How much can a child learn?
Can I recommend an experiment? Imagine you took the more motivated and able pupils in your school and set out to make them THE MOST KNOWLEDGEABLE PUPILS IN THE WORLD about a particular topic. This is perfectly possible, for two reasons.
In 1992 the investor Jim Slater published his book The Zulu Principle. He noticed that his wife, having read an article in Reader’s Digest magazine about the Zulus, was able to speak with far greater authority about Zulus than most people (after all most people don’t know much about much). He reckoned that if she was to read say half a dozen books about the Zulus and go to South Africa and live with them for a few weeks, she would without doubt know more about Zulus than almost anyone else in the world. He applied this principle to buying shares and businesses – if you take a narrow field (like zinc, for example, or apricots), you can quite easily become one of the most knowledgeable people in the business and this may give you a competitive advantage when trading.
But there is another reason why children can become experts in a subject and that is THAT MANY CHILDREN HAVE A GREATER CAPACITY FOR LEARNING THAN WE THINK. Because we find that persuading classes of children to learn much is quite laborious, we forget that individual motivated children can learn a huge amount.
Not long ago I sat on a small panel in the Department of Education rewriting the National Curriculum for Geography. We quickly agreed that it was sensible for geography students to learn the locations of places, something which had inexplicably been missing from the experience of geography students in England for the past twenty years. So we then had to decide HOW MANY country locations a pupil should be expected to know by the age of 14 (the age at which he might well drop the subject). There are roughly 200 countries in the world. Some members of the group thought that learning the location of 20 was enough….the 20 ‘most important’ countries. So that would be USA, China, Russia, UK, France, Germany, Italy, Canada, India, Brazil, Indonesia……now it becomes tricky….but before we got too bogged down in this exercise I suggested that we should require 14-year-olds to know all 200. Of course I was shot down, but to prove them all wrong I made a series of short YouTube recordings and set my Year 9 classes to learn one continent a week. Internet-based tests made this fun and my chocolate-based reward system added a nice flavour to the process. Anyway – no problem, they all now know all 200 AND THEY MAY WELL RECALL MOST OF THESE FOR THE REST OF THEIR LIVES.
So I am simply recommending you experiment. Try teaching your more motivated Key Stage 3 pupils something at A-level standard and see how far you get. Churchill, a notoriously lazy student, learnt the 1200 lines of Thomas Macaulay’s poem Lays of Ancient Rome when he was 14. Could your students do the same with a poem 10% of the length?