Research shows that long-term memory (LTM) of information is vital for ‘skilled performance’, i.e., the ability to carry out complex cognitive activities in ‘real time’ (see, e.g., Sweller et al, 1998; Kirschner et al, 2006). This is especially true when attempting to communicate with any degree of fluency in a foreign language. On the other hands, if only ‘working’ or short-term memory (STM) is relied on for such a task, communication is likely to break down quite quickly. This is because STM capacity is very small, and therefore easily becomes overloaded.
LTM gets round the space constraints imposed by STM through the twin processes of ‘schematisation’ and ‘automisation’. Briefly, the former acts to combine what were originally separate items of knowledge into much larger, connected networks of information. This means that huge amounts of information can be brought into STM all at once, functioning to all intents and purposes as just a single item of knowledge, and thereby by-passing working memory storage limitations.
The latter process enables the recall of items of information without conscious effort. This occurs when awareness of items of information stored in long-term memory becomes largely unconscious as a result of repeated practical application. Since automated knowledge involves very little or no conscious processing, such information can be deployed without any noticeable effect on STM capacity.
Now, since (for the reasons given) storage of information in LTM is the key to mastering forms of skilled performance such as foreign language communication, the obvious question is: what form of pedagogy is most likely to facilitate the transfer of language knowledge into LTM?
Currently, there is a widespread belief within the educational discourse in general and among the ELT ‘elite’ in particular that a problem-solving, ‘discovery learning’-oriented approach, such as ‘task-based learning’, can best serve this purpose (see Christodoulou 2014; Peal 2014; Waters 2012, 2015). On the other hand, at the ELT practitioner level there is evidence that a more didactic, ‘direct’, ‘one-at-a-time’ approach to teaching language knowledge is widely favoured (Medgyes 1999; Scheffler 2012; Waters 2012), such as ‘PPP’ (Presentaion-Practice-Production).
Despite the prestige attached to the former position, and the criticism often meted out to the latter, there is a large body of research (Hattie 2009; Christodoulou 2014; Peal 2014) which shows that more ‘direct’ approaches to the teaching of knowledge are actually a good deal more effective than ‘discovery-learning’.
In a nutshell, this is because of the burdens imposed on STM of a primarily problem-solving approach. There is so much information to weigh up and consider that STM soon becomes overloaded, resulting in insufficient capacity for long-term learning. On the other hand, a ‘step-by-step’ approach helps to create the ‘mental space’ needed to facilitate the transfer of items of knowledge to LTM. It follows that ‘grass-roots’ ELT approaches in this area are therefore likely to be much more effective most of the time than those favoured by the professional elite.
It is thus to be hoped that increasing awareness of the body of research and theorizing I have referred to – which currently appears to be mostly overlooked by the dominant ELT discourse – will help to create a more open-minded and balanced perspective on the part of professional opinion-formers.
Christodoulou, D. (2014). Seven myths about education. London: Routledge.
Hattie, J. (2009). Visible learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. London; New York: Routledge.
Kirschner, P. A., Sweller, J., & Clark, R. E. (2006). Why minimal guidance during instruction does not work: an analysis of the failure of constructivist, discovery, problem-based, experiential, and inquiry-based reaching. Educational Psychologist, 41(2), 75-86.
Medgyes, Pe ter. (1999). The non-native teacher (2nd ed.). Ismaning: Hueber.
Peal, R. (2014). Progressively worse. Stevenage, England: Civitas.
Scheffler, P. (2012). ‘Theories pass. Learners and teachers remain,’ Applied Linguistics, 33, 5: 603-607.
Sweller, J., van Merrienboer, J. J. G., & Paas, F. G. W. C. (1998). Cognitive architecture and instructional design. Educational Psychology Review, 10(3), 251-296.
Waters, A. (2012). Trends and issues in ELT methods and methodology. ELT Journal, 66(4), 440-449.
Waters, A. (2015). Cognitive Architecture and the Learning of Language Knowledge. System Journal, 53: 141-147.