Educational drudgery

Should we always seek to learn new things and what does this have to do with the teaching of grammar?


A few years ago, I found myself on a ‘learning walk’, the aim of which was to visit a few different classrooms and and gather evidence to later discuss. As is the way with these kinds of initiative, we had a protocol to follow, one of which involved talking to a child in each classroom and asking them a few questions - not the kind of process that works well alongside whole-class explicit teaching. I forget the bulk of these questions but one has stuck in my mind: What have you learnt today that is new?

This question bothered me, even though these were the days before I had started to read education research and campaign for explicit teaching. Sometimes, I thought, the point of a mathematics lesson is not to learn something new but to practice or review concepts and skills that we have learnt previously. The learning walks process was by no means the most judgmental form of lesson observation I have been involved with - that would be the kinds of school inspections I experienced in the UK. However, no matter how cuddly and supportive, we were still making judgements based in part on whether students had learnt something new. How valid was that?

Since then, I have learnt about possibly the most replicated finding in all of educational psychology: the testing effect. In recent years, as romantic campaigns against standardised testing have garnered media attention, this has been given the more emollient moniker of ‘retrieval based learning’. Whatever you want to call it, rehearsing previously learnt material has a powerful effect on our ability to recall and apply it in future.

I have also developed my understanding of one model of how we acquire and apply new knowledge. Cognitive load theory posits that all new academic learning - as opposed to things we have evolved to learn naturally such as speech - must first be processed in working memory. Working memory is constrained and can only process around four items at a time.

This raises the question of what an item is. A young child attempting to handwrite a word may have to individually process every letter or even part of a letter such as the dot on an ‘i’. However, for a skilled writer, the various points they wish to make in a paragraph or even an entire essay may be the items being processed in working memory. What is the difference? Clearly, it is a difference of expertise but specifically, the skilled writer can automatically produce written words, grammatical sentences etc. and so does not need to process these items. One way we may explain this is that the skilled writer has a schema in long term memory for producing words. Once this is activated, these items do not need to be processed individually in long-term memory. In contrast, the young child has a far less developed schema.

This highlights the critical importance of being able to perform mental processes unthinkingly. If we want to free the mind to think about the ideas in an essay, first automate the process of writing sentences. If we want to free the mind for solving mathematical word problems, first automate the retrieval of number facts. And yet, practising a process until it becomes automatic does not involve learning something new.

Novel ideas are interesting. Drill and practice are boring. These are their intrinsic states. No doubt, drill and practice can be made fun in the hands of a skilled educator and novel ideas can be made excruciating in the hands of an inept one, but all things being equal, novelty trumps disciplined practice.

So a folk theory develops that students must be learning new things all the time.

To what extent do teachers, students and their parents subscribe to this theory? I think it is quite common. I suspect many millions of children go home each day and when their parents ask them, ‘What did you learn at school today,’ they reply, ‘Nothing,’ and mean it. They may have engaged in retrieval based learning. They may have moved a step closer to automating a key mathematical schema but it feels like nothing because it’s nothing new. In the presence of such a folk theory, it is important that we educate students, parents and even teachers on the process of learning and why novelty is not always the goal. I tell my students, ‘With this task, I don’t want you to learn it until you can get it right, I need you to learn it until you can’t get it wrong.’ Many concepts in education are that important.

Is the teaching of grammar one of them? I’m not certain. The evidence seems to suggest that although teaching grammar in isolation from writing does not improve writing - how could it? - grammar taught in the context of writing is more effective (see e.g. Fearn & Farnan, 2005). The latter approach is a feature of The Writing Revolution, a popular approach to teaching writing. And logically, you cannot talk about and therefore analyse, the structure of a sailing boat if you don’t know what to call the different bits of it: the bow, stern, mast, boom. So there may be something in that.

However, I am pretty certain you misunderstand learning and the role of the teacher if you argue against grammar teaching on the basis that grammar exercises are boring. Everything worth learning has an element of drudgery.