Four years ago, concerned about the teacher workload involved in many educational initiatives, I decided to find out more about what long-term, evidence-based educational research could tell the profession about what works and is therefore worth pursuing and what is (despite its apparent plausibility) not worth the effort teachers put into it. The results transformed my thinking and led me to consider a new approach to curriculum design.
Here are my top three transformative findings:
1. A curriculum needs to be based on a fundamental principle that learning is a change to long-term memory.
If content is not in a student's long-term memory then it has not been learned. Moreover, learning takes a long time to happen and is invisible to see in the short-term. However, most of our curriculum design is based on a completely different premise: that learning should be fun, relevant and engaging and this will ‘make it stick’. Cognitive science tells us this is not the mechanism for learning; that it is spaced repetition over time with constant retrieval that makes learning stick.
2. What works in the classroom often runs counter to our intuition and what we have been told for decades.
For example, it is often thought that following the interests of students is a way to make the curriculum real, relevant and engaging. Research from cognitive science, however, tells us that it is not how interested a student is in the content that motivates them; not how related to the ‘real world’ a topic is. Instead, the answer lies in our limitations in working memory. Working memory is where we think but, unfortunately, we have very little of it and therefore disengagement can happen quickly. We have two mechanisms that mitigate this problem: one is dopamine - a chemical that rewards us for thinking and motivates us, the other is long-term memory. Therefore the more success a student has the more motivated they become and the more they have in long-term memory, the less processing of new things they need to do, which frees up working memory for new challenges.
3. Knowledge matters -even in the age of Google.
It is often thought that there is no need for knowledge in the age of Google; students can just look up anything they need to know and they should, instead of being fed knowledge, be taught to think. This is false for three reasons. The first is that Google isn’t knowledge - it is a database of information. Schema theory tells us that all knowledge is based on meaningful groups and has semantic strength - this is what we mean by learning. The second reason is that it is impossible to think without knowledge (just give it a go - think about something you don’t know anything about); the more knowledge one has the more one can think. The third reason is that knowledge acts as its own gravity; the more one has the easier it is to understand new things and to retrieve them.
Although these are my top three transformative findings, there are many more and twice as many, if not more, knock-on consequences for curriculum design, teaching, learning and assessment.
Please come along to the courses myself and the team are running.
Book here for 27 March in Leeds.
Book here for 19 June in London.
Chris Quigley is a specialist in primary education. He has been a teacher, head teacher, lead inspector and trainer of school inspectors. He is also a publisher and a director of Chris Quigley Education, where he leads a team of specialists, delivering inspiring training.
First published 25 February 2020