Last week I summarised the first section of Hattie and Yates’ new book here http://debra-kidd.com/2013/10/19/hattie-and-yates-visible-learning-and-the-science-of-how-we-learn-section-1-review It was quite a long blogpost as the section is so important, asking as it does the fundamental question of what does an expert teacher look like? The middle section, dealt with here, looks at how our brains work and puts to bed some of the common myths which have become quite pervasive in education. It’s worth bearing in mind of course, that both neuroscience and cognitive science are very recent fields and sensible scientists working in this field will tell you that they still know relatively little. Tim Taylor memorably described this field as being akin to medieval cartography which is a lovely image of these people travelling to the very exciting edges of discovery in exploring what it is to be human.
Chapter Thirteen – How Knowledge is Acquired.
The first thing Hattie draws our attention to is the fact that learning is not linear or straightforward. Instead, he describes the learning process as “staccato”; a process that takes time, involves making mistakes, trying again and learning together.
He returns to themes in the first section, organising his definition of learning into three areas – the acquisition of knowledge, memorisation and managing overload and I covered those points fairly extensively in the first post. Hattie repeats much of that but adds:-
1. What you already know affects what you learn – you should always start where the learner is at. This simple maxim, states Hattie, quoting Ausubel, is ‘the biggest single factor influencing learning’. New learning that cannot be connected to existing learning is quickly shed so try to find resonances and connections to that which is already known. Draw attention to the familiar. Ensure that you uncover any existing misconceptions in that which is thought to be already known. Take time to find out.
2. Hattie also points to the usefulness of ‘advance organisers’ – tools which allow students to see the big picture of where their learning is leading. Although this seems to jar with research by Paul Howard-Jones on the process of generative or creative thinking, in which too much advance organisation can limit ideas, I think Hattie is saying that for situations in which there is a clear learning goal, it is better to have a map. Let’s imagine then (she says, going off piste) that we are in Paris. If we want to discover Paris, have plenty of time and want to find its authentic flavour, then we might simply set off from our hotel and wander. But if we have a shorter amount of time, and a list of five things we definitely want to see, we would be better off with a map and planning a route. I think this is what he’s saying.
3. The mind responds well to multi-media input – i.e. a combination of sensory material which presents the learning in different ways. Our brain is superb at responding to multi-sensory stimulus to help to build a strong and memorable association. The more ways the information is presented, the better.
Hattie then goes on to explore memory retention, suggesting that while we may recognise information we have seen before, we struggle to recall it. A student may score well on a test in which the answer is there to be picked out as its presence will trigger memory, but will struggle if he/she is asked to recall it independently.
We tend to remember what we heard first and last – something, of course, that Shakespeare knew long before there were cognitive psychologists around to tell us. Bookend your information with the most important bits.
Only 20% of what is learned by rote can be remembered the next day. To keep information in the mind, it has to be constantly rehearsed and utilised, or linked to deeper and more significant patterns. The human mind is much better at remembering motor actions than facts or words, so attaching a movement to a word might be helpful.
Memory is subject to interference so for example, learning two languages at the same time can lead to confusion between the two. Similarly, prior knowledge can interfere if definitions are not clear or if misconceptions are present. The word ‘describe’ is used differently in Science than in English for example. Homonyms can confuse children and need to be carefully unpicked – the word ‘matter’ for example.
The biggest enemy to memory is overload and learning can easily lead to overload. Firstly, learning is hard and can quickly lead to stress and uncertainty. Supportive feedback and small goals are crucial to help children through this difficulty. Learning can be overwhelming, especially when children have not yet reached automaticity in the basics. It is essential to teach children coping strategies for managing stress and overload.
We can help to manage overload by understanding how memory works. Hattie divides memory into three sections centred around retention time – iconic, working and long term. Iconic memory is powerful, sensory and momentary. Our working memory is a kind of workbench and we can only fit so many things onto it at any one time (somewhere between 5 and 8) and those things are lost within minutes if they are not processed. We can’t rely on it for long term retention. So the goal is to get information or learning into long term memory.
Long term memory is tricky – it’s hard to get stuff in there and it’s hard to get stuff out. We need to do something with new information to make sure it sticks and we need to know how to find it when we need it. Patterns are essential here as is rehearsal. Reading this in Hattie made me remember some of the techniques I was taught by Spencer Kagan some time ago in chunking up information, attaching icons or images to it and distilling it by sharing and repeating in a round robin. None of these techniques are in Hattie’s book, but they rang a bell when I read what he was saying here. They do work and they fit with Hatties mantra of CRIME – chunking, rehearsing, imagery, mnemonics and elaboration.
Chunking – classifying the knowledge so it connects to something else.
Rehearsing – practising, perhaps by turning it into song, rhyme or movement. Repeating.
Imagery – ‘seeing’ the information, or attaching an image to it – seeing a bus in business, for example or a bra in library!
Mnemonics – eg Every Good Boy Deserves Favour, or Big Elephants Can’t Always Understand Small Elephants, or as my functional english class say Never Eat Caterpillars Eat Slimy Slugs and Rectum Yoghurt (yum yum). I hasten to add that neither Hattie not I came up with that one.
Elaboration – attaching a story to or personal significance to information.
While Hattie points to the usefulness of such techniques, he is keen to point out that they work at a superficial or procedural level – they allow the basics to be memorised so that they can be moved aside to make room for the important stuff – the application of knowledge.
He also points to the crucial importance of remembering that human beings learn socially, with and from each other. Most of our brain power is spent on each other.
Chapter 14 – How Knowledge is Stored in the Mind
This chapter looks at types of knowledge and how they are stored. Hattie starts with Sensory Knowledge and not for the first time in the book, he draws our attention to the power of our senses and how experience builds up sensory expertise – knowing when the dough is ready for example, or when it might rain.
The second type of knowledge, Hattie refers to as ‘string’ knowledge – it is associated with sequencing and ordering information to make simple connections like telephone numbers or times tables. Hattie describes this knowledge as crucial because it forms the basis of an understanding of significance and sequence. When the structures of strings are learned, deeper learning can build.
The third is ‘ideas’ – which take the form of facts. For example, dates, or names or labels. Sentences can carry many ideas. For example, Hattie uses the sentence ‘The major population centre of Western Australia is the beautiful city of Perth.’ In that sentence there are several ‘ideas’ or propositions. Children would only be able to access the sentence if they know where West is, what a city is, that a population centre indicates a town or city, that Australia is a country and so on. Too often as teachers we make assumptions at this level which form a barrier to further learning.
The fourth is ‘schemata’ – the building of concepts in which facts become organised and classified. If barriers to propositions are removed or explained, then children can start to build schemata. The facts of propositions or ideas are largely useless unless they are then built into meaningful and connected concepts. For example, Hattie uses planning travel as a useful schemata for ideas – giving a purpose to the knowledge. This form of knowledge is complex and requires constant refinement in response to new information. Hattie links this to Piaget’s notion of disequilibrium and states that it is important to remain open to new data.
The fifth is ‘mental’ – moving ideas and schemata into problem solving, ‘what if’ modes of thinking. Mental modes of thinking require high level applications of imagination and tenacity to solve problems. This means drawing on all available knowledge and experimenting. In this mode ‘what if’ is given free reign. This idea has led to a major level of misunderstanding in educational discourses recently leading to an absurd claim that creativity cannot exist without knowledge – a position which Michael Gove spouted on Question Time earlier this year. I discussed briefly in my post on Sir Ken Robinson, that we should be careful to distinguish between generative thinking, play and creativity. What Gove should have said and what Hattie does say quite clearly, was that creativity cannot be a substitute for knowledge. That creativity which draws from the integration of knowledge from different schema can be a potent and powerful force.
The sixth is procedural – automaticity – driving a car etc – knowledge which is no longer consciously enacted. To get to that point, a complex process needs to be broken down into procedural elements – like a recipe. Sometimes teachers find this difficult because the skills has become so automated that they have forgotten the steps. Hattie returns to ideas in the first section here, drawing our attention to the importance of worked examples that break processes down into logical steps.
Hattie warns against trying to group all the above into taxonomies as they require different things, but points to the usefulness of SOLO taxonomy as ‘promising’ in terms of rooting thinking processes into developing knowledge – i.e. contextualising.
Chapter 15 – The Role of Gesture
At any one moment in time, as many as 11,000,000 signals may be sent to the brain. No wonder it becomes overloaded! Such is its complexity that we filter out as much as possible. One priority for teachers is to ensure that the signals they are sending are a) those that they intended and b) received.
This complexity has led scientists to ask whether it is possible that we learn material subconsciously without knowing it. This form of knowledge is referred to as ‘implicit’. Much of this form of learning manifests itself at an emotional or physical level and is generally recognised as that which has been learned but which struggles to be communicated in words. For example it is almost impossible for example to explain to someone how to walk or ride a bike. Hattie also points to studies which show gut instinct can be based on good sensory information that has not been consciously processed but is nevertheless correct. He states that these instincts create biases that guide our behaviour in ways that are more advantageous than overt or reasoned knowledge.
Implicit learning emerges through social interactions and experiences with the natural world so these elements are crucial to human learning. Hattie does not touch upon this, but it is a key area for consideration when closing the gap educationally between children who have been raised with rich social and multi sensory learning opportunities and those who have not. He does not claim that implicit learning can be a substitute for knowledge, but a powerful partner to knowledge.
He goes on to explore the work of Susan Goldin-Meadow on the communicative power of gesture in the classroom. Her research found that many students demonstrate understanding of mathematical concepts in their hand movements that they cannot yet put into words. This has led to the conclusion that learning can be understood before it is articulated and that being able to read gesture may be as important to assessment processes as interpreting language. In addition, she found that having attention drawn to the gestures allowed the children to immediately move onto higher level mathematical work. The gestures seem to not only communicate understanding, but to activate application. In short, gestures reveal thought sitting at the edge of verbal competence and are a vital form of human communication. So much so, that Goldin-Meadow also found that the use of gesture in baby and toddlerhood was a powerful indicator of the future development of vocabulary.
It was also found that teachers who used gesture in their explanations were more easily understood by children and rated more highly as being knowledgeable. Whether they know it or not children are learning through what you do as well as by what you say, especially when gestures add to what you are saying.
Chapter 16 – The Impact of Cognitive Load
Hattie goes into more detail in this chapter on Cognitive Load Theory – CLT. It builds on and repeats some of the information in previous chapters which I’ve summarised elsewhere, so I’ll focus on that which has not been said elsewhere. CLT is built on the idea that working memory is too limited, overloading it leads to stress and too much stress inhibits learning. As teachers we massively underestimate cognitive load because we have forgotten the complexity of that which is being taught and our minds can really only cope with three interacting elements at a time so we need to build step-by-step working examples and link new interactions to existing schemata in order to support students through complexity.
Firstly we need to reduce extraneous load. This is basically stuff that is not necessary at this time. It could be emotional baggage the student brings with them ( I used to have a little ‘worry suitcase’ at the door of one primary I worked at – children would either whisper their worries into a little bottle and pop it into the case, or write them on a piece of paper and pop them in – it helped them to unload. With older children I’ve used paper aeroplanes into a big bin). Extraneous load can also be coming from the teacher – unnecessary information, or excessive and competing demands on their attention. Hattie points to the problem of ‘talking too much at students, assuming we’re motivating them’ when we’re just overloading them.
Generally students can cope with more loading once knowledge has been stored and when the complexity of interacting elements is low. One technique can be showing children the component parts of a task before beginning it – breaking down. Or preparing them in advance – Hattie points to the usefulness of ‘Flip’ teaching in this respect. If they are exposed to the vocabulary in advance, shown a working example and understand the ‘big’ ideas, then they are likely to feel less overloaded. This reminded me of how much more successful I am when building flat pack furniture if, as well as step-by-step instructions, I am also able to see the finished object in a picture – perhaps it’s the same concept! In short CLT techniques involve:-
1. Worked examples
2. Multi-media formats for information.
3. Contiguity – close alignment of the word and image.
4. Temporal contiguity – presenting multi-sensory modes simultaneously.
5. Coherence – focus on the key important information with clear explanation.
6. Modality – Looking at images while listening to words helps us better than trying to read words and images at the same time.
7. Redundancy – reading and listening to words at the same time reduces learning. Beware reading text from ppt!
8. Signalling – draw attention to critical information – pointing, highlighting etc.
9 Pacing – limit and control the pace of incoming information.
10. Concepts first – simple steps before complex processes.
11. Personalise – the use of personal pronouns enhances learning. Address children directly.
Hattie points out that CLT is found to be very useful when teaching beginners but that once a level of understanding has been reached, such techniques are less effective, maybe even time-wasting, quickly leading to boredom. Once the basics are in place, we need to move on. Having said that, there is no point in introducing complex problems if children don’t yet have the tools to solve them. Gathering those tools will vary depending on subject and complexity of the underpinning schema of course.
In exploring problem solving, Hattie suggests it is more useful for children to work through examples than to be presented immediately with a list of, say, equations to solve. This might then lead on to them completing a partially worked example before setting off on a solo voyage to create one of their own.
However, while research suggests that problem solving as an individual is difficult, when done in groups, it is far more effective. Hattie points to this research to draw the conclusion that well-motivated collaborative groups are far more effective in finding solutions to problems. In this research, the groups worked in threes and outperformed those pupils working alone. Hattie thinks this may be that there is a sharing of the cognitive load in these circumstances, allowing for more complexity to be handled by the pupils.
Chapter 17 – How Memory Develops.
What we think of as learning exists within the explicit memory which is inextricably linked to language and is one of the reasons why we rarely remember anything before the time we spoke effectively. Speech is a powerful tool for embedding memory and so articulating that which is known is important. As is reminiscing about that which has been experienced. Conversations, Hattie says, are the bedrock of memory acquisition.
He points to the quality of elaborated conversations between parents and children, linking of course (though not directly) to Bernstein’s famous theories about elaborated and restricted speech codes and the critical importance of joint talk in early childhood. Purposeful talk is critical to learning but it must be reciprocal and shared.
Starting school has a significant impact on children’s ability to memorise. It builds habits of paying attention and listening. Younger children need more help in classifying and organising the flow of new information than older children do and so KS1 settings will use visual cues and routines to help with this that children need less of as they get older (unless their development is arrested). As they develop and acquire new knowledge, children begin to elaborate their knowledge, for example distinguishing between petrol and electric cars, bringing two areas of knowledge together. This is a major educational tool. The more a child knows, the more they can make sense of the world. The role of the adult is key here and Hattie repeats much of the information in this chapter as he laid out in others about methods of memorisation.
He points out that adults who teach (alongside content, not in isolation of it) memory techniques, are more successful in getting children to remember. Using mnemonics, or other techniques to help remember key information was effective.
Chapter 18 – Mnemonics
I started to drift off in this chapter as I read lots of examples of people who had learned to remember loads of stuff, like the value of pi to 67,890 places. It’s not something that is a priority in my life. In fact, Hattie’s own conclusion is that while it may be impressive, these tricks are not actually very useful. He points out that memory techniques such as those outlined here and in other chapters are useful as tools leading to automaticity and quick processing of check lists – VCOP and so on and lists some useful memory tricks. But I would rather have not had yet another chapter dedicated to small gains and hoped rather for a ‘what next’ approach. At this point, the book was starting to feel really repetitive.
Chapter 19 – Learning Styles.
They don’t exist.
Chapter 20 – Multi-Tasking
I am a woman, so I was drawn to this chapter as a celebration of my superiority. So it was slightly disappointing to learn that multi-tasking does not exist. Instead what we do is to switch our attention between tasks. Women and young people tend to do this more effectively than men and presumably, particularly old men. But switching attention comes with a cost of concentration. It is simply not possible to switch from one task to another without negatively affecting progress in either. Tell that to your teenage child who says they can facebook and study at the same time. They can switch between the two, but it costs them dearly in terms of both attention and retention.
Chapter 21 – Are your Students really Digital Natives?
Yes and no. They won’t become Einstein simply by sitting in front of a computer on the one hand, but on the other, they are born into a technological world and can figure out how to use it well. Hattie points to the importance of bearing in mind the difference in being able to work out how to get something to work and using this to assume that children process knowledge differently as a result. Computers will never and can never take the place of a good teacher and children need guidance in order to be able to learn.
Saying that knowledge need not be taught because children can simply google it is a woefully inadequate way of educating children. Google cannot break down for children into meaningful chunks what is significant or important or process that knowledge in memorable ways.
Having said all of this, computers are a significant part of children’s lives and an important go to tool for information as well as modes of presentation. Children’s seeming expertise on computers is evidence of the time spend practising on them and Hattie has pointed out all along that if you practice something with a view to reaching a goal, you tend to get better. However these skills, impressive as they are, are not a substitute for knowledge acquisition and children need to learn how to process knowledge in order to understand it. A computer cannot do this.
He challenges the idea that children’s minds are being ‘rewired’ by technology – that it is fundamentally changing human nature and says there is no evidence for this, but then he does not refer to Susan Greenfield’s work in this area at all, or acknowledge the idea that carrying out this research would require a long term view.
Hattie explores the positive effect size impact of technology on learning in Visible Learning, but points out that where effects were good, technology was being used in conjunction with good teaching – i.e. to enhance teaching, not to replace it. He states that there is no evidence that information will leap off a computer screen into a child’s head. In that case, I’d like to offer him two examples:-
1. I learned a lot from reading his book from my kindle screen.
2. Sam, aged six, has a pretty good range of geographical knowledge thanks to GoogleEarth – he can find places on a map I didn’t even know existed.
The things is, that in both examples, Sam and I were building on existing schema. I know a lot about education. Sam already knew what water and land looked like on a map, and what most of the continents were. In short, you can learn new information from a screen, when it builds on and connects to that which is already there. In my opinion.
Chapter 22 – Is the Internet Turning Us into Shallow Thinkers?
In short, yes. Because of the large amount of information available, we tend to scan and move on, rather than reading deeply. Hattie points to concerns about the ‘cut and paste’ generation, although of course, as teachers we use a number of strategies to mitigate this tendency. The more skilled students become in being able to do this, of course, the more possible it is that they can mask deficiencies in their own mastery of a subject. It seems that the internet is both a blessing and a curse. He points to a theory by Dr Wolf in the US that scanning for information on google is undermining or short-circuiting the brain’s ability to process information at a deep cognitive level.
Hattie returns to his idea in the previous chapter in order to reassure and claims that our brains are not as malleable as we like to think, linked as they are to genetic and evolutionary patterns which pre-exist our encounter with computers. He states that there is no evidence to suggest that our brains are becoming less able to focus, but perhaps this links to his work in earlier chapters where he talks about the importance of removing distractions when we need to focus.
Chapter 23 – How Music Impacts on Learning
Hattie firmly dispels the idea that music helps us to concentrate, confirming that it simply acts as a distraction when too loud and makes no difference whatsoever to learning outcomes when played quietly. He says that it may be useful as ‘white noise’ in distracting children from bigger threats to their concentration like a chaotic home environment, but in general that there is no evidence of the ‘mozart effect’. However, he does accept that music has a powerful emotional effect on people and can be used to set mood – pointing to medical evidence that music reduces levels of anxiety in patients. It may be then, that music, while not making you smarter, can help to lower stress.
He sets out the research that shows that singing and listening to music in early childhood is a powerful way of creating bonds between adults and children He also points to some research that suggests children can become more alert if lively music is played at the start of a lesson and that being alert impacts on learning. He goes on to point out that a cup of coffee has a similar effect. I’d rather play music to children than give them coffee personally.
Hattie points to research that learning to play music on the other hand, does seem to impact on success in other curriculum areas. This may be down to two reasons – children who learn to play instruments tend to come from more affluent backgrounds where education is valued. Or that the process of learning to play an instrument – step-by-step with practice, sets out a good blueprint for learning more generally.
And that is the end of Section Two. I found it less engaging that the first section to be honest, perhaps because so much from the first was repeated and secondly because of the relentless focus on memorising stuff and I believe that education is about much more than just remembering stuff. But perhaps Section 3 will develop that further. It’s half term now. Yippee…..may be a slight delay on Section Three, but hopefully, by now you’ve bought the book and are reading it for yourself 🙂