What I Learned from @LearningSpy by @TLPMsF

Reflections on a presentation by David Didau...


Learning Spy kicked off #TMIslington on Monday with a provocative talk that challenged the things we teachers often accept to be true without question. So, what did I learn?

This is a re-blog post originally posted by Rebecca Foster and published with kind permission.

The original post can be found here.

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I learnt that we can’t trust the evidence of our own eyes.

If you’re going to suggest to a room full of teachers that everything they know about education might be wrong, how do you start? With a ‘gateway to wrongness’, of course. Didau showed us this optical illusion:


Is A the same shade of grey as B? If you’re thinking that they’re not, you’re wrong. I know that it might be hard to accept but I promise I’m telling you the truth. If my promise means nothing, and why should it, then maybe take Didau’s advice and print the image out, cut out the squares and see for yourself if they match up. The reason why this optical illusion is so powerful is that our brains just don’t want us to see that those shades of grey are the same. Our eyes can deceive use.

This is a great gateway to accepting that we might be wrong about other things because it can seem so incomprehensible that we’re wrong about those squares being different shades. By showing us that we were wrong about something we felt so secure in, Didau could then take us through the threshold to accepting that we might be wrong about a lot of other things too.

I learnt what we mean by ‘learning’.

Didau gave two definitions of learning:

  1. The long-term retention and transfer of knowledge and skills
  2. A change in how the world is understood

If we use the first definition, we could debate whether or not I did learn anything on Monday (given that only a few days have passed). It is, in that respect, a more interesting and challenging definition than it might first appear.  If we use the second definition, it’s beyond doubt that I learnt something on Monday – my understanding of the world has changed.

In recent years, the long-term retention of knowledge and skills has not been a priority in a school system that has been set up for coursework and modular exams. A system that has led to teachers pouring students’ heads full of everything they needed to perform in an end of unit assessment before letting it all spill out of their ears as soon as the assessment is completed; emptying brains ready to move on to the next thing. What a waste. Was any real learning taking place whilst we were dancing to this ridiculous tune? I think I can safely say that Didau would answer, ‘No’. If you haven’t retained the knowledge and skills you didn’t learn them.

What’s worse, I think, is the damage this system has done to our students. What value has this system given to learning? To truly knowing things? The message has been: learn this, do this, use it here and now forget it because you don’t need it any more. It’s a perverse form of educational bulimia. Binge and purge.

These definitions of learning are helpful because I don’t think we talk enough about what we actually mean by ‘learning’ and it is a tricky concept. If we accept the definitions offered by Didau it might better inform what we’re doing in the classroom. Are we teaching in a way that is going to lead to the long-term retention and transfer of knowledge and skills? Are we teaching in a way that is going to change how our students understand the world? If not, then what are we doing and why?

I learnt that there’s no such thing as passive learning

Didau argued that a room full of students not doing very much but listening to a teacher was not indicative of passive learning. Learning by its very nature is active. Having a kip, he said, was passive.

A good example of this might well have been the perceived passivity of the audience Didau faced on Monday. Occasionally he’d offer up a question to us expecting nods or shakes of heads, or perhaps even jeering in dissent, and he got none of that. But that didn’t mean we weren’t engaged or weren’t learning – quite the opposite, clearly.

Could an Ofsted Inspector have seen that we were learning?

I learnt that we can’t SEE learning.

Learning, he argued, is an abstract concept. Learning can’t be seen. What we can see is performance and some performances give us a better idea of what has been learnt than others. What we see in a lesson is the tip of an iceberg and below the surface is what we can’t see – we can’t see what’s going to be retained and transferred. We can’t open up our students’ heads and check to see what’s in there and what’s been lost.

Didau talked about how a lot of what we do in school is based on the idea that we can see learning. We’re often asked after observations, aren’t we, about what students learnt in the lesson and how we can tell? Didau would say that a lot of what see in lesson is performance or mimicry – we won’t know what’s been learnt until much later. Of course students can, parrot fashion, tell you how to use a semi-colon after a lesson on just that but can they tell you next week? Better yet, can they use it correctly next week? What about in a month’s time? In other lessons?

We can only infer learning from performance. And, despite the value it’s been given in recent times, performance is a very poor indicator of learning.

I learnt that sometimes the right things can feel wrong.

If we encourage students to perform and praise them for being able to give you the correct answer, after you’ve just taught it to them, we’re giving students the illusion of certainty and certainty feels good. What doesn’t feel good is uncertainty. What doesn’t feel good is finding things a real struggle. What doesn’t feel good is walking out of a lesson with a furrowed brow and a feeling that you haven’t quite grasped something.

But maybe, just maybe, when students feel uncertain we’re doing the right thing. It’s the right thing because they might just keep thinking about their learning and it’ll fall into place later. It’s the right thing because by struggling there’s a good chance that students will retain more. One of the most memorable things that Didau said on Monday was that wanting students to know the answer now is setting the bar low and that we’re making students feel happier now at the expense of retention. That might have been OK in a modular world but not anymore.

I learnt how to be disagreeable.

Didau modelled excellently how to be disagreeable. That may sound like an insult but I don’t mean it to be. A lot of what he said on Monday, and no doubt what he says in his book ‘What if everything you knew about education was wrong?’, is challenging. But what I saw on Monday was Didau modelling how to be disagreeable; how to stick with your convictions in a way that was neither confrontational nor defensive.

One of the ways Didau modelled being disagreeable in the most agreeable way was by encouraging people to challenge him. What better way to test your ideas than to get people to question them? Indeed, one of the teachers in the room took issue with that first definition of learning. How, he argued, can we say that he didn’t learn quadratic equations when he did at one stage in his life know how to do them and there was evidence of this learning in a maths book somewhere? Didau handled questions like this magnificently by maintaining his view that if you haven’t retained it you haven’t learnt it. His calm approach in the face of a challenge was an excellent model for how to be disagreeable.

Don’t sit in the middle at the front of a Teach Meet.

With a screen behind him with ‘a2 + b2 = c2’ emblazoned across it, Didau looked at me and asked me what Pythagoras’ theorem was. He was making a point about mimicry and that we get students to feel good about the learning in the lesson by giving them lots of cues about the right answers e.g. by putting them up on the screen and pointing to them. Unfortunately, all these cues were lost on me. Not sure quite what he wanted from me, and by pure coincidence Pythagoras’ theorem being the only mathematic equation I have retained in the long term, I sheepishly answered about it being used to work out the length of the hypotenuse. I was met with a briefly bemused look before the question was repeated and combined with a gesture towards the screen. Ohhhhh.

So next time I go to a Teach Meet, a talk by David Didau or, indeed, a comedy show, I’ll make sure I sit well back so I don’t have to look a fool by not being able to give the most obvious answer to a question that’s ever been asked.

So, I learnt a lot on Monday. I’d like to thank the organisers of TMIslington for a great event. Unfortunately I couldn’t stay for all of it but I also enjoyed the other presentations. I may, for example, investigate how to get students reading to dogs; I’m definitely exploring ways in which I can fight the forgetting curve (thank you @iteachRE) and I’ll keep remembering the feedback Tom Sherrington gives most often

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