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Finding the carrot in the rabbit Hole

I love teaching literature; focusing on the different figures of speech, the expressive ways in which a poet can describe something ordinary and the meaningful discussions I get to have with my children about life. Whenever I prepare for a poetry lesson, I put in extra time to plan strategies that will ensure I captivate the class.

It was while teaching the poem Leather Jackets, Bikes and Birds by Robert Davies that I had an epiphany.

I remember printing pictures to help my class visualise the gangs; we discussed every single figure of speech; and dissected every word (even “snogging” - which caused an eruption of laughter). It was a lively discussion with maximum student engagement. The epitome of a successful lesson.

The following day, I confidently started my Grade 9 English class with, “The poem speaks about the need for acceptance, where the need to belong is so strong that teenagers would go to extreme measures in order to be accepted, loved and acknowledged for who they think they must be.” Passionately I looked at my class, in anticipation of an eruption of rich conversation.

Instead, they stared at me. Blank.

One boy raised his hand. “But Ma’am, they were clearly accepted because they were snogging in the spotlight.”

My heart sank while the teenagers continued to think about snogging.

How did I get it so wrong?

I am assuming teachers across our country can relate to the above-described scenario. Teaching your heart out for an entire period, only to find out later that no knowledge remained.

Down the rabbit hole

That day I started down a rabbit hole to find a solution to my problem: Why, if I prepare and share the lesson in a creative, interactive way, are they not learning? 

I found my answer in the research of two writers: Dan Willingham and Anders Ericson.

Willingham explains how learners learn very effectively in his book, Why Don’t Students Like School? Students tend to dislike school because variant stakeholders in education do not fully understand some of the critical cognitive principles involved in learning. Willingham describes two types of memories that are involved in the learning process, namely: long-term and working memory. Some of the best strategies for learning involves pattern recognition and “chunking” information for the long-term memory.

The simple answer, therefore, is that the information that we share with our kids rarely transfers to their long-term memory. It remains in the short-term memory, for a while, and the following day, or in a week’s time the information has disappeared.

The above led to my A-HA moment: We learn what we actively think about.

In that lesson, I was doing all the thinking and the kids were not actively engaged in the process of learning.

Gradual release of information

We started implementing a technique referred to as the gradual release of information. In our school, it’s also known as the I Do, We Do, You Do. After implementing this method in my own class, my students’ marks increased drastically. What makes this more exciting is that it is a rather simple technique!

When taking a closer look at the concept of a gradual release of information, you will notice that it correlates with how we learn most new things.

Take, for example, teaching someone how to ride a bicycle: First you get on the bike and show them how it looks. Then, you put the child on the saddle, but hold on and walk with them. This builds confidence and gives the child the opportunity to familiarise themselves with the process while feeling safe, with your support. After walking with them for a while, you let go and just like that another cyclist is in the making.

The same applies for learning how to cook. We first watch our parents cook, after a while we might start helping with the small tasks. Years later, we find ourselves in the kitchen cooking family recipes without even looking at a book.

Gradual release of information in the classroom setting follows the same principles.

  • The ‘I Do’ phase is led by the teacher. During this phase the teacher will share new knowledge, introduce a new concept, or teach the class how to do something unfamiliar to them. As the learner obtains the new information and skills, the responsibility of learning moves from teacher-directed instruction to student-processing activities.
  • In the ‘We Do’ phase of learning, the teacher continues to question, prompt, model and cue learners. The We Do phase allows for a deeper level of learning. Learners are now actively engaged in the content - they are thinking.
  • Lastly, the ‘You Do’ phase of the lesson is a complete release of responsibility to the learner, as they work independently - also referred to as independent practice.  During this time, the teacher provides additional support, as needed, but student learning is self-directed.

The final part of the lesson is where the magic happens, as Doug Lemov emphasises,

 “Independent practice is really where our work as teachers comes to life. It’s the moment when we stop talking and stop doing the work and allow students to test out their own understanding, to make mistakes and to ultimately understand more deeply by learning from those mistakes.”

Deliberate practice

That brings us to the work of the second writer that changed my understanding of teaching and learning: Anders Ericson.

Anders Ericsson focuses on the concept of “deliberate practice”. This process involves immediate feedback, goals, and a focus on a specific technique. He states that a lack of deliberate practice can be the reason why so many people reach only basic proficiency at something, whether it be a sport, profession, or academics.


In his book, Peak, he argues that the right kind of practice carried out over a sufficient period, leads to improvement. Nothing else. According to him, there is no such thing as natural talent.

“If you teach a student fact, concepts, and rules, those things go into long-term memory as individual pieces, and if a student then wishes to do something with them—use them to solve a problem, reason with them to answer a question, or organise and analyse them to come up with a theme or a hypothesis—the limitations of attention and short-term memory kick in.”

“The student must keep all of these different, unconnected pieces in mind while working with them toward a solution. However, if this information is assimilated as part of building mental representations aimed at doing something, the individual pieces become part of an interconnected pattern that provides context and meaning to the information, making it easier to work with. […] you don’t build mental representations by thinking about something; you build them by trying to do something, failing, revising, and trying again, over and over. When you’re done, not only have you developed an effective mental representation for the skill you were developing, but you have also absorbed a great deal of information connected with that skill.”

As teachers, our purpose is to do just that…teach.

Teaching includes understanding how we learn to be able to choose a method that will optimise the learning experience. Changing the way I teach shifted my focus away from what I am teaching to what my students are learning. And its evidence in their results.


Renate Van Der Westhuizen 


Apex High School