Professor Rob Coe’s speech, From Evidence to Great Teaching, at the ASCL conference last Friday seemed to generate quite a bit of energy on Twitter, as did Carl Hendrick’s post on engagement. Coe has been referring to the idea that we confuse learning with various ‘poor proxies’ since the publication of Improving Education.

These are the proxies of which he speaks:

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It’s small wonder, perhaps, that so many get so upset by being told that the certainties on which they’ve based their careers may not actually be true. The cognitive dissonance produced leads us to either agree with Prof Coe and abandon our previous beliefs, or – more likely – dismiss him as ‘just an academic’; after all, what do academics know about the real world?

As I’ve mentioned before (at tedious length) learning is invisible. Or at least, other people’s is. It happens inside our minds and, as such, we tend to believe either that everyone else behaves pretty much as we do, or that certain visible signifiers that we associate with learning must, in fact be learning. The proxies Coe has identified do not preclude learning – at some level we are probably always learning something – just these conditions may be present without students learning anything a teacher intends them to learn.

In Learning vs Performance, Soderstrom & Bjork sift through a mass of evidence that indicates that learning and performance are quite distinct phenomena. Performance is what someone can do in the here and now; learning involves retaining new knowledge – whether it’s procedural or declarative – over time and being to transfer it to new contexts. Performance is all we are ever able to see or measure; learning can only be inferred. Everything we can see will only ever be a proxy for learning, but some proxies might be better than others.

It seems sensible to suggest that the greater the distance, both in terms of time and context, between the conditions of instruction and the conditions of performance, the more secure we can be that we are seeing reliable evidence of learning. So, a test taken a week after a lesson is a better proxy for learning than what a student can do during the lesson. And a test taken a year later is better still. But we’re still just talking about performance and proxies – we should never be fooled into thinking we can see something as mysterious and unpredictable as learning.

Coe asks,

If it is true that teaching is sometimes not focussed on learning, how can we make them better aligned? One answer is that it may help to clarify exactly what we think learning is and how it happens, so that we can move beyond the proxies. I have come up with a simple formulation:

Learning happens when people have to think hard

Obviously, this is over-simplistic, vague and not original. But if it helps teachers to ask questions like, ‘Where in this lesson will students have to think hard?’ it may be useful.

I find the following set of propositions useful to think about how and where learning is most likely:

1.”If nothing has changed in long-term memory, nothing has been learned.”

As Kirschner, Sweller & Clark suggest, if you can’t remember a thing it seems foolish to think it has been learned. Learning may well be more than merely remembering, but any definition that doesn’t include memory is sadly lacking. This shouldn’t be seen as an argument for memorising or rote learning, just an acknowledgement that learning depends on memory.

2. “Memory is the residue of thought.”

Daniel Willingham makes the point in Why Don’t Students Like School?  that we remember what we think about. In order to ensure that students are remembering the things we want them to remember, we need to make sure lessons are designed to make them think about these things because we tend to think about what we do. While it may very well be the case that engagement and motivation increase the likelihood that students will want to expend energy thinking complex thoughts, all too often an emphasis on engagement is a distraction that makes students think about the wrong things. Students often remember the context of a lesson whilst forgetting the content. This can lead to the illusion of learning: we remember the memory of having known a thing. This prevents us from noticing that the underlying substance has leaked away leaving us only with the husk of certainty.

3. “Anything that occupies your working memory reduces your ability to think.”

In Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman points out that any burden placed on our attention gets in the way of thinking: we turn down the radio in order to concentrate on reverse parking. It therefore follows that the less distractions we have to contend with, the more we are able to focus on thinking. And the more we are able to think hard the more likely it is that those looked for changes will take place in long-term memory.

Thinking is hard to assess or measure. How do you know if students are thinking hard about the right things? And ultimately it’s just another proxy for learning, although probably a better one; if students can’t remember what they were supposed to be thinking about whatever you thought was happening becomes irrelevant. Maybe all this tells us it that lessons should be an exercise in providing focused opportunities to think about the richest subject content, and assessments should provide opportunities for students to use what they’ve remembered in contexts as different as possible from the one in which they were instructed.

All this is messy and asks us to suspend judgement and embrace uncertainty. But uncertainty is deeply uncomfortable and so, the fact that Clipboards find it much easier to tick off Coe’s ‘poor proxies’ means their popularity is unlikely to wane.