This book covers a lot of ground in its 12 cogent chapters, but never in a way that feels overwhelming. It explains key concepts simply, and makes good use of humour and analogy to keep the reader entertained and informed. The explanations given of metacognition and dual coding are easily the clearest I have ever read, and it is also excellent on key issues such as how, when and why to use spaced practice, why teachers must focus on making children think, what makes feedback effective and why knowledge matters. The book is aimed at teachers, but I would recommend it not only to them but also to any parent wanting to better understand what they should be looking for in a school or how they can best support their child’s learning.
One of the things I appreciated about this book was its open-mindedness, which is evident from the start. De Bruyckere is clear that educators should not be too prescriptive about what does and does not work in education – a lot of different methods can yield success ‘but not always, not for everyone, not for every purpose and not in every context’. What we need to focus on is how and why things work, and this book is very helpful in synthesising all the key research on this. The four sections of this book for which I was particularly grateful were those on: correcting ingrained errors; why teachers think that their students get stupider every year; the importance of a shared vision; and how good relationships improve learning.
Correcting ingrained errors
A friend of mine was told by a teacher at his primary school that ‘palm trees are amazing because not only do they give us coconuts, they also give us bananas.’ It was only some years later that my friend realised that he had been misinformed and he once admitted that every time he sees a palm tree, part of him still expects to see a banana growing from it. This illustrates how hard it can be to shake misconceptions.
As a teacher, it can be pretty hard not to feel frustrated by children’s misconceptions, particularly when those misconceptions have been instilled in them by other teachers. A little piece of me dies every time a pupil tells me that the reason that they wrote in their essay that Henry VIII founded the Protestant church was because this was what they were taught at primary school. Sometimes they write this even after I have devoted lesson time to debunking this myth. What this means, of course, is that my debunking strategies have fallen short. What I need to be doing, research from Duke University suggests, is not simply correcting but ‘hypercorrecting’ – finding opportunities to repeatedly stress the right answer, although even this is only proven to correct the error in the short term. The evidence suggests that misconceptions need to be revisited and put straight multiple times, if they are to be permanently eliminated.
Why teachers think that their students get stupider every year
Good teachers keep learning – they will learn more about their subject each year, and come to understand all aspects of it better and more deeply. The students, on the other hand, come to us with the same (lack of) knowledge each year. Thus, over time the gap between our knowledge and that of the class in front of us increases, giving the false impression that our students have become stupider. For me, this was an important reminder not to despair of the class in front of you – they are probably no better and no worse than the previous year, and my aspirations for them should remain as high.
The importance of a shared vision
Children need to feel that all their teachers are on the same page, so to speak. Knowing that all teachers have the same expectations and standards isn’t stifling but does provide an important sense of familiarity and security which aids pupils’ learning. In addition a shared sense of purpose among staff is a ‘predictor of professionalism in that school and professionalism can have a significant impact on learning’. My main thought on this one was that it almost certainly means that any attempt to impose a vision on a school is likely to encounter serious obstacles – if a school is trying to remake itself, this needs to be done through a partnership of SLT and classroom teachers.
How good relationships improve learning
Research by Hunter Gehlbach from the University of California, Santa Barbara examined the impact on students’ learning of being able to identify with their teacher. For his study, Gehlbach used a control group who were told nothing about their teacher and contrasted this with a group who were told five things that they had in common with their teacher (I wasn’t clear if it was the same five things for each student). The second group went on to achieve better results in that class. Knowing a little about their teacher had a particularly notable impact on children from ‘difficult backgrounds’ with the gap between their achievements and those of their peers being smaller than in the control group.
Other readers will find different aspects of this book as useful and thought provoking as I found those I have highlighted above. It is definitely worth a read.