So how many facts do you remember?

11th February 2005 at 00:00
An unjustified value on things that can be tested is distorting the way children are educated, says Robin Frame

Wisdom is the greatest thing: therefore get thee wisdom," it said tantalisingly round the examination hall roof, a roof I gazed up at in the hope of inspiration or salvation in my less than illustrious student days.

A lifetime later, as dates, names, facts - well, everything - become lost in the realm of Unrecall, I found myself wondering whether something remains when one has forgotten everything one ever knew. Would the ways I had learnt to think remain and make me a smarter person? Could this be what they mean by wisdom?

Somehow I got thinking about early childhood. Like most people, I have few real memories of my first five years, and yet I clearly learnt a vast amount, everything that distinguishes a helpless newborn from a savvy five-year-old. I learnt, but have nothing in my memory banks, or at least nothing I can access.

A second thought was prompted by my return to the classroom, especially returning to secondary classrooms on supply. I am struck by how dominant the need to teach to the test is in the lives of teachers and students alike. Most of the time seems to be spent on memorising facts and practising for exams. I suppose it was always so, but I do recall wanting to do otherwise.

I blunder into things in primary too - like a drive to improve results by training children in the skills of writing to a title. I can't think of any situation in which I would need this skill apart from a test or perhaps a competition. When I write, I make up a title; but it never gets past the editor, who dumps it. If, however, the children are to be judged, and therefore the school graded, by the quality of writing inspired by a title, or possibly by writing matched for suitability to a title, then teaching the skill is a sensible response.

I am troubled, too, by an emphasis on knowing our multiplication tables.

Hours are spent on these in school. Yet I can go for months without using my tables, and I certainly wouldn't rely on my head if money was at stake.

I'd use a spreadsheet or the calculator on my screen, or dig out one of the dust-covered calculators from its hiding place.

Where does this take me? I think there is a kind of learning that isn't observable through a testing of memory. I fear we put unjustified value on things we can test, that are "in the memory". So, taken together, I wonder if we are missing the point in our efforts to educate our children.

Let me reinforce this. A long time ago, I was tested for my mathematical attainment at the start of a statistics course. The test had two items. The first requested me to list all the Greek letters I knew, the second asked me to state whether I spoke or had studied Greek. The statisticians had noted a correlation between exposure to Greek letters and the extent of an individual's study in maths. Provided this was the only exposure to Greek, a very quick and cheap assessment could be made.

If this assessment were to be used in schools, would we as teachers abandon teaching the maths and simply drill the children in the Greek letters? We would have to - because everyone else would. The result would be a measured improvement in attainment, but the children would actually know even less maths. Such a thing, of course, would never happen.

It couldn't happen; we are far too committed to education for understanding. We want the children to understand. By now, I had repeated the word "understanding" until it had lost its meaning. So I looked it up.

I had thought that understanding was something bigger than knowing. If I knew I had acquired a coffee table, I could know this at such a low level that I might trip over it. At a higher level of knowing, I could circumvent it or, more likely, throw it out.

Bloom's wonderful taxonomy suggested a hierarchy of knowing, right up to me (or possibly not me) being able to write about the impact of coffee table culture on the politics of late 20th century Britain.

I found little support for this interpretation of understanding.

Understanding, it so happens, can mean to "accept as a fact without positive knowledge" as in "it is my understanding that . . ."

At long last, I began to understand what others might mean by understanding. It has nothing to do with a need to figure things out, to try to adapt one's model of how the world works to fit with new knowledge.

It is instead all about accepting without challenge. No wonder I have felt out of step for half a century.

So that brings me back to my thoughts about wisdom. Maybe it is nothing to do with something being left in my brain, no increased likelihood of thoughts connecting, or new ideas being sorted into intelligible patterns.

No. I begin to think that wisdom, when all is said and done, may simply be the ability to know when to shut up.

Robin Frame is definitely not ready for wisdom yet.

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