Wednesday, 17 February 2016

No-one ever learnt anything worth learning in a group: a theory

Dear Reader,

Can you think of five things you learnt as a child that really made a difference to your life?

Can you think of five skills you have that you rely on as an adult?

Can you think of five times you really felt something 'clicked' for you as a learner?

I'll give you some examples.

1. I'm eight years old.  I'm sad, because everyone around me is so noisy and I'm tired of listening. My primary school teacher is showing me how to do graduated shading.  The rest of the room is a quiet blur as I concentrate on my smooth pencil strokes, gradually fading from dark to light as I shade. She is showing me by demonstrating and I copy and compare my work to hers.  I remember the creases around her eyes as she smiled and the smell of the soap on my hands.

2.  I'm twelve years old.  I'm angry, because my life is chaotic and unpredictable.  My teacher, who is a nun, is teaching me how to make a pros and cons list for any argument.  I'm astonished, because it didn't even occur to me that you could extract your opinion, your emotion and your feelings from an argument and just look at the principles underneath.  My life is all drama at the moment, and it's extremely appealing.  I love the way she is analysing and cataloguing concepts without any need for judgement.  Her face is kind but I know it hides a powerful intellect underneath.

3.  I'm seventeen years old.  I'm learning about statistics. I'm frustrated because I took maths to please my father, but it's harder than I thought. I've come to see my teacher because I'm scared of falling behind. My teacher is an ex-Olympic athlete who cheerfully explains that she isn't a mathematician, but a statistician, because she lacks the creativity to play with numbers or algebra but can pop numbers in and out of formulae with no trouble.  She painstakingly gets me to derive the formula for standard deviation by asking me careful questions about how I would measure it and why.  I never forget this formula or this method.

In all these examples, all these times that I really felt that I learned something useful, all the times my brain ticked over or I really focussed on something, one thing stands out for me.  It was a dialogue.  It was a one-to-one.  It was a human connection,

This isn't the only way to learn, of course.  As I grew older and more motivated I stretched my intellectual wings and began to learn alone - from books, articles, videos.  I loved this way of learning because I enjoyed solitude and independence.  Solitary learning can be effective, of course. But when I really think hard about learning, I come to the inescapable conclusion that the really meaty stuff, the really complex concepts and the crystal-clear click-of-the-gear moments - they have all happened during a one-to-one conversation - and most certainly never in a group situation.

What if this is true?

What if classrooms are terrible places to learn?

What if pupils only really learn when we give them individual attention?

What if progress happens only because of truly dedicated teachers, TAs and parents giving extra time and care to pupils over and above what happens in school?

I realise this may also be partly due to how my brain is wired.  I know, as an introvert, that my public persona is wearing and tiring for me and individual dialogues are easier on my neurons.  If so, it would make perfect sense that removing the scrutiny of others, the complex variables of thirty other bodies in the room, and the anxiety of public performance would help my brain to focus on one thing and achieve flow.

When considering this idea, I thought about the hot topic of maths teaching at the moment: times tables.  Do you have or know a child that has learnt their times tables?  Have you learnt them?

Did you learn them in a classroom?


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