June 27, 2008

Question 3: What material should be overlearned

EHT asks:

[S]hould we expect each and every student to have total recall 9 months later? OR Should we expect students to be able to read a question regarding older content and be able to touch upon the right answer by reviewing the answer choices carefully and logically? AND shouldn't we expect students to forget certain things, but be able to have the skills to jog their memory such as how to check a reference source, etc.?

Willingham addresses this issue at length. So, let's go right to the source.

[T]he following types of material are worthy of practice:

1. The core skills and knowledge that will be used again and again. In this case, we give practice in order to ensure automaticity. The student who struggles to remember the rules of punctuation and usage (or must stop to look them up in a reference book) cannot devote sufficient working memory resources to building a compelling argument in his or her writing. The student who does not have simple math facts at his or her disposal will struggle with higher math.

2. The type of knowledge that students need to know well in the short term to enable long-term retention of key concepts. In this case, short-term overlearning is merited. For example, as noted earlier, a science teacher may want students to know a set of facts about certain species so that she can introduce an important abstract concept concerning evolution that depends on these facts. Or, a high school history teacher may want students to master the facts of several Supreme Court cases in order to build long-term understanding of a particular constitutional principle.

3. The type of knowledge we believe is important enough that students should remember it later in life. In this case, one might consider certain material so vital to an education that it is worthy of sustained practice over many years to assure that students remember it all of their life. A science teacher might spend the better part of a year emphasizing basic principles of evolution in the belief that the material is essential to consider oneself conversant in biology. Further, the curriculum might address and require practice in evolution in multiple years to assure that such knowledge will last a lifetime. Do we expect that a 40-year-old will have retained everything learned through the 12th grade? No, but do we expect that she will retain anything? Should she be able to grasp the basics of evolution or describe the different responsibilities of the three branches of the federal government or calculate the area of a circle? Exactly what sorts of knowledge merit the focus required to create long-lasting memory will be controversial, but that practice is required to create such memories is not.

How should practice be structured--should a teacher strive for overlearning in the short term or repeated learning over the long term? The answer will depend on whether the goal is automaticity in skills, short-term knowledge, or long-term knowledge--and what the teacher knows about the future curriculum students will encounter. For example, an English teacher might deem it very important that students understand the use of metaphor in poetry, but extensive, focused practice may not be practical or necessary. This knowledge will likely be developed over a number of years, and there will be opportunities for practice in the future. In other cases there will be future opportunities for practice, but the timeliness of the learning is important. For example, one teacher might provide just a cursory introduction to first-graders on how to tell time, figuring that the students will have ample opportunities for practice in the future. But another teacher might also reason that first-graders need to know how to tell time (so that, for example, they can monitor their activities during the day and be more self-directed) and so focus practice on this skill. Similarly, a French teacher may realize that students will have plenty of practice conjugating the verb ĂȘtre (to be) over the long term, but may justly believe that students must know this material early in their training or their ability to read, write, and understand French will be badly hampered.

Exactly when to engage students in practice, through what method, and for what duration are educational decisions that teachers will need to make on a regular basis. But, that students will only remember what they have extensively practiced--and that they will only remember for the long term that which they have practiced in a sustained way over many years--are realities that can’t be bypassed.

One of the problems with modern education is that little effort is made to distribute practice such that students have a fighting chance to retain the knowledge they have learned. Google is great tool, but it is not a substitute for a deep well of structured long-term knowledge.


Parry Graham said...

I think this raises a great point of discussion: What are those skills/knowledge that represent the "must haves", and what represent the "nice, but not entirely necessary"?

Many (most?) states, mine included, have curricula that are a mile wide and an inch deep. The message to teachers is often "make sure you covered the curriculum", with little direction in terms of emphasis. Teachers and students have finite time to "cover the curriculum", which means that some of the critical skills/knowledge are likely not being emphasized to the point recommended by Willingham.

So what are the "must have" skills/knowledge within the major disciplines (reading, math, writing, science, social studies)? I think the Willingham quote provides a framework of criteria, but doesn't get at the deeper question with subject domains.

KDeRosa said...

Parry raises some good points.

Though I don't think the states are entirely at fault here. Before the states stepped in, schools were alreay falling down on the job in terms of what they were teaching, how they were teaching, and what they were stressing. Whn the states stepped in to regulate, they did so in a ham-fisted manner (whichis typical) -- didn't solve much, if anything, and perhaps created a few extra problems.

RMD said...

Here are my top candidates for skills that should be "mastered" or learned to fluency:

1. Reading - this opens up the entire world. The earlier, the better. Once it becomes self-reinforcing, you're off to the races.

2. addition/subtraction/multiplication/division
These are critical for all math operations. Fluency will help all students in school and life.

3. handwriting
Fast, neat, fluent handwriting will enable all students to express themselves. This can be a major fluency block.

Anonymous said...

Another part of the problem is that parents and schools often disagree on which skills are the important ones. In those cases, you are really on your own.

I personally feel that my child should be able to construct a good sentence before he be asked to write a 5 paragraph essay. The schools think the foundational skill will just work itself out and become automatic as you work on the bigger skill.

I also think that my child should actually know which side of the paper is the correct side and what the margins are used for (I won't even mention punctuation, spelling, or grammar) before being expected to infer about a text or write on various global extensions.

And no, I'm not making that up.

And no, the high school will not be using any of those terms.

They have their own new terms.

Hopefully, they will resemble something they're expected to do by the time they reach college.