Many moons ago when I was plying my trade as a classroom teacher in the west of Paris, at the end of what was no doubt a fascinating and thrilling History lesson a student approached me and asked me what seemed at the time to be a very strange question. She asked ‘Mr. Lowe, do I need to learn my lesson?’ In English the phrase ‘learn my lesson’ is these days associated more with a punishment than with a classroom, we might tell a youngster ‘I hope you have learned your lesson!’ after we have punished them for some minor infringement. For this student though, the phrase was meant quite literally and I recall my amusement at the idea that a student might take their book home and learn, off by heart, all the things she had written down in class. This kind of ‘recital’ was not something I had expected from my students before. Simply ‘remembering’ things and repeating them did not quite fit my interpretation of true learning which I felt required ‘understanding’. Rote learning was the educational past, not the educational future.
One of the reasons I’ve never forgotten that encounter is because every day since I’ve regretted my initial response. Of course the student should have been encouraged to go home and ‘learn her lesson’. And not just because reading through the work she had just done in class is a good habit to be in, which of course it is. In fact, over the last few years our understanding of memory and retention has developed a great deal and we now know that our brain has two types of memory – our ‘working’ memory and our ‘long term’ memory – and that if we can commit more information to our long term memory, the strain on our working memory is reduced, thereby making it easier for us to perform complex tasks. Transference of information into our long-term memory is completed by repeating tasks in different ways. In simple terms, the reason you can still remember the answer to 4 x 3 is because your maths teacher made you repeat your times tables hundreds of times when you were seven or eight years old and use them in all sorts of ways. Your working memory was ‘hit’ with those sums so often that the detail ended up in your long-term memory.
Not all academic disciplines fit this ‘cognitive load theory’ quite so easily. What we learn about emotional connections between humans in music or drama for instance is every bit as important as our four times table but perhaps not quite as easy to ‘learn by rote’. Nevertheless, encouraging students to take some time at the end of each school day to review their learning, to read through the notes they have taken in class and to ponder their meaning, is time well spent. Re-thinking the day’s learning will work the working memory, making it more likely that it will enter the long-term memory. And if they get that right, students will have a lot less to worry about when it comes to the exam season. Let’s make 2019-20 the year of ‘learning our lesson’.