Short review: Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger, & Mark A. McDaniel (2014) Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning (Harvard University Press)
Back in the 1970s, when I was a struggling through my ‘O’ levels whilst dodging those pupils whose overweening ambition it was to bog-flush my head, one of my science teachers, a Mr Gottesman, would repeatedly remind us that learning is not a fixed ability; if you want to do better, work harder. But can a student work smarter? Following the biggest review of learning research ever undertaken, Peter Brown and his colleagues believe we can. I’ve summarised key facets of their advice in a mind map posted on my website. However, their findings have a qualified application to my own research.
The prevailing assumption in Brown et al’s study is that learning is predominantly the retention and reproduction of discreet units of information. Perhaps this is true for scientists – at least those who are technicians rather than theoreticians, but not so much for writers: we’re more concerned with the development of complex ideas and skills. On its own, memorizing Strunk & White verbatim is unlikely to turn someone into a proficient writer. Reading high quality literary texts and regular writing practice can.
Factual learning is important in literature: it’s not easy to talk about a work of fiction if you can’t remember the names of the characters or details of the plot. However, I believe two other concepts bear reflecting upon as a prelude to any literary research: narrative and creativity. In Brown et al, narrative is primarily referred to as a barrier to learning: our ‘hunger for narrative’ can lead us to see connections where there are none, and may obfuscate our ability to consider new ideas. Yet stories also tell us who we are and provide us with the mental models of what we know. The problem is not narrative in itself, I would suggest, but unyielding narrative. This is why creativity is vital to learning.
When we’re being creative students, we acknowledge learning is a dynamic process, one which involves building knowledge, understanding, and skills through comparison, critical analysis, application, and other forms of active interrogation. We try out new ideas in discussion and debate. Sometimes they make sense and sometimes less so. We recognise that, over time, these ideas are open to review, revision and refinement. We should be similarly reflexive with regards to the hows of learning as well as to the what.
My thesis, then, is that effective learning is much more than the acquisition of a set of techniques. A good literature student is creative and reflexive, and that reflexivity should apply equally to the ideas and practices that constitute the learning process.