Learning by heart

This is an overlay of my previous post called Explicit Memorisation

A while ago I delivered a morning briefing to my colleagues, I spoke without notes and without a PowerPoint or similar. I had learned what I had to say by heart.

Today I want to talk about our students learning by heart, or memorising, or what is sometimes pejoratively called rote learning.

I’m going to start by reciting a poem I have learned by heart.

Now, there are two reasons I believe that learning by heart is important for our students:

  • the more you know, the easier it is to know more; and
  • increasing your knowledge base in your long-term memory can increase your IQ.

It was Hirsch who first made the argument that the more one knows, the easier it is to know more. He called this The Knowledge Deficit and the argument relevant to our secondary school goes something like this: students arrive at our school with different levels of knowledge, often a higher knowledge base is positively correlated with higher SES, and what happens is that the students who know more find it easier to learn even more, and conversely for the students who know less. Therefore, the gap between the knowledge of our students only grows whilst at our school. The gap that students arrive to our school with, with us giving all our students the same excellent education, inevitably grows larger by the time they leave.

I want to be clear here, I don’t want to close this gap by reducing the knowledge of our highest achievers, and I believe there’s a real danger of that happening with any strategy to reduce the gap. The important point is that we need to close any gaps by bringing the knowledge of those at the lower end up to those at the top, and we need to do it as quickly as possible on their arrival here.

I’ll bring in here the idea of IQ. IQ is positively correlated with a huge amount of success factors in life, and what is not widely known, is that it measures two types of intelligence: crystallised intelligence and fluid intelligence. Fluid intelligence which is perhaps related to our working memory can be thought of as the ability to solve novel problems or ‘think on one’s feet’. It’s been said that Fluid intelligence is almost impossible to increase. Whereas Crystallised intelligence, which perhaps is linked to our long-term memory, can be increased. By increasing the crystallised intelligence of our students we can increase their IQ. So what is crystallised intelligence? In short it is the knowledge base of our long term memory. The more it is stocked, the better our crystallised intelligence; it will include our vocabulary, and for example, mine includes the poem I recited.

So we have the idea that a well stocked mind makes it easier to learn more, and can improve one’s IQ. James Colver has spoken here before about memory and cognitive science, from where we get a nice definition of what it means to learn something: learning is a change in the long-term memory and the implications for what we do in the classroom: memory is the residue of thought. I would argue that everything we do with our students is with the goal of changing their long-term memories i.e. learning. In class, we get our students to think about what we want them to learn, and it this thought which becomes memory.

What I’m talking about here is slightly different though, I’m talking about closing the knowledge gap by pinpointing knowledge that we want every single student to learn, and then getting all students to explicitly memorise it. This involves the whole school embarking on a four-step process:

  1. Identify and organise the knowledge we want every student to learn
  2. Give this to students along with clear, precise ways in which they can memorise it
  3. Make time for the students to memorise it
  4. Give students frequent low-stakes quizzes on the knowledge at strategically thought out intervals.

My argument is that by influencing every single one of our students to commit the most important knowledge of our subjects to heart, we can close the attainment gap and make all our students more intelligent. It is the right thing to do.


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