Quality, practice and memory

Posted by Jane on May 17, 2016

I found Syed’s analysis very powerful and empowering.  Powerful because he was clearly arguing against ingrained tenets of our society that inate ability trumps all and empowering because it gave a real locus for quality teaching both in relation to the subject but also to convince learners with quality teaching. personal resilience and using failure as feedback they will improve.

Willingham’s piece took a different tack clearly arguing that memory techniques are ones which are understood and can be applied.*

But how to turn Syed’s and Willingham’s advice into reality in the classroom?

I was amazed at the example Syed gave of the amount of very high performing table tennis players in his street – which he attributed to access to quality coaching, access to facilities and quality  practice opportunities that seek to stretch the learner.  From this there is something compelling for me in the need for teachers to be searching for that quality, to not settle for the good enough and certainly to not fall back on the notion that some kids are naturally good at maths and some not and so fall into the traps (for either group) that Syed outlined.  Staying with Syed, and noting that this was a theme in an earlier thinkpiece, encouraging and using failure also seems incredibly important.  This both indicates that learners are being stretched but also – if only we could get this right in an educaiton culture that stresses the primus of getting the correct answer – the failures if used gives the feedback which is so critical for improvement and learning.  Moving to a culture that is more positive about failure as a learning technique seems almost impossible but I do hope that as a teacher I can encourage a postive attitude towards failure as a way to learn at the classroom and individual learner level.

Turning to Willingham, I found his focus on the question ‘why?’ very compelling. It seems to me that a lot of teaching is devoted to explaining why things are as they are. But does this mean that the teacher is doing all of the thinking for the student, leaving them with a packaged set of outcomes or rules that they must then try to commit to memory cold? To me this brings back in notions of instrumental and relational learning and also some of Meyer’s encouragements for teachers to involve the learners in working through what information is needed to answer very high level and loosely specified questions.  I am sure that all of these techniques will get us closer to Willingham’s sense of how memories are best made…and having thought about it I will try and always remember to ask the ‘why?’ no matter what the type of lesson being taught.

So, in summary.  lots and lots for me this week.


*It is clear to see some of these tactics being used in Memrise, although I am not convinced that active thinkig is well captured in Memrise. It seemed to me that they were more focused on the ideas of practice moving material from short to long term memory supported by the use of mnemonics. And, as an aside, I did find some of the mnemonics quite confusing, and was a little alarmed that there didn’t appear to be any moderation of the mnemonic material.

1 Comment

  1. Fintan Donnellan
    21 May 2016

    Yes, Syed’s whole table-tennis background makes me think about how his coach and sports coaches in general treat the athletes that they coach. Of course they’re not exactly the same situations, but we can take something from their approach. Coaches never use the word ‘failure’. There are only learning curves. The quality of their feedback that is used to improve every little facet of an athlete’s game. I think teachers should think of themselves as something akin to a coach.

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