One of the many marvellous things about the recent rugby world cup in Japan was the re-emergence of the open side flanker. For those of you not versed in the dark arts of rugby union, the open side flanker usually wears the number 7 shirt, and one of his or her main jobs is to attack and defend rucks – the situation that occurs when a player is tackled and the ball goes to ground. In defence, they often try to pinch , or “jackal” the ball from the tackled player so that possession is turned over. In attack, they are often responsible for the clear out; the forcible removal of a defensive player from over the ball. In Japan, England often played with two open side flankers in the form of Sam Underhill and Tom Curry, both experts in the number 7 role.
The open side flanker is an example that we sometimes use here on our course to illustrate the problems of seeing learning as being purely about memory. In the materials which surround their new inspection frameworks, OFSTED define learning as being about “ effecting a change in long-term memory”. This is fine up to a point;very few people could credibly argue that memory had little part to play in learning and it is clear that many things that we need to learn in school rely upon us transferring things from our working (or short-term) memory to our long-term memory. However, as it is our role to get trainee teachers to think about learning in as many ways as possible, we like to problematise that definition and get them to think beyond it.
So, back to our open side flanker. One of the roles of this sort of player is to learn to recognise the types of situations that occur at rucks and to make decisions about how they could respond to them. I, as the player’s coach could teach them as many of the possible situations that occur and get them to remember both the situation and the potential responses to them there are. We might see this as the player developing their own “Ruck Schema “ – a cognitive structure in my brain which holds all the information I need to respond to a particular situation. The schema is a well-established and explored idea in cognitive science, and indeed a good deal of cognitive science in education sees teaching and learning as a matter of schema development (Sharon Derry’s paper on Schema theory provides an introduction that we have found useful on our course) . So as the player’s coach, it is in my interest to develop the players’ ruck schema by getting them to remember as many responses as I can teach them. However, he or she will need an opportunity to practice his or her skills in order to strengthen those memory structures. This could be in training or in games.
So far, so good. Memory is key to my development of the next Sam Underhill. But why is it the case that very few of the young players that I coach are likely to reach that high level? Well, the answer is probably that my teaching needs to cover a bit more than just what the player needs to memorise in order to respond to the game situation. Some of what I need to teach the player is reliant upon other things; motivation, for example. I need to motivate them to do other things which are not solely reliant upon memory. Diet, conditioning, mental strength. These are all things that are largely not about my ability to get the player to “remember stuff”. They probably rely more upon my relationship with the player, my ability to tap into his or her hopes and fears and how I prepare them to deal with the unpredictability of the game situation. We should say here that all these things are, for us at UOB, really significant jobs that the teacher has to do with their students, and that these are largely not about altering long term memory. They speak to other, deeper-seated elements of our psyche.
There’s a parallel here for learning in other areas of the curriculum as well. We would argue that there are some fairly significant elements of teaching in the Arts which aren’t just about memory. Interestingly, this isn’t a version of the well-trodden “knowledge vs skills” argument. It’s more about the fact that there are some aspects of the Arts that don’t rely on memory (or at least not in the sense of the working/long-term memory binary set up by OFSTED), but still need to be taught by teachers. A good example of this is improvisation – the practice that music and drama students need to engage in when they make an immediate, unprepared response to a text or stimulus. Now, before we go any further, Drama students will want to remind us that Konstantin Stanislavski thought that memory was essential to improvisation – and they would be right to do so. However, some psychologists, and indeed, Stanislavski himself , would suggest that it relies on “affective” or “episodic” memory . This is an important distinction to make as it means that the teacher has to do something very different, in pedagogical terms, to the kind of thing that is proposed by the instructional science of someone like John Sweller (which is where OFSTED’s definition of learning originates from). It is a distinction that points to the fact that learning is a little more complex than simply effecting a change in long-term memory.
An excellent recent instance of what we mean here is provided by Alan Yentob’s documentary “East Side Story”, which recounts the story of a group of young people with little or no experience of drama coming together to write and produce a play about knife crime. In the documentary, we see the students being encouraged to improvise action and dialogue by their teachers in order to develop a script. While the improvisations have some basis in the young people’s lives – and thus are building upon their episodic memories – the teacher is coaching them through the process, rather than instructing them to remember how to do it. They are getting the students to use their pre-existing memories, rather than building their long term ones, and indeed, the student’s success as an improviser is not completely dependent upon these memories, but rather upon their confidence in relating them and their willingness to engage in the improvisational process. This is completely different, pedagogically, from the process of getting students to commit a mathematical or scientific formula or process to their long-term memory. A similar thing occurs in Jimmy McGovern’s documentary “Writing the Wrongs”, in which McGovern works with a group of sacked dock workers to write the script of his 1999 drama “Dockers”. McGovern and the novelist Irvine Welsh, act as teachers but the processes they are teaching have little to do with some of the more mechanistic approaches to writing that have garnered popularity in certain parts of the world, which encourage students to commit a procedure for writing to memory.
Performance, or perhaps more accurately, learning to perform, might be something else that relies less upon memory and more upon the teacher’s ability to unlock certain other parts of the student’s mind. Music teachers will be very familiar with the student who is technically very good, practices regularly, has a good understanding of the relationship between what they are doing and music theory , but cannot, for whatever reason, reproduce the quality of what they do in public performance. Again, the teacher here, like the rugby coach, needs to use other skills and other kinds of knowledge in order to help the student overcome these difficulties. As a PGCE course we are very interested in what these kinds of knowledge are; motivation, attention, perception, creativity, confidence and the awkward nature of the human condition all might be things that our trainees need to consider. Memory is an important part of learning, for sure, but it’s probably not the only part.
The late Jerry Fodor, perhaps the 20th century’s pre-eminent philosopher of mind, thought that cognitive processes, such as memory, made bad candidates for empirical research. In effect, we could know a great deal about cognitive inputs and outputs, but not very much about what was happening inside the brain. Even those people, like Gregory Murphy, who suggest that developments in modern cognitive science mean that Fodor’s ideas have less pull than they used to, accept that he had a point. Cognition, and indeed, memory as a constituent part of cognition, are things that we still only understand a limited amount about, and as such, it is problematic to commit ourselves to narrow definitions of something like learning, when the things that influence that process are more complex than they appear to be.