etc.

Ask them

I constantly check with students that they understand stuff. “Is this making sense?” “Would you like me to give you another example?” “Do you understand?” And my students know that I’ll go over things again and again until everyone gets it. I use these questions when I am mid explanation, BUT there is a huge problem with this. Students often do not know what they do not know. They may think they understand when actually they don’t. This is why at the end of my explanation I will change the question to “What do you understand?” and get them to explain it back to me. And then question more and more till I know they’ve got it.

Give opportunities to verbally rehearse

It helps when explaining complex concepts to spend time doing pair and share. Getting students to explain something to the person next to them has many benefits. It gives thinking time. It gives students the opportunity to ask their neighbour ‘do you get it?’ and go over it together. It gives them time to check they do understand it – because by rehearsing, students come across areas where they stumble in their explanation. It gives students time to think about questions they might have. It gives me the opportunity to check on my quieter or weaker students, and explain it to them once more. And then when I ask someone to explain it back to me, it gives the rest of the class the opportunity to hear one more explanation of the concept. Repetition is key.

Multiple Choice Questions

This is one I want to try more of. I think it’ll work. Using MC questions is likely to be a good way of finding misconceptions, but I’ll have to get better at writing them!


5 thoughts on “When checking for understanding is not Checking for Understanding, and why Knowledge Organisers are dangerous.”

  1. Enjoyed this – thank you
    Does this make sense? And are there any questions? are great ways to basically get a class nodding at you – I say these all the time and the responses suggest they’ve understood everything and I’ve taught it perfectly. (They haven’t and neither have I!)

    I now suggest at key points giving pupils 2 minutes to discuss/write down any questions they still have about the lesson that they haven’t had answered. Doing this as a pair and the hint from myself that I may have missed something, always elicits questions like the ones you’ve written in the blog.

    1. Thank you for sharing your great blog with me. I will definitely share this with my team. We are looking at successful ways of using KOs and really like the booklet idea (amongst many others!)

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