When I trained to be a teacher, one of the most surprising things was how badly I seemed to have been taught at school. Finding out about all the different things I was supposed to do and say, and how to act and react made me unsurprisingly reflective upon my own school days, and coming up with very little that looked or sounded like what was supposed to have taken place.
“Learn it for homework” was a phrase that was often thrown around when I went to classes. I’d sit and listen and take notes in Chemistry, and I had to double underline titles and dates, and draw margins. I remember little else, but always at the end of the lesson I’d be told to “learn it for homework”.
In the last ten years or so I’ve used that phrase anecdotally to ridicule the notion that learning wasn’t taking place in the classroom, and that the teacher’s job was supposed to be to help me learn something, but that the emphasis was being put on a solo experience at home rather than the teacher themselves.
But the idea that learning takes place in the classroom is problematic too. Without getting into too much of an epistelogical debate, the notion of learning simply being some kind of enlightenment regarding a concept or passing down of knowledge is flawed.
Time for a quick anecdote.
About five years ago I took it upon myself to learn Japanese. Yes, learn Japanese. How hard could it be? Turns out, hard enough to give up quite quickly. I started by trying to learn the basics. I wanted to speak it, so I listened to a lot of audio, and I wanted to recognise it, so I needed to associate sounds with unfamiliar symbols. Predictably, I ended up with a series of symbols written with phonetic pronounciations and definitions, and I set about trying to memorise them. After about thirty minutes of saying them out loud, writing out the symbols over and over, covering them up etc I had decided I could remember some of them quite well. The next day I remembered only one or two, and so set about re-learning them, or at least, perfecting my memorisation of them. A few days later and again I could barely remember much, but they came back to me quicker when I revisited them. This of course falls exactly in line with what many people have already discovered about short and long term memory. But where is the learning taking place here? Was it the acknowledgement of the meaning of the symbols? Was it the ability to pronounce them in the same way as the audio? Was it the ability to recall these things? Was it all of these things combined?
Now let’s put that idea into the classroom. We teach in a variety of ways, and whatever strategy we use, the whole process can be (arguably) boiled down to this: we want students to understand and apply concepts and ideas to different situations successfully, and without help. The “without help” element may seem disagreeable, but our end product is an examination grade, and there’s no assistance given in exams beyond the text provided.
Now is it realistic to assume that just because a class full of bright eyed students can repeat what you showed them, apply it in different situations, and explain fully what it is all about in the context of that single hour that they have learnt it?
If we revisit it a week later and no-one remembers anything, have they learnt it? At the time it was taught, perhaps they could handle the most difficult questions you could throw at them. The concept started as foreign, but became familiar and comfortable, all within the space of 60 minutes. That in itself is commendable, and is without doubt an indication of a great teacher. But it isn’t the end. Recollection of this newly acquired knowledge is a key element of learning. In fact, it’s arguably the most important. If you can’t remember it, you won’t pass your exam.
We seem acutely aware of this discreperancy with our weakest students, who “never remember anything”, but perhaps we also seem to assume that those who progress quickly with maths are somehow immune to this key stage of learning – memorisation and recall.
Furthermore, where does the responsibility lie with this key element of learning? Is it the teacher’s responsibility to embed memorisation of what has been learnt? Or should it be learnt for homework?