Understanding or Memorising?


Herbert A Simon (1916-2001)

One of the most damaging myths in education is that there is a conflict between memorisation and understanding, when in fact, they go together, and are both essential. This is one of the ideas demolished by Daisy Christodoulou in Seven Myths, under the heading of ‘facts prevent understanding’. The classic piece of research by Nobel laureate Herbert Simon on chess players shows how memorising and understanding are not in conflict; rather, they are intertwined and interdependent. Chess grand masters can look briefly at a chess board and then remember the positions of the pieces far better than those not skilled in chess. But they could only do this when the pieces were arranged as they would be in a game scenario. When they were randomly arranged, the chess players performed no better than the average.

The chess grand master’s supreme skill is based largely on memorising tens of thousands of game scenarios. Most of the time, most of what a grand master is doing in a chess game is remembering. This is not in conflict with understanding. Obviously the grand master understands the rules of chess, but then so does someone who is only a beginner. What distinguishes the grand master from the beginner is the difference between their long term memories. One is well-stocked with chess moves and scenarios, while the other isn’t. If the beginner wants to advance, she needs to put in the effort and get memorising. She needs to be drilled, or drill herself. She needs to study hard.

This applies to every academic subject. Understanding and memorisation are both essential, but the majority of the effort must go into memorising, because a pupil can grasp a concept readily in a lesson, but quickly forget it, because she has not been drilled in class, nor has she been required to self-quiz for homework to consolidate the knowledge, nor has she been tested at intervals to make sure it does not fade. Drilling, self-quizzing, testing at intervals: these are the foundations of teaching which enable everyone to make progress, because memorisation is absolutely essential, and it strengthens and consolidates understanding. Without the knowledge in your mind, how can you think about it? It is the lack of these foundations which leads to the lament which I have heard so often in so many staff rooms: “I taught them that material. Why can’t they remember it? Why did so many fail the end of term exam?”

It is because of the false distinction between understanding and memorisation that teachers do not focus anywhere near enough time on making sure the foundations are in place. The bulk of class and homework time needs to be dedicated to making sure that core knowledge is thoroughly mastered. If this is not done, then only the most able and motivated will make much progress. The most able and motivated may well then go on to become education professors, and because they were not required to memorise, they’ll think that everyone else can just blithely sail along without the hard work of deliberately committing key facts and procedures to memory.

This is known as expert blindness, and the more gifted a person is, the more likely they are to suffer from it. But all teachers suffer from it to some extent, and to overcome it, we need good programmes of instruction which emphasise drill and repeated practice. We can’t depend upon our gut feeling, or even our ‘professional judgement’, to know when something has been practised enough.

Further reading:

Rote Learning is Ace

Memory and Liberal Education

(Image from Wikimedia).


General Reading Tests Are Always Unfair


Should pupils be taught who this man is? Maybe . . .

General reading tests are always unfair because there is no such thing as general reading skill. Every text will be much clearer to those who have relevant background knowledge. Whatever text you choose, you will favour those pupils who know something about its topic beforehand. The test will therefore not be fair, because it will privilege those who just happen to know something about that subject.

The idea that you can create a general reading test which will fairly assess reading ability across the school population is based upon a false notion of what reading entails. Once you have mastered decoding, the most important factor is knowledge. You could be brilliant at reading texts about football, but hopeless at reading texts about politics.

E D Hirsch describes how several recent studies have conclusively shown that background knowledge is the number one factor in reading ability, trumping academic ability and IQ in pupils, and complexity in texts. In 1998 the Recht-Leslie study showed that ‘poor’ readers could read well when they were familiar with the topic, which was baseball. They ‘illustrated the general principle: when a topic is familiar, “poor” readers become “good” readers; moreover, when a topic is unfamiliar, normally better readers lose their advantage’ (Why Knowledge Matters, p88). In 1999 Schneider et al proved the same point, but with IQ, while in 2011 Arya et al showed that text complexity was relatively unimportant compared to domain knowledge (see Hirsch, p88-89). These three studies show that if you know about something, you will be a good reader of texts concerning that topic.

Now consider what happens in the English language GCSE, as currently constituted. It is entirely ‘unseen’, so specific preparation of knowledge is impossible. The reading texts could be about anything. Let’s say the examination board selects a text about spies. Some pupils will know a lot about spies. Some may even be spy geeks. Others will have no interest in the topic, and will not have developed much domain knowledge. The English teacher may have spent one or two lessons doing some reading about espionage and discussing the topic, or they may not. We can hardly blame them if they haven’t, as they had no idea that this topic, among the thousands of possibilities, would come up in the examination. The spy geeks will ace that test, while others’ performance will be based mostly on the random criterion of how much they happen to know about spies.

The pupils who do well will be congratulated on their performance, but to a large extent, they just got lucky. The English teachers may even be congratulated if they happened to be teaching a large number of spy geeks. They may even get a pay rise or promotion based on this coincidence.

This is completely unjust, both to pupils and to teachers. General examinations given to the whole population should always be based on specified content. The more specific the content is, the fairer the examination will be, as it will enable all pupils to master that knowledge, and help all teachers to teach it effectively. As well as being fairer, only testing specific topics would promote education as the transmission of knowledge, rather than the development of mythical generic skills.

Because of the absence of specific content, preparation for general reading tests ends up being largely a process of tedious drills in how to serve up to the examiner what they are looking for. ‘Make sure you mention structure’, advise the English teachers, or ‘look out for similes and metaphors, and make sure you comment on them.’ How dull, compared to the richness and variety of content on which we could be focusing. But such a box-ticking approach seems inevitable when faced with general reading tests, because the knowledge required has not been specified in advance.

But we must not lose hope. We must make things better despite the unfair assessment system which currently exists, and we must work to persuade policy makers that fairness and the promotion of knowledge depend upon making tests as specific as possible.

How can schools best cope with the situation until such a time as assessment policy catches up with the findings of cognitive psychology?

The answer must lie in giving as much coherent knowledge as possible to pupils, especially in the earlier years, and in spending the minimum amount of time on tedious drills in examination skills. We can also make sure that any internal tests which we set are based on specific content which pupils are expected to master.

Instruction in how to give the examiner what they want should be left to the months immediately prior to the exam. The rest of schooling should be devoted to making pupils as knowledgeable as possible, because if we want our pupils to be creative and to think critically, if we want them to read well and write well, it is knowledge which counts.

Further reading:

Against Analysis, or Why William Doesn’t Engage the Reader

Comprehension Worksh**ts

Liberation from Levels


This man wrote ‘effectively’. But was his writing ‘sophisticated’?

Since national curriculum levels were abandoned, schools have had to build their own systems for describing and assessing progress. Unfortunately, as with many of their new found freedoms, few schools are making the most of this opportunity to transform curriculum and assessment, and make them more specific, reliable and meaningful. Instead, they are producing schemes of work and assessment filled with recycled versions of the old national curriculum level descriptors.

It’s understandable that schools do not want to leave level descriptors behind. They were statutory for many years, and they are still used by examination boards to describe grades. The only problem is, they are nonsense, and educationally harmful nonsense, too.

For writing, they typically involve statements like ‘wide vocabulary’ or writing ‘effectively’, or writing with ‘sophistication’. What do these words actually mean? How ‘wide’ is ‘wide’? What does ‘sophisticated’ look like? Such statements do not provide an objective standard of measurement, because they are open to multiple interpretations.

A far better method of assessing writing is by ranking it. Systematised comparative judgement looks like an excellent way of harnessing the reliability of ranking. Teachers cannot agree consistently on a mark for any given piece of writing, but they can agree very consistently, when shown two pieces of writing, on which one is better.

Even in the absence of the more systematised comparative judgement, teachers can mark by ranking. When they have a set of essays or stories to mark, they can put them in a rank order, and if they have to assign a grade, they can do so according to that rank order.

An experienced marker is doing some kind of comparative judgement in any case. He will say ‘I know what an A looks like’. What this means, is that he has marked hundreds or even thousands of pieces of work and compared them mentally, placing A grade work at the top of the rank order. An experienced marker will never be thinking to himself, as he gazes at a mark scheme, ‘Now is this sophisticated, or is this effective?’ Even if he uses those words because the mark scheme tells him to, what he will really be thinking is, ‘Is this top, middle or bottom? How does this compare to the best writing I’ve seen?’ and similar questions.

As well as being hopeless for accurate assessment, level descriptors undermine efforts to build a knowledge curriculum. They tend to be generic. In the study of literature, they will contain statements like ‘Can analyse the author’s use of language’. If we’re measuring progress against vague, general statements like this, we will not be thinking in terms of content that must be mastered, but in terms of general skills that can supposedly be demonstrated with any content. The content becomes indifferent.

Level descriptors take us away from specific content, because they never say clear, specific things like ‘Knows in what century Chaucer lived’, or ‘Knows Chaucer’s attitude towards late medieval society’. In fact, it’s rare to see the word ‘knows’ in a level descriptor. They tend to be about what you can do, not what you know, and thus they perpetuate the myth of general skills divorced from specific domains of knowledge.

If we want to assess attainment meaningfully, and if we want to build a knowledge-rich curriculum focused on specific content, we need to consign level descriptors to educational oblivion. Once we’ve left them behind, we will be able to focus our attention on specific content that should be mastered, and measure attainment against exemplar work.

Specific content and exemplar work give teachers and pupils something clear and definite to aim for. Pupils will be relieved and pleased to be shown a definite way forward, instead of wandering in the vague territory of the difference between ‘effective’ and ‘sophisticated’. And teachers will be able to say to pupils, ‘I want you to know this’ and ‘I want you to be able to write like this’, instead of muddling around with grade boundaries and tick boxes.

Educational Perjury

Rubber StampWhen one of our daughters was in preschool, we were presented with a lovely file containing lots of labelled photographs. The photos combined with the annotations were supposed to ‘prove’ all kinds of things about our daughter’s development. The time taken to compile all of this must have been significant. At the same time, our daughter was not, as far as we could tell, being taught any kind of objective knowledge in a coherent systematic way. For example, she was encouraged to discover her own way of writing the letters of the alphabet, rather than being required to begin a systematic course that would have given her the first steps towards attractive and legible handwriting.

It was clear that more time was being spent gathering ‘evidence’ than doing explicit teaching. In spending their time this way, staff were dutifully following the requirements of the early years curriculum, as the school interpreted them.

Like joyriding through a multistorey carpark, this obsession with so-called ‘evidence’ is wrong on so many levels.

Firstly, the evidence isn’t even evidence. It is the recording of one current performance, not proof of any kind of fluent mastery. If a pupil knows something today, and we believe that means he will know it forevermore, we are deluding ourselves. Thus, if we spend time fabricating a wonderful one off performance for the sake of producing such spurious evidence, we are involved in nothing less than a time-wasting sham of education.

If current performance cannot determine mastery, does this mean that we should not be testing our pupils? Of course not. We should be testing our pupils very frequently. But the tests should be genuine tests, not fabricated performances, and we should not be abusing the results of the tests by claiming that they are evidence of mastery, or a lack of it.

Tests are an excellent way of consolidating knowledge that has already been taught. That is their key function. As a measure of mastery, they must be viewed with extreme suspicion. Even if everyone in the class scores 100℅ today, what will they score tomorrow? Or next month? We must always, always be on our guard against the widespread and pernicious fallacy that current performance is a measure of long term learning.

So how do we know when to move on? How can we ever have any confidence about whether our pupils have mastered something? Instead of generating spurious ‘evidence’ to ‘prove’ this, or just ‘going with our gut’, we need to turn to programmes of instruction that have been tried and tested over many years and with many pupils, and look at the ways they build mastery using a carefully designed schedule of spaced and interleaved repetition. We need to look at how programmes designed by organisations such as the National Institute for Direct Instruction work, and either adopt those programmes, if they focus on the content and skills we want to teach, or do our best to apply their principles of instruction to what we are teaching.

If we’re serious about mastery, we’ve got to stop wasting time faking evidence. It’s educational perjury.

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.

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 Emptiness of the English Curriculum

Old BooksA new science teacher at my school reported to me a conversation which he had had with his pupils. They had asked with astonishment how he knew what they had studied before, when he had just arrived. He explained to them that there is a national curriculum which specifies the content to be studied in science, so pupils in different schools essentially study the same material.

I don’t know what that’s like. I teach English, in which the national curriculum doesn’t get much beyond ‘read some stuff and write some stuff’, once you’ve removed all the jargon and flannel. It isn’t until public examinations are being taken that things start to take a slightly more specific form.

I’m working on creating an English curriculum which builds knowledge of literature and literary history in a coherent, chronological way, so I will actually know more about what my pupils know from year to year, and they will be able to establish a mental schema into which they can fit new knowledge about literature across the ages. I would welcome a national curriculum for English that genuinely helped teachers build resources which they could share across schools. I would welcome a national curriculum for English that created a common body of knowledge, for teachers and for pupils.

There are many problems with curricular incoherence, as E D Hirsch has pointed out. One of them is that when pupils move between schools, there is no common body of knowledge that they are expected to know. When a new pupil arrives in my class, I just have to assume they know nothing about literary history and classic literature. It’s a pretty safe assumption, frankly, given the fluff which fills the English curriculum in most schools prior to GCSE. If they join in year eight or nine, it’s hard on them to have to try to catch up with the years of hard work my pupils have put into mastering core knowledge.

Specifying content and then testing it through national examinations is currently the only way in which coherence is established in the English curriculum. I am very much in favour of the testing of specific knowledge in English. Given the emptiness and incoherence of so much English teaching around the country, it can only be a benefit actually to specify something so that the years aren’t completely wasted on vacuous ‘creativity’. The howls of outrage with which testing of grammar and punctuation in primary school is greeted show how much resistance there is to the government’s, actually very mild, efforts to turn English into a real subject with some hard content that can actually be tested objectively. What, you actually want them to learn something specific? How off-putting!

With a significant increase in specific, objective testing, there would be some chance that at some point in the future, I would be able to depend just a little more on the pupils who arrive in my classroom knowing something definite. But for the time being, I just have to start from scratch and build the knowledge myself.