Fear of the unknown: how the need to cover content negatively affects learning

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In November, I was lucky enough to pay a second visit to Japan to observe teaching and learning.  And I was reminded of the strengths of the Japanese approach to learning.

I observed a science lesson with Year 4 about wind power.  In the previous lesson, children had planned an experiment to test wind power, using a toy car with a sail attached and a blower with two speeds.  Each group had planned their own experiment and these plans were on display.  The teacher had deliberately not given feedback on these plans, because he wanted them to look at each other’s plans and decide which plan was the best one to guide their experiments.  In this lesson, they chose the plan they wanted to follow, they carried out the experiment and they evaluated their methodology.

What was interesting to me in this lesson was the focus on asking questions and not answering them.  The pupils were not told by their teacher whose plan for the experiment was the best.  They could judge for themselves and test their theory out by conducting their own experiment.  The experiment was not followed by a technical discussion about wind power and what they had learnt about forces, but by a discussion about which conditions would ensure that the experiment was valid, and what questions still remained for them at the end of the experiment: what was unanswered.  And again, no attempt was made to answer these questions: the children left the lesson pondering the questions that were raised.

What was it that enabled this teacher to feel so comfortable with nurturing the asking of questions, instead of focusing on answering questions?  For me, key to this is the design of the Japanese curriculum, which has around 60% of the content of our primary national curriculum.  This leaves space for teachers to focus on developing a deep understanding of concepts.  So, in this particular unit on forces, the lesson I watched was one of a series of 7 lessons on wind power in a 13 lesson unit, which would be followed by a 6 week unit on elastic bands.  A 13 lesson unit on forces in the UK for a Year 4 class would expect significantly more content coverage and therefore by implication, considerably less depth of understanding.  And this makes UK teachers feel they have to answer children’s questions and deal with children’s misconceptions before the lesson ends.

Let’s Think lessons don’t work this way.  They often end with questions unanswered and it’s ok to let children leave without an answer.  They often enable teachers to uncover misconceptions and don’t require teachers to address these misconceptions before the end of the lesson: and that’s ok too.  When children walk away with questions, they will carry on thinking about these questions, during break time, once they get home, over the weekend.  That’s got to be a good thing, right? If children walk away with a misconception, the teacher didn’t create that misconception, it was already there.  And there are plenty more lessons in which these misconceptions can be properly tackled in a way that ensures deep understanding.  In fact, addressing misconceptions in a hurried way during the lesson, is likely to result in assimilation, not accommodation.

And what about the entirely logical and understandable fear that teachers have about the need to move on with the coverage of curriculum content: ‘No time to answer that question or tackle that misconception.  We have to move on!’ What we do know is that by taking the time to ensure deep understanding of early concepts, children’s ability to understand and apply these concepts to new material and to acquire a deep understanding of later concepts is enhanced and later learning will be accelerated.  This is one of the principles of a mastery curriculum, and it works.

So teachers, free yourselves of the shackles of curriculum coverage and ask for questions, not answers.  Confusion, misconception and puzzlement are powerful tools for learning.