Why practice makes perfect in education

24 October 2016

‘Traditional’ approaches to learning should not be abandoned, as they are based on key findings from cognitive science, a Cambridge Assessment event has heard. Rote learning, homework, textbooks, times tables and phonics all ensure children acquire fluency and ‘automaticity’ in basic skills. These are the prerequisites for higher order, ‘analytic’ thinking, Dr Helen Abadzi, an expert in cognitive psychology and neuroscience with 27 years’ experience at the World Bank, told a Cambridge Assessment Network seminar.

Dr Abadzi argued that all people are “basically prisoners to their working memory”, which contains what is in their minds at any given moment. It lasts only a few seconds, so information must go through it very rapidly or it gets lost. If people read or calculate slowly, they cannot remember what they saw and cannot make good decisions, she said. When people practise a task like mental arithmetic, it becomes automatic and unconscious, freeing up space in the working memory for more complex calculations.

Dr Abadzi, who was speaking at a seminar which was part of the Cambridge Festival of Ideas, criticised calls by some in progressive education to ban homework, textbooks and times tables. She said there was a reason that some elements of traditional methods of teaching had stood the test of time – they help the brain remember and make correct decisions.

“’Traditional’ means we’ve been doing it for two, three, five centuries - it’s actually a good indication that it works because our memory system can do this stuff,” she said.

“People may not like methods like direct instruction - ‘repeat after me’ - but they help students remember over the long term. A class of children sitting and listening is viewed as a negative thing, yet lecturing is highly effective for brief periods.” 

Dr Abadzi said it was important that parents, students and teachers understood the benefits of practice. She said that working memory is like the neck of a bottle, whose body is long-term memory. Knowledge must go through this bottleneck fast or it gets lost. To add knowledge into our long-term memory multiple repetitions are needed, spaced over time. 

“Those who practise the most forget the least over time,” she said. “So-called ‘overlearning’ protects from forgetting, because consolidation requires repetition – small bits learned at a time”. 

And she criticised education adviser and author Sir Ken Robinson - whose TED talk Do Schools Kill Creativity? is the most-watched of all time – for advising children in a media interview to “go out and play”. 

“Go out and play, well sure - but is that going to teach me mental math so I can go to a store and instantly make a decision about what is the best offer to buy?,” she said. 

She also claimed that the 21st century brought new threats to the way the brain treats learning - for example, multitasking makes it impossible for children to consolidate information. 

Introducing Dr Abadzi’s talk, Tim Oates, Group Director of Assessment Research and Development at Cambridge Assessment, said there are strong signs that education was in the “midst of a paradigm shift”. Much research is now available, and educators are beginning to pay attention to it. 

“It affects issues of equity and attainment,” he said. “If we are going to give children access to higher order thinking, we have to think about the role of memory and the physiological base to patterns of learning.”

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