In my last post I reviewed those aspects on intelligence which are likely to be most malleable by teachers. Briefly, research into individual differences suggests that intelligence is fairly stable and that environmental factors – parenting and teaching – seem to wear off over time. At the same time, research into social attitudes (the rise in IQ scores over that last century) clearly demonstrates that something really is changing and that these changes have real world significance. This present us with a paradox which perhaps can be explained by saying that g (the tendency of cognitive abilities in individuals to correlate with each other) is real, but that individual cognitive factors can be disproportionately affected by social attitudes and so increase with corresponding increases in other cognitive abilities.

By examining the different components of intelligence, my conclusion is that our best bet is likely to be increasing the quantity and quality of what students know. It’s an observable fact that we can only think about things we know, and that in the real world, all creativity, problem solving and critical thinking is sharply increased by knowing more. As teachers this should give us some confidence that increasing intelligence is both likely to work (it’s easy to see that if you teach something to students you can then check whether they know it) and likely to be effective (once they know something you can then see the effects of applying this knowledge).

This suggests we should think carefully about what to teach – clearly some types of knowledge is likely to be more beneficial than others – but does it also suggest anything about how we should teach?

If the goal of teaching is learning, then we need to have a workable description of learning. Kirschner et al have famously told us that, “If nothing has changed in long-term memory, then nothing has been learned.” From this we could argue that whatever else it is, learning is synonymous with changes in long-term memory. These changes in long-term memory are organised into schema. A schema is an interconnected ‘chunk’ of knowledge that can be drawn into consciousness and thought about. Therefore, the goal of teaching is to create these changes and facilitate the acquisition of ‘chunkier’ knowledge.

Broadly speaking, teaching tends to follow two approaches:

  1. Activities designed to get students to remember information.
  2. Activities designed to get students to solve problems.

Although they might prioritise one or the other, most teachers will do a bit of both. There’s nothing wrong with this per se, but the order in which you engage in these approaches might be very important.

It’s well understood that all human being have a limited capacity for paying attention to information and that we can only think about four ‘chunks’ of information at any given time. Although we are not conscious of organising new information into schemas, we only tend to remember what we spend time thinking about. From this perspective it seems reasonable to suggest that either of our two approaches could result in these schematic changes to long-term memory.

Sadly, this seems not to be the case. Working memory limitations restrict how much of an experience reaches our long-term memory and the capacity we need to handle information may leave little space for schema acquisition, even if a problem is solved:

Solving a problem requires problem-solving search and search must occur using our limited working memory Thus, problem-solving search overburdens limited working memory and requires working memory resources to be used for activities that are unrelated to learning. As a consequence, learners can engage in problem-solving activities for extended periods and learn almost nothing. [my emphasis]

Kirschner, Sweller & Clark (2006) p. 80

What this tells us is that students can concentrate on solving problems, and they can concentrate on tasks which contribute to developing their schema, but if the task is challenging they are unlikely to manage both. (I wrote about an example of this phenomenon here.)

So, while problem solving activities certainly have their place in strengthening schematic connections once a schema has been acquired, they are a poor way of helping students remember what they need to know in order to solve problems.

Ignoring this tendency is likely to result in a widening of the gap between advantaged and disadvantaged students. Those children who come to school with either an innate advantage (greater mental acuity, faster speed of processing) or those who come from a background where they have been exposed to more useful knowledge of the world already have a serious advantage over their less fortunate peers. If we give children problems to solve without having first spent time on activities designed to help everyone remember the information needed to solve the problems we will unwittingly be privileging the privileged.

To this end, I advocate an approach to teaching best characterised as ‘success followed by struggle‘. This is a social justice issue. I’m sure everyone involved in education has good intentions, but we all know what the road to hell is paved with. Ignoring these findings perpetuates injustice and condemns the least advantaged in society to lives of continued disadvantage.

In my next post I will review what we know about the types of knowledge that we could focus on to ensure that our efforts to make children cleverer result in something with real world significance.