Do you know when to use ‘little-and-often’ teaching?

Blog in a nutshell for those in a rush: While all learning content needs to be conceptually understood and then retrieved, some content – including, but not limited to, that which is traditionally learned by rote – requires much more recall practice. This is best achieved with a ‘little-and-often’ approach. Teachers can save time by recognising which elements of learning suit the standard hour-long lesson format and which elements suit this ‘little-and-often’ approach. This is something that experienced teachers often understand implicitly, but it is an idea that needs more explicit discussion in my view, especially with inexperienced colleagues.

Scenario (1) – imagine two participants are given an hour to learn the laws of thermodynamics and some of the related practical applications. Participant A’s hour is divided into chunks of five minutes per day for twelve days. Participant B’s hour is used all in one go. They each wait a month before being tested on this new knowledge. This is what I expect would occur: Participant A remembers a few basic things quite well, but struggles to connect the concepts together into any kind of coherent understanding. Participant B has gained a better grasp of the concepts, though struggles to recall much a month on. The difference in test performance between the two is negligible.

Scenario (2) – the same two participants are again given an hour, allotted in the same manner as before, this time to learn the first fifty elements of the periodic table, along with their symbols and atomic numbers. Their learning time is divided up in the same way, and again they are tested on their knowledge of this after a month. It is my contention that Participant A – using the 12 x 5 minutes approach – would have learned the list of elements considerably more effectively than Participant B, who was forced to splurge his hour in one go. (Various examples from personal experience point me towards this contention, from trying to learn latin root words to grooving a golf swing to teaching children their times table facts.)

So what’s going on here? From where arises the difference between these two scenarios? Let’s call the type of learning content in the first scenario recall-light and the type of learning content in the second scenario recall-heavy. Naturally, pretty much all academic learning requires some conceptual understanding, regardless of how seemingly simple the concepts are.[i] However, I believe that some parts of the curriculum require significantly more recall before they can be used in an efficient way:

Multiplication facts (and their related division facts) are a perfect example of recall-heavy learning content. The understanding of multiplication (which of course has no outer limits, despite the implication of the pictures above) requires connections to be made between area, arrays, repeated addition, scaling, etc, including relation to physical and visual metaphors. This aspect of multiplication seems relatively well-suited to (roughly) hour-long blocks with an expert teacher leading children towards an appropriate level of understanding. Nevertheless, on top of this, multiplication facts (and related division facts) require a significant amount of practice before they can be recalled fluently. This practice is absolutely not suited to the hour-long blocks of time often dedicated to it. Once a suitable level of conceptual understanding has been achieved, continuing to use these hour-long blocks to learn multiplication facts is an incredibly inefficient way to develop fluent recall. And yet, far too often I have seen hour-long lessons dedicated to learning to recall the 6 and 8 x table; to learning to recall number bonds to 10; to learning to recall the order of the alphabet; etc. Think how much more time might be available to teach if a ‘little-and-often’ approach was used instead where it was appropriate.

This is the point where I imagine the more experienced teachers among you are, understandably, getting exasperated. Doubtless, this all seems blindingly obvious. You probably already know that each topic within the curriculum requires a different balance of these two modes of teaching – the ‘regular-lesson conceptual understanding’ and the ‘little-and-often recall practice’ – and consequently structure your lessons to support this. You already know that all facts to be fluently recalled need a ‘little-and often’ approach. My point is not that this is a new idea. My point is that, in my experience, too few teachers are thinking about learning content in these terms. Raising some awareness of this way of thinking with our colleagues – especially those with less experience – has the potential to be hugely beneficial.[ii]

Once a teacher has decided that a given topic is recall-heavy and thus requires some ‘little-and-often recall practice’, what then? How can this be implemented in the classroom? My preference is to begin each lesson with a short burst – no more than 5-10 minutes – of ‘little-and-often recall practice’ on whatever area needs developing at that moment. However, there’s nothing to suggest that this couldn’t be equally suited to the end of a lesson or another time in the school day. Naturally, there may be periods during the school year when no such practice is required at all, especially if the students have learned the relevant recall facts to fluency earlier in their education. It is important not to see this as an attempt to advocate a fixed period of time every day where children need to be learning something in a ‘little-and-often’ manner. The onus is always on the teacher to match the teaching to the learning content and their students’ grasp of it.

And what of recall-light topics? Surely they need to be recalled too? Yes, but to a far lesser extent. Children will not require lots of ‘little-and-often recall practice’ to remember what perimeter means, for example. Once an appropriate level of conceptual understanding has been achieved, occasional retrieval practice (and application of this concept, ideally linked to other areas of mathematics) is all that would be required to shore up that concept in long-term memory.

In short, I believe that many teachers have the potential to develop their students’ recall of key knowledge and save precious learning time by thinking carefully about the balance of ‘regular-lesson conceptual understanding’ and ‘little-and-often recall practice’ that each area of the curriculum actually requires.

[i] In this case, I take the definition of ‘understanding’ to be the extent to which a concept is connected to other concepts in a person’s individual network of concepts and metaphors; in short, something is understood by a person if it can be explained – at least to themselves – in terms of other vocabulary and concepts that they have grasped. (Naturally, this leads to the question of how the person knows these other concepts upon which new understanding relies. Personally, I tend to believe that all of these connected concepts and metaphors lead back to empirical roots, and that all comprehension of the world is built, fundamentally, on our senses.)

[ii] Given that recall-heavy content makes up a larger proportion of the key stage one curriculum, I suspect that this is an even more pressing concern in primary schools, though the impact of weak number bonds, times table knowledge, etc echoes through secondary school too. The positive impact of Times Table Rockstarz in many primary schools is testament to how this is an area that has in the past been significantly neglected.

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