May 28, 2018

More on the Ladder of Communication

Follow-up to The ladder of communication from Improving communication, engagement and resilience in STEM classrooms in South Africa

This diagram can be usefully viewed from both the perspective of the teacher and that of the learner.

To bridge the communication gap between themselves and the learner, an effective teacher will need to know about both the concept to be learned, and the learner’s ability to learn.

Knowledge about the concept involves a deep, structural knowledge of how the concept progresses, and depends upon the teacher having ‘a clear grasp of the underlying structure of the mathematics [or science] being learnt (Haylock 2014:3). For STEM experts who often quickly understand concepts at a high level, this decompostion of a concept can be a challenging task. However, once achieved, it can add further insight and appreciation of the concept.

Once the teacher can break the concept down into the basic steps, they can then tailor those steps to the needs of the learner. Not all learners will need every step and sub step along the ladder. Some learners will be able to make bigger leaps of learning than others, and some will need smaller steps. Individual assessment of pupils will indicate their particular needs.

An effective learner needs to know that it is possible to break the learning down into manageable steps, and that effective help can somehow be recruited.

When faced with a gap in the rungs of their learning ladder, many learners conclude that this is down to their lack of ability. This assumption is not helpful as it leads to the learner giving up on the learning task. They need to realise that , if they are staring at a jump that is too big, then all is not lost. Rungs can be added. Too many times learners blame themselves for not being able to make a huge leap, when really they could achieve it if the progression was manageable for them.

They might not find the best help to fill in the rungs from the first person they ask, or the second, but effective help can be recruited eventually. The rungs can be filled in. They might ask another learner, or their teacher, or search the internet. Knowing that they have both the right to learn, and the ability, given manageable steps, empowers learners to take the responsibility for learning for themselves and eventually prevail.

Expert knowledge ; Teacher needs to know the underlying structure of the concept, and match the steps to the needs of the learner

Learner needs to realise that:

  • The learning can be broken down into manageable steps
  • Effective help can be recruited

Learner’s 2ndstep

Learner’s 1ststep

Learner current knowledge

May 18, 2018

Quantitative and qualitative evidence about what works at scale.

The five tools we are using are well-established in small-scale, qualitative research.

It is also imporant to:

  • secure quantitative and qualitative evidence about what works at scale.

Working with Dr Nick Sofroniou, IER, we have drawn upon research from cluster-randomised control studies in education and ‘gold standard’ complex multi-component interventions for affective psychological problems (e.g., Roemer & Orsillo, 2011) to propose a large scale, intermediate level, quantitative evaluation to estimate the efficacy of the treatment, alongside the qualitative evaluation. If funded, our multi-element intervention will be standardised in the form of a rich and detailed handbook for the randomised control evaluation.

The handbook, currently in prototype, will be modified in the light of feedback after year 1 and then again after 2.

Teachers will be able utilize the five tools beyond the evaluation using the handbook.

April 30, 2018

The ladder of communication

Some colleagues believe STEM subjects are ‘difficult’, whereas we would characterise the difficulty as one of a gap in communication.

We propose looking at the communication gap to explore increasing accessibility of STEM.

We developed a diagram to represent the communication gap between learner and formal STEM language and ideas. The learner is thought of as at the bottom of a ladder wanting to climb up the ladder of subject knowledge and the STEM expert is at the top.

In the left-most diagram, the formal STEM speaker is unable to construct the scaffolding ladder of communication all the way down to the learner’s current understanding.

In the middle diagram, a teacher with good communication skills but less knowledge of formal STEM is unable to construct the ladder all the way up to the formal science.

The ideal ladder is shown right-most.


One form the ladder might take is based on the work of Bruner, known as enactive - iconic -symbolic.

If an idea is found inaccessible to a learner, it becomes more accessible when presented in approriate images.

If the images are not accessible, learners can come to understand a concept through making or enacting it, for example, by creating a graph using learners as data points.

This idea used successfully in Singapore as concrete-pictorial-abstract:

April 28, 2018

The 4 styles of classroom communication grid (Scott and Mortimer, 2003)

How might we improves learners understanding and engagement with science?

We start with the understanding that learners bring their own observations and experiences to the science lesson: “Learners make sense of the new information in relation to what they bring with them to the learning contexts and the teacher facilitates the process of sense making." (Msimanga)

We use the following model, originally created by Scott and Mortimer (2003) and added to by Audrey Msimanga's research, to help mathematics and science teachers make more use of learner voice in their lessons, in order to make stronger connections with what learners already know. MS Grid

A link to further reading:

April 27, 2018

Press release

The wonderful team that is helping change STEM education in Gauteng:

April 26, 2018

explore–actions–options (Egan's skilled helper)

STEM teachers who are very busy are sometimes tempted to provide a solution to a learner's problem too quickly, which may lead over time to the student developing dependency, rather than independence and resilience. Peer tutors tend to d the same.

One way we have found to support teachers in reducing support to the minimum, when working 1:1, and to avoid premature answers, is to introduce them and their students to Egan's 3 stages of coaching, inserting exploring the learner's experience of the problem and what they may have tried, and what their options are, before deciding on actions.

This has the longer term effect of increasing student independence, perseverance and responsibility, and, in the process, increasing teacher effectiveness.

More details can be found in this document produced by Glasgow University:


April 23, 2018

Growth zone model

One of the tools in our 'tool box' is the 'growth zone model'.

This is a tool that we wish to share with every STEM teacher and every STEM learner. It is a tool familiar to many teachers of physically risky skills such as climbing, swimming and caving. We take studying STEM subjects to be psychologically risky, in that currently many people learn to be anxious or avoid them.

The Growth Zone model

The growth zone model helps learners understand their emotions as they move from comfortable, mastered knowledge into learning, reasoning, connecting and developing more challenging knowledge. Sometimes learners when they are challenged can get ‘out of their depth’ psychologically speaking, and start to panic, and not feel able to think clearly.

If this is not addressed effectively, learners may start avoiding STEM subjects; avoidance is a strategy that works for physical risks; the 'alarm system' in the brain doesnt tell the difference between physical and psychological risks (see Siegel's lovely book 'Mindsight').

Some learners report that panic or feelings of anxiety happen very quickly when they encounter challenge in mathematics in particular. The symptoms of this panic may not always be easy to read by teachers and other adults working to support learning, as learners develop ways to hide them. However, learners and teachers can develop language both to express feelings of being out of control and not able to think, and to request the support they need so that they can stay in their growth zone longer.

A more complete description is available to download free from

March 29, 2018

Relaxation reponse

One of the tools in our 'tool box' is awareness of the relaxation response, the opposite of the 'flight or fight response', drawing on a book by Herbert Benson M.D.

Learners with maths anxiety, and even some people we have met who suffer from severe general anxiety, ask 'why didnt anyone tell me about this before?'.

If a learner is feeling stressed or anxious, and/or is experiencing 'fight or flight', the learner can trigger the relaxation response in a short breathing exercise we teach called 5/7 breathing.

A more complete description is available to download free from, under 'The 60 Second Tranquiliser'.

March 02, 2018

Introducing the blog

Welcome to our new project blog.

This project is rooted in the significant under-achievement in STEM subjects across the world. A significant contribution to this underachievement is due to communication gaps between STEM specialists and STEM learners and resultant affective barriers developing (Msimanga & Erduran, 2017; Lee & Johnston-Wilder, 2013).

We propose an intervention based on 5 new tools for teachers and learners. Three of these tools are being used already in the UK and one in South Africa: the growth zone model (Lugalia et al., 2013), the relaxation response (Benson, 2000), explore-options-actions (Egan 2013), the 4 styles of classroom communication grid (Scott and Mortimer, 2003). The fifth is rooted in our work and built on Bruner's work and his "ladder of accessibility" (enactive-iconic-symbolic), so well-known in "Singapore maths" (Bruner 1966).

We build on the idea of academic safeguarding and preventing exclusion from STEM subjects (Findon & Johnston-Wilder, 2017); Sue Johnston-Wilder, with Clare Lee, has developed the Growth Zone Model and related strategies to address anxiety and other affective barriers to learning STEM subjects; Audrey Msimanga has developed a resonant framework for addressing communication barriers to learning STEM subjects.

The use of the tools will be evaluated in Gauteng province, South Africa, in 3 districts.

August 2022

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