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.

The good school and the statistics

If you plot the GCSE results against the level of deprivation/affluence in this country (Financial Times 22nd Feb) you end up with a graph that hasn’t really changed over the years and tells an uncomfortable and inconvenient truth. A school’s performance is inextricably linked to the nature of the catchment area, which will be by far the greatest influence on childrens’ progress. Alas, in general, schools make little difference to this although, of course, an individual teacher can have a positive influence on an individual child.

With this information one can begin to shoot foxes; the rapidly improved, headline grabbing schools may simply have achieved this by managing to change their intake,poor performance cannot be laid at the door of Local Authorities,the targets culture, Free Schools, Academies, EBAC and OFSTED regimes are never going to make the difference.

The schools that seem to buck this trend and do well despite the relative ‘disadvantage’ of their catchment area (and there are a few notable exceptions) are often schools where parents, for cultural or ethnic reasons, support and encourage their offspring. Here lies the uncomfortable truth. To raise educational achievement (and social mobility), governments must find a way of engaging with parents. They must also find a way of convincing parents that education can actually make a positive difference to a family’s future, i.e. that there are genuine opportunities. A huge task and one that any Government should be supported to address. Alas, all we get is the cosmetic and the deceit of uninformed, gallery pleasing headlines.

We need to begin with the current school population. If we can ensure that their experience of education is positive and rewarding, where every child is taught how to support learning for themselves and for others, then there is a chance that they will pass this on to their own children. This also means a curriculum that excites and where jobs follow. We can at least make a start on the curriculum, now about those diplomas…..

‘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 .

Teachers and Learning

Teachers are expected to demonstrate that  their pupils are learning. This can be a challenge at the best of times and we need to exercise professional judgement when deciding if this is happening. We also need to pay heed to the strongest sources of classroom research, such as the meta analysis by Professor Geoff Hattie , which concludes that the way a teacher interacts with an individual pupil is by far and away the most potent ingredient in learning. Enabling this type of activity in a classroom is a challenge for planning and for classroom management. If this type of informed , instructive and affirming feedback happens in a lesson, then we can be confident that learning will occur. The ‘harvest’ of such interventions may need to be pursued through subsequent  individual questioning.

A more radical set of ideas about learning are linked to the concept of ‘flipping’ whereby the pupils learn independently from tailored web based programmes and computer games and the teacher diagnoses, facilitates and  coaches.

A little flipping certainly supports the feedback activities described above and has the potential to relieve the teacher of the punishing ‘all singing and dancing’ pedagogy, which is often implied by the perceived need to strive to be ‘outstanding’. Few teachers, in my experience, are capable of being consistently ‘outstanding’ in this way and expecting such ‘performance teaching’ for 5 lessons a day surely encourages burn out or career change.

Strategies for Schools: Ten Thoughts for Turbulent Times

  1. The need to protect your own capacity to develop and sustain high levels of achievement by each student and each member of staff.
  2. To conduct a Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities,Threats analysis to assess your situation objectively and to consult with all your stakeholders about the school’s priorities.
  3. To avoid invitations to join projects of the  ‘how to fill the vacuum left by Local Education Authorities, or how to help us to sustain our QUANGO, or how to maintain another school’s position of influence, or how to run the system with less funding’ variety, unless they relate to schools, institutions or agencies with whom you share the same young people and families, or schools with a genuine and pressing need to which you can, in some part, respond.
  4. To remember to differentiate between the political whims and swings of the pendulum, from that which is unchanging and which will not be reversed or dropped at some future point.
  5. In consultation with the whole school community, to save costs and through collaboration with other schools and partners, to achieve economies of scale and commissioning power.
  6. To sustain and develop your recruitment by taking advantage of and developing your existing ITT Partnerships. Be ready for the training places opportunity offered by School Direct in 2012, identifying prospective employees in advance, ensuring that your school is a highly desirable employment and career destination.
  7. To secure Academy status under your own terms and to seek to consolidate your position and that of your partners’ by having a clear and unambiguous ethos and perhaps an affiliation to an umbrella organisation (e.g. Schools Co-operative Society, Faith Groups, Local Authority, Commissioning Mutual, Local Area, Trust etc).
  8. To develop closer links and collaboration with your Secondary, Junior and Infant link schools.
  9. To ensure quality in your classrooms and management systems through research, critical enquiry, dialogue and reflection.
  10. To strive, as appropriately and as far as possible, to achieve the goal of all your students, staff, visitors and friends finding your school to be a happy and rewarding place to be.