On learning something new…

person playing wind instrument
Photo by Teddy on Pexels.com

New learning is a fragile thing. I am reminded of this as I try to improve my skill on the flute, not my main instrument. I have the advantages of knowing multiple scales as a mental map in my head, of already being a fluent reader of notation, and I even have the correct flute fingering for different notes memorised. But I am humbled by the lack of a consistent embouchure and the fact that the knowledge of which fingers to use for each note is not sufficiently automatic for me to play well or reliably. I experience what I see my beginner trumpet students experiencing – knowing the correct valve to push down but their fingers do something else altogether, seemingly at random. Also the ability to play something correctly once only to subsequently fail to do so again and again.

Apart from giving me new empathy for my beginning trumpeters, this has caused me to reflect on the learning process more generally in terms of how fragile new learning is and how much consolidation is required for it to stick. I believe that teachers need to make deliberate efforts to teach for memory whether they are teaching procedural or declarative knowledge. Simply giving students an ‘experience’ of a topic or skill  is not enough to result in long term learning. Even explaining a concept so that they have a good understanding of it is not enough if that understanding is soon forgotten. That ‘aha’ moment is necessary but not indication of permanent learning.

Do your students get enough practice using the knowledge or skills you are teaching them for it to become embedded in their long term memory? Two methods with strong evidence from cognitive science/educational psychology that can help are low stakes retrieval practice (quizzing) and elaborative interrogation (getting students to demonstrate and expand on concepts via questioning). If you are a learning a new skill then ample rehearsal of that skill is also an obvious step. Another technique teachers can use is cumulative assessment, in which material from previous topics is incorporated into end of topic tests, to help ensure knowledge is retained.

Simply put it takes a hang of a lot of going over for most students (human beings generally in fact) to ‘get it’ and ‘remember it.’ An interesting piece of research is ‘Project Follow Through’ and more specifically the success of a form of classroom teaching called Direct Instruction, developed by a Siegfried Englemann. His system, which enjoyed unparalleled success raising the achievement of underprivileged students in the US involved lessons in which 80% of each lesson was repetition of previous content. This feature was likely a big factor contributing to the success of the method. Of course the challenge is to keep the processes of embedding of knowledge/skills varied and interesting enough so that our classes don’t become too Gradgrindian.

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