A little bit of something is better than a whole load of nothing

I have sometimes been frustrated by my eldest son’s primary school experience. He’s in Year 6 now.

I’ll start by giving an example of fantastic success in his primary education. My son is the second fastest student in his school at answering times tables and division questions, using a popular education app. He has been at the top of the league table, answering over 100 questions per minute. He has completed so much repetition of these multiplication and division questions that he has permanently seared the knowledge into his brain. He has absolute automaticity in answering. This is brilliant. He’s memorising all of the prime numbers up to 100 next, at the suggestion of a maths teacher colleague of mine. My son will take this knowledge with him into secondary school. There has been so much repetition and drilling that the mathematical knowledge (and its application) has become automatic. This means he will not have to expend cognitive energy on basic multiplication and division when he is solving more complex equations at secondary school. The time and repetition devoted to times tables and division have made his knowledge permanent. He’s ready for what will come at secondary school, because he has automatised what he learnt at primary school by repetition.

“If so little has been remembered about these topics, curricular time has been wasted.”

So, why am I frustrated? Well, as well as highly repetitive learning like times tables and division, my son has completed various ‘one off’ schemes of work throughout his primary school career. Various ‘topics’ have been covered over the years. I remember a topic on Ancient Rome, a topic on the Victorians, a topic on reptiles and a topic on building a robot out of junk. There is nothing wrong with any of these topics. They are interesting, valuable and engaging. The problem was the lack of repetition, consolidation and retrieval. My son does not remember what he learnt about these topics. They were delivered discretely and never returned to. It is certainly true that the teachers used each topic as a vehicle for vocabulary instruction: he has committed some new vocabulary to long term memory across his time at primary school. However, he has not remembered much of what he was taught about each topic. I doubt he would achieve over 50% on a basic test that assesses his knowledge of any of these discrete units that were never revisited. If so little has been remembered about these topics, curricular time has been wasted.

“The opportunity cost of repetition is the loss of novelty and variety”

My own primary school experience was similar to my son’s. I can remember a few trips and what I used to do in the playground. I know that I did lots of projects on different topics, whilst English and maths were the only constants. There was definitely breadth in my and my son’s primary education. We covered lots. We repeated nothing. For knowledge and skills to be embedded in long term memory, repetition is needed. To repeat something that has already been taught, we must remove something else we had planned to teach. The opportunity cost of repetition is the loss of novelty and variety. Time is against us. We can have depth or breadth in our curricula. We cannot have both.

There is a moral argument that suggests we should aim for breadth in primary and secondary education. A ‘broad and balanced curriculum’ was the mantra of curricular planning in recent years. I can see that schooling is the best opportunity that young people have to experience new and interesting things. I understand that a student may find their path in life through a chance exposure to a topic that a teacher has chosen to include. I appreciate that the chance of this happening increases when the curriculum is as broad as possible. On top of this, I accept that a broader curriculum in history and English literature can allow for a greater sense of inclusion and representation. These are all good moral arguments. But they do not change the fact of the opportunity cost incurred by a broader curriculum. Curricular time is limited in volume. You can apportion a small amount to a lot of topics, or a greater amount to fewer topics. I believe we need to teach fewer topics in depth, with opportunities for repetition, despite the compelling moral arguments for teaching with greater breadth. It is important that our students have an enriching experience. It is important that our students are exposed to diversity. In my view, though, it is even more important that they actually have a chance to remember what they have been taught. To achieve this, we must carve up curricular time so that it includes all the repetitious activities that move new learning into long term memory. We need to include retrieval practice. We need to check understanding. We need to re-teach. We need provide opportunities for scaffolded and then independent practice. Then we check for misconceptions and reteach again. This repetition will inevitably be viewed as boring – or at least less interesting than a novel topic every lesson. Students will possibly complain “we’ve already done this” and may feel, due to the illusion of knowledge, that they don’t need this tedious teaching and testing. Of course, they really do.

“Endless exposition to new content means nothing is ever consolidated.”

I want schooling to be an enjoyable time for all students. I want them to love coming to school and to build memories they will always treasure. I want them to have fun. Our school years have intrinsic value and the success of one’s schooling cannot be judged solely by measuring how much one has managed to memorise. Nonetheless, as our students progress through school, they should be building schemata in each subject area. These schema should grow every year, as more powerful knowledge is moved into long term memory. The knowledge and skills in our subjects are only worth teaching if they will be retained and made use of in the future. Endless exposition to new content means nothing is ever consolidated. They will remember a whole load of nothing. Our challenge then, in curricular planning and classroom teaching, is to strike the right balance between novelty and repetition. That way, every lesson, they will consolidate a little bit of something.


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