A third way on facts? - RSA

A third way on facts?


  • Social brain

'In this life, we want nothing but Facts, sir; nothing but Facts!' Thomas Gradgrind, Hard Times

As someone who sees themselves on the progressive wing of educational debate I have always been rather uneasy about the teaching of facts. I am not an enthusiast for the Gradgrind/Gove view that learning is at heart a process in which teachers pour information into the heads of children. I believe it is important that children are engaged in the learning process, that learning feels relevant and that they develop broad skills and competencies. These, after all, are some of the foundations of the RSA’s own Opening Minds curriculum.

While holding these views I have had to supress my sense that a basic framework of facts is vital to more advanced learning. For example, one of my sons has a good recall of his times table and I saw how this made it easier for him to grasp secondary level mathematics than the other son, who has a tendency to get the concepts right but make basic number mistakes. In recent years I have become a huge enthusiast for science but I know how hard it is for my relatively non plastic brain at get a firm grasp of the kind of basic facts (about the structure of atoms for example) which are vital to feeling confidence with scientific ideas. I love history too but here again the weakness of my grasp of the basic chronology of historical periods has been a handicap  (by the way I did have a very traditional education myself but I was also a rather troubled child and hated school so not much stuck with me).

Of course, only the most radical progressive would say facts don’t matter at all but it is hard to reconcile my general views about learning with my gut feeling that core facts are the foundation for concepts. So I was really excited by a visit I undertook on Monday as part of recording a Radio 4 series on brain and society.

We observed a lesson using a methodology developed by Dr Paul Howard Jones, who spoke recently at the RSA. Based on research with monkeys which shows that occasional rewards lead to a greater release of the neurotransmitter dopamine than consistent rewards, Dr Howard Jones has developed teaching software through which children are given points for learning information and then given the chance to ‘game’ those points. The level of difficulty set for the children in remembering the information they have heard means they will tend to get about 80% correct (which is conventionally seen as the right kind of level to reward and motivate), but the gaming gives them a random 50/50 chance of doubling their points. It is this randomness which seems to encourage the greatest dopamine release.    

Although by his own admission Dr Howard Jones software is pretty primitive, it was clear from the class I attended that his method – applied by experienced classroom teachers - engages children. There is growing evidence that it also encourages them to learn more and there are even some tentative signs that what they learn may be more deeply stored in their memory.

So, to my great relief there may be a third way for guilty fact-loving progressives. Children need to learn facts but that doesn’t mean the best way to earn them is through traditional ‘chalk and talk’ pedagogy. Indeed it may be that the best use of technology in the classroom is precisely to make the leaning of facts more effective and interesting (although I should say that Dr Howard Jones believes his methods - which he uses with his own post graduate students - work with concepts too). 

If any clever people from Microsoft or Google are reading this, you could make Dr Howard Jones software about a million times better and maybe some of the RSA’s partner schools could be the site for a bigger test of his methods.

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