All I Remember…

The ultimate test of how well educated someone is has to be what their brain can do without any external support. I have continued to use my ‘brain only’ tests this year, and my pupils have increasingly become used to the concept, which has also been adopted by some colleagues.

Yet it has proved surprisingly difficult to ‘unlearn’ the thinking of years: for much of my career, the singular message has been about making classroom materials ‘accessible’ to pupils – for which read Not Difficult. The origin of this thinking is clear: the progressive view that education is primarily about enfranchisement of the less-privileged.

I have no objection to the sentiment – but it increasingly looks like monumental folly to believe that one can empower people intellectually by reducing the demands made on them. After a year of deliberate watching, there does seem to be a connection between the degree of retention and the difficulty of the task – people remember things that make demands on them. And yet the niggling concern about accessibility still lingers…

During such activities, pupils are often moved to express the difficulties they are encountering, and this can be instructive. One of the regulars has been “I understood it at the time, but I can’t remember it now”. Another frequent issue has been pupils struggling to express their ideas because of poor command of language.

I wonder how much we can really do about this. As teachers, we certainly need to consider strategies that will help pupils to remember what we teach – but it is possibly a step too far to claim direct control over their memories. Mnemonics have been used by teachers since time immemorial, but there remains a difference between self-consciously remembering something using such artificial means, and just knowing it, which is surely what we really want. To what extent do teachers have any real control over what moves into pupils’ long term memories?  And are we actually helping if we claim we do – or simply removing from pupils the obligation to do the essential work for themselves? Clearly we can work to improve communication skills – but I’m afraid that experience points to the fact that people do have internal limitations, Growth Mindset or not. Improving memory? I’m less sure.

Again, the progressive view would be to encourage engagement, and it is certainly true that interest can improve motivation to know. But my current reading of Kahneman also suggests that thinking is inherently effortful, and in many pupils’ minds engagement appears synonymous with not having to make much effort. Being a beginner at anything is inherently difficult; giving up is the default setting. Real engagement has to come from the internal desire to improve, and if that is lacking, no manner of externally-applied gimmicks will fill the gap. Perhaps the question here has to be how we challenge some children’s aversion to the learning process in the first place, rather than how we hoodwink them into mimicking it. Perhaps being honest about the demands would be a start.

Given that we are not prescient, knowing what pupils will remember in future remains a matter of guesswork, though I think that Bjork’s work on the effect spaced learning on retention is onto something important, even though it’s really just a fancy synonym for practice and experience! But if our teaching has been effective enough for pupils to understand at the time, there is perhaps relatively little more that we can do.

That is not to say that retention cannot be improved. As I’ve mentioned before, my involvement in traditional music has, to my mind grown that ability. Being able to recall many hundreds of tunes at will has undoubtedly made it easier to acquire new ones, whereas my wife who is only a few years into a similar musical journey still finds memorising a new tune much harder work. But the key here is that the work can only be done by the student. The key elements are the desire to ‘know’ the piece for its own sake – and the technical skills to acquire and execute it. If the pupil’s expectation is one of low input – and low self-expectation – then the going is likely to be all the more difficult.

What with the struggle I have had to get my older students to revise rigorously, and the protests of my younger students over being made to work using only their internal resources, it seems to me that something is wrong with the expectations of today’s learners. No doubt the distractions of technology, an off-the-shelf lifestyle and the dumbing-down effect of the media have played a part.

I suspect that the upping of the educational stakes has not helped either. As Lord O’Donnell recently observed, the government’s obsession with exam results and its belief that they are the best indicator of future personal effectiveness is potentially deeply damaging to the learning process. The shift of emphasis onto teachers has communicated the message that all the pupils have to do is sit there.

I know that trying to learn a new tune is more difficult if external pressure is applied; what I need is a neutral, unpressurised space in which to bring my undivided attention to bear on a specific task. I also know that I need to be able to take a break – if one task led unremittingly to another and another, the joy in learning new music would quickly evaporate – and that is without the consolidating effect that taking a break seems to have.

I think the same is true of learning more widely. Learning (and teaching) is best done in unthreatening circumstances, when the mind can be freed from external distractions and pressures. It is more effective when the parties involved understand their natural roles clearly. Confusing this with creating challenging learning tasks may be actively hindering people’s ability to learn, let alone their motivation to do so. Applying external pressure is distracting and depresses the ability to think.

If so, it is doing untold damage to the learning prospects of children – and the professionalism of teachers.

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