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The Rosenshine Papers

by Steve Adcock

Why Rosenshine?

In 2018 we (United Learning) adopted Rosenshine’s principles of instruction as the basis for our approach to teaching and learning across our schools. It’s the first time that we’ve taken a collective position on teaching and learning, rather than leaving this critical issue to each school. Our focus previously was on supporting each school in having an internally coherent and effective T&L strategy. With the adoption of the Rosenshine principles we were attempting to go a step further by ensuring that each school’s approach was anchored in a shared understanding of the characteristics of effective teaching.

We did this for a few reasons. Firstly, we wanted to support schools in challenging approaches to teaching that are not supported by good evidence, such as teaching which is overly driven by the exam specification, teaching that is founded on the belief that pupils learn better by discovering things for themselves, teaching that takes differentiation too far by placing different groups of pupils on different ‘tracks’ in the same lesson, and teaching that is overly focused on securing evidence of progress in each lesson, rather than gradually building a secure long-term understanding of each subject.

As a growing Trust, and a Trust that comprises primary and secondary schools in the state and independent sector, as well as an initial teacher training programme, we could see benefits in building a shared understanding of the characteristics of effective teaching. A trainee teacher could leave their summer institute and arrive at their school in September safe in the knowledge that the philosophy towards teaching and learning would be consistent; a deputy head leading on teaching and learning could share resources with counterparts in our other schools; subject advisors could produce curriculum materials confident that they would be applied in the classroom in similar ways. We would move from each school having an internally coherent approach to teaching and learning, towards a coherent approach across the whole group which would serve as a foundation for great teaching in each school and each subject.

Over time we are using the principles to develop a shared and precise language for the way we talk about teaching and learning. In my experience, the language commonly used to describe teaching and learning is anything but precise. Obvious examples would be phrases such as ‘the lesson lacked a bit of oomph’ or ‘pupils weren’t fully engaged’ or, more positively, the lesson featured ‘awe and wonder’. But even terms that seem more clear such as ‘pace’ and ‘challenge’ can lack the precision required to develop teaching practice. Take ‘pace’ – do we mean that the teacher went through things too slowly or that pupils didn’t work quickly enough, or perhaps the teacher wasn’t clear on timings, or maybe the start of the lesson drifted and time was squeezed for the challenging stuff at the end? That leads us to ‘challenge’ – was the content itself too easy, or was it the task, or are we simply saying that not enough pupils produced work at the standard required?

We chose the Rosenshine principles because they’re sensible, evidence-informed and provide the shared foundation we were seeking rather than a rigid checklist to be applied to every lesson. As an established set of principles we were able to avoid a long process of navel-gazing which would inevitably have been required if we had attempted to write our own. The fact they’ve been around for a while also enabled us to reassure our schools that we would commit to these principles for several years ahead, rather than replace them with a passing fad in twelve months’ time.

We’ve got a long way to go, but we’re seeing some early fruits of our labour.  I write this while returning from an inset day in Shoreham where all teachers from four of our schools started 2019 by gathering together to explore the principles in the context of their own subject. Meanwhile our subject advisors have written case studies on how to apply these principles in their subject. The curriculum resources we are producing contain the modelling, the question prompts and the scaffolds that Rosenshine promotes in his work.

So what might Rosenshine look like in the classroom?

As we’ve worked with schools in exploring Rosenshine’s work we’ve confronted the question of what his principles look like in the classroom. I’m in two minds here as to how usefully Rosenshine presented his research. On the one hand, I’m grateful that his principles are contained in short, concise pamphlets such as this 2012 one and this 2010 one. One of the simplest things we’ve done is simply ask schools to ensure that all teachers read all 9 pages of the 2012 paper.

But I do have a few gripes with the way Rosenshine presented his work. Firstly, the 2012 paper contains a list of 17 principles alongside the main list of 10. Rosenshine explains this decision (the list of 17 provides slightly more detail and overlaps with the list of 10) but given Rosenshine’s knowledge of the limits of working memory and cognitive load, it seems slightly curious to share two separate lists alongside each other.

We can take this overlap as a reminder that the principles do not seek to provide a checklist to be followed in order in every lesson. This becomes clear when we note his sub-heading for point 6 (check for student understanding): “checking for student understanding at each point can help students learn the material with fewer errors” (my emphasis). So – to be clear – we don’t check for understanding between point 5 (guide student practice) and point 7 (obtain a high success rate), we check for understanding throughout the whole process. Tom Sherrington has noted that this becomes clear when we read Rosenshine’s 1986 and 1982 papers which emphasise the importance of checking for understanding.

The 1982 paper also helps us understand Rosenshine’s intentions in proposing the principles:

There’s another gem lurking in his earlier papers that I think gets lost in the latter versions. In his 1986 teaching functions paper Rosenshine writes:

“Three of these functions form the instructional core: demonstration, guided practice, and independent practice. The first step is the demonstration of what is to be learned. This is followed by guided student practice in which the teacher leads the students in practice, provides prompts, checks for understanding, and provides corrections and repetition. When students are firm in their initial learning, the teacher moves them to independent practice where the students work with less guidance. The objective of the independent practice is to provide sufficient practice so that students achieve overlearning (Brophy, 1982) and demonstrate quickness and competence. A simple version of this core is used frequently in the elementary grades when a teacher says: “I’ll say it first, then you’ll say it with me, and then you’ll say it by yourself”.”

This seems like critical guidance, and helps us to understand the intention behind Rosenshine’s principles, which I think we can now summarise as:

  • Prior review
  • Instructional core (I>we>you):
    • Demonstration (explanation and modelling) of new material in small steps
    • Guided practice with prompts and scaffolds
    • Independent practice with monitoring and feedback from teacher
  • Future review

At each of these points – every single one of them – we check the understanding of all pupils by asking lots of questions and providing correction and feedback.

This model – the instructional core sandwiched between prior review and future review, with checking for understanding at each point – captures the essence of Rosenshine’s principles of instruction and provides an answer to that question of what Rosenshine looks like in the classroom.

Rosenshine’s back catalogue also helps us understand his 7th principle ‘Obtain a high success rate’.  In his 1986 Teaching Functions paper he writes: “Although there are no scientific guidelines as to exactly what the percentage of correct answers should be, a reasonable recommendation at the present time (suggested by Brophy, 1980) is an 80% success rate when practicing new material. When reviewing, the success rate should be very high, perhaps 95% and student responses should be rapid, smooth and confident.” So this idea of success rate supports teachers in deciding when to move through the instructional core, particularly when to move from guided practice (when around 80% of student responses are correct) to independent practice (when around 95% of student responses are correct).  This 7th principle seems a bit obvious and not overly helpful in the 2012 pamphlet, but it gains practical use thanks to the 1986 paper.

These principles now serve as a foundation for our support for teaching and learning across our schools. There’s a couple of things about foundations – in the sense of a building’s foundations – that I think are useful here. One is that we don’t tinker with foundations once they’re in place. They’re built to last. The second is that foundations are designed to be built on. We hope that throughout United Learning our teachers will explore these principles and bring them to life in the context of their school, their subject and their pupils. Rosenshine closes his 1982 paper with this very point:

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