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What might happen next? Internal models and the power of prediction.

“Prediction, not narration, is the real test of our understanding of the world.”
Nassim Nicholas Taleb (2010). “The Black Swan: Second Edition: The Impact of the Highly Improbable Fragility””, p.133, Random House

As mentioned in my previous blog post, every year I try to teach Let’s Think in English (LTE) on a regular basis. As co-creator and lead tutor for LTE, I am teaching a Year 6 class once a fortnight and blogging about my own learning journey and reflections.

In How we learn Stanislas Dehaene claims: “to learn is to form an internal model of the external world” with our brain continually projecting “hypotheses and interpretative framework” on stimuli. Learning it is suggested “allows our brain to grasp a fragment of reality that it has previously missed and to use it to build a new model of the world.”

The development of internal mental frameworks is central to Let’s Think and echoes Piaget’s view on a child’s cognitive development; it is more than acquiring knowledge as the child must develop and construct a mental model of the world. It is these mental models of the world and literature we seek to develop in Let’s Think in English.

In my second lesson with the Year 6 class, I decided to focus on Charles Causley’s poem Who?. See full poem here. The lesson reviews the poem through a slow reveal with pupils focusing on the first stanza considering why the child might find it hard to hear the speaker

“Who is that child I see wandering, wandering
Down by the side of the quivering stream?
Why does he seem not to hear, though I call to him?
Where does he come from, and what is his name?”

before analysing the portrayal of the child as it develops in stanza two and three:

“Why do I see him at sunrise and sunset
Taking, in old-fashioned clothes, the same track?
Why, when he walks, does he cast not a shadow
Though the sun rises and falls at his back?

Why does the dust lie so thick on the hedgerow
By the great field where a horse pulls the plough?
Why do I see only meadows, where houses
Stand in a line by the riverside now?”

Once pupils have a firm foothold in the poem, we explain there is one final stanza and ask them to predict how it might end. Prediction supports pupils to develop an internal model of an external world as it requires them to consider what might the poet do next. However, as the work of Efrat Furst and others stress:

“Prediction is using our prior knowledge in order to expect or predict the position of a newly introduced piece.”

With prediction we are inviting pupils into the process of meaning making but it is not speculative but rather reasoned; the predictions are based on the three stanzas pupils have already studied and the patterns they have identified. We can see how the pupils’ readings of the first three stanzas inform their predictions of the final stanza in such responses as (see full transcript below):

Pupil 2: The title is like “Who?” and there are so many questions in the poem that we think it will end with a mystery… it’s most likely to be a cliff-hanger.”

Pupil 8: I agree with X and Y I think the speaker is going to walk towards the child. The child will turn around and say something because he’s been ignoring the speaker the whole time.”

Pupil 9: So what we thought was, the speaker would go up to them and try to get a response and they would touch them but then another person on the side of the stream will kind of like call again so it will start to repeat and they will be the next victim…Well…so it’s like there’s the person walking down by the stream with the old-fashioned clothes and the person who calls to them.”.

In my last post I focused on scaffolds and in this lesson scaffolding questions were deployed to ready the pupils to make predictions. Before pupils work in their groups considering how the poem might conclude we can pose some preparatory questions such as:

• Will the final stanza also have four lines?
Many thought it would while some thought the pattern might be broken in the final stanza with just a line or two to conclude.

• What patterns do you notice so far and will these continue?
The pupils noticed the continual use of questions to frame the poem and many felt this would continue while others felt there would be a resolution. The rhyming pattern was also discussed.

The pupils undertook the activity with great enthusiasm and their predictions were reasonable and linked to elements of the preceding stanzas. However in LTE it’s not just the process of suggesting reasonable interpretations or predictions that is of importance but also monitoring and evaluating their validity. Frequently in classrooms the teacher is expected to and assumes the role of evaluator but in LTE we encourage pupils to undertake this task. While different textual interpretations are raised in classrooms, time should also be provided for pupils to reflect upon and re-evaluate them once shared. The final task in this transcript encourages the pupils to monitor and evaluate their collective interpretations thus supporting metacognition:

Teacher: Thank you for all your predictions. Before we read the final stanza please return to your groups and consider the different predictions that have been shared and consider which is most likely and why?”.

How might prediction support pupils? As Efrat Furst suggest there are “two pathways”:

1. New knowledge that is consistent with existing schemas or mental models is more easily learned and better remembered
2. Novel information that is unexpected or violating existing models, is also more easily learned and remembered.

Again, we hear the echo of Piaget. Piaget through his work on cognitive development introduced the idea of schema. He described schema as: “a cohesive, repeatable action sequence possessing component actions that are tightly interconnected and governed by a core meaning” (Piaget, The origins of intelligence in children,1952, p. 7). In developing schema Piaget identified two processes: assimilation and accommodation.

Assimilation is the process by which new knowledge is placed into existing knowledge schemas. For example, some pupils expected the Causley poem to continue to have four lines as that’s the pattern they identified. We can recognise assimilation in Pupil 1’s response which draws upon a literary feature they know “cliff-hanger” and they start to recognise potential markers within the first three stanzas:

Pupil 1: Well we thought that maybe the boy will reply and then it’s gonna leave on a cliff-hanger. because it um describes a lot about the boy and at the start um it talks about how the boy er doesn’t reply and um like he can’t hear the person calling so we thought that maybe at the end he’s gonna reply and it will end on a cliff-hanger.”.

Accommodation by contrast is the process when existing knowledge must be adapted to new knowledge. Accommodation creates an imbalance, demanding that we think hard as new information does not seamlessly integrate with existing mental schema. In Let’s Think in English we purposefully evoke accommodation through the cognitive conflict stage of the lesson. As their schemas are challenged students have a sense of disequilibrium before accommodation takes place and equilibrium is restored. The key is to seek productive challenges evoking a state of disequilibrium which can be reconciled and assimilated with time.

Upon sharing their predictions and having time in their groups to consider which prediction was most likely and why they were truly excited to see the final stanza. They had readied an internal mental representation and now it was time to compare it with Causley’s final stanza.

“Why does he move like a wraith by the water,
Soft as the thistledown on the breeze blown?
When I draw near him so that I may hear him,
Why does he say that his name is my own?”

Once revealed assimilation was triggered as the pupils confirmed there were four lines, the rhyming pattern they identified continued as did the use of questioning. Indeed, many predictions such as the child and speaker meeting and talking, continual time shifts and a cliff-hanger of sorts were also confirmed. However, there was the need for accommodation too as the final stanza’s twist was contemplated.

There was a sense of excitement as the final stanza was revealed and this was accompanied by involuntary exclamations from the groups as the poem’s twist dawned on them. There was no need to set the pupils a question as they immediately, without prompting, shared their thoughts on the final stanza with each other. Once they had aired and shared their initial thoughts, I encouraged a more deliberate reading of the poem by asking the class: “Is the speaker of the poem alive or dead?” which sparked a lively debate.

The process of prediction had placed pupils in conversation with each other and the text. It has also placed them in Causley’s position as they considered what might he do next. The slow reveal of the poem supported by prediction provided the pupils with to “grasp a fragment of reality” making them more aware of the writing process, the importance of the stanzas’ sequence and the choice of ending.

A transcript of the pupils’ discussion follows so you can follow the development of their thoughts if you wish”.

Who Transcript? Year 6 pupils
Question: How might the final stanza conclude?

Pupil 1: Well we thought that maybe the boy will reply and then it’s gonna leave on a cliff-hanger. because it um describes a lot about the boy and at the start um I talks about how the boy er doesn’t reply and um like he can’t hear the person calling so we thought that maybe at the end he’s gonna reply and it will end on a cliff-hanger.

Teacher: Okay so X you probably can’t see but if you look around you got lots of thumbs up with people agreeing with you. Could you explain a bit more Pupil 1 or anyone in pupil 1s’ group why do think it will end on a cliff-hanger? Pupil 2 carry on.

Pupil 2: The title is like “Who?” and there are so many questions in the poem that we think it will end with a mystery… it’s most likely to be a cliff-hanger.

Teacher: Thank you. Pupil 3 what did you group discuss?

Pupil 3: Well we kinda like had a couple of disagreements because at first M was half and half, Joseph thought it was a memory and I thought there would be a shadow but then we end up on memory because there’s because sunrise and sunset here.

Teacher: Ok. Thank you. Pupil 4 your group?

Pupil 4: We saw the child was a ghost and we thought in the last stanza he might be you like resurrected and like come back to life again.

Teacher: Ok. Can you tell us a little more about your predictions?

Pupil 4: Well… (another pupil in the group volunteers to continue).

Teacher: Would you like to add onto pupil 4s point?

Pupil 5: (nods) I think they might have a conversation and then no reason the child might disappear.

Teacher: for no reason the child might disappear? I guess that’s linked to the cliff-hanger idea?

Pupil 5: (nods)

Teacher: Did your group have similar ideas or something different?

Pupil 6: We didn’t’ really… we didn’t really come to an agreement but we have now but we went with X’s idea when he said he might be like the grim Reaper or something. We don’t really know though.

Teacher: That’s okay. Pupil 7?

Pupil 7: We thought the child might slowly start walking after the man.

Teacher: What would that add to the poem if the figure turns and starts walking towards the speaker of the poem?

Pupil 7: It might add suspense.

Teacher: (to class) Do we agree? (many pupils nod) Pupil 8?

Pupil 8: I agree with X and Y I think the speaker is going to walk towards the child. The child will turn around and say something because he’s been ignoring the speaker the whole time.

Teacher: Thumbs up from a lot of people there. Pupil 9, what did you group discuss?

Pupil 9: So what we thought was, the speaker would go up to them and try to get a response and they would touch them but then another person on the side of the stream will kind of like call again so it will start to repeat and they will be the next victim.

Teacher: This seems like a new prediction. Could you explain it again?

Pupil 9: Well…so it’s like there’s the person walking down by the stream with the old-fashioned clothes and the person who calls to them.

Teacher: The speaker of the poem?

Pupil 9: Yes. When they get close, they’ll touch them, the child will turn around. And then the next day another person comes and calls to both of them and so the loop continues. (Some pupils say ah).

Teacher: This seems linked to the idea of time repeating itself that you mentioned previously as a class. The poem is structured around repetitions and time shifts.
Thank you for all your predictions. Before we read the final stanza please return to your groups and consider the different predictions that have been shared and consider which is most likely and why?

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