Friday, 27 November 2020

Making kids cleverer

 A couple of weeks ago I gave this presentation to parents entitled 'Making Kids Cleverer':

As I explain at the start, the thrust of the arguments draw heavily on David Didau's book of the same name. The arguments centre around two things:

  1. the importance of knowledge
  2. the role of knowledge in increasing cleverness

I deal with each in turn below:

The importance of knowledge

Teachers are bombarded by advice from non-teachers about what should be taught in schools. Most commonly, a wealthy entrepreneur, who didn't do well in school themselves, argues that schools should be teaching things like creativity, innovation, collaboration. Often these things are grouped under the heading '21st Century Skills'. It all sounds so noble, so reasonable - who would not want their children to have these skills? But there are problems: 

Firstly 21st Century Skills are a conceit. There is nothing new about needing to be collaborative, creative or innovative. It has always been necessary to have these skills. 

Secondly, these skills cannot be taught in isolation; they all rest on knowledge. You cannot just walk into a class of 15-year-olds (or 35 year-olds for that matter) and ask them to come up with creative ways, say, of conducting an adenoidectomy. Being creative here requires detailed knowledge of human anatomy, of surgical history, of biochemistry, of histology and so on. And just as this is true of highly specialised throat surgery so it is true in any other field you care to mention, even the more prosaic ones. Coming up with novel ideas depends on a store of knowledge on which creativity can draw.

Then there are the educators who maintain that we only need to focus on '21st Century Skills' because in the 21st Century you can Google everything else (if you think I'm creating a straw man here, have a look here - plenty of people, educators amongst them believe this stuff). The truth is, anyone who's ever asked a Year 9 class to 'go away and research x' will know how inefficient this way of learning is. Children cannot access the material about x on the internet because they don't have the vocabulary or the pre-existing mental hooks on which to hang their research. Direct instruction of new material, carefully modelled in small sequential steps by a teacher-expert is a much more effective way of getting children to learn. Dylan Wiliam explains this superbly here. If you were ever in any doubt about the importance of learning things by heart, you won't be after watching this little clip:

Lastly, there are the futurologists who maintain that we should be shoe-horning into the curriculum the latest and most expensive baubles from the tech industry. Their argument is that not acculturating children to the latest set of VR-googles, phablets or smartphones is an act of gross negligence. But this argument is quickly undermined by pointing out that only a couple of decades ago, state-of-the-art education looked like this:

So we needn't worry too much about 21st Century Skills -certainly not to the point of trying to teach them in isolation - and we should have the humility to accept that what is state of the art today, won't be tomorrow. What we should be teaching in schools is the material that has stood the test of time. People who advocate teaching children the accumulated wisdom of the ages often quote Matthew Arnold, who argued for passing on:

...the best which has been thought and said in the world, and, through this knowledge, turning a stream of fresh and free thought upon our stock notions and habits...

In terms of choosing what actually counts as the 'best which has been thought and said' Didau points towards the Lindy effect and the observation that it is the most durable knowledge and ideas that will be most useful in the future:

What this means for educators is that the sort of knowledge that is likely to be of most use to our students in the future is the sort of knowledge that was also useful to our ancestors in the past. This requires a bit of mental effort to assimilate because most of us are, myself very much included, are attracted to novelty and modernity. But it's hard to argue with the logic of Lindy's observation and the weight of evidence that supports it. What it means in practical terms is that teachers should be passing on the knowledge and ideas that have stood the test of time in their subjects. Fortuitously, in England at least, subject specialists collaborated with the government to put together in the form of the National Curriculum lists of essential knowledge that should be passed on in the various subject disciplines. The first listed aim of the National Curriculum co-opts Matthew Arnold as seen in bold below:

The national curriculum provides pupils with an introduction to the essential knowledge that they need to be educated citizens. It introduces pupils to the best that has been thought and said; and helps engender an appreciation of human creativity and achievement.

There is scope for teaching other things, of course, but teachers shouldn't be ashamed of championing knowledge - in the form of the accumulated wisdom of subject specialists - as the foundation of a good education.

The relevance of knowledge to cleverness

Hopefully, by now you are convinced of the efficacy of a fairly traditional, knowledge-based curriculum as likely to be the most future-proof of all the various curricula that schools might pursue. But we have yet to explain how increasing children's knowledge (or as Dylan Wiliam has it, the contents of their long term memory) makes them cleverer.

One illustration of the importance of knowledge comes from an experiment in which expert chess players and novices were asked to memorise the positions of chess pieces on a board. Where pieces were in positions that could occur in an actual game of chess, the chess experts did better on the memorisation task than the novices. But where chess pieces were placed randomly on the board the difference between the experts and the novices diminished almost to nothing. Expert chess players are at an advantage in the first case because they have memorised knowledge about possible sequences of play. They're at no particular advantage, though, where pieces are in positions that are not possible in the course of normal play:

As in chess, so in other fields of human expertise. In order to become expert at something you need to know a lot about it, and your knowledge needs to have been memorised to the point where it's become part of your psyche and can be recalled with little or no effort. If it requires effort to recall the knowledge space in the limited confines of working memory will be used up. This means that, if tasks can be completed at all, they will be slow, halting and prone to error. Since an important aspect of being clever is the speed of cogitation failure to have the knowledge to act upon in long-term memory is a serious handicap.

Although some aspects of cleverness are inherited, this research shows that cleverness can be increased. Consider these two babies - one lucky, the other less so:

The great news for teachers is that the unlucky baby can more than make up for the disadvantages he has inherited providing he is given a wholesome diet of knowledge and guided towards getting this knowledge into his long-term memory. School can make all the difference and no-one need be defined by their genes. The key is that education needs to focus on helping children know culturally important information. Beguiling, though the alternatives might be they are a distraction. And it's the most disadvantaged, as ever, who have most to lose from well-meaning teachers prioritising the wrong things. The English teacher, Joe Kirby, sums this up far better than I could, so I'll let him have the last word:

The opportunity cost of allowing my pupils to focus on supposedly relevant topics they already know about like celebrities, TV and social networking, is that it limits my time to help them catch up with richer kids who get rich cultural knowledge at home. The opportunity cost of spending entire lessons making posters and trailers, doing enquiry circles and opinion positioning, carousel groupwork and fun games is that they have less time to focus on broadening their horizons by reading and writing about the greatest literature, (auto)biographies and speeches ever written. Given that poorer kids start secondary school thousands of words behind richer kids in vocabulary, it seems to me that we are widening the gap if English in disadvantaged schools is taught without an unrelenting focus on explicit knowledge of context, novels, plays, poems, grammar, rhetoric, spelling and vocabulary.