Learning is Invisible – a summary of a presentation by David Didau at the London Festival of Education 2015
A few months ago I attended a very popular presentation given by award-winning publisher and English-teaching specialist, David Didau. In the presentation he challenged the perceived notion of learning in the classroom being visible. He believes this to be more to do with ‘performance’, i.e. what we can see and or measure and (to use Didau’s iceberg metaphor) this is only the tip of the ‘ice-berg’. Didau offered his definition of learning as “the long-term retention and transfer of knowledge and skills and/or a change in how the world is understood”. I found this intriguing, as how often do we hear feedback given after observations as ‘they all appeared to be engaged and learning’?
Didau stated that students mimic what they think we want them to do in the classroom and this is seen, by Ofsted’s standards, as ‘rapid progress’. However, without integrating their newly acquired knowledge with what they already know and then applying it and transferring it between contexts, it doesn’t yet become ‘knowing’, i.e. the part of the iceberg submerged beneath the water.
Thus moving through the stages of ‘learning’, i.e. the tip of the iceberg to what is beneath the water, is not so straightforward and students may be left in a state of liminality; it’s not a case of simply moving from not-knowing to knowing, and as teachers it is this concept that is sometimes lost. Once students are in the post-liminal space of ‘getting a concept’, the new information learnt will become both transformative and irreversible. Simply rushing students through this stage may in fact hinder their learning as it focuses far too much on performance, short term gains and thus mimicry. Moving through the liminal space may require more than the small and arbitrary time in which Ofsted hope to see ‘rapid and sustained progress’. Some (perhaps even most or all) concepts are more complex and require struggle and perseverance on the part of the student before a post liminal state can be achieved. It was this point which I thought was most important. Not all progress is straight forward and nor can it really be measured over such a small time scale. Some gains can take much longer and may need to be revisited often in order to ensure their firm understanding nor can we simply speculation whether a child truly understands something through ‘good classroom performance’.
Being a language teacher as I am, this should have been obvious. So often my Head of Department teaches me new words and idiomatic phrases only for me to forget them the following day. All too often, students are not able to recall new information the next day, the next week or even next term and all too often I have jumped to the conclusion that they simply ‘were not paying attention. Indeed, the ‘forgetting curve’ shows you exactly the rate at which information is forgotten even after one day. It is important, then, to revisit, reuse and explore new information learnt throughout a year or even key stage in order to improve retrieval strength. Again, you may think this obvious but then Didau introduced to use the idea of an interleaved scheme of work, one in which topics are revisited again and again each half term, as opposed to a traditional ‘blocked’ scheme of work.
Didau then discussed the importance of feedback – he said that frequent and immediate feedback can be contrary to learning, as students become dependent, it prevents memorisation, and it slows down the pace of learning. Thus delaying, reducing and summarising feedback can better for long term learning. Again, often in my practice I have seen pupils who have become dependent on regular guidance and or feedback from the teacher and really all this does is create dependent learners who cannot persevere with the difficulty of a complex concept.
How can we take this into the classroom?
Didau himself states that perhaps there isn’t necessarily a solution to the problem. However, as classroom practitioners we can take forward the following ideas:
- Interleaving – producing spiralled Schemes of Work in which previous topics are revisited in each term.
- Separate learning from performance and thus…
- Allow desirable difficultly to create more resilient learners that persevere until they grasp the complexities of a concept (stop the small gains!).
 Learning Spy (2015) Learning is Invisible [online] available from http://www.learningspy.co.uk/featured/learning-is-invisible-my-slides-from-lef15/#more-6950 [accessed 19th of April 2015]
The following links may be useful:
David Didau’s website in which all of his presentations and musings are hosted, well worth a look! http://www.learningspy.co.uk/