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The principle of interleaving

The field of education research is constantly turning up new practices and principles that promise to turn classrooms of disinterested children into engaged and inspired students. One of the newest buzzwords to gain traction in the education world over the past couple of years is the principle of "interleaving". 
What is interleaving? - Interleaving is the practice of teaching several separate topics together in the course of a single lesson, as opposed to the more traditional practice of devoting one lesson to a single topic. For example, a language and literature teacher may interleave grammar lessons and literary close reading into a single lesson, using the literature to teach the language. 
Researchers suggest that interleaving topics in this way can increase retention in the long term, even if it initially presents a more challenging approach to the material. Students are required to not only memorise newly acquired knowledge but also to immediately transfer and apply this knowledge to a new situation.
How to approach interleaving - Applying interleaving, therefore, seems like something of a no-brainer, but while existing research does suggest that interleaving can provide significant benefits for learning, there is a lot of confusion around the subject and a lot more to be done before the effects of interleaving can truly be understood. To begin with, it is difficult to know how far to space out different topics. Some curriculum designs adopt interleaving by alternating lesson topics over the course of a term: a week on poetry, a week on short stories, a week on prose, and then back to a week on poetry. But this fragmentary approach misunderstands the principles of interleaving and is likely to leave students confused and dissatisfied. 
Instead, interleaving should be understood as an approach to material that unifies topics through themes and concepts, rather than breaking them up into arbitrary chunks of learning. To continue with the example of English literature, interleaving could be used to stage a series of encounters with a theme - for example, time - across a range of texts. One lesson could consider the sonnet poetry of Shakespeare and Donne, the next the Modernist fiction of Virginia Woolf; but by returning to the same thematic concepts, students would be invited to consider the evolution of literature over history in an innovative way.
Interleaving, if applied properly, promises to turn a classroom of disinterested faces propped up on their school chairs or slumped over their school desks into a crowd of truly engaged and inspired learners. Whether this principle truly yields the benefits it promises, however, is something only time (and a lot more research) can tell.


Posted by: Josh Seddon

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