This article was written for Creative Education to promote my speech at their national Teaching and Learning conference in March 2017.
Think of something you’re good at. How did you become good at it?
How do you know you’re good at it – on what evidence is your judgment based?
Now think of something you’re not very good at and consider why – what went wrong when you were trying to learn this thing and who, if anyone, was to blame?
Next, think about something you are good at now but didn’t initially want to learn. What kept you going in lieu of motivation?
Finally, think of a time you’ve helped someone – ideally not a pupil in a school setting, but perhaps a friend or family member – to learn something. To what extent did you understand the subject better once you’d taught it to someone else?
Now, like Derren Brown, I’ll read your mind and reveal your answers…
I’m confident you said you became good at something through practice, by learning from your mistakes, by experimenting. You also learnt best when you engaged in a process of trial and error and when you repeated your actions several times, making incremental improvements each time. As the Danish nuclear physicist Niels Bohr once said, “[An expert is] someone who has made all the mistakes which it is possible to make in a very narrow field”.
I’m also confident that you knew you were good at something because of the evidence given to you in the form of feedback, particularly praise, and also as a result of receiving a reward for doing well. You might also have known that you were good at something because you were asked to help others achieve the same end-goal and because you saw the results of your labours for yourself.
I’ll wager that, when learning failed for you, it was because you didn’t engage in a sufficient amount of practice, didn’t work hard enough or lacked focus. Perhaps the feedback you received was poor or else you did not act upon it, or at any rate did not act upon it in a timely manner. Perhaps the communication between you and your the teacher was poor.
More often than not, though, when learning failed for you it was because you lacked sufficient motivation, you simply weren’t interested in learning the thing being taught because it wasn’t personally meaningful to you.
So what, in the absence of motivation – when you didn’t have the want to learn – kept you going until you succeeded?
I’ll bet it was the need to learn – having a rationale, a necessity to learn, and therefore taking ownership of the learning – that kept you going and helped you overcome your lack of motivation to succeed.
Finally, I bet that by teaching something to a third party you learnt more about it yourself because the act of teaching enabled you to gain feedback and make better sense of a topic. Teaching is also a form of learning by doing, of learning through practice. And the fact you had to teach something to someone else addressed the need to learn it (you had to learn it in order to teach it to someone else, after all).
So what does all this tell us about great teaching and learning?
Great teaching is about sensitivity and adaptation, about a warm interaction between a teacher and a pupil, and about adjusting to the here-and-now circumstances of the classroom. As such, there is no silver bullet, no panacea, no pill which once popped will proffer great lessons every time. In short, teaching is a complex art form. And like all art forms, the foundations of effective teaching are built of rules and routines, regularly repeated and reinforced.
And what of great learning?
Although we can’t actually see learning happen in the classroom (we can only observe a student’s ‘performance’), we can plan lessons which create the right conditions for learning to occur later. We can, for example, improve the learning environment, help students to store and retrieve information from their long-term memories with greater ease and efficiency, and improve their capacity to think hard by helping them make best use of their limited working memories.
At the Creative Education conference in London on 20 March I’ll expand on this subject and articulate the teaching strategies which help students retain knowledge over the long term – a necessity now we’ve returned to linear GCSEs and students are assessed via terminal examinations at the end of a two year course.
I’ll start my speech by asking the fundamental – and ostensibly simple – question: What is learning?
I will then talk about how to create the right learning environment, how to help students cheat their working memories, and how to plan for deliberate, distributed practice.