When The Learning Spy Came to Seoul

The book, What if everything you knew about education was wrong? By David Didau (2015), has had a significant impact at our school. Not only has it influenced the way we have restructured our Primary Maths curriculum, but it has inspired some of us, as a group of teachers, to reflect deeply on every aspect of the teaching and learning process. The main message of the book is to be suspicious of any prescribed golden bullets in education. Unfortunately, in relation to the job of teaching, they just don’t exit.

As a result, when the opportunity arose to invite David over to Seoul to run some training and present some of his research, we were enthusiastic about the idea.

Last week David put on a series of workshops for parents, students and staff. A sample of the main ideas he presented during these sessions are explored below.

Avoiding the illusion of knowledge – Study Skills for Success:

From mobile phones to social media and busy social lives, an ever increasing number of distractions exist to pull students away from the process of study and revision. As a result, we were keen for David to share the research on the most efficient revision methods to enable students to maximise their study time. Unfortunately, David highlighted the fact that many of the established methods of revision, listed below, are inefficient and succeed only in providing students with the ‘illusion of knowledge’:

  • Rereading notes,
  • Highlighting & underlining notes
  • Summarisation

Although these revision methods will give students the feeling that they have absorbed the information they have revised, they often leave students without any real depth of understanding. Instead, the students gain a false sense of confidence in relation the topics covered and this is revealed at the time of the test or exam.

David explained that there is extensive research that shows that self-testing is a far superior method of revision compared with the strategies listed above. From the list of examples below, which would you expect to be the most successful study pattern?

  1. One study session followed by – a study session – another study session– another study session – another study session – Final test
  2. One study session followed by – a study session – another study session – a self-test – another self-test – Final test
  3. One study session followed by – a study session – a self-test – another self-test – another self-test – Final test
  4. One study session followed by – a self-test – another self-test – another self-test – another self-test – Final test

The study model represented in option 4 has been shown to be the most efficient model for learning and exam preparation even when the students have not been permitted to re-study their understanding of items they got wrong during the self-tests! This seems an incredible finding but it has been replicated many times during controlled trials. The act of retrieving knowledge during low stakes tests causes it to become more accurately embedded in our long term memory, whether we re-study that knowledge after the test or not.

Computerised notes vs Handwritten notes

There is now evidence that shows those students who take the time to produce handwritten notes of lectures and lessons retain more than those students who choose to take notes using a laptop. The theory here is that most students are able to type much quicker than they are able to write down words on a page and this has a significant impact on the process our brain goes through as it undertakes these two tasks.

Writing notes with a pen or pencil forces students to consider and reflect on what is being said and then paraphrase it succinctly on the page as they attempt to keep pace with the content of the lesson. This process ensures that a degree of thought is embedded in the act of writing notes. With typed notes, students tend to capture much more of what is being said and may even be able to write the lesson or lecture down verbatim. This reduces the extent to which the students have to consider the content of the words they are writing down.

The research also shows that even when the assessment of the students’ understanding is delayed by a week and the students are permitted to refer to their notes over the week,  those who took longhand notes by hand outperformed laptop participants.


Many of us like to believe that we are good at multi-tasking and when questioned, many of our students admitted to studying with more than one tab open on a screen and with music on in the background. Some students claimed that they study better with music on. Unfortunately, the evidence is in and trying to complete more than one task at a time (ie. flicking between an essay and social media) has a detrimental effect, not only on the accuracy of the work that you are doing but also on the speed at which you will be able to do it, as your brain struggles to switch between the tasks. There is also evidence to suggest that you might be doing long term damage in relation to your brain’s ability to focus (Janssen et al., 2010).


Slide used with kind permission: Study skills, Didau (2017)

Even listening to music while studying can elicit this ‘switching effect’ from your brain as your mind wanders between focusing on the music and the task at hand. David explained that there is evidence to suggest that the only music that does not elicit this response is that which is 60 beats per minutes. Unfortunately for our students that means they might need to live on a diet of Bach during their study hours if they want to be efficient learners!

David explained that it is far more beneficial for students to plan consecutive tasks so instead of completing 1 hour and 30 minutes of study while checking your phone constantly; instead plan one hour of study followed by 30 minutes of interacting on social media.

For more information, please see the link below:

The 3 Tiers of Language

During the English workshop that David led with the Secondary and Primary English departments, one particular issue that he drew our attention to was the way that language can confuse children. He mentioned that language can be divided into the following 3 tiers:

  • Tier 1 – high frequency in spoken language
  • Tier 2 – high frequency in written texts
  • Tier 3 – subject specific, academic language

He pointed out the fact that children tend to pick up Tier 1 words on their own through everyday spoken language. It is the Tier 3 words that teachers tend to spend their time teaching children. This means that schools often neglect to teach the Tier 2 words, those words that are high frequency but only in written texts. These are words that we usually assume our children understand but that often trip up our developing readers.

David highly recommended the book Bringing Words to Life: Robust Vocabulary Instruction, by Isabel Beck (2002) and mentioned that research showed that in order to make it more likely that a child embedded a word into their vocabulary, they need to go through a 3 step process of pronunciation, definition and recognition.

Evolution, Working Memory and Cognitive Load Theory

David also presented the current research in relation to memory & learning. He explained that some things are easy to learn because they are biologically primary adaptions. These are things we have been doing as human beings for thousands of years and therefore have evolved a capacity to learn in a naturalistic way (e.g speech). Other things are harder to learn because they are biologically secondary and we have not yet evolved a capacity to learn them from the environment (e.g reading & writing). A common mistake that teachers make is to confuse these two types of learning and assume that because we learn speech from the environment, we can also learn other things in a naturalistic way.

He also presented to us the current working model that psychologists use for the way memory works and talked about the issues associated with working and long term memory. Although our long term memory is essentially limitless, our working memory is extremely limited. In order for information and knowledge to make it into our long term memory, it has to fight for space in the bottle neck of working memory. Most people have a working memory that is limited to around 7 things at once. This means that in the environment of a classroom we need to consider the activities we are presenting to our students in order for them to learn. For example, if a young child is attempting to remember how to spell a word, structure a sentence, use punctuation and be creative in the often busy and noisy environment of a classroom, then working memory can become overloaded and the child is then more likely to make basic mistakes. Novices need carefully guided and structured instruction from their teachers to ensure their working memories are processing a manageable amount of new information. Many of the special learning needs that certain children have could be related to a limited working memory.


Slide used with kind permission: Memory, Didau (2017)

Why lesson observations are almost always inaccurate

David presented the research, drawn from the Met project in the U.S, that showed that when a lesson was given a top grade by an observer, there was a 78% chance that a second observer would provide a different grade. In lessons that were given a bottom grade, there was a 90% chance the second observer would give a different grade! He encouraged us to instead adopt a more rounded and supportive approach to lesson observations, encouraging staff to observe each other to learn from mutual practice in a supportive framework. Teachers only improve when trusted and supported.

Having said that, he stated that it was reasonable for leadership to have minimum expectations of how a classroom should be run.  Beyond these expectations, however, leaders should be open to the approaches used by teachers to encourage learning in their classrooms. He cautioned leaders to not rely on our own personal biases when entering a classroom and highlighted the research from Robert Bjork that suggested students’ current levels of performance in class can often be a poor indicator of whether learning has happened.

Learning Myths

As well as all these ideas, David highlighted prevalent learning myths that exist in many schools that we should all avoid, including:

  • Learning styles – there is no evidence that adapting our teaching to suit children’s individual learning styles has any positive effect on learning. David pointed out the fact that an organisation in the U.S is currently offering $75000 for the first teacher or researcher to provide any credible evidence in relation to this theory.
  • Multiple intelligences – David explained that this had been debunked by Howard Gardener himself and that it is no longer a relevant model to use in schools.
  • Piaget’s theory of cognitive development – although this was an important theory of development in its time, it has long since been superseded. Despite this, many teacher training establishments treat it as a current theory of practice. David provided Seigler’s (1996) theory of ‘Overlapping Waves’ as an example of a more current theory of learning.

All in all, it was a rich few days of teacher training. We found out, not that everything we knew about education was wrong but that it is worth taking the time to question what we do and not take anything in the teaching and learning process for granted.  We will be reflecting on the concepts shared during this training over the coming days, weeks and months ahead as we seek to further develop the teaching and learning that takes place at our school.


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