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Why our schools need both Apollo and Dionysus

By Dr Nina Hood

The Education Hub has always been a big proponent of the science of learning. We believe that teaching and learning should be informed by a solid understanding of how we learn, and in particular the cognitive processes involved in the learning process. However, we have also suggested that the science of learning is not enough and that teaching and learning must also be informed by strong curriculum thinking and a knowledge-rich curriculum, as well as tasks that promote higher order thinking and the opportunity to engage in deeper learning.

Earlier this week I came across a school that has, as one of its three principles of exceptional learning, ‘teaching for memory – learning is a change in memory. Teaching supports that change’. I heartily agree with the importance of teaching for memory. The memorisation of information, and in particular the movement of facts from episodic to semantic memory, is an essential precursor to higher order thinking. Jared Cooney Horvath provides a useful (and high accessible) account of the role that memorisation plays in the first stages of the learning trajectory.

However, memorisation does not mean that one has truly understood the memorised content or is able to utilise it in new contexts or to solve novel problems. For this to happen, there are several additional steps in the learning process.

Firstly, students need to be able to position what they have memorised within a conceptual structure or schema. Each discipline has its own way of structuring, organizing and pursuing knowledge. It is important that students can connect new information they are learning not only to their prior knowledge but also to the underpinning concepts of the discipline. This is because the structure of knowledge matters.It is not just the quantity of knowledge a person holds but also the quality of that knowledge and how it is structured – both during the learning process and within an individual’s long-term memory – that influences what they can do with it.

Secondly, once students have built well-integrated hierarchical knowledge structures, they then need opportunities to utilise this knowledge in creative, novel, and challenging ways. If the teaching and learning process ends with memorisation (and the retrieval of what has been learned), it is unlikely that students are being routinely provided with opportunities to engage in activities that require higher order thinking. Engaging in well-crafted opportunities, such as real-life problems or experiential-type learning is what makes learning particularly meaningful to students.

The science of learning research has shown clear differences between the ways in which novices and experts solve problems. Proponents of the science of learning have frequently used these studies to suggest that novices, therefore, should spend their time focused on the initial stages of the learning trajectory – those associated with memorisation and activating and associating knowledge to form concepts – rather than on “doing” the types of activities that experts undertake. And while it is true that novices in a given area do need to spend much of their time on those types of learning tasks, that does not mean they shouldn’t also go beyond this. Science of learning advocates frequently like to cite studies of chess to demonstrate the differences between novices and experts. But what they frequently fail to recognise is that one of the key ways that expert chess players developed their expertise was through playing many, many games of chess. They also undoubtedly analysed these games, received feedback on their performance, and studied the games of others. However, if in schooling, we took such an approach, we run the risk of divorcing the learning process from its authentic contexts and purposes.

As Richard Elmore claims ‘task predicts performance’. If the tasks students undertake only require memorisation and a focus on retrieval and low-level application, then they will not have the opportunity to make deeper connections or to utilise what they know to build new knowledge and understanding. It is important to remember that the process of applying knowledge (rather than just recalling or regurgitating it), for example to solve a complex problem or to craft an argument in a debate or essay, also helps to consolidate one’s knowledge-base.

In a presentation I gave last week, I included a quote from the American psychologist and educational theorist Jerome Bruner:

Apollo without Dionysus may indeed be a well-informed, good citizen but he’s a dull fellow. He may even be ‘cultured,’ in the sense one often gets from traditionalist writings in education. . . . But without Dionysus he will never make and remake a culture” (Bruner, J. (1996). The Culture of Education. Harvard University Press, p.50).

By focusing too heavily on memorisation (or indeed the principles from the science of learning as they commonly are positioned), or (perhaps inadvertently) positioning memorisation as the end point of learning, rather than one part of the larger learning process, we run the risk of producing Apollonian students. With the complex range of challenges – both local and global – that school students today will face across their lifetimes, it is essential that our school system is producing young adults who not only have a sound knowledge base across a range of disciplines and domains but that they also have the ability to utilise that knowledge to solve novel problems and to engage in learning across the life course so that they are continuing to update, remake, and extend their knowledge.   

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