Making a good impression

When I think of my experience of learning French at school, I have particular memories and a general feeling of negativity. I remember one French teacher more than others: her high pitched voice, her tendency to become irritated easily, her inability to look you in the eye. She was one of those people who closes their eyes when they speak – her eyelids fluttering nervously – a habit we would cruelly imitate when her back was turned. I didn’t enjoy the subject. I was a poor student, and to this day I define myself as being ‘bad at languages’.

I have tried to overcome both my inability to learn another language and my poor self-image as a linguist, but to no avail. I suffered the same problem in relation to PE, a subject I truly loathed and avoided at all costs (usually by faking an asthma attack – don’t do it, kids!), but for some reason this experience does not continue to define me. I do not consider myself a sportsman by any means, but I love to be physically active and challenged, and I have learnt to value sport and understand how important it is in people’s lives. Rationally, I think the same of learning foreign languages: I understand its value and appreciate that it is really enjoyable for many people, but emotionally I cannot shake the feeling that it isn’t for me.

The impressions we have of our early academic experiences are important. By impression I mean the feelings evoked when we think about these subjects, and of school more generally. Impressions may be considered a form of knowledge, albeit informal and tacit. Our impressionistic knowledge allows us to form opinions of people and things (Bereiter & Scardamalia, 1993). Our minds draw on our impressions to make quick judgements in our everyday lives. These judgements inform our actions in ways we do not fully understand.

Impressionistic knowledge is a distillation of your whole experience, perhaps dominated by a few salient events.’

Bereiter & Scardamalia, 1993

There is a connection between our impressions and episodic memories, the latter being our recollection of events. However, they are not the same: episodes from our past can play out in our minds (embellished and partial; sometimes so removed from reality as to be ‘false memory’), whereas impressions are background noise. Both are formed through real experiences and both are the residue of a life lived.

It seems likely that some experiences make deeper, more long-lasting impressions, and are the ones we will probably recall readily (Bottom, 2003). In this respect, not all events are equal in their impact on our informal knowledge.

Why should we, as educators, be interested in the impression school leaves on young people? What attention does it warrant in comparison, for example, to the more tangible formal knowledge which we package up as a ‘curriculum’?

To begin to answer these questions, we might consider how impressionistic knowledge is taken forward into a young person’s future life.

Our impressions inform our values, which in turn steer our interests. Possessing a positive disposition towards a discipline of study may propel us towards learning more. At this point I should give a trigger warning to traditionalists as I am about to talk about a student’s enjoyment of learning! Intuitively, we make a connection between ‘enjoying’ studying a subject and the likelihood that they will choose to study it further. However, this should not lead us down the path of promoting ‘fun lessons’, indeed a generally enjoyable experience which is not intrinsically connected to disciplinary knowledge may in fact reduce future propulsion towards further study. In other words, it is important to enjoy the subject rather than enjoy the lesson. This is because the combination of formal and impressionistic knowledge drives our inquisitiveness.

This is a version of the Matthew Effect (“the rich get richer” idea). Those with some pre-existing subject knowledge plus a favourable impression of the subject will be more compelled towards knowing more. This may manifest as interest in what is being taught or a motivation to find out more themself.

For example, when one of my daughters asks me a science question which I don’t know the answer to (which happens increasingly frequently nowadays) I will often know enough to hypothesise. We may call this an intuition, but it is really a schema of formal and tacit knowledge which presents as a ‘hunch’. My answer usually takes the form of voicing what I do know, then speculating about a possible answer to their question. My interest is piqued and I am compelled to look it up. They usually seem less inquisitive than me, but perhaps that is because they have either a less well-developed schema of formal knowledge or a less positive impression of the subject, or both. They are not as propelled towards action to address this knowledge gap as I am. Contrast this with my response when they ask me a question about French or sport, where I have neither a repertoire of formal knowledge or favourable impressionistic knowledge: “ask your Mum”.

If correct, we can conclude that our impressions must be explicitly connected to disciplinary knowledge to generate a level of interest that will propel us towards future action. We need an authentic experience of the curriculum: one which leaves a positive and lasting impression of how it feels to engage with the subject.

Impressions will also affect the position students will take on various things they encounter in life: their viewpoint. A favourable impression of learning the French language may contribute towards (but not in itself determine) the position taken on the European Union; a negative impression of scientific disciplines may make one more suspicious of vaccinations; a positive impression of participation in competitive sport may make us more inclined to value it as a pastime for our own children. With regard to the latter point, our impressions of school subjects, and school in general, will undoubtedly transfer to our children and in turn predispose them to forming similar impressions, such as we see in the inherited belief of a child that they ‘can’t do maths’.

This leads us neatly to the point that children are biased towards creating positive or negative impressions of school (and the subjects they study), which will mean that each child will experience the same events differently, and therefore be left with differing impressions from quite similar lived experiences. As with our efforts to equip children with a defined body of formal knowledge, we will have to work harder with some children than others to ensure their impressions of school and study are positive.

I believe that a student’s lived experience of school is very important, but often undervalued. Children are at school for a significant proportion of their waking hours and ensuring this time is positive and constructive helps set an expectation that life can be purposeful and fulfilling. To want this is not woolly or idealistic. It is at least as important as ensuring that students acquire the formal body of knowledge we set out as a curriculum, for if students leave school having hated every minute of becoming ‘educated’ then what will they make of this learning, and how inclined will they be to learn more? The process must be valued alongside the outcome.

When my children were young, we would take them on days out, some of which would be quite expensive (Legoland was a particular favourite). I would provoke my wife by asking why we were bothering to spend so much money when they wouldn’t remember any of it later. Of course, it was an idiotic observation. Firstly, the joy they gained from the experience was, in itself, enough, and our moral duty as parents was to make their early lives enjoyable and stimulating. Secondly, their future inability to recall these days out did not, of course, mean that they were not shaped by their early childhood experiences. In other words, the lack of episodic memories was not proof of the absence of impressionistic knowledge.

The phrase ‘If it isn’t in long term memory, it hasn’t been learnt’ is frequently quoted and employed to justify various curricular and pedagogic claims nowadays, but we should caution against too narrow a definition of memory and of knowledge. If our attention is only focussed on what formal knowledge can be retrieved, and we neglect to consider how informal knowledge has shaped the child (which is even less visible and measurable than declarative knowledge), then we cannot claim to offer a rounded education. It is often said that young people are impressionable. We should be as attentive, deliberate and careful in considering what impression our school makes upon each child as we are when we build our precious curriculum. A school which claims to value knowledge should embrace it in all its forms.

Providing children with a ‘good experience’ of school should not be about the pursuit of happiness, edutainment, fun activities, pandering to their whims, indulging them, pacifying them, avoiding overexertion, mental strain, or failure, or otherwise prioritising ‘customer satisfaction’ over the mastery of the curriculum. To do so would make schools no more than a theme park. Children will be left with the best impressions of school if they feel an authentic, significant sense of success, which can only come from an encounter with a worthwhile curriculum in a safe and personally enriching environment. They will inevitably forget much of what we taught them, but the impressions formed through their engagement with this formal knowledge will continue to shape their inclinations and dispositions long after their memories have faded. Both the what and the how need our attention.

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