Can we make learning permanent?

How can we know whether a student has learned something? To answer that we need a working definition of what we mean by learning and the one I’ve come up with is tripartite; learning is composed of retention, transfer and change. In order to know whether something has been learned we should ask ourselves three questions:

  1. Will students still know this next week, next month, next year?
  2. Will students be able to apply what they have been learning in a new context?
  3. How will this transform a students’ understanding of the world?

Of course, I can’t prove that I’m right about what learning is, but it sounds at least plausible and I haven’t had anyone offer a coherent refutation.

More recently I’ve been thinking about whether the ability to retain and transfer new ideas or skills can result in a permanent change to the way we think. Now although nothing in this universe can truly be said to be eternal, I think we can make learning permanent for all practical considerations. It may not be straightforward but maybe we can strive to adjust the conditions of teaching and learning to create permanent changes in the way our students think and behave.

Back in May I experienced what I felt to be just such a permanent change to the way I perceived the world when I attended a speed awareness course after being caught speeding. I wrote about the experience here and concluded with this statement:

…attending ‘speed school’ has changed (hopefully permanently) my default option. I no longer intend to break the speed limit. After over two decades of driving, I’ve picked up some bad habits which I need to break, but I now have the will to break them. So far I’m doing alright.

So, what’s the situation now? Well, I really do seem to have changed the way I drive. That four-hour course appears to have made a lasting and powerful change. There are times when I lose concentration and find myself driving above the speed limit, but as soon as I notice I decelerate and get back within tolerance. There have been times when I’ve felt tempted to ignore the speed limit – especially when temporary road works result in limits which are much slower than seems necessary – but I’ve learned to accept that I’m not aware of the bigger picture and to keep within the limit. Basically, my own preferences and subjective biases do not allow me the privilege of breaking the law. Interestingly (at least to me) my new found thinking about the speed limit did not transfer as completely as I might have expected to driving in France over the summer. Somehow, I was able to think of kilometres per hour differently to miles per hour. But I was still far more aware of my speed than ever before.

So why did that speed awareness course make so much difference? Several times I’ve found myself thinking that if I’d been made to attend a similar course years ago I might have saved myself and other road users a load of grief. But is that true? Was it rather that I attended the course at exactly the right time in my life? Was I just lucky to have particularly effective trainers? Might someone else have failed to connect with me? Obviously there’s no way we could ever know we any useful degree of certainty, but I think I’d have been receptive to the message at any time or place, no matter who delivered it.

If that’s true, what might have made the message so resonant? Is there something we can capture in the way we teach the formation of oxbow lakes or the Treaty of Versailles? In short, what made the experience so memorable and compelling?

Firstly, the message was very clear. It was technical enough to pique my interest and curiosity (we went into the physics of residual speed) whilst being straightforward and simple enough to be easily grasped. This is, I think, key to any good explanation: it should be as simple as possible but no simpler. The instructors had clearly considered and refined various analogies and concrete examples for me to understand the abstract concepts I needed to grasp. Whilst I needed to active in making links and connections, at no point was I confused or unclear about the purpose of what I was learning.

Second, the message was highly memorable. There’s little point imparting information that won’t be remembered and the instructors were clearly at least implicitly aware of the ‘psychologically privileged’ status of stories. As a species we appear to be uniquely skilled at remembering narratives. We use stories we explain our place in the world and make sense of our experiences and we’re all the hero of own particular story. Some of the things we teach lend themselves to a narrative explanation whilst others would seem less susceptible to turning into a tale. But what if we were to consider what the beginning, middle and end of an explanation of simultaneous equations? What if we were able to insert cliffhangers and plot twists into the story of the digestive tract? And what characters could we weave into a story about the subjunctive mood, or the germ theory of disease?

Third, the information given was directly relevant. It pertained to my everyday experience of driving a car as well as my experience of running the risk of a fine and a driving ban. Clearly, we can’t create or rely this kind of relevance for every classroom lesson; not everything we teach can or should be reduced to the limited life experiences of school children. But we can create relevance by opening up knowledge gaps and invited students to fill the deficits in their understanding of the world. We can also do our very best to show why the particular aspect of the curriculum we’re teaching is interesting, valuable, beautiful or necessary. On reflection, maybe the most relevant aspect of my driving school experience was my realisation that there is never an excuse for breaking the law and that the consequence of ‘getting away with it’ had fooled me into thinking that speeding was an acceptable way to drive. This suggests we must make a special effort to make relevant the threshold concepts – those ideas that most shape and alter students’ understanding – of the subject disciplines we teach.

Finally, we were told that change would unlikely to take place instantly – we’d need to practice.  I’m fascinated by the idea of phenotypic plasticity – the idea that we have an innate, inherited capacity to rewire neural pathways in ways advantageous to the environment in which we find ourselves. Change often seems overwhelmingly burdensome and although it’s more common for an overweight person to continue overeating in spite of the evidence that their health is deteriorating, it’s possible to permanently change the way we think about food and moderate our intake, to arrive a new default option. I was specifically invited to articulate how my behaviour would change as a result of what I’d learned and share precisely how I would drive differently I was given clear tips and strategies for enacting change (E.g. it’s much easier to keep to a 20 mph limit if you’re in second gear) and coping with pressure from other road users. We discussed how changing our intentions would make actual changes in habit more likely. It’s hard to change embedded habits even when we know they’re wrong – almost every student knows they should use capital letters in their writing but the consequences for not doing so are negligible, so it becomes easier to continue doing the wrong thing. I’ve been aware for some time that practice does not make perfect, practice makes permanent: we get better at doing what we repeatedly do. As a driver I had become good at driving too fast and poor at keeping with the legal limit. For me to commit to practising doing the right thing, I had to become convinced that speed is unacceptable so that my good intentions would result in my adjusting my behaviour when I become aware of doing the wrong thing. No one changes unless they want to. But when our intentions change, we find it easier to monitor our behaviour to change our defaults options and break the cycle of bad habits. And if this runs counter to your lived experience, I’d suggest that it’s best to keep an open mind and act as if although you haven’t changed yet, you can do so with time, effort and belief.

In addition to all this, there’s a compelling body of research on how we can increase retention and transferability of learning which I discuss in my new book, but which is also summarised here.

Can we make learning permanent? Maybe not, but I think there’s a lot we can do to make it last. After all, if we’re creatures of habit, we may as well try to create the very best habits of mind possible

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