Just as I also know that 2+2 doesn’t always add up to 4, but that has come about from hard experience not from parrot fashion learning.
I suppose there is some bright spark somewhere in academia who could tell me two facts about 8×7 that I sometimes ponder on. One, why is it that this 8×7 fact so frequently catches children out as they learn their times tables? Why is it the one sum that they find difficult to remember? Two, where in my world do I use 8×7 on a regular basis? What is the point?
I’m not entirely dismissive of learning number facts, and there are better ways of learning them than ‘by rote’. I’m perfectly aware that they have a place in life. Without my times tables, I’d never have been able to work in a bar, for instance. 73×3 is indeed imbedded in my mind forever – or is it? It’s been 25 years since I have needed to recall the answer.
And here’s the interesting thing. I have no idea what 73×3 is. So how do I work it out? I break it down into sections that I do know. I know that 7×3 is 21. I know that 3×3 is 9. I can visualise those smaller numbers because, when it comes to maths, I am probably, in the main, a visual learner.
So a penny in return for £2.20, I would say to the customer, and I just had to check that on my computer’s calculator in case I made a fool of myself. (Just in case, I can put any errors down as a typo).
The Treaty of Versailles was signed in 1919. I know that because I studied European History 1870–1945 for four years, firstly at O-level and then again at A-Level – largely due to the fact that the examination boards didn’t feel a need to strengthen my knowledge of history to another decade or century or country that was outside the European Union, despite the fact that in my lifetime, it was extremely likely that I might find myself in the United States or Africa or Asia.
So the Treaty was signed in 1919. Only when I came to write a blog recently, with this all-important fact within, I had to look it up on Wikipedia to ensure that my memory wasn’t playing tricks on me. I had a vague recollection that Lloyd George’s concerns about the level of reparations had somehow postponed a final declaration until 1920. I was wrong.
“An Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot” by Alexander Pope. I studied that one for a couple of years too. Red lines underlining a mass of quotes to impress upon the examiners that I had memorised the words, understood their context and used them effectively in work of my own.
The trouble is, I can’t remember a single one of them now, and I understand and appreciate that it was the skill in remembering and contextualising that has been the significant part of this study but I think I might have managed to develop those skills by learning other more relevant texts, like lyrics from brilliant writers such as Leonard Cohen or passages from books by Lynn Reid Banks that resonated with me at the age of eighteen.
Furthermore, I have been put off Dr. Arbuthnot for life; not because it was a useless piece of text but because my little undeveloped self, at the age of sixteen, hadn’t had the experiences of life that could even begin to understand the intricacies of such brilliant and witty satire. All I knew was that satire was clever, and it was something that I ought to try to use occasionally in life.
Do I know the capital of Somalia is Mogadishu? When was I taught this? The only reason I now know the answer to this, and again checked on the Internet, is because of the hopeless and wretched suffering of the Somali people over decades of civil unrest. I know because I have met people from Somalia, I have worked in areas where Somali refugees have lived. I listen to the news daily and so Mogadishu became important to me because it had some meaning in my life, in the now.
“Disenfranchisement” – I know that word. Dis –en (or is it pronounced ‘in’) –fran – chise – ment.
There, but if I want to use the word ‘meant’ in the past tense, isn’t it spelt differently from the end of this complicated word, yet it sounds the same?
How do I know the word disenfranchisement? How do I understand it? Do I understand it through its syllabic and phonetic breakdown? No. I understand it because we sat down together as a family and discussed politics at an early age. I was told of the Suffragettes and the Apartheid rule in South Africa. I experienced disenfranchisement when my voice had no power in so many occasions in life. I know these words through living and contextualising them. Without these, the words are a meaningless series of letters.
As a teacher, I taught children how to read and write and do basic arithmetic. Living in London, the children used to write words like “arfter” and “barth” and “grars”. They used to write “batter” for the thing that they spread on their bread. I joked to them that if they lived in the Midlands, where I came from, they might be able to spell these words correctly. Now there’s a thought. Is it easier to teach phonics in a place where the Queen’s English is flattened to its phonetic correctness?
Yet, all those children, who at the age of 7 had learned a phonetic spelling, soon realised –through reading, through contextualising their words and through developing other cues such as onset and rime, that there were plenty of other methods required to both read and write standard English that were far removed from the phonetic structure that they had been taught initially as a decoding tool.
Mr. Gove spoke yesterday at a conference for his favourite group of the teaching profession; the Independent Academies Association. I wonder if they applauded him, for there are many head teachers who are part of this group who are there not because of an ideology of independence but because they were offered no choice other than to be an academy, due to the pressure put on them to do so by this government.
He spoke of the need for rote learning and for memory and for the discipline of stringent examinations that would make a man of all of us, including us women – I think.
He talked of schooling, of dogma, of ritualistic learning.
But did he speak about education?
What was your education? What was mine? Was it ever restricted to the hours in a school? Was the learning within those hours in school more about the development of the person through the friendship groups, through the values from peers, teachers and other influential people in our lives?
“The truth once told and whereby should we lie?” was learned through experience not from Alexander Pope.
Mr Gove said, “memorisation is a necessary precondition of understanding”. He says: “Only when facts and concepts are committed securely to the working memory, so that it is no effort to recall them and no effort is required to work things out from first principles, do we really have a secure hold on knowledge.”
No Mr Gove. Memorisation is NOT a necessary precondition of understanding. It is part of understanding and a very small part at that. Real understanding comes from using many aspects of intelligence and many different experiences that often contradict one another. Real understanding comes from thinking from within and without, or not even thinking at all, as in an instinctive response to something. Intuition is not learned by rote. It is not memorised but it is a very significant part of real understanding.
“No effort to recall” could actually become part of one’s instinctual intelligence. Someone who’s suitably experienced needs no effort to recall how to ride a bike or drive a car. You may have learned it at one point in your life, but you don’t have to act on recall in order to do these things, and yes, of course memory is important here but once you have done that, you don’t even have to worry about understanding. You just do it.
Mr Gove said “And the best way to build memory, as Willingham explains, is by the investment of thought and effort – such as the thought and effort we require for exam preparation and testing.”
No Mr Gove. The best way to build memory is through living, through experiencing, through enjoying learning so that it becomes an integral part of you. Learning my scales, when I was being taught to play the piano, was a tedious ritual that I did at the beginning of every lesson. It was when I could combine my fingers, my eyes, my head and my heart in playing music that my memory really came into play. It was here that I remembered pieces of music that made me feel alive, that I was actually bringing to life. This was what made me remember, not the examination that I took to prove to another that I could do it. It was this ability that made me want to improvise and to learn more about playing the piano. It was this joy of connecting with music that made me want to play and listen to music as long as I live, not the memory of those damn awful memorised scales.
And here is another quote from Mr. Gove with a final damning statement from the Guardian.
“Among other benefits, the speech says, is increased pupil satisfaction: “We know that happiness comes from earned success. There is no feeling of satisfaction as deep, or sustained, as knowing we have succeeded through hard work at a task which is the upper end, or just beyond, our normal or expected level of competence.”
The corollary of this, he stresses, is that a proportion of pupils must fail.”
No Mr Gove. Not all happiness comes from success. Happiness comes from many things. Having just completed George Orwell’s “Keep the Aspidistra Flying”, I’m not sure the happiness of the characters came from “success” at all; rather a saddened realisation that there was nothing to do other than join the rat race and be done with it.
What is more to the point, if you think that happiness comes from success and that some are bound to fail, then are you not condemning a large proportion of the population to so-called failure and misery? Is that really what you deem to be a success of your policies?
I shall be attending a conference on Saturday where Mr Gove will be present
I sincerely hope that not one hand is raised in applause for his speech. He is wrong on so many levels that this writing is insignificant in response.
A child came up to me on the street some years ago; a child whom I had taught some 15 or so years before.
“You have no idea how much you influenced our lives” he said. “Yes, you taught me to read and write but you also taught me to be me, you taught us about ourselves”
Now that is what I wanted to give my children through education, and this particular lad would have been one of Mr Gove’s failures.
And he couldn’t even spell “arfter” at the age of 7.