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).


Learning from Eton


Eton College

In July 1994, I attended Eton for two weeks, along with many other boys and girls from state schools. In those days, it was called the Eton Summer School, and was open to sixth-formers from state schools in the neighbouring counties. Nowadays, it’s called the Universities Summer School, and is open to state school sixth-formers across Britain.

Needless to say, it was an unforgettable experience, for many reasons: the beauty of the surroundings, the hot summer weather and the World Cup where we had to support Ireland (The Guardian issued pretend green passports) would have been enough by themselves to lodge it permanently in my mind. But the most wonderful thing of all was, of course, the teaching.

I attended a very ordinary comprehensive school, and it was a revelation to encounter, during this intense fortnight, so many articulate, knowledgeable men who could confidently explain the most complex literary texts, and did not hesitate to do so.

My readers may very well be saying at this point: that’s wonderful for Eton, but what could an ordinary school learn from this? Ordinary schools do not have lots of Oxbridge graduates knocking at their door. And it’s true, widespread school reform cannot depend upon the widespread deployment of exceptional teachers, because they are, well . . . exceptional. Away from the dreaming spires of Eton, what can be done?

My answer lies in the most memorable Eton lesson of all. It was on Twelfth Night. The teacher drew a simple two column table on the whiteboard and explained the opposing ideas which form the conceptual framework of the play, such as discipline versus licence, temperance versus excess, reality versus fantasy.

It was chalk and talk. A simple, traditional lesson in which the teacher explained key concepts and wrote things on the board. That’s all. And it was fantastic. I had rarely experienced such clear, explicit instruction in literature. There had usually been a fuzziness about studying literature compared to this clarity and directness, delivered from the front in a completely uncomplicated, unapologetically traditional style.

I’ve often wondered how much more I could have learned through all my years at comprehensive school if my teachers had done more of this. I’m sure most of them were capable of it. Some of them, especially in maths and science, did it quite often. In fact, the Head of English at my comprehensive school was a Cambridge graduate, and I used to love it when he just talked to us. I wish he had allowed himself to do it more.

There are some things which Eton has which ordinary schools could never have. But every school could have teachers who teach. The battle to achieve this is not financial; what is needed is not more money, but better ideas.

Our Dishonest Inspection Regime

Book burningThere was, as Squealer was never tired of explaining, endless work in the supervision and organisation of the farm. Much of this work was of a kind that the other animals were too ignorant to understand. For example, Squealer told them that the pigs had to expend enormous labours every day upon mysterious things called ‘files’, ‘reports’, ‘minutes’, and ‘memoranda’. These were large sheets of paper which had to be closely covered with writing, and as soon as they were so covered, they were burnt in the furnace. (George Orwell, Animal Farm).

Generating bits of paper is not equivalent to doing anything. It is a proxy for action. Katharine Birbalsingh rightly points out in this article that the inspector’s mantra should be reversed. Instead of saying ‘if it hasn’t been written down, it isn’t being done’, we should say ‘if people are busy writing it down, then it isn’t being done’.

When I did my teacher training, I was at first alarmed by the prospect of having to provide evidence that I had met the required standards, which seemed enormously detailed and complex. But then I realised that it was not actual evidence that I had to provide, but bits of paper which supposedly recorded my having met the standards. I therefore industriously went about producing these bits of paper. This was a completely parallel activity to the business of actually learning how to teach. There was virtually no connection between them. On the one hand, I had to feed the paper monster and keep my university mentor happy. On the other hand, I actually had work to do and things to learn.

I would have had a lot more time to learn and to work if I had not had to waste time generating bits of paper. And I could easily have generated excellent bits of paper without really learning or doing much that was useful. These are parallel universes.

We pride ourselves in Britain on having honest public servants. Inspectors do not arrive in schools, receive brown envelopes of cash, and write glowing reports. But actually taking bribes is not the only form of dishonesty. Inspectors may not be receiving banknotes, but they are happily receiving other pieces of paper which enable them in good conscience to write glowing reports. The worst thing about this form of dishonesty is that everyone involved in it is convinced of their moral rectitude. Meanwhile, while they pat themselves on the back and accept their generous salaries, the actual goal of education is being undermined by their supposedly honest and disinterested work. And the busier and more assiduous they are, the more they waste the time of classroom teachers, and the more the children, for whom the whole system supposedly exists, are neglected.

Ironically, the pupils would be better served by more straightforward corruption. At least it would be quick to hand over a brown envelope. And it would actually be cheaper. The cost of wasting so much of the time of expensive professionals is astronomical, far higher than even the greediest taker of bribes would accept.

Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some points be satiated; but those who torment us for their own good will torment us without end, for they do so with the approval of their own conscience. (C S Lewis).

Knowing How Bad It Is

downloadLike many others, I’ve been reading Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers lately, and it is a wonderfully invigorating experience. I am quite familiar with the ideas and practices of Michaela Community School, and warmly supportive, as my regular readers will know. But there are still many points in the book that provoke further thought and reflection.

Lia Martin’s essay contains a fascinating account of what it took to convince her fully of the necessity for a no excuses culture, and an unapologetic emphasis on high academic achievement. Like many others in the teaching profession, she was burdened with the idea that insisting on high standards of behaviour and academic excellence for everyone would mean that some were unfairly treated. Shouldn’t their personal circumstances and challenges be taken into account?

The turning point was when Lia visited other schools, and saw in practice what the ‘some excuses’ culture was doing for pupils, especially those with the most difficulties. Lowering expectations for them became a self-fulfilling prophecy, condemning them to following their emotions and impulses and failing to acquire knowledge. They were being deprived of exactly what they needed: people who believed that they were capable of behaving and capable of learning, and systems that would train them in the habits needed to make progress.

Lia had not realised until that point how pervasive and how damaging the excuses culture is across the education system. Having attended a grammar school herself, she had not had first hand experience of the low expectations and poor behaviour that are so widespread.

It is really important to know how bad it is. This is something for which Michaela are often criticised. They are accused of being divisive because they point out that they are different from most schools, that they achieve far higher standards of behaviour and learning because of their relentless, practical, detailed focus on discipline, habits and memory. But I am glad that they make this distinction. I don’t think education reform is going to come from those who are comfortable and complacent with the standards achieved by the majority of schools. It is going to come from those who face up to how bad things are.

This is one of the reasons I am glad that I went to a comprehensive school myself, although I didn’t learn very much there, apart from in the sixth form, which was of course academically selective. I’m glad I experienced a hellish NQT year in a comprehensive, being blamed for the poor behaviour of pupils in a school with no proper systems of discipline. I’m glad I experienced the nightmarish helplessness of being branded ‘satisfactory’ in another comprehensive where management were obsessed with achieving ‘outstanding’ by following the fads approved of by Ofsted inspectors.

But most of all, I’m glad there are brave and thoughtful people who have written books and founded schools and helped me to make sense of all these experiences, and the burden of bad ideas which has caused them, for me and countless other teachers and pupils. Getting to know these people, online, through books and in person, has opened up the possibility of dedicating my professional career to building something better. I’ve suffered, but I’ve found redemption.

Teaching Knowledge: Spoilers Are Essential

800px-london_hoefnagels_map_of_1572If we are reading a novel for pleasure, we want the plot to unfold, and we very much resent having the surprise undone by being told in advance what is going to happen. But when teaching complex works of literature, we must use spoilers. We must give the game away right from the start.

Knowledge of a Shakespeare play, like any other knowledge, must build on the foundations of what was previously learned. If we jump in and start reading through the play, our pupils will not be able to see the wood for the trees. Unless one has a good idea what one is reading about beforehand, one will struggle to make sense of what one is reading. This problem is particularly acute with Shakespeare, where there are so many other challenges in terms of language, densely packed imagery and allusion.

Therefore, it is essential to begin with an overview. Before studying a play in depth, I require pupils to memorise a summary of the main events. This provides the framework, the map, so pupils do not become lost and unable to make sense of their surroundings. Having memorised this overview, we can repeatedly return to it. I can pause when dealing with an important passage in the play, and draw pupils’ attention to where we are.

For example, if we are looking in detail at the scene where Macbeth sees the ghost of Banquo, I can say to the class, “We’re in Act Three. What are the main events?” At this point, I will fire questions at pupils, ‘cold calling’ them to give them the opportunity to recall and retain this key information. We’ll go through the murder of Banquo, the ghost at the banquet, and the news that Macduff has joined Malcolm in England. Then I’ll ask what these events have in common – and we’ll remind ourselves that at this middle point in the play, Macbeth is consolidating power, but also that his downfall is beginning, and will continue through Acts Four and Five. Then we can return to the banquet scene with a fresh sense of its significance as a key moment in which Macbeth begins to lose the support of the Scottish nobility, who will desert him in ever greater numbers as the play moves towards its tragic conclusion.

All this discussion depends upon beginning with an overview. It depends upon frontloading explicit knowledge of key facts, before going into detail, and requiring the memorising of those facts to the point of fluency.

With this map in hand, pupils can begin to explore the complex territory of a play by Shakespeare. Without it, they are liable to get lost in the undergrowth very quickly.

Do We All Have Special Needs?

Slapping labels on certain people creates the idea that they are fundamentally different, and therefore must be taught in a fundamentally different way from their peers. This idea has wrought untold damage in our education system, whether in the form of learning styles, or spurious special educational needs, or the pervasive idea that personalised education, differentiated for each pupil, is the ideal.

No one would deny that there are a small number of pupils who really do have serious special educational needs. These pupils should be educated in special schools, because ordinary schools cannot possibly provide for them. For the vast majority, however, including the vast majority of those currently labelled as SEN, what they need is what everyone needs: a coherent curriculum and teaching methods based on sound cognitive principles.

We are told that the working memory of SEN children is limited. Everyone’s working memory is limited, which is why instruction should be done incrementally and each step mastered thoroughly, and why discovery learning, which crowds the working memory, is such a disaster.

We are told that SEN children are easily distracted. Everyone is easily distracted in a noisy, chaotic classroom, which is one reason why order and discipline are so important. How can anyone concentrate on anything worthwhile if someone is talking loudly about something else in their vicinity?

We are told that SEN children appreciate routine. Routine helps everyone, because it means that most things are automatic, so the attention can be focused where it is really needed, on the challenging academic subject matter which we wish pupils to master.

We are told that SEN children easily forget material they have been taught. But the sharp forgetting curve applies to everyone. Without review and practice, spaced out over time, we all forget material very quickly.

SEN children often receive catch-up instruction in phonics, as their mastery of the fundamentals is weak. But every child benefits from proper phonics instruction, and if their primary school failed to provide it, their secondary school needs to do something about this. As with every area of academic study, it is a case of making sure the foundations are in place before moving on.

The huge growth over the last few decades in supposed SEN pupils within mainstream education has resulted from two factors: poor instruction, which harms everyone, but is most harmful for the weakest pupils, and child-centred ideology, which places the innate qualities of the child rather than the instructional methods of the teacher at the heart of educational thinking.

The obsession with innate qualities has a very dark side. It seems terribly sympathetic and humane to place the needs and concerns of children at the heart of education. But if we consider education to flow from the child rather than the instructor, it is a logical step from this idea to looking to the supposed nature of the child rather than the methods of instruction in order to explain educational failure. If Johnny can’t read, it must be because he is dyslexic, not because he was not properly taught.

There is no doubt that some people find it harder to learn to read and to write. Some people process information more readily than others. Some people grasp abstract concepts with greater ease. Not all brains are the same. But they are more similar than they are different. This is one of the most important conclusions of cognitive science.

Forgetting is normal. Distraction is normal. It is normal for mastery to be achieved only through long term effort. The cognitive bottleneck for all of us is our limited working memory.

We underestimate the normal difficulties, but we also underestimate the normal strength: the wonderful human power and capacity to remember. Our long term memory is virtually limitless. For all of our pupils, we need to play to this great strength which we all possess.

The Problems with Primary School Testing

Boy Reading

‘Boy Reading – Ned Anshutz’ by Thomas Pollock Anshutz (1851-1912)

From having been a strong advocate of the general reading tests which have been a part of the ‘No Child Left Behind’ federal policy, Hirsch has now become an opponent. In his latest book, Why Knowledge Matters, he explains why he has changed his view. Although the general reading tests are valid tests of reading ability, they are what he calls ‘consequentially invalid’. However accurately they may test reading, they have harmful educational consequences.

General reading tests are educationally harmful, argues Hirsch, because they promote the idea that there is such a thing as a general reading skill, when in fact, reading ability is based primarily on knowledge of the domain about which one is reading. Because general reading tests support the fallacious but widespread belief in general skills, their use as a national measure of achievement on which schools and teachers are judged leads to ever more lessons in these general skills. Pupils do ever more practice of comprehension strategies, and ever less time is spent learning specific subject knowledge.

It’s easy to sympathise with teachers and schools that adopt the strategy of training in comprehension skills, rather than take the risk of giving a good general education. Good general knowledge is the best way to improve reading comprehension, but the fact is that teachers and pupils are presented with high stakes tests for which there can be no specific preparation, and this fills them with anxiety. Naturally enough, they want to do something specific that will help their pupils perform better in the tests. And the only specific thing they can do is practise comprehension strategies. All other preparation is indirect, and we cannot blame teachers and schools who are placed under such pressure from being doubtful about indirect, incremental, long-term methods when they are facing an imminent high stakes test.

So the main practical, observable effect across the American education system of holding schools to account through general reading tests has been a further impoverishment of the curriculum, as pupils waste ever more time working on mythical general skills. Hirsch recognises that, politically, there is no possibility in the USA of their being national tests which focus on specific knowledge, so he suggests that school districts remedy the deleterious effects of national testing by introducing their own local system of tests which are focused on subject specific domains rather than general reading ability.

The British government should take heed of the damaging effects of making a general reading test the measure of school attainment. These damaging effects are a matter of historical record in the USA. If the Department for Education wishes to promote a richer programme of subject specific education in primary schools, they need to change the way primary schools are held accountable. They need to scrap general reading tests at key stage two and replace them with specific tests of pupils’ knowledge about literature, history, geography, science, art and music. And while they’re reforming key stage two tests, they should scrap the English Language GCSE, which is also an unfair and educationally unhelpful assessment.

Of course, there will continue to be courageous and intelligent school leaders and teachers who build a rich curriculum of subject specific knowledge, and eschew the false promise of training in mythical general skills. But at the moment, our assessment system, especially at primary level, is hindering rather than helping this movement for educational reform.

Further reading:

General Reading Tests Are Always Unfair