At the start of Dr. Catherine Scott’s researchED Melbourne talk, she asked us all to draw a bicycle. I was sat next to John Sweller and neither of us had paper so we couldn’t join in, but the point was well made: all of us can recognise a bicycle but few of us can reproduce what it looks like.
Scott developed a case that will be familiar to many readers. She displayed a diagram of a conventional model of the brain similar to the one that Dan Willingham uses in ‘Why Don’t Students Like School‘ except that she added a couple of arrows to highlight the process of forgetting. In this model, the brain takes in information from the environment that it processes in working memory. This is then exchanged with long term memory. The working memory is severely limited but the long-term memory is effectively limitless [In a pleasing coda, Sweller proposed a reason why the working memory is limited in his subsequent keynote].
A number of naysayers have criticised the model presented in Willingham’s book, stating that it lacks detail of sensory buffers, working memory structures and so on. Scott took us through these, some of which have instructional implications. Yet the simplified model is still a good one for teachers to come to terms with.
Which brings us to an interesting question: how much is this a model and how much is it essentially the truth? In a recent blog post, Willingham explores the definition of learning. He tackles a number of candidates, including the idea from Paul Kirschner that learning is a change in long-term memory. I like this definition but Willingham criticises it on the basis that it is theory dependent; you first have to accept something like the working memory / long term memory model of the mind before it makes sense.
Yet this definition is far more powerful than those that depend upon features that are only sometimes associated with learning, such as the ability to transfer what has been learnt to other contexts. And it is the only definition that I am aware of that can accommodate both recall and recognition.
Scott’s talk was the first time that I had explicitly considered the distinction. Most of the time, we tend to define learning in terms of recall. And this makes sense: it’s no use being able to recognise that 7 x 7 = 49, you need to be able to retrieve that fact from long term memory at will if you want to reduce the cognitive burden of solving a maths problem.
However, recognition has its uses. We know that background knowledge is incredibly important for reading comprehension and this is why a number of schools are setting out to systematically build knowledge of the world along the lines of E. D. Hirsch’s core knowledge curriculum. Recognition of facts, connections and concepts is often going to be enough.
And we may sometimes be testing for recognition when we think we are testing for recall. Scott suggested that multiple choice tests often do this. Fill-in-the-gaps assessments may well do this too.
Willingham has made the point that we frequently dismiss school learning on the basis that we think we’ve forgotten most of it. But this is grounded in a definition of learning that is just about recall. That knowledge may still be there, under the surface. We may be able to recognise it when we see it again and we may be able to convert it back to recall level learning much more quickly and easily than knowledge we have never learnt.
Which is why I think that a definition of learning is not some esoteric point. Our folk theory of learning lets us down and teachers need something better.