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.

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4 thoughts on “The Experience of Mastery Learning

  1. How I wish my daughter was in your English class. In contrast my grade 7 daughter read “Holes” (seems to be a popular choice here in Oz) and had to do a rewrite of a chapter for her assessment. No analysis, no memorizing and not exactly an example of great literature.

    I should say she wasn’t even required to read it as the teacher did that in class. Thus far she has had no set reading at all! I suppose it’s not surprising when this teacher thinks that looking at Facebook qualifies as reading at home. I know it sounds like I’m attacking the teacher but I actually want people to see the general mind set amongst our educators. How is it possible that English has been reduced to this?

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    • I agree Tempe. How I wish literature could come alive for my daughters as well!! To think, of what they are missing…sigh…

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  2. So true, Anthony. I recently memorised some poems that I was teaching, as I found that without them in my memory, I couldn’t pull out the quotations I needed on the spot. It has greatly improved my teaching. It has had other unexpected benefits, the most significant being that the process of memorisation has made me understand these poems on a much deeper level. People who think that memorisation of poetry is superficial are very wrong; it is an active process that leads you to a much more intimate experience of the poem. I love it. Thanks, great post.

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Thoughtful and reasonable discussion is always welcome.

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