The Experience of Mastery Learning

A major component of traditional teaching has always been memorisation. Core knowledge must be stored in long term memory, because unless you remember something, you can’t think with it, and you can’t even be said to have learned it. Learning means changes in long term memory.

To this end, I’ve put together ‘memory points’ for my pupils to learn, which consist of questions and answers. Here are a few examples from the year seven literature course:

When is Beowulf set? Beowulf is probably set in the sixth century, before the Germanic peoples converted to Christianity.

Who is Beowulf? Beowulf is a Geat warrior who crosses the sea to aid the Danes and later returns to Sweden to succeed his uncle Higlac as king.

Who is Grendel? Grendel is an evil monster descended from Cain, who brings death and destruction to Herot.

Of course, these do not stand in isolation. We read Beowulf, we discuss it, we analyse it, and we also enjoy memorising and reciting a part of the poem itself. The section we memorise is taken from the speech of Wiglaf, Beowulf’s cousin, when Wiglaf is attempting to persuade his fellow warriors to stand by Beowulf in his hour of need, as he takes on a mighty dragon in his final battle:

And we must go to him, while angry
Flames burn at his flesh, help
Our glorious king! By Almighty God,
I’d rather burn myself than see
Flames swirling around my lord.
And who are we, to carry home
Our shields, before we’ve slain his enemy
And ours, to run back to our homes with Beowulf
So hard-pressed here? I swear that nothing
He ever did deserved an end
Like this, dying miserably and alone,
Butchered by this savage beast: we swore
That these swords and armour were each for us all!

I never studied Beowulf before I decided to teach it. It was one of the many holes in my knowledge of classic literature. I have therefore been through the process of learning about it myself over the last year, as I have been introducing a more traditional, chronological curriculum. I have been learning the memory points myself, as well as the passages from the texts which I set for memorisation.

Going through the process of memorisation is highly instructive. I wrote the memory points myself, but that certainly did not mean they were thereby stored in my memory. If engaging with ideas and synthesising knowledge were enough for mastery, then I would have known them after having written them. But my knowledge was hazy at best after having studied the material and written the memory points. And if it was hazy for me, someone who is adept at literary analysis and already has a large store of literary knowledge, how hazy would it be for year seven pupils with far less prior knowledge and experience?

The haziness of the material as I have struggled to commit it to memory has helped me understand the process of mastering new knowledge. I have learned it with the classes. When we begin tackling a new set of memory points, we chant them together, gradually looking less and less at the page on which they are written. We tend to do this at the start and the end of a lesson, so there is time for forgetting in between. And because I am going through the process myself, I can see how much I have forgotten in that twenty or thirty minutes.

The continued haziness even after many practice sessions also helps me to see how we tend severely to underestimate the amount of practice required. When I am teaching something I have already mastered, I soon start to think, ‘Oh, that must be enough practice now’, but then I recall how much practice I did when I didn’t yet thoroughly know the material, and how it still hadn’t sunk in. Expert blindness is a very real and very misleading phenomenon. Our pupils really do need far more practice than we think they do. Putting oneself through the process of memorisation is an excellent way of convincing ourselves of this.

There has been no getting around it. Engaging, analysing, thinking, have not been enough. If I have wanted clarity of thought, if I have wanted real mastery, I have had to hammer the knowledge into my head, and that takes a lot of hard work. I really enjoyed writing the memory points, but actually mastering the knowledge they contain has been more about gritting my teeth and getting on with it, and suffering many mistakes and failures along the way.

Still, it has had its pleasures, and these are part of what Doug Lemov calls the ‘joy of schooling’. A class full of children is the most enjoyable environment imaginable for committing material to memory, because you can chant it enthusiastically together. It becomes a shared experience. Everyone is learning exactly the same thing, including me. How often I have been corrected by year seven pupils who have mastered the material more quickly than I have! It’s a great equaliser, because, as I explain to them frequently, and as I exemplify through my own struggle, everyone can memorise, but it’s not effortless for anyone. It just takes hard work and repeated, spaced out practice. That’s true whether you are eleven or thirty eight, whether you have three university degrees or none.


Applying the Direct Instruction Model

Checkbox_1.svgWhen I tweet or blog about the problems with discovery learning – that it is time consuming, uncertain, inappropriate for novices – I often get the response that no-one really uses discovery learning in any case. Teachers, so I am told, use their professional judgement and combine some exploratory work with some explicit instruction.

Of course, this is true. Pure discovery learning would entail demolishing the school and firing all the teachers, so it’s not likely to go down well. The philosophy of discovery learning, otherwise known as constructivism, or the project method, or a million other names, does not take over completely, but it does pollute lessons sufficiently to make them largely ineffective for making changes in long term memory.

There are two parts to this philosophy. The first is that pupils need to find things out for themselves. Telling them the answer is a violation of their intellectual independence. It’s a form of intellectual abuse. The second is that there are no definite answers anyway. The individual creates their own truth, and giving definite answers is evil, fascist indoctrination. This relativist piety is a strong moral reinforcement for constructivist theory. Without the evangelical zeal provided by dogmatic moral relativism, constructivist notions would have struggled to make their way out of the lecture halls of universities.

Because of this philosophy, which is particularly influential where teachers do not even realise that they are following it, the typical lesson will contain multiple opportunities for pupils to develop confusions and misapprehensions, and if they are given any degree of clarity, it will tend to be towards the end, after they have had lots of time to think about the wrong answers. Sometimes pupils plead with the teacher just to be given the answers and released from uncertainty, and sometimes he caves in, all the while feeling a sense of guilt, as though he were violating some sacred taboo.

A fundamental principle of cognitive science is that pupils remember what they think about. If we actually care about making definite changes in pupils’ long term memories, it is therefore our responsibility to ensure, as far as possible, that they spend as little time as possible thinking about the wrong thing. Allowing most of the lesson to be spent wandering, guessing, and generating incorrect answers is not only a criminal waste of precious lesson time; it is a guarantee that pupils will only retain correct answers in the haziest and most muddled fashion, if at all.

Cognitive science also shows us that for the most part, we will naturally avoid thinking, instead relying on memory, imitation or guesswork. Thinking is very hard, and therefore needs to be done in a focused and reliable way, and in small, incremental steps. What passes for ‘thinking’ in most lessons is actually muddled guesswork, and half-remembered, garbled information from previous lessons that were also filled with guesswork, or with failing to get the answer and having to ask the teacher, or one’s neighbour, or with just giving up and staring out of the window.

Direct Instruction offers a radically different model, because it is based on a different philosophy, which is not opposed to telling pupils the answers. In fact, it favours starting with the answers, in the form of worked examples and whole class oral drill. A large amount of time is spent instilling correct answers to various model questions before allowing pupils to attempt answering any themselves. This is because it is vital that they do not wander off into confusion and guesswork. It is vital that pupils get things right, otherwise they are consolidating confusion, not learning.

Using the methods of Direct Instruction, most pupils will be right, most of the time. Those who do make mistakes will rapidly have them corrected, so that they do not remain long in the dark. This is one of the reasons that DI is not only effective for learning, it is effective for self esteem. Pupils like getting things right.

It’s such a relief not to be put through the pain of muddle and guesswork. And it’s such a relief not to be told that there is no right answer.

Extrinsic Motivation Works

Quarry Hill flats: one of many utopian fantasies imposed upon the British people. This one was demolished in 1978.

In the past, I picked up the idea that if pupils were doing something under orders, that was somehow a failure. They should be doing something just because they wanted to do it. They should not be acting under external compulsion, because if they were, they were not building up their ability to think and act independently.

This way of thinking cripples teachers. Teachers need to be able to give the orders in a classroom. They need to believe that their orders should be obeyed, whether or not the pupil wants to do what they are asking. There are always going to be pupils who have no wish to work hard, to show respect, to stay silent when necessary. These pupils need to be given orders, or they will continue to follow their own whims, and destroy their own education and that of their peers.

Practically, then, extrinsic motivation is necessary. Education simply will not work when we make it a matter of choice for young people. We have to use systems of reward to motivate, and sanctions to punish those who refuse to comply. But will these systems prevent our pupils from developing the ability to think and act independently?

The truth is that there is no contradiction between independent action and extrinsic reward. Extrinsic reward is a fact of life. It is reality. There are good reasons why I get up early each morning and go to work, which have nothing to do with whether I particularly feel like doing it. I have a duty to my family and my employer. I would be ashamed of myself if I let them down. And anyway, I’m in the habit of getting up and going to work. It would feel odd if I didn’t. None of these things depend upon whether I feel a deep sense of inner joy as I gulp my coffee down and set out to the railway station.

All kinds of extrinsic factors are in play when someone faithfully goes to work each day and does their duty. We do not therefore say that they are somehow crippled and incapable of independent thought or action. The extrinsic factors are a help towards doing the right thing. Of course they are much reduced by the existence of the welfare state. My children would not actually starve or be homeless if I decided not to bother with working, because the state would pick up the tab. The consequences of reducing extrinsic motivation for work, duty and fidelity are all too clear in the welfare-dependent underclass. Theodore Dalrymple eloquently points this out in Our Culture: What’s Left of It:

Intellectuals propounded the idea that man should be freed from the shackles of social convention and self-control, and the government, without any demand from below, enacted laws that promoted unrestrained behaviour and created a welfare system that protected people from some of its consequences. When the barriers to evil are brought down, it flourishes; and never again will I be tempted to believe in the fundamental goodness of man, or that evil is something exceptional or alien to human nature (‘The Frivolity of Evil’, p8)

Whether or not I have some inner drive to work, and whether or not I find it particularly satisfying, it is important that there are external factors which put pressure on me to keep working faithfully. Without these external factors, it is harder for me to do the right thing. I do not believe that I am so pure and good that I should be released from these external factors. I am grateful for them, and in fact, I resent their corruption by the benefits system which takes away from my dignity as breadwinner for my family.

If extrinsic factors help adults do the right thing, they are even more important for the young people in our education system. Do we really believe that it will help them do the right thing if there are no external forces placing pressure upon them to do it? Do we really think that they are essentially pure and good, and that all that is required is release from the artificial, corrupting forces of society for them to discover this inner goodness?

Unfortunately, our whole education system is indeed haunted by the spectre of the ‘noble savage’, the fantasy of Rousseau, who developed ideas about the purity of mythical children while abandoning all of his real children to the orphanage. Whenever we find ourselves thinking that there is something wrong with young people’s doing something under compulsion, we must make the effort to exorcise this particularly malignant philosophical demon. Perhaps memorising these words and saying them to ourselves each morning would help:

When the barriers to evil are brought down, it flourishes; and never again will I be tempted to believe in the fundamental goodness of man, or that evil is something exceptional or alien to human nature.

The Ideas Behind Forced Academisation


Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1788)

If you want to understand the thinking behind the government’s education reforms, you need to read E D Hirsch’s The Schools We Need: And Why We Don’t Have Them (1996). Hirsch had been thrust into the education debates following the success of his Cultural Literacy (1987). He was astonished to find so many who vehemently opposed making a shared body of knowledge the centre of public education.

As a professor of Romantic literature, Hirsch was extremely well placed to identify the ideological sources of the opposition to clear, explicit teaching of well defined knowledge, in works such as Rousseau’s Emile. However, the existence of the idea that it is tyrannical to impose adult knowledge upon the young is not sufficient for explaining how such notions became so widespread, to the point where young people could spend many years under the care of expensive professionals, and emerge lacking even the most basic knowledge of the history, geography and literature of their own country.

Hirsch realised that it was necessary to look in more detail at the practical ways in which progressive theories gained dominance. This happened through the construction of a professional milieu which excluded laypeople from educational decision making. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, parental influence was too strong for a widespread progressive revolution to take place. Most parents wanted their children to receive a traditional education, like the one they had received, and were uninterested in the obscure theories being promulgated by self-appointed experts such as Dewey. The only parents who did take such an interest were wealthy bohemians who established the first progressive schools, all private and filled with their own children. C S Lewis’ Experiment House is an entertaining fictional example of this kind of middle class bohemian progressivism.

For progressivism to become a mass phenomenon, most ordinary parents had to be pushed out of educational decision making, because the vast majority of them stubbornly clung to conservative notions about hard work, discipline and knowledge acquisition. These stubborn parents had to be told that the experts knew better. It was therefore necessary to create a class of educational experts who would become the high priests of the new gnostic religion. The key institution through which this was achieved was Columbia Teachers’ College. Staffed by the leading lights of the progressive movement, such as William Heard Kilpatrick, Columbia sent tens of thousands of teachers out into the hinterlands, filled with evangelical zeal about the new ideas, and determined to usher in the new age of education, liberated from the dead facts of tradition and enlivened with Kilpatrick’s ‘project method’.

Hirsch explains how the education departments of universities deliberately distanced themselves from subject knowledge, because this domain already contained many venerable professors in other departments of the universities, who looked down upon the education professors as cranks and amateurs. In order to carve out their own territory, the education professors had to find something which was uniquely theirs. Progressive pedagogy triumphed because it exactly suited their ambition to establish an independent republic within academia. The comments still frequently made by professors of education echo their battle cry down the last century: pedagogy is a science, a science to which we have the key; all of you subject experts may know more about your subjects than us, but we have this magic tool which unlocks the minds of the young: pedagogy! By definition, this supposed pedagogical science must be divorced from any specific content, or how could the professors of education rule supreme over it? To allow knowledge a central role is to undermine the basis of their power and prestige.

Given that the first professors of education built their academic empire on the basis of anti-knowledge theories, and then produced scores of thousands of teachers in their own image, a situation emerged where the whole education establishment could be threatened by anyone who modestly proposed that children needed to learn subject knowledge, as Hirsch discovered in 1987.

Another factor which entrenched progressivism was the growing ignorance of the teachers themselves. As the twentieth century progressed, the vast majority of American high school teachers, having experienced a knowledge light curriculum at school, then went on to study a knowledge light curriculum at college, majoring in education rather than any specific subject. A similar trend emerged in Britain from the seventies onwards. William Bagley, the thorn in Kilpatrick’s side who was a lone voice in the wilderness at Columbia, insisting on the value of knowledge, repeatedly called for an increase in well qualified teachers in American schools. By well qualified, he meant teachers who were experts in their subjects, not experts in the ‘science’ of pedagogy. His calls went unheard.

Those in government who continue to implement the policy direction initiated by Michael Gove are well-versed in this background. They know that the educational establishment is wedded to progressive ideas so deeply that a kind of creative destruction is needed. It’s really not too hard to understand why they would force all schools to become academies once you have grasped the historical and ideological background. Academisation separates schools institutionally from the influence of the educational establishment: universities, unions and local education advisers. That is why it is the structural model of choice for the current government.

Bits of Paper Are Not Learning

Book burningI recently did some online ‘training’ which involved reading through a series of pages, then answering some questions. The pages contained chunks of text floating in pictures which added nothing to the information. In fact, they were a distraction. The text floated over different bits of them, forcing the eye to wander here and there. Possibly this was supposed to keep my attention, based on the assumption that simply reading text must be inherently dull, and that I need some sort of eye candy to keep me awake. Then I had to answer a series of simple multiple choice questions, far less challenging than the ones I give to year seven, and I was even allowed to refer back to the text I had just read while I answered them. I refused to do so, because I genuinely wanted to see whether I had remembered and understood the information.

The whole thing was patronising beyond belief. It made me reflect on the typical design of textbooks, which, like this ‘training’ programme, involve lots of eye candy, text floating on different bits of the page, and then a few questions, to which you can find the answers by looking back over what you just read. Then the teacher can tick that bit of the syllabus off, because you’ve ‘covered’ it, just like I am now supposed to be ‘trained’ in the information provided by the online course.

It’s complete nonsense, of course. If you simply read through something and answer some questions on it, while still referring to what you just read, you are enacting a performance which doesn’t even prove that you’ve retained the information during the lesson, let alone whether you will retain it tomorrow, or in a week’s time. It’s a fiddly little exercise which is highly ineffective for learning, and proves nothing. It’s a paper exercise. It produces writing in exercise books and it generates neat progression along a scheme of work. It’s all about generating bits of paper, not learning.

If it really mattered that I should learn this material, I wouldn’t need to read through colourful screens clogged with eye candy. I would just need to memorise the key information, then be tested on it repeatedly, until it was mastered. This would have to be done over a period of time, and there could be no easy ticking of the box to say I had ‘covered’ the material. The tests could take various forms – multiple choice questions, oral recitation, longer summative tests in which the information would need to be applied.

Of course tests are used by schools to check whether pupils have actually learned the material through which they chugged in the various textbook pages or worksheets that they covered. But the test typically comes at the end of the unit, and the pupils are expected to revise for it independently. In other words, the job of actually learning the material, as opposed to just covering it, is transferred to the pupil and their parents (and their tutors – private tutors thrive on this kind of useless teaching). In the absence of memorisation combined with frequent testing, the mastery of content must take place outside the classroom, because it certainly won’t take place inside it.

If we’re serious about mastering knowledge, then we must drop this ridiculous charade of grinding through textbooks or worksheets and generating endless bits of paper: full books and empty heads. Learning means changes in long term memory, and answering questions while looking at something you’ve just read is just about the worst way you could attempt to make such changes.

The Importance of Guilt

‘Canst thou not minister to a mind diseased?’

Theodore Dalrymple notes an important shift in language in recent decades in Our Culture: What’s Left of It. In the past, we were unhappy. Now, we often say instead that we are depressed. This medicalises the problem, and separates our actions from their natural rewards:

This idea in turn implies that one’s state of mind, or one’s mood, is or should be independent of the way that one lives one’s life, a belief that must deprive human existence of all meaning, radically disconnecting reward from conduct. (‘The Frivolity of Evil’, p.9)

Instead of examining our actions for the moral causes of our unhappiness, we seek to medicate the symptoms. The doctor who agrees to do this, says Dalrymple, is not really helping his patient:

The patient’s notion that he is ill stands in the way of his understanding of the situation, without which moral change cannot take place. The doctor who pretends to treat is an obstacle to this change, blinding rather than enlightening.

Dalrymple’s point is readily applicable to the world of education, where we see all kinds of unhappiness resulting from misconduct. The unhappiness and the misconduct must be connected in the person’s mind before they are likely to do anything about the misconduct. But when we simply focus on the symptoms – the unhappiness – and try to ‘treat’ those, we are letting our pupils down. We are ‘radically disconnecting reward from conduct’.

When a pupil complains of boredom, for example, we may try to ‘treat’ this symptom by entertaining him, or, to use more palatable language, by making our lessons more ‘engaging’. But the complaint about boredom from the pupil is a symptom of a moral problem. These complaints arise when a pupil is not prepared to invest sufficient effort into study. When you are working hard, you do not complain of boredom. When you complain of boredom, you are really proclaiming your own laziness. Indulging this laziness is one of the worst things a teacher can do. We need to strike at the root (the laziness) not just deal with the symptoms. Otherwise we will be ‘blinding rather than enlightening’.

Pupils who misbehave in class, disrupting lessons and showing disrespect towards teachers, are often seen as suffering from a medical problem, and treated with drugs, in the same way those with depression are handed pills that just deal with the symptoms. When a problem is medicalised, it enables everyone to avoid the moral issues.

Guilt is excruciating. One of my most terrifying recurring nightmares is that I have committed a terrible crime, and I am haunted by guilt that cannot be expiated. But however painful it is, guilt is vital. It is the nerve system of the moral being. The worst possible situation, morally speaking, is to do evil things and to feel no guilt. Emotional pain is an indicator that something is wrong. If we numb it with drugs, we are refusing to face the problem. Shakespeare knew this four hundred years ago, when he had Macbeth request some medical cure for his sorrow:

Canst thou not minister to a mind diseased,
Pluck from the memory a rooted sorrow,
Raze out the written troubles of the brain
And with some sweet oblivious antidote
Cleanse the stuff’d bosom of that perilous stuff
Which weighs upon the heart?

We would do well to remember more often the doctor’s answer:

Therein the patient
Must minister to himself.