I have finally had the opportunity to read David Didau’s latest tome. I am mentioned in the acknowledgements and a graph of mine is included in the section on differentiation. So you might think it standard for me to now write a few paragraphs about the excellent ideas the book contains or the personable and lively way that it is written. All of this is true. But I’m not going to write that sort of review. Instead, I am going to write about something from the book that made me think and something that I disagreed with.
Liminality of learning
Didau discusses the fact that learning is not performance and that the two have a troublesome relationship. Learning is liminal, Didau claims. it exists in the twilight; on the edge of what is known and what is unknown; where dragons be. Some knowledge is ‘troublesome knowledge’ that is hard to come to terms with. Sometimes, we can help students past the liminal zone by repetition but troublesome knowledge is more of a challenge because it often requires us to revise ideas that we previously accepted. This is what constructivists often suggest before prescribing strategies that don’t solve the problem.
This concept of liminality is key. I tend to see learning through the theory of cognitive load; an interaction between the environment, the working memory and long-term memory; a system mediated and constrained by the limited capacity of the working memory. And a question arises here; should we therefore reduce the cognitive load in tasks to an absolute minimum? The most troublesome aspect of cognitive load theory is the concept of germane cognitive load; the load that leads to learning. It is troublesome because it makes the theory unfalsifiable and so John Sweller now recommends avoiding it in explanations.
It is interesting that germane cognitive load sits in the liminal shadows; precisely the point that Didau would wish us to focus on.
My own view is that we usually underestimate the cognitive load in the tasks that we present to novices and so, as a general rule, reducing it is a good idea. I am not a fan of the notion that children should struggle – I think this unnecessarily increases cognitive load, interacts a great deal with self-concept and can lead to negative attitudes towards a subject. However, I also tend to agree with the quote that Didau attributes to Robert Coe that, “learning happens when people have to think hard.” So there is an uncertain space here that I find interesting.
Learning needs transfer
I disagree with Didau’s definition of learning:
“The ability to retain skills and knowledge over the long term and to be able to transfer them to new contexts.”
The problem is the inclusion of transfer in the definition. It sets the bar too high for learning and implies that anything that does not lead to transfer is not true learning. This idea has been used by educationalists to argue that traditional ‘transmission’ teaching does not lead to ‘deep’ learning and that we need other methods instead. There is usually little evidence supplied that these alternative methods do actually lead to greater transfer but the assertion gets a lot of currency nonetheless.
Transfer is difficult and not even required in many situations. Who regularly solves novel problems? Professional problem-solvers – engineers, plumbers, statisticians – are usually solving variations on well-known problems (thanks to Barry Garelick for shaping my thinking on this). The elevation of transfer tends to do what Didau cautions us against when pursuing taxonomies such as Bloom’s; it devalues ‘lower’ kinds of objectives and makes learning the basics of a subject seem prosaic and unworthy.
I still believe that Willingham’s take on transfer is worth reading.
An odd review
You may think this an odd way to review a book. However, I am hoping that David Didau will be pleased. He spends many pages explaining just how our cognitive biases arise and how they trap us in flawed thinking. I imagine that he would want to get me thinking and to provoke a response to his ideas, even if that response is disagreement.
I spend a lot of time arguing about education and much of this is an ugly parade of fallacy and emotional responses. Didau asks us to take a different path; to accept uncertainty and the fact that we are likely wrong about at least some of what we think. I suggest that this is a noble call. Let us make our disagreements more agreeable.
And get yourself a copy of Didau’s excellent book.