Open letter

1st March 2013 at 00:00
Surface learning techniques should not be brushed off

Dear Petra,

Debates about the relative values of detailed subject knowledge and more generic skills bedevil teacher education. And the more we get engaged in the explosion of knowledge, the more acute becomes the debate.

I was a 10-year-old pupil in P6 in 1958 in Sandwickhill School in the Isle of Lewis. We had an HM inspection.

1. In those days, inspectors often took over the class (a residue of the inspectorial "payment by results" stuff of the 1870s and 1880s. HMIs, then as now, took some time to adapt to change).

2. We were good (most of us) because we had a newly-trained and first-class teacher, Miss MacDougall.

3. Mr Mays, HMCI, got entirely correct answers from us. Then he said (pre-decimal days of course): "Now, tell me - how many seven-and-a-half pennies are there in one million pounds?" We were momentarily stunned. But Mr Mays was a good enough teacher that, having set us this stunning question, he was prepared to be patient in getting an answer. After 10 seconds, one pupil got it right.

4. To this day, I remember, I think, her subsequent account of her reasoning. John Laurie-like, she said to herself: "Do not panic - at least not yet: Miss MacDougall has taught you some study skills." Secondly, she said: "I bet you the one million is a distracter". Thirdly, she said: "Anything with a 12 fraction is awkward. Make it easier by doubling". So she got to one shilling and three pennies. Fourthly, she said: "Double again" and got to two shillings and sixpence, a half-crown. Dead easy: every kid in the 50s, certainly those taught by Miss MacDougall, knew there were eight half-crowns in a pound. Fifthly, she said: "Now retrace your steps, multiply the 8 by 2 and then by another 2. That is 32".

"Sir, there are 32 million in a million pounds".

Surface learning or deep learning? Subject knowledge or generic skills? Hard to know. On 15 February 1971, Prime Minister Edward Heath made much of such detailed knowledge obsolete by introducing decimal currency. But some of it remains relevant to this day, eg, how to manipulate computations that involve awkward fractions.

As one of the most distinguished of my ex-colleagues tells me, Curriculum for Excellence should not mean we discard memorisation or surface learning techniques. They have their place as the building blocks for deeper learning.

As Scottish teachers of the 21st century grapple with these issues, they at least have a more secure evidential basis on which to build their teaching strategies than did my 20th-century teachers. We know that learning needs attention to both surface and deep stuff.

Yours sincerely, Iain

Iain Smith was at one time a dean of education in the University of Strathclyde. He writes in a personal capacity.

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