In a classic example of the perils of ‘fun activities’, Daniel WIllingham describes a lesson in which pupils make cookies like those given to escaping slaves on the Underground Railroad. This was supposed to help pupils engage with the historical topic, but in reality, they were focusing their attention on cookie making, not history, and because you remember what you think about, they will remember lots about measuring flour, sugar and butter, but very little about the Underground Railroad, apart from a vague idea that escaping slaves ate cookies.
This is something we all experience in everyday life. We remember having a conversation, we remember the room in which we had it, the colour of the person’s shirt, and so on. But we forget what it was we actually talked about, or only recall it in the vaguest terms. We say to ourselves, ‘I remember having a conversation with Jane about work’, and that’s about it. The more interesting the medium, the more likely this is to happen. If we happen to find Jane attractive, for example, we may remember many things about her physical appearance and her tone of voice, but still very little about the content of the conversation.
Simplicity and plainness actually help. If there are to be any visual elements, they must be strictly relevant. But most of the content of academic education consists of facts and ideas which must be mastered, and these are primarily communicated and remembered using language.
For mastery to be secured, the language must be relevant and clear, and free-flowing conversation and discussion frequently do not meet these criteria. Discussion naturally wanders and digresses. Digression does have its role in the classroom. No one is forbidding it, but we need to be clear about what we are intending to do. If we are focused on transmitting certain definite knowledge, then we need to be disciplined in our focus upon it. It is all too easy for pupils to remember all of the tangents, and not the main point.
I experienced this recently, in one of those classic examples of memory testing that occurs in everyday life: remembering a name. I have a colleague whose surname is Davis. We once had an interesting conversation about the spelling of surnames. My surname – Radice, pronounced ‘Rah-dee-chay’ – always has to be spelled out to people. In some ways this makes things clearer, because people do not assume that they know how to spell it, so they tend to pay attention when I spell it out. Davis, however, is a fairly common surname, so people tend not to ask how to spell it, or they fail to pay attention when it is spelled out to them, and then they often end up writing a common variant of the name, Davies. My colleague explained all this to me, and one would have thought that it would have clarified forever for me how to spell his surname. But instead, I remembered the conversation about how an ‘e’ gets added to ‘Davis’, and managed to remember the error, rather than the correct answer. I ended up remembering that his name was spelled ‘Davies’ but pronounced ‘Davis’. I even explained this in some detail to someone who asked me how to spell his name.
Thanks to the complex mode of delivery, I had remembered an error. Now, if my colleague had wished to ensure that I did not remember the error, he would have had to strip away the complexity and focus my mind very clearly on the essential fact, that his name is spelled ‘Davis’. If instructed to do so, I could easily have memorised this, and if he had tested me on it regularly so I had to recall the information, I would soon have been secure in my mastery of this knowledge.
Simplicity, directness and recall practice: if we’re serious about core knowledge mastery, we need to do a lot more of this. We need to spell things out clearly, and test recall frequently.