Keep it Simple


If you want to look for advice as to what some of the best practices in teaching and learning are you needn’t look far beyond the 16 Century. In fact much of what passes today as ‘cutting edge’ theory and practice was already old hat by the renaissance.

In ‘The Didascalicon’ Hugh of St Victor wrote much that echoes down the centuries, written in the 12 century it has much to commend it including an echo that should resound loud and that is about keeping things simple.

His aim for education: “Of all the things to be sought, the first is… Wisdom [which] illuminates man so that he may recognise himself…” harks back to the temple of Apollo at Delphi: “‘Know Thyself’, for surely if man had not forgotten his origin, he would recognize that everything subject to change is nothing…”

That the pursuit of wisdom follows us down the ages as the reason for teaching and learning should cause pause for all those who wish to try to come up with new fangled ideas as to what the purpose of education might be.

Hugh saw the trivium and quadrivium as the ways in which “a quick mind enters into the secret places of wisdom.” But he bemoaned how many: “Students of our day, whether from ignorance or from unwillingness, fail to hold to a fit method of study, and therefore we find many who study but few who are wise.” He is concerned for a logical order of study, that grammar, for example, should precede dialectic, that the ‘letter’ or ‘construction’ is followed by ‘the sense’ the “ready and obvious meaning” and finally the ‘inner meaning’ through which a “deeper understanding which can be found only through interpretation and commentary.”

His advice for teaching seems to be something that people looking into cognitive load theory might enjoy:

“Everything must be reduced to outline and presented for easy understanding – we should be content to set forth the matter in hand as briefly and as clearly as possible, lest by excessively piling up extraneous considerations we distract the student more than we instruct him. We must not say everything we can, lest we say with less effect such things as need saying… “

Hugh also highlights certain knowledge over other knowledges: “Do not strike into a lot of by-ways until you know the main roads: you will go along securely when you are not under fear of going astray.” Maybe threshold concepts were a thing for him, or powerful knowledge, or even cultural capital or literacy.

He was a stickler for memory and the important role it had to play in learning, saying that you should only rejoice if you can retain knowledge:

“We ought… in all we learn, to gather brief and dependable abstracts to be stored in the little chest of the memory, so that later on, when need arises, we can derive  everything else from them. These one must often turn over in mind and regurgitate from the stomach of one’s memory to taste them, lest by long inattention to them, they disappear. I charge you, then, my student not to rejoice a great deal because you have read many things, but because you have been able to retain them.”

The continual revisiting of knowledge, looking at gathering brief and dependable chunks of thought that can be used as a reservoir of knowledge on which one can build seems to echo in some of the ideas that our contemporary cognitive scientists recommend for teaching and learning nowadays.

Hugh also realised that learning is difficult and the student needs to have the right attitude when things get tough:

“And if some things, by chance rather obscure, have not allowed him to understand them, let him not at once break out in angry condemnation and think that nothing is good but what he himself can understand. This is the humility proper to a student’s discipline.”

And finally he looks to objectivity, the wisdom of the philosopher:

“The man who finds his homeland sweet is still a tender beginner; he to whom every soil is as his native one is already strong; but he is perfect to whom the entire world is as a foreign land. The tender soul has fixed his love on one spot in the world; the strong man has extended his love to all places; the perfect man has extinguished his.”


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