Releasing the TouchPaper Problems

fireworkThe TouchPaper Problems are haunting my dreams.

Before last Saturday’s presentation about the Problems, I already wrote 7 questions – two of which I revealed in the talk. To decide on them I thought back to the problems that frustrated my own classroom practice and the times when I wondered: “How the heck am I going to do x“.

But I didn’t just want any questions. I wanted problems that would reveal knowledge useful to anyone in education  – whether teaching 5 year olds in a sleepy Cotswold valley, or at-risk 16 year-olds in Bradford. There’s also the problem of subject specificity. Right from my first discussion about the TouchPaper Problems people have been asking if there are different priorities for maths, or science, or drama. And this week Mike Cameron asked to the complex by pondering if we need a periodic table of students before we can answer such questions.

These are all great points, and I’m not averse to any of them. Maybe we need subject-specific problems. Maybe a periodic table would be useful.  But today I’m keeping things simple.

So here are the problems I wrote 10 days ago. Slightly adapted, admittedly, but still generic and (I think) solvable. There is more to each one than meets the eye, so next week I will blog the thinking behind them. Until then, I’m sticking them out there in the world. It’s a first lighting of the TouchPaper, if you will. Enjoy!


The TouchPaper Problems – Version 1

  1. What is the shortest period of a time in which any person with dyslexia can be taught to spell the 1000 most common words in English?
  2. How can one invoke in a class the emotional state most productive for: (a) prosocial behaviour, (b) evaluative thinking, (c) memorization, (d) creation?
  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?
  4. What determines the complexity of a concept?
  5. What are the necessary and sufficient conditions under which students will enter a classroom and most speedily engage in productive problem-solving?
  6. What rule best predicts teacher ‘behaviour’ ratings of pupils?
  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?



36 thoughts on “Releasing the TouchPaper Problems

  1. Thanks v much for these; lots to mull on. Really glad you came up with 2 and 7 because I’d had a vague fog along those lines in my mind since ResearchEd, but didn’t have the words to turn the fog into smoke writing, as it were – I feel a bit clearer now :-).
    No. 6 has me perplexed though – would you mind expanding on it a bit? (it’s Friday and vampire students have sucked my brain dry…)
    Many thanks, Sue

  2. 4 – the complexity of a concept- is it defined by the depth that people will investigate in order to grasp/understand the concept? Always varied. Something as simple as 2+2= 4 is simple enough for a year 1 to grasp but WHY does 2 + 2 have to equal 4 could be a deeper concept.

  3. This is fascinating stuff. Here are my first thoughts on each of your questions:
    1. Maybe we need to unpick dyslexia before we can try to ‘solve’ it. I’ve blogged on this:
    2. I have no idea but I have a suspicion they might be very similar
    3. According to Bjork’s research the most effective way of studying to retain chunks of knowledge is testing. I’ve also blogged on this:
    4. Hmmm. I thought a lot about this when I was into SOLO. Have you looked into threshold concepts? A fascinating area of research.
    5. I think this has to do with my teaching sequence for developing independence:
    6. I don’t understand this one? Can you explain further?
    7. Well, according to Nuthall, 3 is the magic number.

    Many thanks – I look forward to further posts…

    1. David – thanks for the questions and links. Some great food for thought in those, and in follow-up posts on the problems I hope to be able to get into some of these discussions. In particular I think SOLO and threshold concepts is important in 4. There’s a surprising amount in philosophy of knowledge on this that I think we could draw on too. Weaving the disparate strands is definitely the challenge now!

    2. Hi David, it would be great to hear of any reading that you could recommend regarding #4 – threshold concepts in particular. Do you have any links or avenues of inquiry you could suggest?

      I will be facilitating this session on the 18th and am hoping to have some clear definitions of the terms of the Problem in place before we begin tackling it as an issue as I fear we would risk losing focus otherwise.


  4. I’ve been thinking on this after our twitter discussion the other day Laura. If you don’t mind, I’d like to hone in on question one and try to identify why it makes me uneasy. “1. What is the shortest period of a time in which any person with dyslexia can be taught to spell the 1000 most common words in English?”

    My concerns would be: why do we want to know the ‘shortest period of time’? Is it so we can set it as a target? Is it so we can test whether teachers are measuring up to a standard? If neither of those, what value does knowing this period of time hold for us? Would it not be better to ask ‘what are the best strategies for …’ rather than ‘shortest period of’? These strategies could then form the basis for ‘best practice’ advice from my suggested NITE organisation (or NITS as someone said the other day).

    I’m also wondering like David about what we mean by ‘dyslexia’? Does the question assume that one person’s experience of having dyslexia is exactly the same as another’s? If not, surely the question becomes entirely contingent on which person with dyslexia we are referring to?

    I’d really welcome your thoughts on those concerns.

    1. Sue – I want to know the answer to all of these because of the underlying principles that we would need to get at in order to answer them. Sure, if we answer the question, there is the probability that someone sets it as a target and that would have perverse consequences. Just in the same way that if we extend the average survival rate for cancer that might become a target – but I wouldn’t say that we should stop trying to improve cancer care merely because someone might set a ridiculous target afterwards!

      Unlike “advice” what I’m trying to tease out are principles, ‘rules of thumb’ if you will, that we can use as barometers in our practice. For example, “how long does it take the average child to learn to tell the time”? I bet we have no idea. But that means that if we’re working with a student, and they’re not grasping the problem, I don’t know if that’s because there’s some important or if MY version of how long these things take is off. And that can really matter. If, for example, I knew how long it takes – even on average – for a person to be able to learn to tell the time, then I can start to see how far off track we are and then branch out accordingly.

      I agree that Dyslexia is debated. I suppose I picked it on the assumption that it can be tested and statemented (which, it can) and we would then work from there. My understanding is that there are gradients, as with anything, so perhaps we go for a ‘middle’ statement – one which is a ‘standard’ case. If there is measurement of it, it must exist. Now, I know this will not be your favourite thing to hear (“there’s no such thing as a standard child”), however I urge you think about what we could find out if we look at how to help someone who has at least *the most common* form of dyslexia. If that group, which will be quite large, could be supported to spell – and quickly – the confidence that would develop, as well as the skills, is potentially very important.

      So yes, the problems aren’t perfect – but I hope you can see that there is more behind them than just coming up with a target!

  5. I think this idea is one of the most exciting coming out of ResearchED, for its intrinsic interest, its capacity to catalyse action (both teachers’ thinking and research) and its usefulness. A worthy successor to Hilbert I think, in as much as I suspect you have offered directions for educational research upon which I suspect many teachers and researchers will choose to build.

    As to the questions…
    1) Am I right in assuming that the importance of this question is in knowing the quickest means of doing this… would it be more straightforward to approach the problem this way? (Or have I got the wrong end of the stick here)? Also, pace Sue and David – could this be a more general question (would the methods for those diagnosed with dyslexia and those not, not overlap considerably?) Forgive my ignorance here!

    2) Interesting, but as with Mike Cameron’s post, I would say that there is unlikely to be one answer to any of these…

    3) A very useful question – is twenty too many?

    4) This is a very tough one. Although potentially very useful. It implies (or at least enables) a subsequent sequencing of concepts… I struggle with how we would judge this – perhaps with reference to something like SOLO? It also depends on prior knowledge very heavily (hence sequencing) so I wonder if there is a universal answer to this.

    5) This one interests me most, I think because it’s one I can see the most immediate application for… again, as with (2), I suspect that, within certain principles, it requires a diversity of responses?

    Could 7 and 3 be rolled into a broader one about the extent of practice (or testing, as David says) needed to recall a concept/chunk of knowledge for a year.

    I wonder if more of the questions would benefit from the specificity of question 1 in order to be answerable?
    Can you get the multi-million dollar funding?
    Do you get to be the judge?

    A great idea, I look forward to seeing where it goes…

    1. Harry – these are really great questions. I’m starting the in-depth blog today, but to give some cursory remarks:

      1. I expect there will be overlap between dyslexia and non-dyslexia, in some ways, that’s part of why I put this into the question. If we leave dyslexia out, then it won’t get looked at, but if it’s in then I think people will be drawn to parallel out to a general population. This is good! It means we get more knowledge for our problem. In terms of writing it as about the *practice* that doesn’t help us know when we have found it. What I like about writing as a student outcome is that to get it to it we must find out the practices, but through their impact we can see whether or not it has been solved.

      2. That’s okay. I can handle multiples for this one. As long as the emotion genuinely invokes equal maximum productivity in the area specified.

      3. If it is too many, that could be an answer to the question. Some of Hilbert’s problems were later *proved* to be impossible. That’s okay too!

      4. It is tough. That’s what makes it fun.

      5. Yes, this could be something where Mike’s “periodic table of people” comes in handy.

      On 7 & 3, I wanted to keep homework and in-class stuff separate. This is because I think there is a difference in the type of tasks that students are willing to engage in and practise alone, and when in a class. One of the problems with the homework one is that it also has to be something that the students actually DO. SO – it might be that if they are asked to write it down a hundred times every day that is theoretically the best way of doing things. BUT if students never actually do that (would your students write things down a hundred times every day?) then there’s a trade-off that doesn’t happen in class (where you can make students write things down a hundred times!). Not sure if that makes sense but that was part of my thinking……

      These are great though Harry. I look forward to hearing more from you on this.

  6. A great list of questions which get to the nub of teaching and learning. I guess that each will give birth to a fascinating list of supplementary questions, Such is the nature of human learning.

    I will follow each one with interest, but my both interests in and approach to teaching/learning will have me waiting expectantly for number 4.

    I would be fascinated to know how you came up with the list and whether this was a joint or solo effort. Every one of these could be a valuable key question for a day or two or three INSET.

    Thanks for the thought that has gone into the list. I have a feeling the series of blogs that are to come will make a serious contribution to the body of knowledge that is teaching/learning.

    1. Barry – thank you for your thoughts and comments on the blog. TouchPaper Problem 2 has just been released so we are on the way towards the elusive number 4. (New blog is here:

      The questions were created after discussing a variety of ideas with teachers and researchers, but mostly from musing over the common issues I faced in the classroom. Though they are “my” list at present, as you say, there’s a lot of thought and engagement that needs to happen with them to make them really useful and hopefully that will happen on here and also at a few ‘TouchPaper’ events that are currently in the planning.

      Thanks again for your enthusiasm 🙂

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