Theory is being wrongly applied in classrooms

14 Feb 2022, 6:00

It’s easy to be blinded by the scientific theory and not think carefully about each learner, writes Jennifer Wilkinson

It is no surprise that teachers, whose primary goal it is to help people learn, are fascinated with metacognition (the process that enables us to learn and even self-regulate).

The very thought that we could somehow hack into our brain’s core processor and harness its power in the classroom sounds like something from a sci-fi novel.    

So when the theory of “interleaving” began to trickle down from universities, senior management quickly became blinded by the science. And why wouldn’t they?    

What is ‘interleaving’? 

Interleaving is where students apply the same skills while switching between different topics. The idea is that students will make connections between different topics, which will force them to think harder about applying certain strategies.   

For example, if your English lesson focuses on inference, you might give your students a number of extracts based on different topics and ask them to identify the inference from each text. You could even ask them to compare the inference for tone.   

Researchers now overwhelmingly agree on the benefits of interleaving, including improved working long-term memory and strengthened problem-solving abilities, even if it is more difficult for students in the short run. 

However, in the feverish rush to include learning theory in practice, fundamental errors are being made.   

Basics come first 

For a start, interleaving is not meant to be used as an initial learning strategy but as a revision tool within a scaffolded curriculum.    

Just like the old saying goes, you must walk before you can run. Students need to learn the basics before applying a complex skill over a range of topics and contexts.    

Depends on subjects 

The theory lends itself better to some subjects, such as GCSE maths, over other subjects, like functional skills English. That’s because functional skills employ a contextual problem-solving model, which means the skills needed come from the context of the topic.

Interleaving takes for granted that students already have contextual knowledge, which is often simply not the case. By having multiple short extracts instead of a longer, more informative text, you limit the contextual knowledge that the student will gain from the reading. 

This is exactly why it is often not the best approach for students still developing their reading skills.   

Fun fact: when the functional skills qualifications were in their early stages back in 2006, it was explicitly recommended that interleaving not be used for this exact reason.    

However, in GCSE maths, this approach works well because of the absence of long narratives, which means students only need to apply the same skill and are not disadvantaged by the lack of context.   

Not designed for complex needs 

Finally, educational research tends to reflect the researchers: white, well-educated men, usually without any language barriers or learning difficulties.   

Educational research tends to reflect the researchers – white, well-educated men 

Now, I cannot speak for you, but that damn sure does not sound like my classroom. Asking students to jump from one topic to another can be highly confusing at the best of times, without factoring in complex learning needs.    

For students with dyslexia, ADHD, ADD and autism, the lack of consistency in the topic only compounds pre-existing difficulties. 

It makes it more mentally strenuous to connect information or draw parallels, resulting in cognitive overload that manifests in the classroom as behavioural issues, emotional breakdowns and burnout.  

Before you know it, your lesson has gone down the drain, and all the students remember is how much they hate the subject.    

Balance theory with practice 

Although interleaving definitely has its place, we need to be careful about how much weight we place on theory. It is the responsibility of senior management to make themselves aware of the research gaps. They need to ask themselves, can this theory really work in practice for all our learners?    

They should be creating an environment where educational theory can be challenged when it is not working.    

It is easy to become dazzled by the science. We need to elevate FE staff, and push for more inclusive research that focuses on FE and its learners.



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