195 Countries – The Myth of Ability, and why not everyone can learn them all

Comments - Twitter - No - 5

This is a good example of how misunderstood memory is.  The idea was famously immortalised in Arthur Conan Doyle’s work:

I consider that a man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things, so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it. Now the skillful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic. He will have nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work, but of these he has a large assortment, and all in the most perfect order. It is a mistake to think that that little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent. Depend upon it there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge you forget something that you knew before. It is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones.

It’s just not true.  There is such a thing as ‘retrieval induced forgetting,’ but this is distinct from and far more nuanced than ‘I’ve learnt something new, and therefore had to forget something else to make space.’

Our brain’s capacity has been shown to be so large as to be effectively limitless.

Only the super-smart could learn all this

I think that many students would not have the intellectual ability to learn them, and indeed they would be put off Geography if this happened. “

“I think it is a noble aim, but arguably an arbitrary one, and one which would cause considerable distress to young people who may for a variety of reasons find such a task either incredibly difficult or indeed impossible.”

Comments - Twitter - No - 10

I think the first and third comments here were the most heart-breaking.  As a maths teacher, I have to deal with low expectations all the time.  Pupils and adults almost desperately want you to confirm their belief that ‘they can’t do maths,’ or ‘their chid can do maths,’ or will want to tell you that ‘I don’t / my child doesn’t have a maths brain,’ so that they can be excused from trying and failing.  Combatting this maths anxiety and the sad myth of ability is something to which Bruno Reddy has now turned his hand.

There does exist a small, very small minority of people who would certainly not be able to memorise all these facts.  These would be people you’d have to be happy to categorise with serious cognitive impediment, however, and that’s likely to be 1 or 2% of the population (made up statistic alert).  For everyone else, it’s certainly possible, but our system is so set up that perhaps few have witnessed this kind of success yet.  If you were one of those people, and doubted whether ‘virtually everyone’ could achieve this, then I would only ask you to think about the kid who is struggling with everything in school, but can tell you every fact about all those football players in the premiere league, as an example.  There’s nothing wrong with their mind.

Here are a few examples of other people who’ve done work to break down this grotesque myth of ability.

Michel Tomas – in this documentary he took twelve seventeen-year-olds who failed French the year before, including one who was told she would never be able to learn a language, and taught them all to an intermediate level in one week.

Carol Dweck – as a Teach Firster I’ve heard so much about Dweck that sometimes I forget not everyone knows who she is!  Dweck published Mindset, which (I think) first popularised the ideas of Growth and Fixed Mindsets in education.  She taught us that effort matters more than ‘born intelligence,’ and explained how carefully chosen words, such as the power of ‘yet,’ can have a huge impact on the mindsets of those we teach.

John Mighton – published the appropriately named Myth of Ability.  In it he gives anecdotal stories of his experiences tutoring kids in Canada who supposedly ‘couldn’t learn maths.’  He advocates for state-funded one-to-one tuition for those who are behind their peers, arguing that it can dramatically accelerate their learning to the point where they overtake those around them.  He also has some very interesting ideas for teaching mathematics.

Siegfried Engelmann – has designed all manner of instructional courses principally available in America, and also published a savage diatribe attacking US state education for its apparent willingness to let people fail.  Like Mighton and Thomas, he argues that if a child hasn’t learnt or understood something then it is the fault of the teacher, not the student.  He does differentiate in this between instructional failings and behavioural failings i.e. if a child wasn’t listening to their teacher, or didn’t do the things they asked them to do, then of course it cannot be the fault of instruction that they didn’t learn.  Whereas, if the child does all that the teacher asks of them and still doesn’t learn it cannot be considered the fault of the child; it must be the fault of the instruction (note, of the instruction, more so than the teacher per se.)

The idea that people view something as mundanely simplistic as ‘memorise 195 countries, capitals and locations’ as being beyond the capability of most human beings is a grievous tragedy.  It is just spectacular that anyone could think this way…  What on Earth did we do to plummet expectations and respect for human intellect to such depths…


About Kris Boulton

Teach First 2011 maths teacher, focussed on curriculum design.
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3 Responses to 195 Countries – The Myth of Ability, and why not everyone can learn them all

  1. julietgreen says:

    I’ve always viewed it like this: of course there are limits to our ability. It doesn’t help anyone to think that there aren’t; there will be those of us who will never run the 4 minute mile and there will be limits to our intellectual ability too. However those are the limits placed on us by biology and we can not be sure – and therefore should never assume – what they are for any individual. As teachers, we should look at what is humanly possible (we’re never going to fly, unaided) and we aim for that for all our pupils.

    “if the child does all that the teacher asks of them and still doesn’t learn it cannot be considered the fault of the child; it must be the fault of the instruction (note, of the instruction, more so than the teacher per se.)”. I’m not sure “fault” is appropriate, terminology, as unlikely as this scenario is (still doesn’t learn?). Let’s put ourselves in the role of learner for a moment. There are many things that impact on learning. If we do all that we have been asked and we still haven’t learned, then it might be that we’ve been asked the wrong thing, or that we simply need more time, or that the way we are being measured is inappropriate! We seem more distressingly caught up in accountability loops – instruction, learning, measuring progress, instruction, learning… etc. – and less involved in actual education, as the century progresses.

  2. Alan says:

    I have had the profoundly depressing experience of attempting to teach 13 to 18 year olds what is now regarded as “technical” subjects. These involve simple arithmetic and a metal enagement with what I think of as “the real world”, as opposed to a world of opinions, facebook, celebrities etc. The pupils tell me that this is “maths” and “science”. None of them like “maths” and none of them have “done science” so they feel that it is unfair of me to expect them to try.
    Some examples: simple distance-speed-time calculations: not one managed to get anywhere near an answer, even a wrong answer. I chose the numbers specifically to make the arithmetic as simple as possible because I was trying to get them to understand the principle, but instead it turned into an early years counting lesson.
    Direction: they told me that there are 100 degrees in a circle. None of them had any idea where North is, and were very uncomfortable with the whole idea of direction. I am fairly sure that they think that a map is some kind of abstract art. Scale? They can just about add up. The idea of dividing sends them into a panic. Ratios are well into black magic territory.

    Every time I attempt something like that I hit a wall. The concrete is a mix of their refusal (or inability) to think about the physical world, and an absence of basic knowledge. That is compounded by their complete inability to remember what we did last time. Every session consists of going back to square 1 and beginning again.

    In contrast they can remember many things: phone numbers, facebook pages, the names and apparently the entire life stories of any number of vacant celebrities, film stars, football players etc. They are experts at manipulating people. They manage to keep up with all the latest fashions and the sudden reversals of fame and fortune of any number of vacant celebrities. They have been locked into a fantasy world of superficial nonsense, and someone has thrown the key away.

    I cannot believe that this is an accident, or an unintended consequence. The alternative is that it is a deliberate policy decision. Certainly there are many political activists (including many teachers) who are delighted with what they have done.

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