Advice for Teachers – 9

Here is my translation of chapter 9 from Sukhomlinsky’s book, 100 Pieces of Advice for Teachers:

9. ‘Two programs of instruction’ – developing students’ thinking

A teacher does not have enough time mainly because students have difficulty studying. For many years I have reflected on how to make students’ work easier. Developing practical skills as a foundation for knowledge development is only the first step. Memorisation and storage of knowledge in long term memory is the next step. I advise every teacher: analyse the content to be taught and clearly demarcate those elements that must be stored securely in long term memory. It is important that a teacher is able to identify those knowledge ‘hubs’ or ‘nerve centres’, the strength of which determine the development of thought, of intellectual ability and of a capacity to make use of knowledge. These ‘hubs’ include important conclusions and generalisations, formulae, rules and laws that characterise a particular subject. Experienced teachers have their students keep special exercise books for recording material that must be memorised and committed to long term memory.

The more complex the material that needs to be memorised, the more generalisations, conclusions and rules that need to be stored in long term memory, the more significant the ‘intellectual background’ to the process of study becomes. In other words, in order to commit formulae, rules, conclusions and other generalisations to long term memory, students need to read a lot of material that they are not required to memorise. Reading must be closely connected with study. If it involves going more deeply into the facts, phenomena and objects that provide a basis for making generalisations, it facilitates memorisation. We might call such reading the creation of the intellectual background necessary for study, and for memorising material.  The more students read out of pure interest in the material, from a desire to find out, to think through, to make sense of something, the easier it is for them to memorise the material that they are required to learn and to commit to memory.

Keeping this important principle in mind, in my practical work I always had two programs of study in mind: the first made up of the material that it was essential to memorise, and the second made up of extracurricular reading and other sources of information.

Physics is one of the most demanding subjects in its requirement to memorise material, especially in grades six through to eight. The program at these levels contains many new concepts. I taught this subject for six years, and always tried to provide extracurricular reading to correspond to each new concept. The more complex the concept that is being studied at any given time, the more attractive and interesting the books that students read need to be. When studying the laws governing electrical currents, I compiled a special library for individual extracurricular reading. It contained fifty-five books about natural phenomena that demonstrated the diverse electrical properties of matter.

I was able to stimulate a wave of intense interest among the students. They literally showered me with questions. What? How? Why? About 80% of their questions began with the word ‘why’. There were many things that the students could not understand; and the more things in the surrounding world that they could not understand, the greater their desire to learn grew, and the more receptive to knowledge they became. The children literally ‘caught in mid-air’ everything I told them. When it was time to explain the concept of an electric current as a flow of free electrons it turned out that my adolescent students had many questions specifically about this complex physical phenomenon. The answers to their questions provided the missing bricks in the picture of the world that had formed in the students’ minds as a result of their reading and the other information they had received earlier.

I taught senior biology for three years. This course contains a host of difficult theoretical concepts, which are all the more difficult to commit to memory. When the students were first acquiring scientific concepts such as ‘life’, ‘living matter’, ‘heredity’, ‘metabolism’ and ‘organism’, I selected material for them from scientific and popular scientific journals, books and pamphlets. Their ‘second program of study’ included pamphlets, books and articles calculated to arouse a wave of interest in a number of complex scientific issues, and consequently in further reading. The young biology students began to take an interest in the natural phenomena that surrounded them, including the exceptional diversity of forms that metabolism could take. The more questions they had, the deeper their knowledge became. When I assessed their knowledge, there was not a single response that was evaluated lower than ‘4’. [In the Soviet system of assessment, ‘3’ meant ‘satisfactory’, ‘4’ meant ‘good’ and ‘5’ meant ‘excellent’.]

I advise all teachers: create an intellectual background for the memorisation and storage in long term memory of the required curriculum. Students only achieve lasting mastery when they think about what they are learning. Think about how to stimulate thought, analysis and observation relating to the material that is being studied or is soon to be studied at your lessons.

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