In recent years I’ve been becoming more and more concerned by memory loss. Perhaps you’ve shared that. I get into the car at home and before I know it I’m parked outside school. Nothing in between rings a bell; I could have used a tardis. I break into a cold sweat thinking about the chaos I may have caused; the debris I may have left behind. I worry about my future. I worry. I worry. Then I read Daniel Willingham’s ‘Why Don’t Students Like School?’ and whole world makes sense again. You see, what was happening was not the sad public crumbling of a once average man but a sign of great skill and proficiency.
One of Willingham’s important assertions in this book is that human beings don’t really want to think; we are not wired to do so.
‘Humans don’t think very often because our brains are designed not for thought but for the avoidance of thought.’ (Willingham , 2009, p. 4)
He claims, probably unsurprisingly, that ‘the only path to expertise is practice…and by making mental procedures automatic.’ So when driving to school what I am displaying is pure learning; so much so that I barely know I’m doing it. I am moving knowledge from my working memory – that bit that gives us a headache wondering what to have for dinner – to my long term memory, where I’ve learned it, can do it, and it no longer troubles me. Making space, you could say.
Nothing especially ground-breaking there, you might say. However, Willingham also makes some excellent points about how a lack of this background knowledge in the long term memory is the true block to progress in learning. That might suggest why home environment, especially in the early years of school, is so crucial.
On the point of returning to school to, ostensibly, start a new set of texts with five different classes, I’m now thinking of this in a more immediate context. Is it true that we sometimes underestimate the importance of factual knowledge when approaching Literature in the classroom? And, as an English teacher, how can I overcome wide ranging background knowledge levels in my students?
l might have assumed background knowledge when approaching the play script of ‘The Diary of Anne Frank’. Do thirteen year olds in Scotland know much about the Holocaust? What should I assume? How would I really know? Perhaps, to a lesser extent with ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’. They must be aware of racism in society. But the murky politics of the Deep South, depression-era America? It raises some vital questions in terms of planning. In our endless desire for coverage, our race towards an end of unit assessment, how much do we genuinely take real learning into account and is that even assessed? How often have I rushed into a text, missing opportunities for real learning?
Daniel Willingham’s ‘Why Don’t Students Like School?’ is a very important book which I think all teachers should read. It questions our approach to planning lessons and to the ways children learn. He questions assumptions about learning styles – not always convincingly in my opinion – but creates a framework for curriculum development where real student learning is at the heart of what we do.