For all those who asked for my slides after my presentation of the London Festival of Education at the IOE, here you go:

For all those who weren’t there, here’s a commentary:

The idea that learning may not be visible isn’t widely accepted and in order to challenge beliefs without annoying people, I began by the perceptual and cognitive illusions to which we all fall victim. Then, with everyone suitably softened up I offered some definitions of learning:

  1. The long-term retention and transfer of knowledge and skills
  2. A change in how the world is understood.

We then discussed the need to separate learning from performance. Performance is what we can see and measure but it’s the tip of the iceberg. Learning takes place inside students’ heads and lurks beneath the visible surface of a lesson. Often what appears to be learning is really just mimicry.

This leads to the concept of liminality. Moving from knowing to not knowing is a lot less straightforward than we think. Often, when it appears that someone has made rapid progress they are merely mimicking what they think we want them to do. Knowing requires that we integrate new information into our schema of pre-existing knowledge. It is this process of integration that leads to retention and the ability to transfer between contexts.

If we want students to truly understand anything more than the superficialities of our teaching then we need to stop trying to rush them through liminal space. The false certainty of easy answers – successful in-lesson performance – might actively be retarding learning. But we have a problem: we’re genetically predisposed to avoid uncertainty. In our primitive ancestors, if it looks like a duck or, more to the point, if it looks like a snake, we’re better off assuming it’s a snake rather than having an ontological debate. It’s easy to see how a preference for dithering might quickly have been selected out of the gene pool.

This really is a challenge. Rushing to certainty is the problem but we hate uncertainty. I don’t really have an answer to this conundrum beyond saying that identifying the problem is maybe the first step to finding a solution. The reason it’s so problematic is that the rush to certainty leads to maximising short-term performance, which leads to mimicry, with leads to preventing learning.

Much of the edifice of education is built upon the flawed idea that we must make students perform to the best of their ability in lessons. Lesson observation, assessment for learning, lesson planning and the entire concept outstanding teaching is cast into doubt. If I’m right (and of course, I may not be) everything we do could be wrong. So what should we do instead?

We finished up by discussing Bob Bjork’s theory of desirable difficulties as being a potentially useful piece of the puzzle. I’ve written about these before – if you’re interested, you can read more here.

I cheekily finished by saying that the subject is tackled in forensic detail in my forthcoming book,What if everything you knew about education was wrong?