The purpose of school

This article in the TES by Dylan Wiliam has the following sentence, that was also used as a twitter ‘headline’.

“ The purpose of school — indeed, the purpose of all learning — is to change long-term memory.”

It attracted much attention, maybe drawing attention away from the rest of the article, but I had to think a little more to work out exactly why I did not like the statement.

I suppose it could be said that everything children learn in school, be this maths, geography, social interaction, communication skills or the myriad other aspects of schooling that produce the ‘end result’.

But the only analogy I can think of at the moment is to say that the purpose of a car is to enable us to drive fast (or not so fast) on roads, keeping us dry, safe, warm and using as little fuel as possible.

Whereas the actual purpose of a car is to get us from point A to point B where we can then shop, play, read, rest, sleep, work or whatever we had to do that used the car to get there.

I am sure that this analogy will fall down, so feel free to pick it apart. But it seems that if we only think of school as a place to change memory, then we focus on the process rather than the result. Yes, the process is important, but it is what happens at the end of the process that is the most important.

There are other aspects of the article, that is trying to cram a lot into what was probably a TES-set word limit. But I have issues with the leap to get this statement’s final sentence.

“ The benefits of testing come from the retrieval practice that students get when they take the test, and the hypercorrection effect when they find out answers they thought were correct were in fact incorrect. In other words, the best person to mark a test is the person who just took it.

I don’t think that is what the benefits of testing says at all, nor what Metcalfe — who writes about hypercorrection — concludes either. If the person taking the test is the person marking it, then there is huge potential for error, misconception, and all the problems we know can be present with self marking.

So, to finish up here at the moment. Surely the one of the main aims of learning is to NOT to make mistakes. So at some point we would like to see mistake free solutions. On the way to that goal, then yes, making mistakes and correcting them is an important route.

Some time ago, I came across this poster from Beth Chase which was based on the work of Jo Boaler.

Mistakes: expected, respected, inspected, CORRECTED.

Beth said “of course, the ideas are as old as learning itself”. Which is pretty much the same for the ‘new’ theories of memory.

Note that for maths, if all the student is doing is placing a tick or cross on a page, or just inserting the right answer, then they are doing just what a teacher could have done, but with the teacher having no knowledge of what the student has done.

Marking is always an issue (see my previous Medium posts on the subject). Technology is surely the only way we are going to move forward without adding massive workload burdens on teachers, workload burdens that from the literature have always been apparent. This is nothing new. Then, the discussion will have to decide on the form of marking but the essential aspect is this:

It is what the student does with the marking (as part of feedback) that is important.

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