To begin with, I think this book should be read by all teachers, trainee teachers, policy makers, and anyone who has a role to play in Education. Daisy Christodoulou writes about how much classroom practice contradicts basic scientific principles. Many of the myths presented in this book are things I was told whilst training and after reading it, I wish I had read this book earlier in my career.
The first myth is that “facts prevent understanding”. Personally, I cannot get my head around why people would think that facts prevent understanding. Isn’t it obvious that if students don’t know certain facts, they will not be able to access questions and provide in depth reasoning? In Maths, for example, if students do not have multiplication facts stored in their long term memory, a lot of the increasingly difficult multiplication problems they will come across will add a huge strain on their working memory than if they know these facts. The long term memory does not have the constraints that the working memory has and so when solving problems like 239 x 28283, students need to rely on these facts so that their working memories are not being overloaded.
Christodoulou points out how critics of fact-learning will question the need for learning random facts, but she rebuts this by saying how the aim of fact-learning is not just to learn a few random facts but to learn several hundred which form a schema that eventually helps understand the world. This also feeds into the idea of how skills and knowledge are not separate things we need to be teaching. If we want students to think critically, evaluate and analyse, they need to know things in order to do that and hence require a strong knowledge base. And this means they need to know facts. An example I really enjoyed reading in the book was about a Geography lesson when students were asked to describe a rain forest after they had spent a couple of days talking about the rain forest. The answers lacked depth because the students did not have much of the background knowledge. The same question was asked at the end of the topic and students were able to answer richer with some analysis too. This debate of the separation of skills and knowledge is something I have only recently begun thinking about and when I relate it to my subject, I 100% agree that in order to be successful in Mathematics, students need to know certain facts.
Another myth spoken about is that teacher-led instruction is passive. I have discussed this with colleagues in the past who are not in favour of ‘teacher talk’ and those that want students to work through discovering the Maths and independently figuring things out for themselves. This all sounds great in theory – students working through problems and learning independently, the teacher playing a facilitator role, but from my experience this does not work out as well (perhaps I am not doing it right). In order for students to learn all the facts they need, teachers play a key role. This information cannot just infiltrate into the students. Christodoulou stresses that teacher instruction is vital to become an independent learner. What fascinated me here is how Engelmann’s direct instruction programme shows success in performance as well as on measures such as self-esteem too. Students enjoy feeling successful which teacher-led instruction can achieve.
The last myth I will discuss is that project and activities are the best way to learn. This was something that was heavily pushed in my training year (with the best intentions). I was told to plan activities that involved students moving round the classroom, going to the playground, working in groups, presenting projects etc. I cannot lie and say I did not enjoy making these lessons. I wanted to get as creative as possible for my students so that they would engage in the learning. One lesson I remember clearly was when planning to teach surface area. I chose to do this with cereal boxes and added in having a class breakfast after they had completed their posters. The students worked their way through the nets of different cereal boxes and worked out the areas and I thought ‘yes they have got this, what a great lesson’. A week later when it came to doing a question on surface area, I had a sea of blank faces. What they had remembered from that lesson was eating cereal.
When looking back, I had focused the thinking I wanted the students to do on the wrong thing. Their working memory was filled with working out what table they had to go to next, on the role they played in their group, presenting their poster rather than on calculating surface area. I had planned for them to think like Mathematicians but forgot that the difference between novices and experts is that experts have a huge body of knowledge and the processes with it.
“The practice of a profession is not the same as learning to practice the profession.” – Kirschner, Sweller and Clark
This is a book I will definitely be recommending to colleagues and even if they do not agree with all of it, or even any of it, it definitely has the power to spark up thought.