How did it go?

With the first Latin GCSE done and dusted, “how did it go?” is probably a question that every candidate has been asked and answered multiple times. This week, I have found myself wondering to what extent their self-evaluations are accurate.

Curious to discover an answer, I turned to the internet without much hope of finding one, yet came across a psychology study reported by The Learning Scientists, a group of cognitive scientists who focus on research in education. What’s particularly interesting about the study is that it attempts to evaluate students’ success at making what they call “predictions”, which the psychologists define as a student’s projection of their likely performance prior to a test, as well as their “postdictions”, by which they mean a student’s evaluation of their performance afterwards. The study attempted to make an intervention in that process, in other words they tried to improve students’ ability to make both “predictions” and “postdictions” about their own performance. The results are interesting.

The study was performed with a group of undergraduates, and the psychologists made several interventions in an attempt to improve their students’ ability to self-evaluate. They taught them specific techniques for making the most of feedback and they ensured that they took a practice test one week before each of the three exams that they sat, inviting students to self-score the practice test and reflect on any errors. The undergraduates were then encouraged to examine reasons why their “predictions” and their “postdictions” may have been inaccurate on the first two exams, and make adjustments. All of this was with the aim of improving their ability to self-evaluate.

The study found that while the undergraduates’ “postdictions” (i.e. their report on their own performance after the test) remained slightly more accurate than their own “predictions” (their projection of their likely performance), the above interventions resulted in no improvement in the accuracy of students’ “postdictions” over time. While the accuracy of some students’ “predictions” did improve somewhat, none of the undergraduates showed any significant improvement in their ability to make “postdictions”. The students’ ability to evaluate their own performance after each test remained as varied as they had been prior to the interventions.

As the authors conclude, “this study demonstrates … that improving the accuracy of students’ self-evaluations is very difficult.” This is genuinely interesting and certainly fits with my own anecdotal experience of my own ability to assess how I have performed after an examination, as well as the huge number of students that I have worked with over the years. A student’s own feelings after a test may be affected by a myriad of compounding factors and if I had a £1 for every student who felt that an examination had gone dismally who then turned out a perfectly respectable grade, I’d be a wealthy woman. In my experience, some students may over-estimate their “predictions” but most students underestimate their “postdictions”. It is interesting that those “postdictions” appear to be elusive when it comes to intervention and that the cognitive scientists have not – as yet – found a method of helping students to assess their own performance more accurately. I suspect that is because it is too emotive.

It is not obvious from the study how high-stakes the tests were – the psychologists do not make clear, for example, whether the test results contributed significantly (or indeed at all) to the assessment of the undergraduates’ own degree. This to me is something of an oversight, as an obvious compounding factor in any student’s ability to assess their own performance has to be their emotional response to it. Low-stakes testing as part of an experiment is a very different ball-game to the high-stakes testing of an examination that counts towards a GCSE, an A level or a degree class.

My conclusion for now, especially for my highest-achieving students, is to remain unconvinced that they know how well they have done. I could name countless students who have been deeply distressed after an examination, only to discover that they achieved a mark well above 90%. Even in the most seemingly disastrous of circumstances this can be the case. I know of students who missed out a whole question or indeed even a whole page of questions and still achieved an excellent grade overall, so solid was their performance on the rest of the paper and the other papers which counted towards their grade.

Much as it remains an important emotional connection to engage with every student about how they feel their exam went, they’re not a good barometer for what will be on the slip of paper when they open their envelope in August.

Photo by Siora Photography on Unsplash

Making a habit of it

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.”

Will Durrant, American historian, paraphrasing Aristotle

On the internet, where dodgy misattributions abound, this quotation is invariably ascribed to Aristotle himself. In fact, it is taken from historian and prolific author Will Durrant’s early 20th century work, The Story of Philosophy. In chapter 2 he examines Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics and summarises his interpretation as above.

Despite undoubtedly being a genius, Aristotle was a master of the practical over and above the theoretical, which is perhaps the reason why his ideas have endured so successfully. He was one of the few thinkers of his time to acknowledge that philosophy is a luxury: that certain physiological and indeed psychological needs must be met before one can dedicate one’s time to it. He argued that there was never a simple way to define anything, that even the most fundamental moral definitions can vary with circumstances. He also argued, as Durrant summarised so pithily, that living well comes to a large extent through the repeated automation of good habits, and that being theoretically good was not much use in isolation without action.

This week, I finished James Clear’s Atomic Habits, a spectacularly popular book I have been in the queue for at my local library for several months. Conscious of the even longer queue that came after me (it is next available in December!) I finished the book within a couple of days. This was not a difficult task. I can see why there has been so much fuss about it and why for some it has been genuinely revelatory. As a reasonably well-organised and self-motivated person, I would not go so far as to say that I found the book life-changing, but I certainly found it helpful and agreed whole-heartedly with his refreshingly pragmatic approach. To take just one example, he makes the point that people who appear to be good at resisting temptation (a characteristic that many of my friends claim I possess) are in fact merely better at avoiding it – ingraining the habit, for example, that you do not buy certain foodstuffs is always more successful than buying them and telling yourself that you will consume them in moderation: the latter is simply too difficult to achieve.

Above all else, Clear’s point is that successful people (and you can define “success” in whatever way you choose) develop good habits while others do not. This might seem obvious, but it is precisely his unerring focus on habits that is so radical. While other self-help manuals exhort people to find their motivation and attempt to inspire us to make dramatic changes in our lives, Clear focuses on advising us to develop better habits incrementally: to take advantage of our brain’s ability to assimilate and automate regular and repeated behaviours. For example, I have said to myself: “I will go to the gym at x time on a Monday and a Thursday every week.” How do I make sure that this happens? Well, Clear advises going when I can, whatever the circumstances. If I miss a session due to illness or emergency, it becomes even more important to ensure that I make it the next time. If I can only go for 10 minutes, I should go for 10 minutes. This is because the habit of going is what’s most important. To quote another oft-used saying, perfectionism is the enemy of progress: if I let my abstract desire to achieve the perfect full work-out every time I go to the gym dominate over the priority of simply going habitually, I put my long-term gains at risk. It is easy to use the fact that on any one particular day I simply don’t have time for the perfect workout as an excuse not to go at all. Instead, I should focus on developing the habit of attending come what may, even if my peformance is sub-optimal: the enduring habit is the path to life-long fitness.

One of the things Clear expresses beautifully is the limited power of motivation, something I have written about less skilfully here. I am a firm believer that motivation is difficult to come by and has limited value when it comes to the reality of the daily grind – for example, the regular gym visits necessary to attain fitness or the repeated vocabulary learning required to sit a Latin exam. Humans need to experience some practical gains before they can achieve any kind of motivation and even then motivation can fail. Clear mentions a discussion he had with a coach who trains successful weight-lifters. The coach attributed the difference between those who make it and those who don’t not to some bottomless pit of inspiration or self-motivation but quite simply to their tolerance for boredom: their capacity to stick with the programme of repeated lifts, day after day, without quitting. Fundamentally, that’s all that makes the difference.

One of my tutees, with less than a fortnight to go before their exam, suddenly interrupted our session to ask me about “the best way to learn vocabulary.” Now, I’m not saying there aren’t ways that are better than others, indeed I have written extensively about it and shared a practical guide to exactly that with him and his family months ago. But I know this particular student very well and he’s the sort that is always looking for a silver bullet. He’s the sort that wants a quick fix. The reality is this: there isn’t one. You. Just. Have. To. Do. It. A few words a day, every day, day in day out, over and again, until you’ve learnt them. This is what he has never been willing to hear and he wasn’t particularly thrilled when I said it again.

On my way to my first ever solo gym visit (yes, I made it!) I was stopped by a guy who was getting out of his car and wanted directions to the station. Rising above the urge to moan about London commuters who use our road as a free car park, I beamed at him and said I was going in that direction and would show him the way. “I’m heading there,” I said, pointing to the glowering gymnasium squatting next to Jewsons. “Although I’m not particularly thrilled about it.” What he said next precisely summed up Clear’s case in Atomic Habits. “I haven’t been to the gym for months,” he admitted. I told him that it was my first time going alone having lost my work-out buddy and that I wasn’t looking forward to it for that reason. “Ah!” he shouted, confidently, as we parted ways. “You just need to find your motivation!

Coming from a man who had literally just admitted that he had failed to attend his own gym for months, I found this fascinating. He was probably looking at me and thinking that with my attitude I would never keep going. I lacked the motivation to be a proper gym-goer. As for himself, I suspect in his own mind he was just having a blip. Okay, a blip that had lasted for several months, but a blip nonetheless. He was motivated to go, he simply hadn’t had the time, recently. Work had been manic. But do you see the problem? I think I do. In all honesty, I do not feel motivated to go to the gym. I don’t want to go. But I’m going. That’s the point. It’s the same thing that got me through my PhD, which I hated every minute of; while others claimed to love their research and yet gradually fell by the wayside and quit, I dragged myself up every day, wrote a few paragraphs, cried a lot, and eventually finished it. The practical grind beats the theoretical, the habit beats the concept. Sometimes, the hamster on the wheel is the ultimate winner.

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Last-minute help?

This is the first of two remarkably busy weeks working with a very large number of Year 11s during their school holidays, preparing for the forthcoming GCSE examinations. Many of these students have approached me in just the last few weeks seeking help, and it is remarkable how much can be achieved in a short time prior to the final exams.

Many clients are surprised by the assurance that help can be worthwhile at this late stage. Many contact me in a state of panic or near despair, convinced that the situation is unsalvageable and unsure why they’re even asking for my advice. Yet within a few weeks it is possible to have an impact on a student’s confidence and their attainment, so long as you know what to focus on.

First and foremost, it is essential to assess the particular areas with which a student is struggling. This in itself can be a challenge, since many students (and certainly their parents) can struggle to identify where the problems lie. Students often present with nothing more than the fact that they need help with “the grammar”, so I rely largely on my own detective work to get to the bottom of what can be done to improve the situation. At a late stage of intervention this may well not mean delving into complex material, nor indeed trying to ask them to learn basic fundamentals. At this stage, it’s about identifying and selecting some concrete things to address that will gain them a win.

One thing that can be tackled head-on is their performance in the grammar questions, which make up 10% of their language mark. The examiner is remarkably repetitive and we are now in possession of enough past papers to prove this concept. Showing students every single past paper in quick succession, focusing entirely on the grammar questions and demystifying what it is that the examiner is looking for in their answer can be a real game-changer. In just one session it is usually possible to help get most students to the point where they can achieve 8 or 9 out of 10 in that section. To achieve full marks, students require a whistlestop tour of the uses of the subjunctive, which is a question the examiner has asked every single year, and that can take up another session or two. The uses of the subjunctive are another relatively easy win because most exam papers contain at least 5-10 sentences containing one of these constructions, so an understanding of how to translate those clauses gains them a significant margin.

There are further gains to be had if we have time to look at several practice papers as they can be coached on the types of phrasing that come up on a regular basis. I have identified a collection of common phrases that appear on exam papers with striking regularity, and a student who is perhaps overwhelmed with vocabulary learning can benefit from focusing their revision on these phrases. In addition, I have a list of high-frequency words that come up time and again on exam papers. Focusing on the high-frequency words will not gain a student a top grade in the exam (you need all the vocabulary for that!) but it can be a real game-changer for students who are struggling at the pass-mark.

Some students come to me for help with the literature and the majority of the time it is because they are completely overwhelmed by how to go about committing the texts to memory. I have written before on the fact that too many teachers tend to assume that students have the knowledge, experience and skills to rote-learn vast quantities of material without support, but in my experience, this really is not the case. My grades went up significantly when I started to assume that students did not have this knowledge and I taught them explicitly how to go about the process. Likewise, my grades went up when I took the risk of allowing them short bursts of class time to make a start on the process – this afforded me the opportunity to model the process and then monitor them using it. Many students are resistant to advice when it comes to study skills, so it’s important to ensure that they do give effective methodologies a chance so that they can be converted to the process. If left to their own devices, many students will ignore the suggestions made by their teachers, attempt to do it their own way and fail.

I am finding the work that I am doing immensely rewarding. Just this week I had a particularly heartening message from a client saying that her son is really seeing a difference. “He’s just said to me “ a few weeks ago I wouldn’t have had a clue and now I am getting them all right”. So grateful.” This particular student has been through exactly the process I have outlined above – I took him on a whistlestop tour of the uses of the subjunctive, we reviewed all the grammar questions on past papers and now we’re onto as many practice papers as we have time for, tackling some further easy wins such as time phrases along the way. Once the student is on board with the notion that it is never too late to turn their performance around, it’s quite remarkable what can be achieved.

Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

They didn’t (always) behave for me

A conversation with one of my younger tutees this week reminded me just how toxic classroom disruption can be. While rueing his poor performance in a recent test, the boy expressed real frustration about the situation in his Latin class. “Some kids just see it as their job to mess around” he said. He even reported that the situation had brought his teacher to tears in the past.

At even its most minor level, any form of classroom disruption is an issue for all learners. Children who may be struggling with the material go unsupported because their teacher’s attention is taken by the disruptors in the class (who may, of course, be struggling themselves). Schools which have not yet faced up to the inescapable fact that impeccable behaviour is the central, non-negotiable foundation on which all teaching and learning is built, those schools will continue to let young learners down.

One of the things I find most puzzling about the teaching profession is that we cannot seem to agree on how to manage behaviour. Debates continue to rage about schools which set the bar high, with cries from numerous educators claiming that vulnerable students and/or SEND students cannot handle such a high bar and that clear boundaries such as the use of SLANT in classrooms and the insistence on silent corridors are oppressive and stifling. I find this baffling, not to mention an insult to the children with those needs. As someone who has worked in schools rated Good or Outstanding for behaviour, I can tell you that there were times when I was frightened in the corridors. There were times when I felt pushed around and intimidated by some students. There were times when I felt humiliated. What this all translates to in schools with behaviour that ends up being classified below Good I cannot even begin to imagine. Moreover, if I as a middle-aged adult felt like this in the school corridor, how did our most vulnerable students feel?

A recent survey on Teacher Tapp, a daily survey app for classroom teachers, highlighted the ever-increasing use of ear defenders by some students in our schools. As I pointed out in response to the discussion, I find their necessity deeply depressing. How did we get to the point where we simply accept that some school environments are too noisy and overwhelming for some of our students? Like that’s ok? And like noisy, boisterous environments aren’t actually a negative for all learners? How on earth did we end up in a situation in which the kind of equipment required by men on building sites using machines to break up concrete becomes a necessity to protect our students from the environment in our schools?

Let me tell you about my one of my own experiences in the classroom. I was sent to an expensive girls’ boarding school (although I didn’t board, I was one of a small percentage of day pupils). In Year 9 (or the Upper Fourth, as it was called would you believe) I was part of a Classical Civilisation class run by a young female teacher whom I shall call Miss Jones. Poor Miss Jones was a sweet, kind and well-meaning woman, who no doubt went into teaching because she cared about her subject and wanted to share it with the world. I suspect she had no training, because in a private school in the 1980s teacher training was considered very much optional and barely even desirable. The school was tiny, consisting of 400 girls in total and had a pretty strict regime – for example, silent corridors. The Head was terrifying – genuinely so. But poor Miss Jones, with her reticent nature, her lack of training and her lack of experience, had no control over our class. One girl was particularly disruptive. I shall call her Millie. Millie was taller and looked older than most of us. She terrified many of us and was a merciless bully to some. That included Miss Jones. Millie refused to cooperate with the class, to the extent that she would not sit where she was told, she would not participate in the class in any way, she would not even unpack her bag. She would lay her head on the desk in a flagrant show of disdain. Miss Jones’s methodology was to ignore her and try to teach around her, but behaviour in general was so poor that we all learnt very little. She never received any support or help with the situation and did not last long in the job.

I share this to illustrate the fact that issues with poor behaviour occur in all schools. Another recent survey from Teacher Tapp, carried out just this week, indicates that student behaviour, alongside workload, is now the overwhelming reason why teachers are leaving the profession in their thousands. There is much talk about “challenging” schools and understandably so, because getting behaviour right in such places has very real safeguarding issues, as explained in this brilliant blog post which I have cited many times before. Yet I would like to highlight the fact that behaviour that is disruptive enough to impact on teaching and learning goes on everywhere – in schools rated Good or Outstanding, in grammar schools and in private schools. Some of what I hear from my tutees would not be out of place in a chapter of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies – and these are the sorts of schools with Latin on their timetable.

While I do not wish to promote panic or cause any pearl-clutching, I do believe that disruptive behaviour in our schools is an issue that nobody wants to face up to. Nobody – whether they are a parent or a teacher – wants to believe that our children’s education is being hampered by disruption in the classroom. It is hard for all of us to accept. While writing this blog post, a memory from close to a decade ago came back to me with a jolt. It is a comment made by a boy in one of my past Forms, a boy who was one of the most disruptive members of the class (and indeed the school). “Your PSHE lessons are like watching a YouTube video with crap internet, Miss: you keep buffering.” I recall being somewhat non-plussed by this rude remark, one which was called out across the class and interrupted the flow of the lesson in exactly the way he was describing. Out of the mouths of our not-so-innocent babes can come the real truth: my ability to share information was being constantly put on pause, meaning that the flow of explanation was consistently and endlessly interrupted. This was painfully obvious, even to the members of the class who were causing most of the interruptions, a fact we should perhaps give some thought. I remember being further stunned when an out-of-control student expressed his desire to join the army; as I picked my jaw up off the floor and used it to point out to him that he would have to behave in the army, he said “yeah. That’s the point.” I’ve never forgotten the fact that he knew he needed more discipline than we were providing for him. We let him down. Badly.

So, back to my tutee, who was complaining about the behaviour in his Latin class. He described exactly the kind of intermittment “buffering” that the lovely Liam pointed out to me a decade ago, so it sounded all-too familiar, but this week it really hit me just how truly appalling the situation is for so many young learners and just how many of them have come to accept it as part of their school experience. “Just as I think I’m starting to get something,” he said, “the teacher has to stop and then I’ve lost it all over again.” That’s when my heart broke a little.

It’s hard to know who needs to hear this but I suspect it’s all of us: classroom teachers, parents and senior leaders all need to face up to the problem for what it is and reassert our right and our responsibility to be the adults in the room. Disruption – low-level or otherwise – is kryptonite to every child’s understanding and progress. To ignore this is to let all of our children down.

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Nobody said it would be this hard

Why does Latin have the reputation of being so difficult? Everybody thinks that it’s difficult and to some extent it is – but so is any language, once you get past, “Bonjour, je m’appelle Emma”.

Grammar is tricky and it’s still not taught in our own language to the degree that it is in most other countries. To listen to educators, writers and commentators report on the increased level of rigour in the teaching of literacy in primary schools, you’d think that the problem was solved. In truth, the level to which grammar is taught discretely in English schools is still woeful by comparison with schools in other countries. To a certain extent, this is a self-perpetuating problem caused by failures in the system over the last couple of generations. Many current teachers admit that they struggle to teach concepts that they themselves were never taught in school, and if I had a £1 for every English teacher that has come to me for help with basic English grammar, I’d have enough for a slap-up meal.

Let’s take a closer look at why some children struggle so much with Latin over and above their other subjects and – specifically – more than any other language they might be learning in school. One obvious reason, I think, is the unfamiliar territory which this dead language presents to family and friends. Many parents and guardians feel able to offer support to their children in other subjects, certainly in the early years. I work with many families who are really involved with their children’s homework and study and children certainly do benefit from this kind of proactive and interested support at home. Lots of families employ me because they care about their children’s studies but they themselves feel ill-equipped to support them in Latin due to their own lack of knowledge; with only around 2.5% of state schools currently offering Latin on their timetable, I don’t anticipate that situation changing in a hurry. As a result of the fact that so few people have experience of Latin as a subject, it maintains a kind of mystique, and that all feeds into its reputation as an inaccessible and challenging subject.

Furthermore, and at the risk of stating the obvious, Latin is an ancient lanaguage and a dead one. What does it mean that the language is dead? Quite simply, that nobody speaks it any more. As a result, the content of what children are asked to translate will often seem very obscure. The ancient world was very different from ours and much of what went on – even in the most mundane aspects of daily life – can seem unfamiliar or even bizarre. Add to this the fact that a lot of the time students will be looking at stories from ancient myths or founding legends and we’re then into a whole new world of weirdness. The thing is, children generally like the weirdness – and indeed the darkness – of these ancient tales; if you think that children don’t appreciate the darkness of the world then explain the thundering success of a children’s author such as Patrick Ness. Children are not necessarily put off by the puzzling nature of what they are translating, but it can certainly contribute to their belief that the material is obscure.

The realities of learning an ancient language compared to a modern one are summed up by this absolutely hilarious snippet which has been doing the rounds on the internet for donkey’s years:

So, we’ve dealt with Latin’s reputation and we’ve explored the inherent fact of it being an ancient, dead language that may make it potentially difficult to access. On top of that lies the truth that Latin as a language is very different from our own and indeed from any others we are likely to be taught in UK schools.

The most important thing to understand is that Latin is a heavily inflected language. What that means is that word-formation matters: we’re not just talking about spelling here, because if you look at a word that is wrongly spelled in English, you will still more than likely be able to recognise it in context and thus understand the sentence. However, in inflected languages, words are modified to express different grammatical categories such as tense, voice, number, gender and mood. The inflection of verbs is called conjugation and this will be familiar to students of all languages, but in Latin (and in other heavily-inflected languages such as German) nouns are inflected too (as are adjectives, participles, pronouns and some numerals). So, words change and therefore become difficult to recognise. What blows students’ minds most in my experience is how this inflection translates into English and how the rendering of that translation can be confusing. For example, ad feminam in Latin means “to the woman” in the sense of “towards the woman”, so I might use the phrase in a sentence such as “the boy ran over to the woman”. However, as well as ad feminam, the word feminae, with that different ending and no preposition, can also mean “to the woman”, but this time in the sense of “giving something to”. I would therefore use feminae in a sentence such as “I gave a gift to the woman”. Using ad feminam in that context would be completely wrong. Trying to unpick why two grammatically different phrases sound the same in English is just one tiny example of myriad of misconceptions and misunderstandings that children can acquire and that can cause problems later down the line. What’s great about one-to-one tutoring, of course, is that these kinds of misconceptions can be uncovered, unpicked and rectified.

Due to its inflection, many Latin words become extremely difficult to recognise as they decline or conjugate. This brings us to what many students find the most disheartening thing about the subject, which is vocabulary learning. If a student has worked hard to learn the meaning of a list of words, imagine their disappointment and frustration when this effort bears no fruit for them when it comes to translating. A child may have learned that do means “give” but will they recognise dant, dabamus or dederunt, which are all versions of that same verb? Well, without explicit instruction, lots of practice and a huge amount of support, probably not. This can be really depressing for students and can lead to them wanting to give up altogether, which is where a tutor comes in.

Another consequence of the fact that Latin is inflected is that a Latin sentence has to be decoded – you can’t just read it from left to right. Breaking the habit of reading from left to right is one of the biggest challenges that we face when trying to teach students how to succeed in Latin. Even when a child has worked hard to learn all of their noun endings and all of their verb endings, they still need a huge amount of support and scaffolding to show them how to process these and map them onto the sentences in front of them. Most Latin teachers really underestimate the amount of time, effort and repetition that it takes to help them to break this habit. Once again, this is where one-to-one tuition can be really powerful: working with a child to model the process is key.

Perchance to dream?

Last night I dreamt that Roald Dahl was in prison. Not exactly “I went to Manderley again” as an opening line, but it’s the truth.

Despite centuries of interest in the subject and recent studies with all the benefits of modern science, dreams are still not fully understood. They are generally acknowledged to be a by-product of evolution and quite possibly the brain’s way of processing and sorting information, but exactly how and why they occur is still debated. Some neuroscientists and psychologists argue that they help us to organise our memories, others suggest that they are part of the important process of forgetting or “dumping” unnecessary clutter from our minds. Some believe that they are a way of safely practising difficult scenarios, and some have even claimed that the frequency of dreams in which we are being chased – particularly in childhood – is evidence for their origins in our early evolutionary history. I’m not sure I buy that, not least because it falls into the trap of believing that everything that evolves does so for an obvious purpose. Dreams may simply be a by-product of our extraordinarily large and complex brain-structures: they may not necessarily be essential or advantageous in the battle of survival and reproduction. One thing’s for sure, it is frequently difficult to explain how a particular story ends up being told in one’s mind overnight; last night, my brain placed a long-dead children’s author behind bars.

Dreams mainly occur while we are in REM sleep, which for adult humans makes up only around two hours per night of our sleep time. Yet some research indicates that a human foetus in utero, by the time it reaches the third trimester, spends around 20 hours out of each 24-hour cycle in REM sleep. Is the foetus dreaming for all of that time? If so, what on earth is it dreaming about and how does that relate to the commonly-accepted idea that dreams are remnants of our thoughts?

When I was doing my PhD I spent an inordinate amount of time going down rabbit holes of research into this kind of thing. The ancient work I studied (which I have written about in a little more detail before) mentions in passing that messages from the gods come to us in the hazy state between sleeping and waking, a state now defined as “hypnogogic” and one into which there has been a considerable amount of research. I became fascinated by the idea of different brain-states and how people may experience phenomena such as audible hallucinations and thus become convinced that they are receiving messages from a divine source. I read all sorts of stuff written by anthropologists, neurologists and psychologists and realised just how little I knew about the grey matter inside my own skull.

When it comes to studying, one of the things worth knowing about the brain is that “memory is the residue of thought” meaning that “the more you think about something, the more likely it is that you’ll remember it later.” (Daniel T. Willingham). This might seem obvious but you wouldn’t believe how little consideration is given to this fact in our education system. Students will only recall things that they are actively thinking about – reading and highlighting, for example, are both passive activities which are very unlikely to aid recall. If you need to absorb, understand and recall the information written on a page, you should put the book down and reproduce its contents in your own words in order to have any chance of being able to remember it. This process forces you brain to begin forming memories, which are in fact reconstructions: memory doesn’t work like a recording, it is rather the brain constantly reconstructing its past experiences, which explains why eye-witness accounts are so unreliable and why each individual may remember the same situation very differently from other people.

All of this means – I’m afraid – that those fantasies people have about listening to recordings while they sleep and miraculously waking up knowing the information on the recording really are that – just fantasies. The brain is not a computer: you can’t do a reboot and download while it’s powered down. Much as one would like to wake up like Neo in The Matrix with a newfound perfect knowledge of and ability to perform Kung Fu, the reality is that learning new information or a new skill requires constant use, review and practice.

All of that said, it is undeniable that sleep (and – for reasons we have yet to understand – dreaming) is essential for good learning. This is not only because exhaustion is detrimental to study, it is also because that downtime really is important for the brain to be able to do its job properly, especially when we are making big demands of it. Further to this, “sleeping on a problem” can often make a huge difference, in ways that are once again not fully understood. My father, a brilliant engineer, often reported waking up with a solution to a problem he had been grappling with and failing to solve during his waking hours. Similarly, I have found that I can be completely stuck on a crossword clue but when I come back to it the next day and pick up the clue again, the solution seems blindingly obvious, even though I have given it no proactive thought in the last 24 hours. This kind of background problem-solving really is a fascinating quirk of brain-states and one I wonder whether neuroscientists will be able to explain in the future.

Many parents worry that their children are not getting enough sleep and there is certainly a lot of evidence that many young people, particularly teenagers, are sleep-deprived. The best advice remains to observe good digital hygiene: do not under any circumstances allow your child to take their devices to bed. Personally, I do have my phone beside my bedside but all notifications switch off after my bedtime (you can set emergency numbers from loved ones as exceptions to this rule, by the way) so it does not disturb me after I have gone to bed and I am not fascinated enough by it to have the urge to check it during the night. This is not true of most teenagers when it comes to their smart phones, and they need protecting from this temptation.

I have resolved to read more about dreaming and sleep-states, as I have no doubt that the research has moved on since I last dipped into this field. One of my favourite games to play is to try to trace where my dreams have come from. Why did I put Roald Dahl behind bars? Well, this week I’ve been watching a police drama with lots of scenes in cells, plus I have also read a fair bit about “cancel culture” over the last few weeks, which may have set off a chain of links in my mind to something I read about Dahl’s works being edited to remove language that is deemed not to resonate with the current zeitgeist. Is that where it all came from? Quite probably. Dreams are rarely, if ever, significant. I look forward to increasing my knowledge. Perhaps we now know whether androids dream of electric sheep.

Photo by Ihor Malytskyi on Unsplash

The benefits of rote-learning

A report published by a committee from the House of Lords this week says that our education system for 11- to 16-year-olds is “too focused on academic learning and written exams”, resulting in “too much learning by rote” and “not enough opportunity for pupils to pursue creative and technical subjects”. The report ultimately suggests that some students are being “stifled” by an “overloaded” curriculum.

I shall make no attempt to defend all existing curricula, not least because I am in no position to comment in depth on any subject area other than my own. I am aware that colleagues in the sciences in particular and also in the humanities have found the post-2018 curricula difficult to deliver and certainly it seems that there is a need for a reduction in the amount of material to be covered. Teachers report that there is too much information crammed into too little time in some subects, and that tweaks to the specifications in those areas would be of benefit. In my own subject, I have written before about how unwieldy the GCSE Latin curriculum is, with its burdensome requirement for students to study (which in reality means rote-learn) an enormous amount of original literature. The problem is so bad that it has put me off agreeing to take any independent students through the curriculum, since it is such an enormous (and frankly tedious) time-drain on top of their regular subjects.

All of this can remain true without arguing that there is a need for dramatic and sweeping reforms (for heavens sake please no, not again) and even more importantly without us turning against the very principle of a knowledge-rich curriculum or indeed the very concept of learning by rote.

Educationalists who rail against rote-learning do so, I think, for several reasons. Firstly, people who are disquieted by rote-learning usually associate it with an innate lack of understanding on the students’ part, as if learning by rote is inherently at odds with understanding. For these people, the concept of rote-learning immediately conjures up images of Victorian schoolchildren holding the book upside down while they “read aloud” to demonstrate to the dreaded School Board that they could read when in fact they couldn’t; instead of spending their time teaching reluctant readers how to read, some teachers purportedly made children learn a passage of literature by heart so that they could recite it when it came to inspection day. Whether these apocryphal stories are true or not is a question I should ask the inimitable Daisy Christodoulou and Elizabeth Wells, authors and presenters of the fantastic podcast Lessons from History. If you haven’t come across it yet, I recommend it highly. It is fantastic for myth-busting, demystifying and celebrating how far we have come.

I have two key criticisms of the assumption that rote-learning equates to a lack of understanding. Firstly, the two notions are not causally linked. Very obviously, one can teach to ensure understanding in addition to asking a student to learn some material off by heart. Secondly, even when a lack of understanding does remain, this does not negate the value of rote-learning; rather it does, if anything, make the process even more important. Students are capable of banking information even if they do not currently understand it; this means that they can then draw on that information at a later date. For example, students could learn a poem off by heart, which would then facilitate the process of studying it in class.

Much to my heathen husband’s chagrin, I recall all of the hymns and prayers that I absorbed in my very traditional school, which marched us to chapel every day. I remember being distinctly puzzled by the phrase “the panoply of God”. And surely anyone that hails from a similar educational experience found themselves wondering why there was “a green hill far away, without a city wall”? All of these sorts of phrases came back to me as an adult as I learnt the true meaning of them and was thus able to fit them into my existing schema of knowledge. The rote-learning did not detract from this, the information was merely sitting there waiting to be processed and filed. I do not see why there is a problem with this. While it would have been better had the concepts been demystified for me at the time, the brain’s capacity to absorb material for the longterm is so enormous that there really is no harm in it containing some bits of information that it does not yet fully understand. It’s not a floppy disc; it won’t fill up and start malfunctioning.

Another reason that some educationalists object to rote-learning is that they see it as a waste of time in this modern era of technology. What value is there in learning something off by heart when we can look things up at the touch of a button? I find this argument so facile that I struggle to argue against it with the gravitas required to refute it. Yet, I shall make an attempt to do so. First of all, rote-learning is not, in fact, excessively burdensome: quite the opposite. Rote-learning is remarkably easy to do once students are taught the right methodology. In return for a very small amount of effort, students can bank vast quantities of knowledge in their longterm memory, which then frees up their working memory to simply spectacular benefit. To take my own subject as an example, anyone who tries to grasp a complex grammar point such as the indirect statement without a rudimentary knowledge of the inflection and vocabulary being used will never manage to do so; if a student is constantly distracted by the need to check their noun or verb endings, or to look up the required vocabulary, their working memory will be over-burdened to the point of failure. Similarly, a student will struggle to understand the writer’s craft and discuss stylistic techniques (as required – for better or for worse – by the examiners) unless they understand the Latin that is in front of them; the easiest way for them to understand a complex chunk of material is for them to have rote-learned its meaning beforehand. Rote-learning a text is extremely easy once you know how and not only have I written about it before I have taught hundreds of students how to do it to great effect. The problem is not with rote-learning itself but with how few classroom teachers actively teach an appropriate methodology for rote-learning, leaving students to flounder when it comes to how to do it.

Yet it is not only the inherent benefits to academic learning that make me believe that rote-learning is a skill that students should be taught. In addition, I find it mystifying that so many educationalists fail to see the value and the joy in the process itself. Whether it be poetry or your favourite song-lyrics, the sheer joy in having a worthwhile piece of writing in your head is difficult to over-estimate. At school I learnt poems, songs, sonnets and speeches from Shakepseare and can still remember them to this day. Learning poetry by heart remains a hobby for me and I can, for example, recite the whole of The Highwayman, which takes around 13 minutes. Why? Well, why not? The process is as pleasurable and stimulating as doing a crossword, completing a Wordle puzzle or grappling with a challenging Sudoku. I regret that so many educationalists do not wish for young people to develop the ability to acquire such knowledge should they so choose. This is not to say that all of them will choose to adopt the process of learning poetry as a hobby in the way that I do, but I do not understand the determination to rob them of the option. How little we think of them that we decide on their behalf that they are not worthy of it.

The bulk of my time as a tutor is spent uncovering what it is that students don’t already know and helping them to rectify this. That goes both for the knowledge itself and for the methodology of how to acquire and sustain it. Knowledge is essential for students to thrive and I don’t think that I will ever understand the apparent desire of some to rob the next generation of their rightful inheritance.

Photo generated by AI. Spooky, isn’t it?

The key to motivation?

What is the secret to self-motivation? As a teacher who specialised for 21 years in secondary education, it would be very easy for me to point at today’s teenagers and remark upon their lack of personal motivation, but was I really any different? Am I really so different now? Many parents bemoan their child’s lack of self-motivation when it comes to study and I feel their pain, I really do. When what seems like a relatively small amount of extra effort on a child’s part would make such a difference to their outcomes, it can be really difficult to comprehend why they simply won’t do it.

Since hitting a rather alarming round number in years, I have found myself becoming more concerned with what longterm life-limiting problems I might be storing up for myself (assuming I am privileged enough to make it into later life, of course). Watching my parents age has been an education and in the last few months I have done what I always do when something is on my mind: I have done some reading about it. To date, I have always told myself that cardiovascular fitness is the only thing that really matters for longterm health and that so long as I’m walking briskly on a regular basis then all will be well; since looking at the facts, I have had to admit to myself that my beliefs on this are simply wrong. All the information we have shows an undeniable correlation between muscle strength and the ability to maintain independent living, so my hitherto scathing attitude towards anything even remotely gym-related requires some serious review. I have read about the importance of building muscle strength in relation to one’s ability to move freely and independently as one ages, as well as how it intertwines with building up one’s balance to prevent the risk of falls.

Right, I thought. Resistance training, here I come. But the gym is way too scary, so I watched a few YouTube videos from the comfort of my chair and tried a few exercises … and it’s just so hard! You’re using muscles you never knew you had, you’ve no idea whether you’re doing it right or not, your thighs start to tremble and you end up retreating to the sofa, while the cat looks at you as if you’ve just humiliated yourself in the worst way possible. As one friend put it, “the trouble with exercise is, you might feel great once it’s over, but I also feel pretty great on the sofa watching Netflix, so feeling great isn’t quite the pull-factor that everyone says it is.” This is perhaps the downside of currently feeling in relatively good health. Believe me, in theory, I’m motivated: I am worried about my longterm health and I want to fix that by taking action. But how does one take that desire and channel it into real action, when those actions are so alien, so difficult and so uncomfortable, and the theoretical longterm benefits feel such a long distance away? For perhaps the first time in years, I’m gaining an insight into how my students may feel about their learning.

Fortunately, I have another friend on hand, who is going to help. This friend is properly into fitness in a way that none of my other friends have ever been. She has hired a personal trainer to guide her through strength training in recent months and (even more scarily) she’s got all the kit – her house is full of alarming equipment. On Monday, I went round to her house wearing some secondhand pumps and my Primark leggings and was introduced to squats, lunges, push-ups and weight training. Suffice to say, while my friend sauntered about, demonstrating seemingly impossible moves without so much as breaking a sweat, I was a quivering wreck within minutes. When attempting the final push-up I collapsed onto the mat, unable to perform the downward pass. “Good,” she said, laughing. “That’s when you know you’ve done about the right number.”

All of this has reminded me just how impossibly hard it is to motivate yourself to do something that you find really difficult. You can give yourself as many pep talks as you like, it’s never likely to be enough. I need my friend to teach me how to do the moves correctly in an environment in which I’m comfortable (she understands that I’m somewhat dubious about a trip to the gym). I need her to tell me whether I’m getting it right, both to prevent injury and to ensure that the exercise is working as it’s meant to. I also need her to push me into doing it another few times when previously I had given up because it was getting so difficult – while we’re not quite talking “no pain, no gain”, it is true that when it comes to strength training, you should be pushing yourself to the point when it feels like you can’t do it any more. All of this is simply too difficult and too frightening to do on your own, when you have no experience with such things.

All of this started on Monday and the state I was in afterwards illustrates just how much work I have yet to do on myself. On Tuesday I was in agony with what I am reliably informed is called “DOMS” – Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness; on Wednesday I was basically crippled and had to take the stairs while using the bannisters like a pair crutches. Today is slightly better – I can do the stairs, although not without yelping with every single step. In terms of motivational pep talks I have mentally pointed out to myself that this is in fact a little bit of a taster as to what life will be like in 30 years’ time if I don’t keep this up.

As I embark on my quest to gain muscle strength this has been a sobering reminder that motivating oneself is not at all easy. It has illustrated to me how near impossible it is without the training, guidance and support of somebody else, which forms a significant part of what I do as a tutor. I have always believed that motivation comes from success, not the other way around – motivation is simply too hard without some kind of inkling and insight into what gains it might bring you. In order to motivate someone to do something difficult or painful, whether they’re 15 or 50, it’s simply not enough to tell them that they can do it; we need to show them that they can, and cheer from the sidelines as they do so.

Photo by Graham Holtshausen on Unsplash