Currywurst , apples and the £33,000 a year boarding school

currywurst

Currywurst fast becoming the most popular dish in Berlin

I have three relatively unrelated stories this month.

Berlin

The first follows a trip to Berlin this weekend and the obligatory city tour. Just of Unter den Linden you will find a sunken glass plate between the pavement that provides a view into a room full of empty bookshelves, sufficient to house the 20,000 books that were destroyed on this site on the 10th of May 1933. Some 70,000 people, many German university students gathered to burn books with “unGerman” ideas. Joseph Goebbels joined the students at the bonfire and declared: ” The future German man will not just be a man of books, but a man of character.” “It is to this end that we want to educate you.”

This was not only symbolic but practical. Without these books or to be precise only having the ones that remained, it might just be possible to create a nation of people who all think the same? Who all share the same ideals and live life by the same values. And yet of course this is not how you create an educated society, a society able to think for itself, the result will be compliance and idealism. Which was more likely what Goebbels had in mind.

Goodwill Hunting

When I got home one of my favourite movies had already started. Good Will Hunting tells the story of a maths genius, Will Hunting who struggles to come to terms with his past and as a result is unable to make a commitment for fear of being let down. But for me the best scene is where Will confronts a first year grad student who has been belittling his friend Chuckie.

Will: “Wood drastically underestimates the impact of social distinctions predicated upon wealth, especially inherited wealth…” You got that from Vickers. “Work in Essex County,” Page 98, right? Yeah I read that too. Were you gonna plagiarize the whole thing for us, you have any thoughts of your own on this matter? Or is that your thing, you come into a bar, you read some obscure passage and then you pretend, you pawn it off as your own, your own idea just to impress some girls? Embarrass my friend?

Will: See the sad thing about a guy like you, is in about 50 years you’re gonna start doin’ some thinkin’ on your own and you’re gonna come up with the fact that there are two certainties in life. One, don’t do that. And two, you dropped a hundred and fifty grand on a fxxxin’ education you coulda’ got for a dollar fifty in late charges at the Public Library.

Clark: Yeah, but I will have a degree, and you’ll be serving my kids fries at a drive-thru on our way to a skiing trip. Will: [smiles] Yeah, maybe. But at least I won’t be unoriginal.

This of course challenges the idea that knowledge is the same as thinking. Knowing something is not the same as having manipulated the information in your head, questioned and explored the arguments from many angles, the result should be an opinion, not someone else’s but your own.

Wellington college

And finally to bring my trilogy up to date. Only this week Wellington College who boast George Orwell and Sebastian Faulks as past students announced that have introduced a six-hour interview process to help teachers see beyond children’s over tutoring. They encourage families to spend more quality time instead of having their children tutored, Julian Thomas, Wellington’s head master, said: “When parents ask how should they prepare their children for our selection process, we tell them ‘have supper together and talk as a family; go to plays and good films and discuss them. Help them to think critically about the world around them; enjoy interesting conversations go out for walks and see the world”.

What Wellington are trying to do is encourage behaviours that will help children become thinking adults.

In conclusion

Knowledge like information is becoming increasingly accessible, unlike Germany in 1933 we have no restrictions, the internet has given us that power. But learning is more than knowledge you have to take the facts and make them your own, stitching them together carefully and thoughtfully, and that takes time and a considerable amount of effort. On the whole absorbing information will probably not come as easy to you as it did to Will Hunting, yet even with his genius he only knew what he had read. His learning had in fact only just begun as he went looking for the real life experiences that would test if he really understood anything at all.

Examinations are moving more towards tests that require you to think, asking that you provide an opinion or make recommendations given a set of circumstances, case studies are a good example. Of course you need knowledge as a foundation but the ability to sift quickly through the vast amount of information available may in time become more important than knowledge itself .

Ps apples is taken from Good Will Hunting – “How ya like those apples”

 

 

Why cramming works and making stuff up is okay

Will making stuff up

Will making stuff up

To a certain extent I have spent much of my career making things up. When I was a student that was not the case, I listened and learned and so when I spoke, I spoke with confidence that what I was saying was correct, because someone had just told me it was. Yet knowing is only the start, and in some ways a poor relative of the “figuring it out for yourself” technique.  I am reminded of quote from the film Good Will Hunting, which along with Dead Poets capture some really magical moments in learning.

Will Hunting – “See, the sad thing about a guy like you is in 50 years you’re gonna start doing some thinkin on your own and you’re gonna come up with the fact that there are two certainties in life.” “One, don’t do that.” “And Two, you dropped a hundred and fifty grand on a f***in education you coulda got for a dollah fifty in late charges at the public library.”

 Question practice – the secret to exam success

Having had no real formal educational training I have been exploring ideas as to why some techniques work and others don’t, why it is that student A passes yet student B who did exactly the same, failed. One clear observation from over twenty years in the high stakes exam world is that the most important activity that a student can engage in is, question practice. As a lecturer I would make statements, explain them using real world examples, get students to laugh, and maybe even enjoy the subject. But, the very best learning seemed to happen when the student was required to do a question. So it was with great interest that I read of some research that came out of the US in 2011, it’s called Retrieval Practice.

 Retrieval practice – the power of cramming

Retrieval practice is simply the process of retrieving something from memory.  So for example if I asked you, who was the Prime Minister that took us into the European Economic Community in 1973, you might say, on reflection Edward Heath. You already knew the answer but were forced to recall it. If however you were not sure who it was and were subsequently told (given feedback) it was Edward Heath and that Harold Wilson in 1975 held the first referendum, you are likely to remember both. But the most interesting and perhaps surprising aspect of this research is that not only can you recall the facts, it also leads to a deeper learning in so much that you can answer questions on related information. This in some ways gives credence to the idea that cramming information, maybe not at the last minute could be beneficial, not simply because you will remember it for a few hours’ but that it will lead to deeper learning.

Mark McDaniel is a psychology professor at Washington University in St. Louis

“We think of tests as a kind of dipstick that we insert into a student’s head, an indicator that tells us how high the level of knowledge has risen in there when in fact, every time a student calls up knowledge from memory, that memory changes.” “Its mental representation becomes stronger, more stable and more accessible.”

Jeffrey Karpicke, a professor of cognitive psychology at Purdue University

“Retrieving is the principal way learning happens.” “Recalling information we’ve already stored in memory is a more powerful learning event than storing that information in the first place,” he says. “Retrieval is ultimately the process that makes new memories stick.” “Not only does retrieval practice help students remember the specific information they retrieved, it also improves retention for related information that was not directly tested.”

Final thoughts

And so I am pleased to say that what I have observed in the classroom, that question practice improves exam results might be a little simplistic and that not only does it help students pass exams they might actually have been learning something at the same time 🙂

If you want to read more follow these links

To Really Learn, Quit Studying and Take a Test (New York Times)

Researchers Find That Frequent Tests Can Boost Learning (Scientific American)