There is an art of memory that can have profound implications for learning and thought.

In the Middle Ages memory skills were sometimes viewed as a serious and heretical threat to the religious orders of the day. In the Campo Di Fiori in Rome there is a statue to Father Giordano Bruno, who was martyred for his interest in science and zodiac inspired memory devices.

The basic principles of memory are universal; the visual, the ordered, the associated and the repeated. We are told that Simonides of Ceos, recited a poem to a nobleman of Thessaly which contained reference to the Gods Castor and Pollux. There upon, the haughty lord instructed Simonides to collect half of his performance fee from the Twin Gods. Simonides was called outside where two strangers wished to speak with him. Whilst outside, the building where he had performed collapsed, killing all inside. The bodies unrecognisable, Simonides was able to recall the identity of each one by remembering their position at table.

We can recall many things by using signs and symbols, by divination of words and images and by other mnemonic devices. Some believe that it is possible to share in the mystic experiences of our ancestors by a process of orthopraxis .
(The link also refers to a seminal text by Mary Carruthers : The Craft of Thought)
We might walk in the footsteps of monks in a cloister or retrace the steps of an explorer and connect with their experiences. Architecture is also a useful metaphor for memory and Cicero apparently used this device to memorise his long speeches in the Forum by walking through imagined rooms and using the contents to prompt his flow.

We have the opportunity to develop our own machina memorialis, a device for successfully and profitably reading the book of one’s own memory. Perhaps this comes more naturally with age but sometimes is accelerated by circumstances as with solitary confinements.In an ‘Evil Cradling’, Brian Keenan underlines the importance of memory – particularly as he tried to entertain his fellow hostage John McCarthy during their years in a Lebanese cell together.

Teaching of Maths

So, the latest headline gimmick to support the teaching of maths in the UK – send for the Chinese!

I am not convinced that the problem with maths is as serious as some like to make out. We don’t measure up well educationally when compared to places like China and Singapore and this is perhaps as much to do with culture as it is with teaching. Also, the data can be unreliable and skewed by a sizeable under achieving tail. The oft quoted group of critics, the employers, will probably always find fault with job seeker’s basic skills – standards are never what they were!

One cultural problem we do have is that many of us regard maths with trepidation and do not have good classroom memories – we probably transmit some of this to our offspring and round we go. I suspect that we do need a serious change in the way the subject is taught and by whom. If we are to change the culture we need to focus on younger children and their parents and perhaps we need to recast maths as a language – we make sense of the world in words and in estimations – both things our brilliant brains do well. ‘What is it called?’ and then ‘How big is it?” How far away is it?” – both questions having both a word and a numerical answer, from the very earliest age. Specialist maths teachers are not necessarily the only or the best qualified to address a subject that can be defined as ‘philosophical’. As ever, it is parents who hold the key.

I suggest that this is where we need to have a debate. I also suggest that, along with everything else in education, the constant political interference is part of the problem. I can remember vividly being taught the binary system in the 1960’s – this was to equip us for the computer age! I think it was soon dropped. I rarely remember any one explaining to us clearly why we were doing this. Even in today’s pressured classrooms, time to explore the relevance of a topic can often be squeezed out.

How to make words and number equal partners in how children begin to make sense of the world – now there’s a research project.

Learning and Home

The majority of countries face the challenge of providing adequate homes for all of their families. The home is one of the critical parameters for learning. The home can provide the key elements of security, space and support for the learner.

In the UK the problem is being exacerbated by the fragmentation of families and the shortage of affordable homes – both factors driving up demand and prices. In the background, the ‘free market’ continues to act as a dead hand. Many affordable homes are purchased as second homes or as ‘buy to let’. Cheaper homes don’t get built so often, as the profit margins for developers make them less attractive.

In the good old days we had something called ‘development land tax’ which meant that Local Authorities could always recoup funds from developers. This added to their own council house building programmes. Mrs Thatcher allowed for the majority of council homes to be sold off. They were not replaced. A classic piece of short termism for political gain.

Now, more than ever, councils need to be able to build cheaper homes themselves, which they can then let, providing much needed income. However, for some reason, Local Authorities are not deemed fit by central government to do anything and are suffering massive cuts to their budgets. This is unfortunate, as they would have a huge contribution to make in safeguarding education, facilitating housing, supporting the environment and health. All of the things that can make a country successful and in the long run, save money.

Exam Change

Changing a key pillar of the education system, such as the examination regime at 16, should only be done for strong educational reasons. The current proposed changes, appear to be based on a vote winning ploy, to appease the rose tinted spectacle wearers, who yearn for the apparent greatness of the days of yore. People who generally did well out of the system.

This appears to be another example of amnesia. GCSE evolved as an exam that offered some chance of achievement to all and could genuinely stretch minds. The first tactic was to rubbish an exam, on an annual basis, that provided unwelcome possibilities of social advancement. Then, in response, introduce an exam that is narrowly academic and demands skills that are more easily honed in the quiet, well resourced and supportive sitting rooms of the middle class.The irony is that the outcome, (unsurprisingly, as this project is not based on any advice from the core of teaching opinion), is effectively a dumbing down.

Blooms Taxonomy of intellectual skills, places knowledge and understanding at the bottom of the pyramid. The higher skills, generally tested by GCSE, of application, analysis, synthesis and evaluation, are likely to be casualties in a content heavy curriculm.
So we have a change that is unwanted, unecessary, expensive, confusing, distracting, debasing and divisive.

This government, more spectacularly than most, has not even bothered to try to recognise the 50% of the population, for whom different syllabi and different assessments are needed. Instead of forcing all through a narrow gate and favouring the minority, surely we should be keeping the gate sufficiently wide for the possibility of developing the potential of all?

The only realistic opposition to a centralised administration of education, is for groups of schools, in partnership with local employers, colleges and universities, to develop locally recognised qualifications.

Moonshot: The power of collaboration

One of my favourite classroom ‘simulations’was called Moonshot. The class were given a list of 15 things that they had with them on the moon and asked to rank these in order of value. So Oxygen was handy, a compass may be not etc. Their responses were collected in and then they had to repeat the same task in groups. We then compared the scores individual v group and as you might expect, the group scores were always better than the individual.

The web offers us a unique opportunity to collaborate with problem solving. We can turn the planet into a giant brain if the people with the ideas are prepared to do so. And do we need to. Some of the challenges that we face need all the brains we can muster. Stephen Hawking has just suggested that he thinks it unlikely that we can survive on the planet for much longer.

The implications for education? Begin with the premise that everyone can make a contribution. The process of design, from ideas to manufacture, involves a host of skills that many of us possess to some extent. Some schools teach Philosophy for Children (P4C) which can give children of any age the opportunity to get to the core of an issue. Facilitate co-operative learning through web based problem solving from an early age. Embrace the full range of problems and challenges from energy, recycling, health, house building, agriculture, transport, care etc. Encourage a local community based micro model to begin with and then expand. It is the process of education that we can change most rapidly and most easily (and where teacher autonomy can be protected).
The next generation will have to deal with all the challenges, perhaps we should have the good grace to step aside and let them make a start.

‘Keep up the good work’

I wonder if we need to reinforce the critical appraisal of the language we use to communicate with pupils. I know, as a profession, we have rejected the meaningless instructions and comments of the past but have we really progressed as far as we need to? How often do we use terms and phrases which we have used before and which are often the path of least resistance in a pressured day (particularly when marking), but which do not achieve the required meeting of minds? Could do better – how? Keep up the good work – how? what? Satisfactory?

The research into effective learning (in particular Hattie) points us towards the best support for learning – individual feedback. It therefore puts pressure on us to choose our words very carefully. We are not helped by a profession that adopts and entertains jargon and acronym with ease. We are not helped that exam syallabi are very rarely written in student accessible language. We are not helped by our own education and upbringing, which often makes it difficult to be conscious of the ease with which we use language and the many who do not enjoy such an advantage. We could go deeper into the territory of Friere (Critical pedagogy) Bernstein (Restricted code) and draw a parallel between colonial suppression  and the middle class hegemony (via language) of our own culture.

I am fortunate to be able to observe teachers in the classroom and I am continually struck by the critical importance of making sure a class is comfortable with the necessary key words (use and spelling), the importance of sharing aims and objectives in accessible language and making sure that there has been a proper transaction of understanding. Individual exchanges, either in class or via marking also need to be clear about meaning.

Teaching is a time tortured activity involving dozens of daily decisions about where time is needed. I suspect that time spent ensuring that the pupils have the awareness and understanding of what they need to do to develop their understanding and skills, is time well spent. Easy to say and often said, but worth repeating. I can remember the fog surrounding my own education around the age of 8 or 9, so much so that I convinced myself that all the teacher wanted was things done as rapidly as possible ( becuase that was what seemed to achieve praise). Consequently I am still cursed with a degree of impetuousness. Perhaps the art of exposition has been slightly lost in the starter/trigger/intro culture. I note that Hattie’s (ibid) meta analysis places instructional quality a close 3rd behind feedback and prior ability in the list of the most effective learning agencies .