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.

Photo by Drew Beamer on Unsplash

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

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.

The reluctant Luddite

I am anything but a Luddite. Technology is remarkable and wonderful and I could not be luckier to have been born in the late 20th century and have the privilege of seeing our access to the written word proliferate thanks to the digital world.

As someone cursed with poor (and increasingly deteriorating) eyesight, I thank my lucky stars on a daily basis for the advent of smart screens, giving me the power to choose the nature, size and resolution of fonts, not to mention the simply glorious dawn of the audiobook. The younger among you will not recall, but the reading options for people with poor eyesight even just 20 years ago were dismal: a vanishingly small number of books were put onto audio CD and very few places stocked them. These days, the best actors are squabbling over the reading rights to books. Not long ago, I listened to a simply perfect narration of The Dutch House by Ann Pratchett, read by some chap called Tom Hanks. In a world where current research seems to indicate a worrying downturn in children reading for pleasure, I support any and all routes for them to access stories and tales, by whatever means.

As a result of all this, I always feel slightly uncomfortable when I find myself making a case against digital technology. I am the last person to criticise for I acknowledge and appreciate the huge benefits that the advent of the internet and digital technology have brought to me. Not only could I not do my job without them, my life would be infinitely poorer and less diverse. Yet one must always be cautious of what one is throwing away, and when it comes to children’s development of literacy we should be particularly so. First and foremost, we should be hyper-focused on the best ways of helping children to learn to read and write.

In January, the Guardian highlighted that “a ground-breaking study shows kids learn better on paper than on screen,” but the truth is that this information has been out there for at least two decades. Modern cognitive science evidences that motor and sensory aspects of our behaviour have a far-reaching impact on our knowledge and recall. Of course it does. Our brain is an embodied phenomenon that makes sense of the world through the physical data it receives. In a study carried out way back in 2005, subjects were shown a series of words and asked to indicate whether each word was positive or negative by moving a joystick. Half of the subjects were told to indicate that a word was positive or “good” by pulling the joystick towards their bodies, while the other half were told to indicate “good” by pushing it away. A consistent correlation was observed between meaning and movement: the quickest, most accurate and most confident responses were produced by the subjects who were told to indicate “good” by pulling the joystick towards themselves, and to indicate “bad” by pushing it away. The hypothesis is that this relates to our natural embodied state – what’s “good” feels natural drawn physically towards us, what’s “bad” feels like something we should naturally push away. This direct and inherent involvement of the body and senses in our cognitive processes helps to explain how writing by hand (as opposed to on a keyboard or a tablet) helps us to learn letters and words most efficiently. The fact that forming letters by hand is superior to doing so with the use of technology is well accepted among cognitive scientists and literacy specialists.

Furthermore, it is not just the early-years essentials of learning to write that are supported by the process of hand-writing. A study in 2021 compared subjects’ recall of words learned either by typing or writing by hand and found that recall was better when words had been learned using a pen and paper. In another study, a small group of adults learned symbols from an unfamiliar language that they then had to reproduce with either a pen or a keyboard. When they had finished learning the symbols, there were no differences in recall between the two methods, but the keyboard users forgot a significant amount of what they had learned as time passed. In other words, the process of handwriting the symbols was much more effective for long-term recall. Evidence for the effectiveness of handwriting over typing when it comes to learning is now pretty overwhelming and neuroscientists suggest that learning with a pen and paper is better because it is more “embodied,” meaning that it involves more complex sensory-motor feedback for each letter as it is written down. This complexity leaves a more distinctive blueprint in our memories and hence makes things easier to memorise and recall.

I have written before on a methodology I teach to help students to learn their set texts off by heart. The process involves writing down the first letter of each word and works only if students do so by hand. The effectiveness of the method is increased hugely if the student can be persuaded to say the whole word aloud as they write the letter. So, to learn the opening line of Portia’s speech to Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, students would say out loud “The quality of mercy is not strained” while writing the letters “T q o m i n s” in time with their articulation of the words. The physicality of the process and the immersive nature of writing, saying and repeating is quite remarkably powerful and I have never had a student fail to learn the texts using this method.

The data and current research on the importance of physical texts and handwriting have not gone unnoticed. Sweden, a country often cited as superior to ours when it comes to education, experienced a downtrend in literacy levels from 2016 onwards and is back-peddling wildly on their roll-out of digital technology in schools, returning to a focus on physical books and handwriting. What’s worrying for me is that the trend may be going in the opposite direction in the UK. Perhaps most worrying of all, the major examination boards have all indicated their desire to move towards digital examinations, despite the overwhelming chorus of dismay from Headteachers across the country who know that they simply do not have the infrastructure to support such a move. It is unsurprising that examination boards want to push the digital model, as the current process of collecting and digitising examination scripts no doubt costs them a fortune; but beyond the logistical nightmare for schools that the digitisation of examinations will present, I genuinely fear for the impact on students’ literacy and understanding. A move towards digital examinations will push schools further down the road of letting students do everything on screen (many private schools and well-funded academies are already there) and the effect on their learning will be catastrophic. Some of the students I work with are already in this position and their grasp of the texts they are learning is woeful; their teachers allow them access to a simply overwhelming number of documents, all of which they are expected to have the skills to access and draw information from, when in reality they have little to no idea what’s actually in front of them and how that relates to what they need to commit to memory.

So I find myself a somewhat reluctant Luddite, telling my students to reach for a notepad and pen and encouraging them to form letters on a page by hand. The irony in the fact that I am doing so over Zoom is not lost on me, but here’s the thing: technology is incredible, it is life-changing, it is illuminating, it is wonderfully democratic and a great leveller for those of us with physical disabilities. We must, however, be circumspect with how we use it and thus ensure that we do not unwittingly lose more than we gain.

Pyramid schemes

For every dubious claim in education, there’s a pyramid. Educationalists love them. Whether it be Bloom’s taxonomy, Maslow’s hierarcy of need or Dale’s cone of experience (otherwise known as the learning pyramid) it’s got to be presented in that shape, preferably one with a rainbow of colours. A pyramid diagram means it must be true.

Quite how anyone could ever be convinced by statements such as “we recall only 10% of what we read” is fascinating to me. Think about it. We recall only 10% of what we read?! That’s demonstrably ridiculous. This is not the only verifiably false claim I have had presented to me during my 21-year career in the classroom. I’ve listened to countless dubious assertions about how the brain works, made by people who probably struggled to pass their biology O level. I’ve sat through demonstrations of “Brain Gym”, during which I was told that waggling your head back and forward “oxygenates your frontal cortex”. I’ve been told that mind-map diagrams are the best and only way to present information to students because they look a bit like the branch-like structure of brain cells under a microscope. I’ve been told that some children’s brains work better on the left than they do on the right, and that whether they are “left-brained or right-brained” will influence their learning outcomes. These are the kinds of mind-bogglingly ridiculous assertions that were made in schools all over the country while exhausted teachers sat on plastic chairs in draughty halls and listened to them. The insult to our intelligence, never mind the sorry waste of taxpayers’ money on this drivel, makes me feel quite ill.

Yesterday I attended an online presentation given by John Nichols, the President of The Tutors’ Association and someone I worked with when I was a member of the Board of Directors of that Association a few years ago. John is an intelligent man of great integrity and has an excellent working knowledge of educational theory in all its glorious mutations, not all of them for the good. He took us on a whistlestop tour of some enduring ideas from psychologists in the 1950s, through the persistent neuromyths that have been debunked a thousand times but just won’t die, right up to the useful stuff at last being brought to us by neuroscientists about working memory, cognitive load and schema theory. It is truly heartening to know that this kind of information is being shared with tutors who are members of the Association and with luck it will start to filter through and influence the way people work.

Teachers are a cynical bunch and it would be easy for those of us who have been drowning in the tsunami of nonsense we’ve been swept away by over the years to be cynical about the more recent developments in educational theory. I am not and here’s why: they’re applicable to learning at a practical level and they work. When you apply the key principles of retrieval practice and spaced learning, you see an immediate and dramatic improvement in learning outcomes for your students. When you bear in mind cognitive load and attempt to reduce the pressure on students’ working memory in the classroom, you likewise see results. None of this was true of the old stuff, which caused nothing but obfuscation and distraction in the classroom. Even when I first joined the profession as a rookie and was regretably at my most susceptible, there was a little voice in my head telling me that this stuff was – to borrow the phrase of my old Classics master – a load of old hooey.

A part of me wishes that I’d listened to that voice sooner, but I should not be too hard on my former self, I think: it is difficult to stand against a tidal wave of so-called information when your bosses are telling you it’s all real and are also telling you that you’ll be marked down as a bad teacher if you don’t dance to their tune. When I think about the wasted hours I spent in my career trying to apply principles that were clearly nonsense because I was told to, I could weep. All of that time could have been so much better spent.

Happily, nobody now dictates to me how I work. I apply the principles that are evidence-based and work for my students. The overwhelming majority of them respond readily. For some, the simplest of techniques can feel like a revelation or a miracle, which only serves to show how far some schools have yet to go in distilling this information to their frontline teachers. To be honest, I am sympathetic to schools who remain suspicious about advice on how children learn. You can only try and sell people so many pyramid schemes before they develop a pretty cynical attitude towards any kind of salesmen.

Photo by Gaurav D Lathiya on Unsplash

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?