Shirley Valentine has the answers

Shirley Valentine is one of my favourite films. I watched it a lot with my parents when I was younger; I think they liked it because it made relationships between English women and Greek men temporarily fashionable. A scene from Shirley Valentine occurred to me when I was writing this post about 21st century skills. The scene is in the video below, up until 2.04.

In this scene, Shirley is in school assembly and the snobby headmistress asks ‘What is man’s most important invention?’ Sputnik, says one girl. The Hoover, says another. The automatic washing machine. The aeroplane. The internal combustion engine. All great inventions, but all wrong. The answer, as young Shirley says, is the wheel. She’s right, but of course, that doesn’t stop everyone laughing at her. It’s the laughter of hubris – and indeed, the idea that we, in the 20th and 21st centuries, could be dependent on anything as pathetic and simple as a wheel does seem laughable. But it is true. As Newton said, if I have seen a little further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants. Modern industry wouldn’t work without the wheel. The iPad wouldn’t work without the alphabet and the number system.

Anyway, it gets even better. The headmistress is outraged that young Shirley could have got the question right when the better-spoken girls in the school got it wrong. ‘Somebody must have told you,’ she snaps. And Shirley responds ‘Well how the bleeding hell else could I learn it?’ Quite. A more succinct demolition of discovery learning I have never heard.

Unfortunately, the headmistress’s dismissal of her answer leads to poor Shirley dropping out and becoming a rebel. There’s a moral there for you.


7 thoughts on “Shirley Valentine has the answers

  1. David Didau (@LearningSpy)

    Ignoring the fact that man’s most important invention is the wheel is just an opinion, are you really saying that the only way Shirley could have learned this information was by being told?

    Could she not perhaps have read it? And if she was told the answer, does it follow that she was fold by a teacher engaged in direct instruction? Maybe she was told by one of her peers?

    The constructivism vs direct instruction debate is another false dichotomy. We need to be both told stuff and then we need to discover whether it’s true by discussing ways of applying it and finding out whether we were right.

    Here’s an interesting paper which discusses why it’s helpful to learn through failure and not simply rely on being right:

    Cheers, David

    1. The Wing to Heaven Post author

      If you watch the video, Shirley says her father told her about the wheel, and he knew it because he got it from the Encyclopedia Britannica. So in fact, whilst she was told it, her father read it. And of course, I am not going to criticise reading as a method of education, or looking things up in encyclopedias. But relying completely on this as a means of communicating important knowledge falls prey to the ‘just look it up’ fallacy. (

      My biggest problem with discovery learning is that it is massively inefficient. You can spend absolute hours getting pupils to find out something you could have told them in seconds. Of course it is arguable that if they’ve gone to all the trouble of discovering it, they are unlikely to forget it. That is true. But a) that still holds even if they discover the wrong answer; and b) other, quicker, methods can make the material memorable too. If you tell kids the knowledge in an engaging fashion, as part of a story, and you check up frequently on their knowledge, then I think you can rely on them remembering it, and a lot of other things, in a lot less time.

      There is also the cognitive load problem – not just the cognitive load that complex problems place on the mind of the student, but the cognitive load for teachers! Dan Willingham, as ever, is good on this. and

  2. David Didau (@LearningSpy)

    You *could* spend hours getting students to discover something that you could have told them in seconds but yes, that would be an extraordinary waste of time. Much better (and more efficient) to guide them towards such a discovery. And, if handled properly this guidance should ensure that they don’t arrive at the wrong conclusion. I know you won’t approve, but this is a very efficient way to get students to learn new material:

    And the problem with Willingham and all this brain architecture stuff is that it’s theory not fact. No one is seriously claiming to fully understand how the brain works. Other researchers (Graham Nuthall notably) found that students would transfer learning to long term memory if they encountered new concepts in at least 3 different forms. Now obviously, not everything we’re teaching requires new conceptual understanding but the evidence does back up the fact that we need to repeat information by vary the way in which it’s communicated for knowledge to ‘stick’.

    1. The Wing to Heaven Post author

      Well, I thought that facile oppositions between skills and knowledge were bad. But this:

      And the problem with Willingham and all this brain architecture stuff is that it’s theory not fact.

      This opposition between theory and fact redefines facile.

      No one is seriously claiming to fully understand how the brain works.

      No, and no one is claiming to fully understand how the universe works. But Newton’s theory of gravity is still worth something – or are you claiming that it too is ‘theory not fact’? How about the theory of water-borne cholera? Just a theory, not a fact? Perhaps you’d like to challenge these theories by drinking a glass of water infected with ? Or jumping off a tall building?

      I would recommend reading Karl Popper or Steven Weinberg about what a scientific theory is – and I would also recommend reading some of the evidence Willingham summarises. The case Willingham makes isn’t really his own case or his own ‘Willingham theory’- he is just synthesising all the research other people have done. And the research other people have done really is sound. The science behind much of modern computing and artificial intelligence is the same science Willingham is referring to.

      1. Anna Browning

        The point of the scene is not HOW she learned it but that she DID. Here, we are told, is a student who is capable to learning and retaining information and using it at the appropriate moment. Later in the play she wields knowledge like a scalpel to adress the ignorant racism of her fellow Brits. And this girl is destroyed by the prejudice of an educator who cannot handle having her sass. Honestly, we can pontificate until we are blue in the face about whether its better to be told or to discover. You know what? The kids don’t care that much as long as what they are learning is interesting and useful.

  3. Pingback: About this blog « The Wing to Heaven

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s