Learning is invisible – my slides from #LEF15

For all those who asked for my slides after my presentation of the London Festival of Education at the IOE, here you go:

For all those who weren’t there, here’s a commentary:

The idea that learning may not be visible isn’t widely accepted and in order to challenge beliefs without annoying people, I began by the perceptual and cognitive illusions to which we all fall victim. Then, with everyone suitably softened up I offered some definitions of learning:

  1. The long-term retention and transfer of knowledge and skills
  2. A change in how the world is understood.

We then discussed the need to separate learning from performance. Performance is what we can see and measure but it’s the tip of the iceberg. Learning takes place inside students’ heads and lurks beneath the visible surface of a lesson. Often what appears to be learning is really just mimicry.

This leads to the concept of liminality. Moving from knowing to not knowing is a lot less straightforward than we think. Often, when it appears that someone has made rapid progress they are merely mimicking what they think we want them to do. Knowing requires that we integrate new information into our schema of pre-existing knowledge. It is this process of integration that leads to retention and the ability to transfer between contexts.

If we want students to truly understand anything more than the superficialities of our teaching then we need to stop trying to rush them through liminal space. The false certainty of easy answers – successful in-lesson performance – might actively be retarding learning. But we have a problem: we’re genetically predisposed to avoid uncertainty. In our primitive ancestors, if it looks like a duck or, more to the point, if it looks like a snake, we’re better off assuming it’s a snake rather than having an ontological debate. It’s easy to see how a preference for dithering might quickly have been selected out of the gene pool.

This really is a challenge. Rushing to certainty is the problem but we hate uncertainty. I don’t really have an answer to this conundrum beyond saying that identifying the problem is maybe the first step to finding a solution. The reason it’s so problematic is that the rush to certainty leads to maximising short-term performance, which leads to mimicry, with leads to preventing learning.

Much of the edifice of education is built upon the flawed idea that we must make students perform to the best of their ability in lessons. Lesson observation, assessment for learning, lesson planning and the entire concept outstanding teaching is cast into doubt. If I’m right (and of course, I may not be) everything we do could be wrong. So what should we do instead?

We finished up by discussing Bob Bjork’s theory of desirable difficulties as being a potentially useful piece of the puzzle. I’ve written about these before – if you’re interested, you can read more here.

I cheekily finished by saying that the subject is tackled in forensic detail in my forthcoming book,What if everything you knew about education was wrong?

36 Responses to Learning is invisible – my slides from #LEF15

  1. heatherfblog says:

    The difference between performance and learning is fascinating but I have in some ways struggled with the idea of desirable difficulties. This is because I use DI methods to teach my kids maths and DI tries to build fluency so incrementally that a child never really has to struggle. I totally see that learning happens when the new knowledge is actually built into the existing schema but I can’t see that necesarily that happens through struggle IF you can really meet the kid where they are and break down the process into tiny incremental steps so it is almost unavoidable to add to existing schema. This is much easier to do in maths for little ones than when trying to teach my yr13s political ideologies. The concepts are hard for my students and they need to grapple with them not expect to jyst ‘get it’ from the lesson. I wish some of them would ‘struggle’ for a while before putting pen to paper.

    • David Didau says:

      Your struggle is entirely natural: the concept of desirable difficulties is very counter-intuitive. I tried to show how the need to avoid cognitive load and also reduce performance might be resolved in this post: http://www.learningspy.co.uk/learning/learning-easy-hard/

      I’m sure it is possible to create durable learning without making students struggle but this is, probably, less efficient in the long run. My contention is that safe struggle, the act of attempting to dredge through memory before being given an answer, is the best way to reliably strengthen storage. The point you make about your Year 13s gets to the very heart of this: without struggle we just get mimicry; instead of mastery we get, at best, competence.

      • heatherfblog says:

        I still can’t quite see that DI has got this wrong. When I think of teaching phonics to young children the tiny incremental steps with hardly any struggle makes an enormous difference. I am left wondering if desirable difficulties is a big part of the picture but sometimes not the best. I’ll think on it some more!

        • David Didau says:

          How do you know there is no struggle with phonics? This is a threshold concept you grasped before your memory begins. You are now plagued with the ‘curse of knowledge’ and have little conception what not reading might be like.

          Just to re-cap, difficult are only desirable if they’re not too difficult. Success is a crucial part of the desirable bit.

          • heatherfblog says:

            I knew you’d say that! I’m pretty sure the principles of DI do run counter to the idea of desirable difficulties. There is advice not to allow struggle, e.g. you aren’t meant to let a kid struggle at a word. If they do then they need more work on the level down. For maths the courses are designed so the students pretty get the vast majority right, bar the odd hiccups. Especially with students used to failure the self efficacy is powerful.
            They do have to concentrate hard and they do spend lots of time being required to recall what they have learnt but the course is designed so this is pretty much always possible. Perhaps I’m bothered because the idea of struggle fits in far better with the whole language movement where you are meant to try and work out what the words might be and with progressive maths.
            I guess that while I am totally behind you on the need to dispel the myth of rapid progress in lessons and clearly see how powerful it is to distinguish between learning and performance I can’t help thinking from my experience with DI that desirable difficulties is only part of the story (though offering real insight) when it comes to the best ways to learn.

          • David Didau says:

            I think SatNav is a good example of the need for difficulty. It knows exactly where I am, exactly where I want to go and tells me exactly how to get there. It’s effortless; I never have to think. And I never learn routes. I think you may be defining ‘struggle’ differently to me. I repeat, difficulties are only desirable if they’re not to difficult. The process must result in success. Processes like spacing and testing are clearly not incompatible with DI or any other delivery model – they are ways of building storage strength rather than retrieval strength. The science is pretty compelling of this and if we’re going to refute it with, well, what I do works for me, then we’re in danger of falling into the same camp as advocates of any old nonsense.

          • mrlock says:

            There is an interesting thing in the Battle of ideas debate with Andrew Old, Michael Shaw, Munira Deputy Mayor where Michael Shaw points out that a very valuable lesson from the far East for one school was NOT letting kids struggle for ages. If they’re wrong, be harsh, move on. This was a school in Bury St Edmonds.

            Obviously, there will be some nuance, but it’s interesting that kids are basically told they’re right and wrong and the teacher moves on to the right answer, in a manner that we don’t tend to do in the UK.

          • David Didau says:

            I feel my ideas are being caricatured as “letting kids struggle for ages” – that is not what I’m suggesting. The idea is to attempt to retrieve from memory before being told the answer. I do like the ideas of ‘be harsh, move on’ though – I can see some merit in that.

  2. A very well written post – thanks! I like the phrase ‘safe struggle’! I remember an ‘in’ phrase I liked when I was studying ages ago was the need for a ‘NTLE.. a non-threatening Learning Environment’. I suppose we need that environment for both learners and teachers … the threat of an observation with criteria demanding easily visible learning can seriously affect the way we teach.

  3. chemistrypoet says:

    It is interesting that you identify the tendency to rush to judgement as a major stumbling block to move to a more appropriate, leisurely, and considered view on learning in students. I am not convinced of this…in most of life the tendency to procrastination is very much in evidence, and getting people to make decisions is difficult. I wonder if this rush to judgement in schools has been forced onto reluctant teachers by the high stakes accountability system that has risen up (unbidden) from the depths of Dfe over the last 15 years? If teachers were given permission to be more considered maybe that is exactly what they would be?

    • David Didau says:

      Procrastination and the reluctance to make decisions is not at all the same as gradually integrating information into pre-existing schema. But that said, the rush to judgement produces almost as much misery as the rush to false certainty.

  4. Julia Whyte says:

    I feel strongly that we can never really know what the impact of teaching, education , call it what you will is. Short term assessments such as exams can give an indication of progress made in the here and now but it doesn’t mean that the knowledge or understanding will stick over time. Or, that poor results at a given time actually means that the pupil is not making progress. In four weeks’ time, when no assessment is taking place, the penny might drop. This is why I really could not take seriously this Ofsted obsession with progress made in a lesson. I really like what you say.

  5. […] that education hasn’t measurably improved. David Didau’s also has a point about memory retention. What do learners learn? Is there much point learning stuff you won’t remember or don’t […]

  6. […] Learning is invisible by DavidDidau  Pictures of ‘Queen and double-decker buses’ used to show British values, says Hunt Richard Vaughan writing in tes Connect […]

  7. […] Learning is invisible – my slides from #LEF15 | David Didau: The Learning Spy ‘If we want students to truly understand anything more than the superficialities of our teaching then we need to stop trying to rush them through liminal space. The false certainty of easy answers – successful in-lesson performance – might actively be retarding learning. But we have a problem: we’re genetically predisposed to avoid uncertainty. In our primitive ancestors, if it looks like a duck or, more to the point, if it looks like a snake, we’re better off assuming it’s a snake rather than having an ontological debate. […]

  8. heatherfblog says:

    I genuinely wasn’t talking about ‘what works for me’, I was talking about how DI works. It sounds as if you are right and I have been interpreting your meaning of struggle as involving more difficulty than you meant it to mean! I love the Satnav analogy and in fact the research chimes with my own instincts as a teacher so if anything my biases make me more likely to take it all on board!

    • heatherfblog says:

      I think my problem with ‘desirable difficulties’ stemmed from the word ‘difficulty’ because it makes you think kids learn long term if the work is complex – once difficulties are overcome. There is truth in this and makes me think about my own English A level when I found DH Lawrence’s Three Novellas difficult. I really grappled with them, asked questions and ended up loving what I had initially hated. I still remember what I learnt from them now, when much else from my A levels is forgotten.
      However, to then decide it is the difficulty that is the key to long term learning is really dangerous as working memory, motivation and lollipops of just pitching too high must also be considered.
      The essential truth is that you want kids to think really hard about something – and one way that might happen is, as it did for me, by making it quite difficult. Would it have worked if my maths teacher had opted for the same approach ? NO! Motivation is a crucial issue. DI might not make work very difficult but it still requires real mental effort to concentrate and keep recalling from memory.
      It seems obvious to me that discovery learning can’t be generally used because there are so many likely problems and I’m not surprised these is do little research in its favour. However, I think it has traction because when it works the kid has thought really hard which is brilliant for memory. There are different tools in the kit to make kids actually think. They have different pros and cons.

  9. Vishal says:

    Thanks For sharing useful knowledge and updates.

  10. […] is in many cases invisible as outlined many times by David Didau and is certainly not linear but rather more nebulous in actuality. As Prof. Coe reminds […]

  11. […] I’ve mentioned before (at tedious length) learning is invisible. Or at least, other people’s is. It happens inside our minds and, as such, we tend to […]

  12. […] is in many cases invisible as outlined many times by David Didau and is certainly not linear but rather more nebulous in actuality. As Prof. Coe reminds […]

  13. […] can see learning. I’ve written extensively about why this is a misconception but do understand that this has yet to filter into the mainstream […]

  14. […] David Didau points out frequently you cannot see learning all you can do is study the effects and theorise on the causes. Take the example […]

  15. […] you accept that learning is invisible, then the picture presented in pupils’ books will only provide evidence of performance. Were […]

  16. David Laurence says:

    “Much of the edifice of education is built upon the flawed idea that we must make students perform to the best of their ability in lessons”

    I assume therefore you don’t support the idea of teachers being entered into the “Capability Policy” process if they are judged not to have achieved the required “learning taking place” objective ?

  17. […] is in many cases invisible as outlined many times by David Didau and is certainly not linear but rather more nebulous in actuality. As Prof. Coe reminds us, […]

  18. […] of my explanations, the perceived efficacy of my activities (I say perceived efficacy as learning is invisible), and the rigour or challenge that I presented my students with.  In short, the quality of my […]

  19. […] is in many cases, invisible as outlined many times by David Didau and is certainly not linear but rather more nebulous in actuality. As Prof. Coe reminds […]

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