What Happened at the TouchPaper Problem Party?

Saturday was the scene of the first ever TouchPaper Problem Party, and it was amazing. It was, quite literally, a super fun nerdy education party!

The story of its genesis is remarkably simple. A few months after I gave a talk at the ResearchEd conference in which I laid out 7 questions that I thought were important for education, Dr Becky Allen contacted me with a tantalising idea: What if we put a bunch of up-for-it people in a room who wanted to answer these questions, and then gave them access to research, wifi, and some coffee?  What do you think would happen?

I had no idea. But it sounded like a lot of fun to find out. 

Skip forward five months and we found ourselves stood in a room at the Institute of Education, on a rainy Saturday surrounded by 43 people geared up and ready to THINK. Having selected one of the 7 TouchPaper Questions to work on, teams were split across six tables (we ended up missing out problem 1 in the end) and each team had an intrepid facilitator pre-selected to help the group walk through their paces.

This is what thinking looks like

This is what thinking looks like

It was nerve-wracking waiting for people to arrive. Yet once we got going the atmosphere was party-like. People were excitable, introducing themselves, exclaiming they had not seen each other for a long time, or only ever spoken online, or explaining that they had read blogs for years but had never stepped into the Twitter or blogging fray themselves.

Crazily though, people really didn’t know what was going to happen. Though facilitators were selected for their great teaching skills the whole thing was quite experimental, with each group being told they just had to think “and present something back at 3 o’clock”. To assure everyone that I knew this was a bit weird I made the group repeat a mantra that got me through teaching several times: “Remember: it’s not brave, if you’re not scared” .

Furthermore, Becky and I consoled ourselves with thinking that if nothing else happened in the day we would at least answer the question of what happens if you stick a bunch of motivated edu-nerds in a room and ask them to answer hard questions.

As it happens, the answer to that question is: Amazing things.

What we found by 3pm

After several hours of thinking, discussing, arguing, writing, dancing, or whatever else facilitators demanded, groups fed back their thoughts on each problem.

Here is my quick summary of notes, though I fully expect the groups to roll their eyes at the shadow of deep thought I am presenting here:

Group 2 – “How can one invoke in a class the emotional state most productive for: (a) prosocial behaviour, (b) evaluative thinking, (c) memorization, (d) creation?”

We heart research design

We heart research design

Eleanor Bernades and Katharine Vincent did an incredible job of marshalling their team throughout the day.

The group presented a proposal for a study in which students would be tested for physiological indicators of mood. [The group didn’t mention the Gates watches, but several US schools are already using technology to do something like this]. By seeing how students respond physiologically to different types of stimuli it would be possible to see if there are pronounced changes, and also to track what impact this has on learning. If you had a large enough sample size, and got students to do enough different tasks it might be possible to see what sort of stimuli is best for what types of activity.

A second group also considered how student mood can be manipulated for creativity, including creating introspection, calmness and divergent thinking.

There are, of course, ethical issues to consider with this question. However the fact the group got to such a clear research design was pretty impressive, and it should be possible now for groups to plan to implement this kind of research design and actually track what the impacts of different stimuli are, if they can get hold of the technology.

Group 3 – If a child needs to remember 20 chunks of knowledge from one lesson to the next, what is the most effective homework to set?

This group grew! Originally one of the smaller crowds, by the time the day began Kris Boulton was leading 8 intrepid Problemeteers – the biggest of all groups.

Undeterred, Kris’ presentation outlined the key assumption taken by the group through the day and laid forth several hypotheses about what a good homework for memorisation would include. These were:

  • It should focus on recall, repetition and be planned strategically
  • It should focus on knowledge that is progressively more difficult
  • Task variation may be more important
  • The aim of the task should be to revise already learned things, not take in new knowledge

However, there was a killer blow. David Thomas, a member of the group, pointed to research that showed that if you are trying to get students to remember things in the long-term, there can be a downside to having them retrieve information too soon. So if a student has to remember things over a short period, and keeps going back to them, they are not having to dig around in their long-term brain and find the information. Because they are not getting used to ‘finding’ information that hasn’t been looked at for a while, it could be that homeworks which have students regularly re-visit materials might actually do damage to the memorisation of it. BOOM! 

So, there is more yet to be figured out on this issue but it shows that the path to the answer might not be quite what we think.

Group 4 – What determines the complexity of a concept?

Michael Slavinsky, a man far cleverer than me, already had his group fired up to answer one of the most difficult TouchPaper Questions by provoking debate on this blog and by

I went a bit woozy when Alex got his tech out...

I went a bit woozy when Alex got his tech out…

discussing on his own blog. This group not only blew my mind when I went and sat near them (at one point Alex Weatherall was explaining about dependencies, i.e. concepts that need to be taught before other concepts in science so that students have maximum understanding, and all I could think was, “This is above my pay grade” and scarpered, quickly, before anyone asked me for an opinion).

However, the heavy thinking of the day led to a really clear presentation in which Michael explained how concepts might be given a “complexity value” based on:

  • Linguistic complexity – for example, are the words used abstract or concrete nouns, or domain specific
  • Logic complexity – conditionality of statements, level of inference
  • Intuitive Feel – are there multiple ideas that seem to contradict one another, or go against perceived wisdom

The group then began to think about the complexity of transfer. So, once a concept has a “complexity value” is there also something about the backgrounds of teachers or students that make it particularly difficult to transfer the concept from the teacher’s mind to the students. For example, if a student struggles with language then the weighting of linguistic complexity may matter more.

This was a fascinating start for a complicated area, but made me start to think about the possibility of curriculum ideas having “complexity values” which would enable us to see how difficult each concept is and could also feed into the work on recreating assessment “levels” which I know many schools are now doing, [Michael has also blogged some initial thoughts from the day here – go read!].

Group 5 – What are the necessary and sufficient conditions under which students will enter a classroom and most speedily engage in productive problem-solving?

Defining the problem. Literally.

Defining the problem. Literally.

Harry Fletcher-Wood’s group were enthused throughout the day, always looking as if thinking about the really hard stuff was what they were born to do! It was quite cheering.

In their presentation Harry gave 8 necessary conditions for entering a classroom but he said them very quickly so I don’t have them written down. Harry – can you blog them soon please?!

He also suggested coming up with a tool whereby teachers would suggest 20 techniques for ensuring these 8 conditions, which could then be tested and commented upon by practitioners for their usefulness. This sounds brilliant. I would like to see this happen and exist somewhere online. MAKE IT HAPPEN HFW.

Group 6 – What rule best predicts teacher ‘behaviour’ ratings of pupils?

For various reasons this ended up being a very small group but it was led by David Weston, CEO of the Teacher Development Trust, and in conjunction with Loic Menzies and 2014-01-18 15.54.28Anna Trethewey of LKMCo. Treating themselves as the G&T group they decided they could have it stitched up by lunchtime, but the reality was more complex. After a quick start the afternoon required much more thought, but what they presented back was pretty amazing.

In order to work out how a teacher will rate a students’ behaviour they argued that there are ‘internal’ and ‘external’ factors which play into whether or not a students’ behaviour is deemed acceptable or unacceptable. Each teacher, at any moment in time, will hold a series of values (internal) about what is acceptable or unacceptable and these will be influence by external factors (e.g. what the student did, how able you are to deal with it) and this creates a calculation about any behaviour’s acceptability.

When a teacher is asked to create a behaviour grade and record it online there is an ‘aggregation’ of memories about students’ behaviour and whether it has been acceptable or unacceptable. This is affected by things including, but not limited to: recency effects (recent behaviour outweighs past behaviour), very memorable behaviours, whether a teacher has kept formal records of behaviour and uses those to inform their aggregation process.

This was then drawn into a complicated-looking formulae (by David and Loic), and re-explained for those frightened of maths by Anna (an English teacher, natch).

What was impressive is the level of detail by which it would be possible to start testing the idea. For example, is there a difference in the way that people rate behaviour if they keep records than if they don’t? Also, a question arises about the types of values that would cause a teacher to say a behaviour is acceptable or unacceptable. [The team did start to delineate these, but they can blog about it for themselves]. If we know this then we can think about why there might be inconsistent treatment of behaviours in different classrooms, what this means to students, and how it could be overcome.

Group 7 – What is the optimal number of times for a student to (a) read, (b) hear, or (c) say information aloud if they are to retain for 1, 3, & 6 month intervals?

Led by the accomplished Helene Galdin-O’Shea, group 7 had the most difficult time because it had the question phrased most problematically by me. For the other 6 questions I’m willing to fight my corner (and sometimes did) so that people don’t change the wording. But there were (are) issues with 7 that came to the forefront.

As Helene pointed out, however, there is a simple answer to this question: quiz, quiz, quiz. By having students retrieve and recall information at different times over a period2014-01-18 12.10.03 you can improve their memory of certain information. How the quizzes should be done, however, might be important – for example, do they encourage students to remember what things mean, what sort of cues can help with retrieval, how do you space the quizzes for maximum effect.

To that end Joe Kirby suggested 3 questions that need to be answered to break open this problem a little more:

  1. What frequency and interval should information be recalled so that students remember it best?
  2. What is the best order for content to be presented in so it is best remembered?, and
  3. Which type of quizzes are best for memory? (e.g. short answer, multiple choice, etc).

Some of these questions overlap with other TouchPaper Problems. E.g. frequency and interval were mentioned by Group 3 on homework memorisation. The order that content should be presented in was mentioned by Group 4 on the complexity of concepts. But this is good! An aim of the problems was to start breaking into the general principles needed to understand learning. That some overlaps are rising up suggests to me that we are getting to the core parts of what good learning is.

Conclusion and next steps?

The quality of the day was entirely down to the quality of thinking and the boundless energy brought by participants. Becky and I spent much of the day beaming at how cool it was to see so many people so involved in really difficult stuff all related to classroom practice (rather than annoying abstract discussions you can spend way too much time on in academia and policymaking).

The conclusions were fascinating and prompt further thought. We asked people at the end to say what they wanted to see happen next. Overwhelmingly people want to carry on thinking, maybe working with their group, and consider ways of getting more time to think.

We are excited about the idea of doing more. Michael Slavinsky, facilitator of Group 4, has already started thinking about ways the TouchPapers might be used at the next ResearchEd and Becky and I will put our heads together to think what might be best to do next and will let you all know once we have a plan. (Your feedback on that has been invaluable, thank you!)

In the meantime do keep thinking, blogging, discussing, and get in touch if you have any ideas for taking things forward. But most importantly I hope you went back to your work, wherever it was, more inspired and re-energised about the potential of answering hard questions that really matter for teaching. That’s the truly important stuff.



Categories: #TouchPaper Problems, Teaching

13 replies

  1. Thanks for this Laura. I could see you scribbling away during the presentations so it’s really helpful to have a summary of the groups. There really was some mindbendingly fascinating stuff that I’m still processing!

    I’m just putting the finishing touches to a blog on #6 that I’ll put on http://www.lkmco.org – I’ll keep you posted. In the meantime, I’d also be keen to hear about some of the feedback too. What exactly would it take for 43 people to each spend a 100 hrs on their problem?! And thanks again to you and Becky for setting up the day.

  2. Atul Gawande’s research and book ‘The checklist manifesto’ highlights that in many parallel successful hospitals and reknowned for their surgery you’ll find they have almost nothing in common. Dan Pink’s identification of autonomy mastery and purpose as being the fundamental cadence required for emerging adults to be both successful and satisfied is the first check for me on the list. Ken Robinson’s clarity on the way management consistently fail to identify education’s true purpose, and the requirement for schools to identify the child’s element a cris de coeur the second. My own school’s growing evidence that digital collaboration of up to anout 30% means no child needs to be left behind and isnt because peer tutoring is s powerful makes my check 3. And by the way, Gawande points out that the biggest factor in why hospitals get it wrong is the egos of the know-it-alls in charge. As Ben Goldacre makes compellingly clear, eviducation like medicine needs evidence -based research and practice,. So go to it with the TouchPapers and parties – I’d love to be involved next time.

  3. Wow! How about regional meetings? Like ‘sharper’ Teachmeets?

    Jenni Porter


  4. Reblogged this on paddington teaching and learning and commented:
    The Touchpaper problems party took place last weekend, starring our very own Clare Darley!


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