Challenge and Repetition Are Better Than Fun

We all fear the question "Are we having a fun lesson today?", but should we feel guilty when the answer is "No!"?

It's always nice to hear that you're accidentally doing the right thing. As a coffee-drinking vegetarian who likes spicy food, it seems that I've inadvertently become almost immortal, and a similar thing has recently happened with lessons. I've always taken a traditional approach to my teaching, and recently a number of articles have appeared that support my views.

There are regular posts in teaching forums asking how to make lessons in Computing more "fun". I often answer that the best thing we can do for our children is teach them to cope with boredom, and I'm only partly joking. A more serious answer is that aspects of our subject are not "fun", but technically and ethically complex.

Are "fun" lessons better for students, or do lessons actually need to be technically and ethically complex? Are we doing students a disservice by prioritising "fun" over challenge?  Is the real reason that children are so easily bored and frustrated that we over-stimulate them and they have an over-reliance on technologyIs boredom actually something to be savoured?

I previously mentioned Willingham's biscuits – a US teacher tried to spice up lessons on the Underground Railroad by getting students to bake "bisuits" to remind them of the diet of escaped slaves, but all they remember was that they'd followed a recipe and done some baking. You remember what you think about.

The TES reported recently that challenging lessons aid long-term retention, but this idea isn't new – the term "desirable difficulties" was first coined by Robert Bjork in 1994 and other studies have shown that effortful processing improves retention.

The idea that making things more difficult can improve learning might seem counter-intuitive. One of the most surprising, perhaps, is that even your choice of font can have an impact. Teachers are often told that we should use the Comic Sans typeface, for example, because it's easier to read and closely resembles handwriting. It turns out, though, that difficult-to-read fonts improve retention (strangely, that study uses Comic Sans as an example of a font that's harder to read!). One theory is that your brain is subconsciously saying, "this is difficult, so it must be important"!

When my daughter was a baby, a number of videos (most famously the Baby Einstein series) were available that were supposed to help children learn to speak more quickly. It turned out that these were no more effective than leaving your child in front of an episode of the Simpsons, and could actually delay speech.

What does encourage children to speak more quickly, though, is exposing them to speech radio. Not being able to see the speaker's mouth increases the cognitive load for the listener; making it more difficult to listen to speech helps infants to learn.

After learning to speak, we go to primary school and learn to read. The learning of facts has become unfashionable in recent years, with some primary schools preferring a play-based curriculum. Cognitive Psychologist Daniel Willingham (of the University of Virginia) tells us that facts are more important for comprehension than reading skills - students who know more will out-perform their peers (and those peers will never catch up).

Helen Abadzi of the University of Texas also tells us that rote learning is essential for a child's education – but play isn't.

Repetition has traditionally been viewed as essential to learning, but the recent push for "progress" has made it unfashionable to say "practice makes perfect" (although "mastery" was a focus in the 2010 National Curriculum that was scrapped by the coalition government).

A study of people developing their programming skills in the software industry found that practice does indeed make perfect – programmers who completed twenty programming challenges performed twice as well in tests. The implication for our lessons is that students need more programming tasks, not longer projects.

But how many repetitions are required for retention in long-term memory? I read earlier in the year that you need to hear things four times before you remember them, other articles suggest seven – although I'm sure that it depends on the complexity of what you're trying to remember.

What can be more important than the number of repetitions is their timing. There is evidence that spaced repetition is more effective – i.e. you are more likely to remember things if you hear them spaced by increasing intervals. This spacing regime can be difficult to effect in a classroom setting, but it does suggest that blocking similar lessons together might be a less effective approach, and that mixing up your teaching can get better results. This might sound similar to the spiral curriculum that Maths teachers have been talking about for years.

Computing lends itself nicely to this approach. I've written previously that I believe that the representation of data is something that links together most of the topics in Computer Science, and my Computing concept map shows how other topics are linked. This allows us to seamlessly flow from one topic to another in a way you couldn't do with ICT, but also means that you can frequently revisit previous topics in a way that's relevant and helps students to remember and practise them.

As Computing specialists, we have an array of technology available to us, and the temptation can be to over-use it. It's a relatively new subject and we might feel that we have to use new techniques, but don't forget that challenge, repetition and mastery have been helping us to learn for centuries, and there is still evidence to support their use.

This blog originally appeared in the TES Subject Genius series in November 2016.