So, this post from @DavidDidau this morning was useful, if only to remind us that there is a massive amount of literature on working memory and that working memory models are complex. Oh, and that Alan Baddeley is a god*. Notwithstanding the fact he’s a Yorkshireman.
Anyway, the post reminded me that in education we are constantly struggling to reconcile what seem to contradictory and complex issues. The reason for this is that day-to-day learning in the classroom is as far removed from what we currently know about the inner workings of the brain as the workings of a F1 car is removed from what the Large Hadron Collider teaches us about the structure of matter.
There are two contradictions in particular that I think about. The first relates to phonics and the second relates to mastery.
Firstly the phonics. I’ve thought on and off about this one for quite a while, but the post this morning brought it to the front on my mind, this paragraph in particular:-
Despite the bottleneck of working memory, we are capable of holding information in the different components without too much difficulty. For instance, images processed in the VSS can be used to anchor verbal instructions and explanations, held in the PL. So if I were to explain what a sepulchre was whilst also showing an image of what one looked like, working memory would not be in danger of becoming overloaded; in fact, the image would support the explanation. The general rule is that while we should avoid over taxing any of the individual components, visual and auditory information can be processed simultaneously without creating additional cognitive load.
Now, we are often told that children learn to read best without multi-cueing, i.e. by using books without pictures next to the words. So my question is simply this, how can we reconcile these two positions? If understanding what a sepulchre is can be aided by seeing a picture of one why does seeing a picture of a sepulchre not assist in learning how to recognise the word itself?
The second contradiction is the one I have been thinking about more often most recently, but I’ve added the one above so I can hang off the coat-tail of the post I’ve linked to and get more clicks.
So, ‘mastery’. Lots of different ways I seen this defined (some of the definitions using the word mastery) but the common feature I see described about a mastery approach in the classroom is that the teacher only moves on when all students have ‘mastered’ a concept.
Here’s my problem with this, the contradiction.
We know that spaced learning, i.e. learning over time, is probably the most effective approach. We also know that the important thing regarding learning is, to simplify, not that the knowledge has gone in, but to ensure that the knowledge is retrievable. And not just that it is retrievable that day but retrievable in three days, three weeks, three months time.
If the class can’t move on until mastery is shown, which I understand to mean that the concept has been learnt, and we can’t know if learning has taken place unless knowledge is retrievable over time, how can the mastery approach (as commonly defined) work? For spaced learning to work you have to move on before you are sure that learning has taken place.
I suspect that the answer to both my questions is through the use of a pragmatic approach to learning. But I would be genuinely interested if someone has a more scientific answer to these contradictions.
* Do read this