Reflections on #curricularillusions

Reflections on #curricularillusions

“Automatisation” is the basis for creativity and higher learning.
Professor Mark Warner reflects on Helen Abadzi’s lecture: “Memory biases and curricular illusions”


Right at the outset of Helen Abadzi’s remarkable and enlightening lecture, I understood the “why” for something I have observed over many years in research and teaching, and which our predecessors have known for centuries: if you struggle with key foundation skills and knowledge, you can’t solve harder problems and you don’t have the space or scope for creativity. It is self-evidently true in football and in music – dazzling performances on the pitch, heights of musicality on the stage, they both rest on security and fluency with the underlying tools. So it is in mathematics and in physics (my areas – I have taught and researched in theoretical physics for a lifetime). If you are not fluent in algebra, to the point that it is automatic, if you can’t visualise it and then just do it quickly, then you will have no spare capacity for a creative leap. So why is this? 

We can hold about 7 things in our short term, working memory."

Helen explained – we can hold about 7 things in our short term, working memory. And only for about 12 seconds.  She tested the audience by reciting a few digits. Some of us could repeat them back. Then she asked us to repeat them back backwards! Try it with a friend. It means you better read text, or process equations, quickly. Otherwise you will be just holding a given step in your mind to complete it alone, rather than moving on.  If you don’t know 7x8, you can work it out, but it will take up your working memory for a while.  Those who know that it is 56 will immediately be able to make a judgement based on knowing, say, whether 7x8 is closer to 50 or to 100. Some skills and knowledge just have to be automatized if you want to fly – not just in football, music, physics or mathematics.  Pretty well every subject, if you want to be very good. 

So the reproach “rote learning is boring” should be replaced by “if you have not automatized key skills and knowledge, you will be boring”! It is a controversial matter, though not to pianists and footballers. There was a lot more: 

•    How did you learn to tie your shoe laces? You won’t remember, but it has gone into your neural networks where connections need to be made, and remain made, so you can do tricky tasks effectively. Practice keeps the linkages – you remember the most used and the most recent things best. We were told that linkages can now be observed in functional MRI – but we have known the effect for millennia. “Over-learning” protects from forgetting. Things learned at the last minute just don’t stick.

•    Increasing the cognitive load helps! Without challenge, we think just the basics will do, and we diminish how much we have at our finger tips. (That final expression makes me think, at this point . . . )

•    We recall and deal with “chunks” that we bring into our minds.  They have to be available in milli-seconds, and that speed gives us the working space for complex thought.

•    The average number of hours of practice needed for fluency is apparently not known. The figure of 20,000 hours that is widely assumed is perhaps that needed to take you to the Premier League, or to the concert stage?

•    Automatizing should start early.

•    “We forget what we have forgotten”.  This is the memory illusion of the talk’s title. In this context, the illusion is often manifested as “my school years were golden years – we just played and did no rote learning or homework, and yet I have rapid recall of important facts and tools”.

•    Polymaths are often good at other things that use the same developed facility – the 19th century scholars who were fluent with the vocabulary and structure of Latin and Greek could recognise Sanskrit as belonging to the same language group.

•    “Activities” are seen as “real learning” – children are pictured assembling a piece of equipment.   Such activities may facilitate learning goals, but they are time-consuming and require funding and organization.  Some students may go through the motions rather than apply principles and remember them better.

•    Why do we remember books less-well that we have read on an e-reader than in paper form? (see Maryanne Wolf’s research: “Our ‘Deep Reading’ Brain: It’s Digital Evolution Poses Questions”) A question I have often asked myself. Well, to fully absorb, to understand and to remember, we read backwards from time to time, we revisit passages, our eyes scan constantly as well as reading. Chunks can be assembled by repetition and we have a better chance of storing them. An e-reader gives us less chance to We only have the illusion of remembering".

consolidate. We only have the illusion of remembering. There are consequences – internet searches make us think we are smarter than we are, on-line courses are more quickly forgotten, the paperless school is a dangerous place – bring back the text book! (And writing on random, uncurated pieces of paper is dangerous since re-visiting for reinforcement is not systematic.) It is dangerous to say “we don’t need to know anything, we can always look it up”. “Text books also reduce the cognitive load on teachers!” (a marvellous quote).

•    Testing, and preparation for it, is an important part of consolidating, making permanent connections, and developing fluency.

You might ask, how do I recall so much of what was said in a very full hour, with so many revelations and, for this simple practitioner in teaching and research, Eureka moments? Well, I wrote notes as fast as I could. The brain ached, and I had to flesh out afterwards the bits that I had just sketched the structure of. I re-read the notes, I made connections, . . .  Helen would be proud of me!

Professor Mark Warner FRS
Cavendish Laboratory, University of Cambridge and Isaac Physics


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