Katie Ashford is an English teacher in a secondary school in London. These are her individual views.
As we all know, being a teacher is tricky. There are so many plates to keep spinning every lesson that sometimes, when we aren’t looking, they come crashing down around us. Is my learning objective clear and measurable? Are the students behaving? Do they understand my explanations? Can they access the work? How should I deploy my TA? Am I challenging them enough? Like I say: tricky.
These questions, among hundreds of others, are what we have to try and answer more than twenty times per week. But of all the things that we have to take into consideration, which things ought to be our priority? Which plate is it important never to let drop?
Currently, there is an emphasis on ‘progress over time’. This appears to be fairly intuitive, and relieves good teachers of the pressures of demonstrating progress within unreasonably short periods of time. However, this approach appears to have given rise to a new set of problems for teachers to deal with. In order for students to make the progress we want them to make over a longer period of time, they need to be able to remember what they learnt previously. ‘Progress over time’ is therefore dependent upon memory. And yet, we put barely any emphasis on the importance of building memory in lessons; recall is often perceived as being ‘low down on Bloom’s taxonomy’ and therefore worthless. But, if we are to enable our students to have a deep understanding of what they have learnt, they need to be able to remember it.
I’ve had many conversations with colleagues over the past few months about how we are regularly perplexed by our students’ complete inability to remember things. How is it that we can spend hour after hour teaching kids how to do something, only for them to have forgotten it by the next week? Not only is this frustrating, it also makes our jobs a lot harder. It means that we have to spend time going over and over the same things, which feels a lot like an inefficient way to spend time. Is spending too long making sure they remember it detrimental to their understanding?
This brilliant post by Kris Boulton gave me some food for thought regarding the distinction between understanding and remembering. As he says in the post, there are often times that we think students have really understood something, but it does not necessarily mean that they will have remembered it. Why is this? It seems intuitive to think that if we understand something, we will remember it, or are at least more likely to remember it than if we hadn’t understood it.
‘Memory is the residue of thought’
In this great quote, Daniel T. Willingham eloquently and pithily describes the key to ensuring that things stick in students’ minds long after they have initially been taught them. The idea is that the longer we spend thinking about something, the more likely we will be able to remember or recall it later on. What does this mean for classroom practice? How can we make sure our students are able to remember things, so that they can build on them and deepen their understanding later on?
A few weeks ago, I decided to try this out with my year 10 class. They have just started studying Romeo and Juliet, one of my all time favourites. As I am sure many of you will appreciate, the prologue to Romeo and Juliet is a pretty important part of the play. It is an overview of the entire plot, giving away the fate of the doomed ‘star-crossed lovers’ before they even walk onto the stage. I wanted my year 10s to understand just how much this elegant sonnet permeates the play; Shakespeare alludes to it throughout, sometimes overtly, sometimes less so. Understanding the significance of the prologue provides a deeper, more profound understanding of what Shakespeare’s intended message was. So, I decided to set my year 10s the task of going away and memorising the prologue by rote. We did the first part as a class, but they had to go away and learn the rest over the weekend.
During Monday’s lesson, I got them to recite it. To my absolute delight, they had all learnt it beautifully. A few of them stumbled over the ‘misadventured piteous overthrows’ line, but a bit of repetition soon ironed that out. I was so impressed. Not only was it wonderful that a group of 15 year olds had spent their weekend thinking about Shakespeare, they now had one of the greatest pieces of literature ever written embedded in their memories.
What are the benefits?
The students, as I say above, had spent a long time thinking about the prologue. This meant that they could recall it to the forefront of their minds very quickly. There was no longer any need for them to flick back to the start of the play and look it up; they just knew it. They knew it so well that they even began to see references to it throughout the rest of the text. For instance, when looking at the famous ‘Balcony’ scene, they noted that Romeo’s references to ‘stars’ seemed to mirror Shakespeare’s use of ‘star-crossed lovers’ in the prologue. Something so simple as being able to remember the prologue has in fact deepened their understanding of the rest of the play.
Is rote learning a bad thing?
Therefore, if we are to enable deeper understanding, and therefore ‘progress over time’, we must initially make sure that students can remember things. The more they remember, and the more often they are asked to recall what they remember, the more they will be able to apply their memories to new learning, thus deepening their understanding. The best way to ensure this is to allow students the opportunity to spend time thinking about what you want them to remember. It might seem strange to suggest that we should invest time in rote memorisation, but it’s such an easy one to get right, and can help to deepen students’ understanding of topics.
Many wince at the idea of asking students to remember facts by rote, as if it takes time away from the more challenging aspects of learning or higher order skills. However, if we are to enable students to access these higher order thinking skills, we must make sure they can first recall the basics.