A new start: the pyramid of success

27 February 2018

Author: David Williams, Director of Learning: MFL, Sandringham School

Sometimes it takes someone else’s words to crystallise an idea that has been formulating at the back of your mind, and for me it was a blog by Ben Newmark explaining his approach to starters under the mantra ‘nothing new, it’s a review’. He essentially rolled out a 15-question history quiz split into five questions on last lesson, five on the current topic and five on anything studied so far – rolled out to all his classes. This was instead of the all-singing, all-dancing, emotionally-engaging hook-style starter that we often strive for as teachers.

For me, this resonated with my own approach to the starter as part of an MFL lesson. Having carried out many surveys into student enjoyment of languages in comparison with other subjects, particularly under the remit of ‘increasing uptake at GCSE’, it became apparent that a significant proportion of students don’t inherently enjoy their language studies, and so concluded that, as language teachers, our job was to artificially increase their engagement with the subject in each lesson via a hook designed to increase their curiosity and make them more receptive to the real ‘learning’ that subsequently took place on the lesson.

Having gone on a full cycle of experimenting with this style of creative starter activity, encouraging other staff to do the same, I found it to be a positive but ultimately time-consuming and unsustainable approach, so I decided to seek an altogether different approach to starters that centred upon the language itself and upon developing students’ intrinsic sense of motivation rather than an external source of engagement. That is not to say that there is not a place for engaging, cultural activities, but that they don’t need to feature in every lesson.

In the context of linear qualifications and the emphasis on students memorising information for reliable recall at a later date, as well as evidence relating to retrieval practice, low-stakes testing and interleaving, I adopted an approach similar to that mentioned at the outset. I settled on the ‘Pyramid of Success’, with four layers: four things from last lesson, three things from the current topic, two things from anywhere in students’ studies of the language so far and one ambitious word or phrase.


Pyramid pic

Students write their answers on a blank proforma above, mark their own work and record their own score in a simple tracker. The whole process takes five minutes and can easily be adapted to suit the profile of the class, for example by increasing the need to translate from English into the target language. The template can be found here: Pyramids

The first impact was on my own planning. The simple act of writing down ten things I wanted to test students on across the four categories made me consider exactly what I wanted them to practise, what I wanted to feed in from the previous lesson, where I expected them to have trouble remembering material from earlier in the topic and what I wanted to keep reminding them about other key language that is often forgotten and assumed to be known by students, but in practice needs regular revision. One early realisation was that I struggled to write down four different words or phrases that I had covered in the previous lesson; this immediately made me consider what I had covered in the last lesson and, if it wasn’t new material, how did I know that the lesson was worthwhile? I decided that the lesson, which introduced a new examined writing component and asked students to simply use previously learnt material was certainly worthwhile, but simply reflecting on why there was no new content was a valuable exercise in itself. I am confident that this simple starter has already improved my own planning process.

In terms of impact upon students, the long term improvement in remembering new language to be subsequently recalled needs further investigation, but my gut feel is that students already have a more solid recall of the key vocabulary in lesson activities. However, as with all initiatives like this, quick wins carry a lot of weight, and three instances in the last few weeks stand out for me:

  1. A year 7 student put his hand up at the start of a lesson to inform me that he had forgotten his textbook. When I asked why, he told me that he had been revising and had therefore left his book on his desk. I panicked that I had set a learning homework but forgotten to prepare a test, so inquired about what he had been learning. His response: ‘for the pyramid, of course’.
  2. Students in a lower group, usually unmotivated and indifferent to their French studies, celebrating each correct answer and frustrated at those they should have known.
  3. Students in a top set groaning as I handed out the pyramid answer sheet. Having previously asked a few students in the group what they thought and received positive feedback from them, I was a bit confused, so I asked what was behind their seemingly negative response. It turned out they simply wanted to protect their 90% or more record over the last three lessons!

In terms of sustainability, I have already pared back the approach in some classes to a once-per-week approach which still allows for familiarity with the process but allows the freedom to feature other starter ideas. As for next steps, I certainly intend to continue with the ‘Pyramid’ starter as a feature of my lessons, but aim to gather more information both on student experience and to try to ascertain whether there is a positive impact upon student retention of key vocabulary.

Posted on 27 February 2018
Posted in: Blog

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