Guest Blog: Teaching Core Knowledge in Graphics

This is the talk my colleague, Keith Cave, gave as part of our joint presentation at ResearchEd Auckland.


I am a Design and Visual communication teacher at Tauraroa Area school in Northland. A rural school of 550 from years 1-13.

I teach DVC at all levels from 9 to 13 and deliver level 1,2 and 3 NCEA using all achievement standards, I am the only teacher of this subject so it gives be a lot of control and responsibility when it comes to curriculum content and knowledge selection. Students do not come with and testable specific prior knowledge of DVC but obviously an diverse range of skills and practices.

I have been a successful teacher, NCEA statistics show results consistently over national means and with a particular strength is Maori achievement, statistically much stronger then national means.

I am also a specialist classroom teacher; this is a role all schools with secondary schools have. This role gives me time to support teaching and learning in the classroom. It is a varied role outside management where I work alongside teachers. This can vary from observation and feedback to researching special learning needs and leading and supporting actions such as researched based classroom practice.

I also have a role of as a waka teacher, this role would be more familiar under the name form teacher.

What did I do?

A group of us wanted to improve outcomes for our students. Particularly at years 9 and 10 we were not really sure what they knew and much more importantly why they knew stuff, How could we get a more learning focused classroom?

So I Teach DVC to year 9 in 3 rotation splits over the year. I teach year 10 in 2 different ways. All students go through a 16-hour rotation then students can opt for an extra ‘options’ course for an extra 50-hour course

The rotation course is delivered in a standard project based method, students work in different contexts and are encouraged to explore design and present outcomes. Thus they experience and apply principles of design. Things like colour, line, texture, balance. This had obviously worked well before.

Here are examples of the work;

Year 9 Furniture design reflecting a house design

KC pic 1

Year 10 student presenting their spatial design

KC 2

After considerable reading research and discussion, I changed 2 key things for the option class. First was the behaviour management and expectations of my students, inspired by Michaela I changed to a very learning focused, very quiet classroom from a relationships focused classroom. And I was explicit about how and why with the students. The second change was to do the same with knowledge, I developed and made a knowledge organiser. This was making the teaching of design principles explicit and, more importantly, teaching for long term memory retention of those principles, not just in the context of the unit.

KC 3.png

This is the knowledge that I wanted to option class to learn and this is what students got.

On the back of the sheet I put these strategies to remind us (teacher and student) of how we can commit these to long term memory. They are gleaned straight from the Michaela book! As I read more I used a few new ones that Daniel Willingham talks about such as, storytelling and sharing as social/cultural knowledge.

Teaching and learning strategies

Individual recap

Short questions designed to go over knowledge and test recall

Written response to question

Whole class reading

Whole class following material and answer quick comprehension questions. teacher sharing examples to cover material

Individual Drill

Short drill questions to recap knowledge

Whole class drill

Look over examples/share answer with partner/explain to partner/ share examples with partners

Whole class recap

Whole class responding to questions together

So what happened?

So you don’t have 2 classes split neatly, they were taught in different ways for different lengths of time, but I believe there are some important differences in outcomes that relate directly to what I did. It’s really important to understand that I was not trying to be a researcher and prove the science, I was trying to see if I can use proven science to improve my teaching.

So come the next year and 21 students from all the school have opted into level one DVC, 8 of these students did not do the knowledge focused options course the year before, I was keen to see how much knowledge these students have and have retained, and what impact the different courses had.

First day of the level one course I tested the students long term memories by asking them to recall what design principles they recalled and what they meant. These students had not had DVC instruction since the end of November some for longer if they were in earlier rotations. Only 1 of the 8 students that did not take the options class could recall any design principles while the rest of the students had an average recall of 75%

KC 4

The first NCEA assessment is based on the designed principles, students need to describe them and apply them to their own designs. Given the testing results I assumed no prior knowledge and taught the first unit as I always have. Lots of handouts, examples, PowerPoints to get students up to speed. I felt strongly good teaching at this stage would overcome any lack of prior knowledge.

To see if there was a difference to NCEA outcomes I ranked my whole class and had the ranking checked (research shows teachers are very good at ranking but poor at levels) and then highlighted the 8 students

KC 5

Students in red are the 8 taught who did not do options class, top 18 were excellences. All students passed.

So 2018 95% merit/excellence pass rate.

(Past results 2015 60%, 2016 60%, 2017 72% so something different is happening here!)

So my conclusion is

It’s easy to see patterns and explain what we want to see. This is not a piece of research. These students were not taught the same things over the same time period. One group had much more time with me and much more time focussed on key knowledge so of course they score differently.

It’s important to note I am not trying to prove the science, that has already been done, I am trying to use the research effectively to teach my students, to find if my practice is effective.

What this chart does show to me is; when I thought I could catch that key knowledge up at NCEA, obviously whatever I did to do that was not effective

It strongly shows me the power of knowledge and embedding that knowledge in long term memory. Students that did that had a huge advantage and moved the cohort marks significantly.


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