Saturday, 5 December 2015

Should we get students to learn by rote?

The question as to whether we should teach students to learn things by heart (by rote) continues to create debate in education.  What does the evidence show?

The importance of secure memories

We know for sure (from neuroscience, testing etc) that our brains have a very limited Working Memory capacity.  Although there is dispute about the number of items we can hold in our heads at the same time, the number 7 seems to be an average  while some students can hold 9 items.
Working memory is the space where we think about things, work things out, mull over holiday plans, do mental arithmetic etc.
If the sentence is too long, it does not all fit in working memory.

This diagram shows a 5-slot working memory (WM). The first thing to see is that complex instructions can overload working memory.  Those working with less-able students know they need to break long sentences into shorter ones. (Young children's books always have short sentences.)  So, how do we ever think about something more complex?

The answer is that long-term memories can be drawn into just one slot, thus freeing space for the rest of the thinking.

Here is a trivial example:  If you are asked to remember the left-hand list


 and you have these acronyms stored in long-term memory, you will be able to remember it much more easily than the right-hand list which has the same letters.

This is sometimes called 'chunking', but this simply means that the unit is stored so securely (and the meaning understood) that it can be drawn into one slot in WM.

In mathematics, this helps resolve the question as to whether we should teach students their 'times-tables'.  If, when faced with the problem 8 x7 (or verbally, 'eight sevens') the number 56 pops into your head without any thought, then more complex problems can be tackled than if WM slots are taken up with the process of working out that part of the problem.

There are, of course, potential problems with  rote learning.  If the student has no idea how to work out 8x7 (or other simple multiple) then the memory will be meaningless.  Also, if failure to remember compulsory times-tables leads the students to believe that they are 'no good at maths', then the effect can be negative.

Another problem with times-tables is that the students may need to chant the whole table until they arrive at the one they need. One solution is to teach number-bonds by rote rather than tables.   The table shows that there are only 30-40 which need to be recalled as there are repeats (8x7 is the same as 7x8) and some trivial ones (eg 10x8=80).










In language teaching we never debate whether we should teach the meaning of words by rote or not!  We simply show the child a cup and give them the word 'cup' and get them to repeat it until they are fluent.  We do not try to explain why it is called 'cup'.  Equally, when teaching French, we simply require the student to know that the French for 'fish' is 'poisson'.

The need for secure knowledge is better understood once we see the way memories are stored in the brain.  They are not like memories on a computer.  All the information about this page is stored in the file of this web-page.  However, in the brain, the memory of something is just a set of links to what is already known.

If we teach about the Pope to someone who knows nothing about it, we may link to their knowledge of king and church.  However, earlier in their life they would have learned about 'king' by linking it to perhaps father' and 'country'. However, once the students has learned about 'Pope', they do not have a separate memory of Pope (as your camera has a separate memory of the photos you have taken), it has a huge network of links.  When we later want to use 'Pope' in a more complex sentence like "The Pope left the Vatican and celebrated mass in the Cathedral.", we are relying on these networks for vatican, cathedral etc to be secure so we can understand the sentence in our Working Memory.

Summarising the evidence

  • Working memory is used for thinking and is limited
  • Secure memories are vital for thinking.
  • Understanding can only occur if the new knowledge is linked to existing knowledge.
  • Learning by rote things which are understood is valuable.
  • Learning simple facts by rote is not damaging. 

Thursday, 3 December 2015

Reduce the power of the Education Minister?

(This is a draft designed to be circulated to organisations and individuals in UK education.  Please suggest ways to improve it factually or persuasively.)

It's not the Minister's policy, but the Minister's power

UK Ministers of Education
Instead of campaigning against the latest directive from the Secretary of State for Education, we should campaign for the powers they have to be reduced.

For 30 years there has been a stream of directives from The Dept. for Education.  
  • SATs are on, and then off, then, maybe, on again.
  • Schools should be specialist, then academies
  • GCSEs should be modular, then linear.
  • A-levels are split into two parts, then re-united.
  • Schools can let students choose their GCSEs, then we get EBacc
Each time we get a new initiative, teachers (and unions) complain, campaign, sweat, get stressed, resign...

Every time the minister claims they are trying to help students' learning.  They are not evil people; they genuinely believe their own thoughts. All the evidence, campaigning and resigning that teachers do, simply reinforces their belief that they have to make the change because teachers are resistant to the 'obvious' benefits of the policy.

So, perhaps we should stop campaigning on individual issues and get to the nub of the problem.  The Secretary of State for Education has not always had these powers.  Many of them date from the 1988 Education Reform Act.

Could we agree on a political objective which would remove the powers and give them to an independent body (perhaps modelled on the Office for Budget responsibility? 

Here is an extract from a July 2014 NAHT document 'Owning what is ours: a manifesto for education'
"How we change the system is almost as important as what is being changed. Too often change is chaotic and hasty, which limits our ability to make it stick. The profession and government become distracted by conflict over principles rather than engaged in discussion around implementation. 
We propose an ‘office of educational responsibility’. This office will go beyond existing proposals for evidence collection into planning and managing a five-year reform programme. 
This programme would be agreed in advance and subject to rolling review. New proposals for change will need to be submitted to the office for analysis against three tests: evidence of impact, value for money and capacity to implement. It needs to be difficult for ministers to depart from the programme. A high profile chief education officer, coming from the profession, could lead the office. 
Politicians would set principles, policies and outcomes. The profession would determine methods and, subject to representation via the office, be able to implement defined and tested policy in good faith."

Brian Lightman, ASCL leader, suggests an independent body to make decisions about the school curriculum and called for the end of schools having to follow the personal "whims" of policymakers. (Mar 2015)

If a number of teaching organisations could agree what we wanted, perhaps we could persuade the present Sec. of State to close the door on future rapid change to existing policies by creating such a body and handing over her powers.

Although it should be modelled on the Office for Budget Responsibility, this body should not have a similar name.  The problem in education is not irresponsibility; it is the constant changes based on little or no evidence or experiment. 

Dreaming?  Why not?

Unless we can get these powers changed we will be stuck with a continuous round of 'initiatives' as new ministers make their mark on the job.

Mike Bell

Draft Dec 2015

Tuesday, 1 December 2015

What makes a 'good teacher'?

Press reports suggest encouraging 'good teachers' to go and work in schools which are not improving.

But, is there such a thing as a 'good teacher'?  Is there something about another person which means they could never be good?

The evidence shows that some teaching methods, management styles and staff training are more effective than others.  This is confirmed when we look in the classrooms of highly effective teachers.  We do not see them doing strange things; we see them using evidence-based methods.  For example they:

  • are more likely to assess, or be aware of, the knowledge the student has and link new learning to it
  • will use more visual or tactile methods to present new information
  • check learning using questioning
  • promote discussion
  • value effort rather then 'cleverness'
  • make sure the students re-visit new learning regularly over the coming days
However, if you ask these teachers why they are using these methods, they do not say "I read the evidence and have adjusted my teaching", they usually say something like "Oh!  That's just what I do."

In other words, many great teachers have simply intuited the evidence.  (or, they were lucky in their guesswork!).

This is good news. It means there are no 'bad teachers', just teachers using methods which are not effective.  It means that the focus should be on staff training - getting teachers to identify learning needs, pick an effective method and use it repeatedly over 6 months until it is part of their regular practice.