At the beginning of term, I asked a group of GCSE students to harness the awesome power of Google to research into the social and historical context of The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. I duly provided what I believed were focused questions to guide them:
- What growing fears did the Victorians have at the end of the nineteenth century (the fin-de-siècle)?
- What were typical Victorian values?
- What worried the Victorians most about the implications of Darwinism and evolution?
- What was Victorian London like to live in for both the wealthy and the poor?
- How did the story of Deacon Brodie’s life arguably influence Robert Louis Stevenson?
The lesson was, ultimately, a waste of time. The information harvested over about 50 minutes or so was useless – either because it was inaccurate or irrelevant. Here’s a brief sample of typical responses:
- The Victorians were scared that the French would invade.
- The Victorians believed that progress and sportsmanship were important.
- The Victorians thought that Darwin was sacrilegious.
- Wealthy Victorians lived in big houses and had servants
- Deacon Brodie’s real name was William Brodie.
Daisy Christodoulou has written at length about the perils of believing that you can always just look it up. In Seven Myths About Education, she argues that ‘looking it up actually presupposes an awful lot of knowledge.’ In the case of my wasted lesson, I knew that the students didn’t possess anything more than superficial knowledge about, say, Darwinism. However, I underestimated the amount of background knowledge they had about the Victorian era. And it was this lack of background knowledge that, largely, rendered the whole process useless.
Beyond the lesson itself, what I found over the subsequent weeks was a manifestation of the anchoring effect – the students’ first (and flawed) insights into the social and historical context of Jekyll and Hyde lingered and affected their later perceptions. Their original points of reference – because I failed to establish a body of relevant background knowledge first – kept leading them astray. A good example of this is the misconception one student had that Stevenson created the character of Edward Hyde to ‘scare Victorians into thinking that people could devolve into animals.’
Explicitly providing students with domain-specific knowledge is clearly important: not just because it enables students to work with a greater levels of impendence later on, but also because it helps to prevent lasting misconceptions that can take weeks to reverse. In this brave new world of twenty-first century skillz and flipped learning, direct instruction is still as important as it always has been.
Thanks for reading –