Theory set out in black and white

23rd December 1994 at 00:00
The theories of Piaget, Bruner and others have helped me as a primary teacher gain insights into how children learn.

However, a recent experience has led me to discover another important theory of learning which for me ranks alongside those of the big names. I have named it the Friesian Cow theory of learning.

I was driving home from the Lake District with a mini-bus full of tired and irritable top juniors. To pass the time a colleague and I began a simple question-and-answer game based on the ever-changing scenery flashing past the windows. A chocolate bar would go to the first child who answered three questions correctly.

Typical questions were: "What kind of car have we just passed on the hard shoulder?" or "What is the name of that town on that motorway sign?" We kept them simple so that most of the children would get a chocolate bar.

At one stage we approached a field full of standard black and white Friesian cows.

"What kind of cow is that?" I asked pointing towards the field. No one knew the answer so I told them it was a Friesian cow.

More questions followed as the mini-bus sped down the motorway. Eventually we saw more Friesian cows.

"What kind of cow is that?" I asked again.

"A freezing cow," said one.

"A frigging cow," said another.

"A foreign cow," another voice offered.

I had to give them the name for a second time. In fact we had to pass another four fields of Friesian cows before one child got the right answer and another eight before the majority had got the hang of it.

I thought about the incident a lot when I got back to school. It made me realise how difficult knowledge-based learning is for young children - even when they are highly-motivated and their interest level is high as it was on the mini-bus. Here was an enjoyable situation, with real life resources with no classroom distractions to get in the way of learning. Yet they still found it difficult to remember.

So on the next rare occasion I give a brilliant lesson and find out at the end that there are some children who did not understand me, I promise not to get angry with the children or feel guilty with myself. Instead, I shall take a breath, chew over what I have just said, and think of Friesian cows.

Tom Murphy is a retired primary teacher, now doing supply work in Bolton

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