I 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.