The Secret Recipe of Learning? Learn Potion N°9

I was listening to Daisy Christodoulou on Radio 4 on Mon 16th Sept, as part of ‘The Educators’ series of programmes. Here, she was talking about the importance of knowing information to achieve mastery of a subject. In order to illustrate the importance of prior knowledge, she used the example of chess players – who must memorise certain tried and tested moves and techniques before they truly master the game.

It’s a generalisation, I know, but the problem with the curriculum in recent years is that skills and creativity have sometimes been prioritised over the pursuit of knowledge. The argument that Daisy makes is that you must have a strong foundation of knowledge before you can apply creativity and skills successfully.

But what really makes for true learning, and how it might it be possible to achieve this?

In a recent article on the Brain Pickings site, Maria Popova uses the oft-maligned term ‘grit’ to describe one possible key to the learning process. She also notes that,

‘Creative history brims with embodied examples of why the secret of genius is doggedness rather than “god”-given talent..’

Examples given include Mozart, E.B White and Tchaikovsky.

In the same piece, American academic Angela Duckworth also makes some very interesting observations on this theme,

‘The problem, I think, is not only the schools but also the students…learning is hard. True, learning is fun, exhilarating and gratifying — but it is also often daunting, exhausting and sometimes discouraging. . . . To help..low-performing students, educators and parents must first recognize that character is at least as important as intellect.’

I wonder if we should stop mentioning ‘grit’, and start using the less contentious term ‘character’? Whichever your preference, it seems possible that having the will-power and sheer determination to succeed could be one key to deep learning and expertise.

Undoubtably, to be successful at a subject requires hard work and practise. But not just any old practise: we need quality practise. As outlined by Daniel Goleman in his book, ‘Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence’,

‘Hours and hours of practice are necessary for great performance, but not sufficient. How experts in any domain pay attention while practicing makes a crucial difference. For instance, (a) much-cited study of violinists…showed the top tier had practiced more than 10,000 hours…’

He goes on to stress that the quality and precision of the feedback that we receive is vital during the practise stage,

‘Ideally that feedback comes from someone with an expert eye and so every world-class sports champion has a coach. If you practice without such feedback, you don’t get to the top ranks.’

Thus, the secret of true mastery might be twofold: dedication combined with expert feedback. This process can be seen in action on the TV show ‘Strictly come Dancing’ – where an amateur practises (hard) under the tuition of an experienced professional. I also thought of ‘Rocky Balboa’- the character in the 70’s boxing movie, who improves exponentially once back under the wing of his cantankerous coach. Of course, the idea of practise combined with tailored, explicit feedback could equally be applied to English and Maths, or any other classroom subject, for that matter.

The ‘OK plateau’, is also worthy of consideration. This is the term used by Joshua Foer. In his book, ‘Maximize Your Potential’He cited studies carried out by psychologists in the 1960’s, which identified three key stages in the ‘acquisition of new skills’ process. Firstly, “The cognitive phase” in which ‘we’re intellectualizing the task, discovering new strategies to perform better, and making lots of mistakes. We’re consciously focusing on what we’re doing.’ Following on from this, a middle phase – termed the “associative stage”. Here, we’re ‘making fewer errors, and gradually getting better.’ Lastly, comes the “autonomous phase”. This is the dangerous one, and a stage that is probably familiar to us all, if we’re honest, where we, ‘move the skill to the back of our proverbial mental filing cabinet and stop paying it conscious attention.’

Once we reach a certain level of accomplishment – the final ‘autonomous’ stage – it seems possible that we settle for being ‘good enough’ at something, our skills enable us to work on a kind of ‘autopilot’ that actually serves the purpose of preventing us from getting any better. Foer goes on to note,

‘What separates experts from the rest of us is that they tend to engage in a very highly focused routine… top achievers…develop strategies for consciously keeping out of the autonomous stage… by doing three things: focusing on their technique, staying goal-oriented, and getting constant immediate feedback on their performance…they stay in the “cognitive stage.”’

If we are to ensure that our pupils do not hit the ‘coasting’, or ‘good enough’ stage, it seems we should ensure we are pushing them to achieve more. I can think of several ways we could consciously do this. For instance, by deliberately throwing in new vocabulary, offering immediate feedback, or encouraging pupils to take risks and worry less about making mistakes (- then ensuring we correct them!).

It’s probably worthwhile that we ensure our own subject knowledge hasn’t ‘plateaued’. As teachers, If we discourage autopilot in our students, we should also avoid it in our own practice?

The importance of memorisation has been the subject of much recent debate. There can be no doubt that the ability to effectively memorise information forms a large part of the learning process. I’m referring here to the process of installing information into the long-term memory for future use – low-stakes quizzes and quick-fire questioning can be a very useful in aiding this process. Some argue that by focusing on memory we are simply conditioning students to pass tests, rather than helping them to achieve deep subject knowledge. However, I think we generally now accept that the internet has fatally wounded the coursework system, and, whilst exam conditions are undoubtably stressful and sometimes unpleasant, the process does at least require students to demonstrate that they’ve understood and learnt enough that they can call it to mind when it matters most.

I particularly like this quote (and quote within the quote) from Peter C Brown from his book, ‘Make it Stick’,

‘Nonwithstanding the pitfalls of standardised testing, what we really ought to ask is how to do better at building knowledge and creativity, for without knowledge you don’t have the foundation for the higher-level skills of analysis. As the psychologist Robert Stenberg and 2 colleagues put it,

“One cannot apply what one knows in a practical manner, if one does not know anything to apply”

‘Make It Stick’ Peter C Brown

I’m struggling to think of a better conclusion than that. Maybe learning is no great mystery, after all:
Take some grit and determination; add plenty of knowledge; apply lots of quality feedback; take care to avoid the bland-taste of complacency; test regularly and – above all – keep on the boil.

Perhaps it is this simple formula that offers the true alchemy of (lasting) learning?

Please follow me on Twitter: @cazzypot

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5 Responses to The Secret Recipe of Learning? Learn Potion N°9

  1. Excellent posting.

    Consider this: Educational provision (the potion) isn’t so much about knowledge acquisition versus skills and creativity – so much as knowledge and skills acquisition underpin and empower creativity.

    I agree with the point about teachers’ capability and the danger of complacency – so teachers’ teacherly knowledge and skills arguably underpin the capacity for teachers to be creative or to inspire creativity as part of the teaching and learning process but also as an inspirational and aspirational vision as a consequence of our teaching provision including, of course, a ‘character building’ and moral ethos.


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