Monday, 1 September 2014

Is learning supposed to be tough?

I am already officially fed up of hearing how tough Gove's new National Curriculum is. There may be a mention of the curriculum changes somewhere which does not include the word 'tough', but if so I have yet to find it.

Leave aside for a minute the important (but so far, it seems, unasked) question of whether learning a string of facts is in fact tougher than acquiring the skills to make use of them. What about the core issue: should toughness be a central criterion for a school curriculum?

On the face of it this seems a no-brainer. We are, as we never cease being reminded, living in an increasingly competitive world and education is one of the key tracks on which the race for global supremacy will be run. The analogy of competitive sport is always there and the implication of that analogy is clear: if you want to race competitively you have to train, and train hard. Toughness is key and a trainer who goes easy on you is doing you no favours at all.

But education is not athletics, and learning is not the same as running in a race.

For a start, athletics is predominantly (not purely of course) about physical prowess. To do well you need your muscles, your heart and your lungs to be capable of operating at peak capacity, and physical systems like the adrenal gland, the central nervous system and the pituitary gland can all facilitate that process. It is what evolution selected them for after all. Tough training feeds into all of the inbuilt mechanisms the body has for getting fitter and stronger, and the body even provides a positive feedback mechanism through endorphin production- the so-called runners' high.

Learning really isn't the same. We use various sports-based analogies (getting match fit for an interview; training for an exam) but the development of mental capacity just isn't a physical process in the same way. Proponents of Brain Gym approaches briefly tried to persuade us it was, until it became clear that the only capacity that Brain Gym activities build is the capacity to do more Brain Gym activities.

So is toughness (another favourite word is 'rigour') the best way to speed up the process of learning? Certainly there is a satisfaction in having worked hard to acquire a new skill or new set of knowledge, and in some circumstances, certainly, an awareness of the difficulty of what you are attempting to master is a strong motivator to put more effort into it. Surely we all remember some occasion when we worked seemingly day and night to get some killer essay finished or to revise for a particularly tough exam. Doesn't that show that toughness spurs us on to feats of learning we would not be capable of otherwise?

But is it just coincidence that that is precisely the sort of learning that goes immediately out of one's head once the essay is handed in or the exam finished? Sure, adrenaline increases the brain's working capacity in the short term, and toughness is a good tool to promote the production of adrenaline. So we can psyche ourselves up to cram in large amounts of fact-based information ready to regurgitate it in response to some 'tough' exam question. But that isn't all that learning is.

There is absolutely no doubt that the most profound and longest term learning takes place when we are doing something we find rewarding, fulfilling and fun. It's why people always retain far more about things they are interested in than things they have to learn. Many is the pub darts player who was always crap at maths at school, yet can work out a 3-dart finish to a score of 123 in seconds (3 * 19 + 2 * 17 + 2 * 16). Or the football fanatic who could never remember dates in history at school yet can tell you immediately who Southampton beat in the 2003 FA cup semi-final (Watford).

And to what extent does 'toughness' in a school curriculum offer opportunities for students to enjoy their learning? Mr Gove (and now Mrs Morgan) are clearly with Gradgrind on this- it shouldn't..

And all of this is argued from the viewpoint of the successful. Learning, even more than athletics, is also about one's emotional state, and there is nothing more dispiriting, disempowering and inimical to future success than repeated failure. Yet the new 'tough' curriculum seems designed to build in failure and the fear of failure into every step of a child's journey through school. Children are now expected aged nine to know the 12 times table by heart. This seems to have no purpose in this age of ubiquitous smartphones but to make those who can't do it feel inadequate (12 is an interesting choice, by the way. It goes back, of course, to the days when there were 12 pennies in a shilling). My daughter struggled with her times tables all through secondary school, giving up entirely once she saw through my attempts to make them seem important to her. She is now a Cambridge graduate.

There will be many who struggle to remember the kings and queens of England. Why? Because it has utterly no relevance to them, and the only purpose in learning them is because it is difficult to do so- toughness replacing usefulness or relevance in order to convince children that they aren't as clever as they think they are.

And given that the huge issue with so many kids today is that they don't think they are clever at all, that is an insane thing to do.


  1. I still think that it is useful to be able to calculate simple "times table" sums in my head faster than a young person can take out their phone, input the password/gesture, find the calculator app and key in the calculation. Or am I just old-fashioned?

  2. You're just old fashioned.

    But seriously- it's not even as if the argument is being made for these changes on the grounds of them being useful (how useful would it ever be to know the dates of accession of the kings and queens of England?). It seems they have been introduced because they are tough.

  3. I think you've missed a debate or two. People have come to realise (and psychologists have been saying it for decades) that our thinking depends to a large degree on what we know and how well we know it, and those parts of thinking that don't are generally unteachable.

    Teaching the addition of fractions is so much easier if kids know their times tables than if they don't. Only the most gifted have a hope of understanding it if they are having to fiddle with calculators to follow the example. Knowledge, and fluency with that knowledge, enables us to understand, think and also to learn more knowledge more effectively.

    Also, maybe we do learn more when we are motivated to learn it, but that is no excuse to only learn what we are already motivated to learn. Education should be about broadening our horizons, introducing us to more than what we are already familiar enough to care about. Ignorance has very little to recommend it and it is a shame that so many people who could have taught children the best of what has been thought or known decided that this heritage was not for future generations.

    1. Specifically on the issue of times tables though, I am not sure how relevant arithmetic actually is to the understanding and study of mathematics. I certainly know of mathematicians who are useless at arithmetic. My point in this post is that it seems that learning that is 'tough' is being prioritised precisely because it is inaccessible, which seems to me mad.

      I am good at arithmetic- always have been- but I know plenty of children who are not, and who find basic numeracy a real trial. The thing is that often when you get such children on to more advanced topics like algebra or differentiation they find that learning maths can be both challenging and enjoyable- surely the perfect combination. However if you put in place an absolute (and nowadays entirely artificial) stumbling block and say that they cannot progress to more challenging maths until they know their times tables up to 12, are you not narrowing rather than broadening their horizons?