On-Line Learning: Out of the Google gallimaufry

You will be forgiven for not knowing the meaning of the word gallimaufry. I didn’t before I read this piece. The definition, ‘a confused jumble or medley of things’ can sometimes be applied to education, especially during this period of emergency remote teaching. Lester Lalla, Headmaster at St John’s Preparatory School, offers a way through the confusion.


The sudden closure of schools and the race to online learning has been a mammoth task for educators across the globe. I maintain that the dedication and devotion of teachers is incomparable. I am very proud of my profession. 

Educational technology has been a game-changer. It has enabled us to engage our students remotely and enabled us to teach in both synchronous and asynchronous ways. However, while EdTech is an enabler, it is not a substitute teacher. A growing number of voices believe this is the opportune moment to re-imagine the future of education. ‘Let’s pull this archaic system, kicking and screaming’ they say, ‘into the 4th Industrial revolution.’

While this is a chance to reimagine and improve what we do, such reflection needs to be guided by evidence and well-worn wisdom. 

Knowledge is sticky   

There have been calls for some time, that schools should ditch the teaching of content and rather focus on the important stuff – 21st-Century skills. Almost inevitably this rhetoric will include the 4 C’s (critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity). The reasoning goes that if Google contains all the answers to all the questions, we could possibly ask or imagine, then why do we need to teach knowledge in the form of facts? Why for that matter do we need teachers?

It is a seductive argument, but it will not work and here is why. Cognitive scientists inform us that knowledge is ‘sticky’ and all new knowledge builds on prior knowledge to form a schema. This process is developed sequentially over time through skilful instruction. 

‘Not only does background knowledge make you a better reader, but it also is necessary to be a good thinker. The processes we most hope to engender in our students – thinking critically and logically – are not possible without background knowledge.’

Professor Abdool Karim, a South African epidemiologist, recently captivated the hearts and minds of the public with his insightful presentation on Covid-19. It was evident that Prof Karim is an expert in his field. He has a rich and extensive mental schema on infectious diseases. 

I have access to all the literature and research in the field of epidemiology (via Google), yet, I would be unable to present such a compelling case nor could I suggest strategies for combatting the outbreak of this disease. The reason for this is quite simple, I have a limited schema of epidemiology and this limits my ability to engage in higher order thinking on the topic.

Knowledge rich  

It is no different for our students. Knowledge precedes critical thought, creativity, problem-solving and any other future fit skills you can think of. Daniel Willingham puts it succinctly, ‘Not only does background knowledge make you a better reader, but it also is necessary to be a good thinker. The processes we most hope to engender in our students – thinking critically and logically – are not possible without background knowledge.’

Mary Myatt in her book ‘The Curriculum: Gallimaufry to coherence’, says, ‘knowledge forms the backbone of a school’s curriculum.’ It should be responsive and relevant to the needs of our students and the greater society. However, it should also expose our children to disciplines, histories and philosophies that they may never choose to engage with. So, while I am thrilled that my son gets to learn code at the age of nine, I am equally ecstatic that he gets to read poetry, recite prose, and do mental addition. 

This is not a zero-sum equation, our institutions of learning need to produce entrepreneurs and citizens who can be innovative and creative, but this must be balanced with knowledge-rich curriculums which are well-sequenced, coherent, and full of vitality. 

The art of teaching

A knowledge rich curriculum requires rich teaching. ‘Great curriculum requires great teaching; great teaching requires great curriculum. Got to develop them both together and in synergy.’ This tweet by Doug Lemov is both catchy and instructive. Teaching is not something we can simply hand over to Google. We cannot treat technology like we do the intern, covering that Friday afternoon lesson with the difficult class.

The impact of our remote learning efforts may well be tied directly to the strength of the relationships and connections we had made long before this crisis began’. 

This is because what teachers do is complicated. It is a skill. Teaching, checking for understanding and recall remains part of my practice that Google cannot replicate.  

A friend and colleague, Dr Adrienne Watson, wrote, ‘What must not be forgotten in the tech rush of online schooling is the importance of getting the curriculum right first: understanding and respect for logics of different knowledge types; selection, sequencing, pacing, reckoning with how scaffolding needs to be managed differently; managing the progression from concrete to abstract and simple to complex; assessment and feedback. Then comes the task of finding the best modalities across teaching phases.’  

A good teacher does all the above. For experienced teachers, its second nature. Many of those clamouring for a move away from teaching knowledge, or a push towards EdTech, often do so because they don’t really understand what it is that teachers do.

Gallimaufry to coherence

To all my teacher friends, you are at the heart of this unseen process of learning. Keep things simple and let the technology serve your purpose, not the other way round. You are the way out of the gallimaufry. Your role is as critical now as it was before, if not more so.

I leave you with a final thought from Doug Lemov, ‘The impact of our remote learning efforts may well be tied directly to the strength of the relationships and connections we had made long before this crisis began’. 


Prior to his appointment as Headmaster of St John’s Preparatory School, Lester Lalla served as the Deputy Head: Curriculum & Innovation at St Stithians Boys’ Prep. Lester is also one of the teachers featured in ‘The Learning Rainforest Fieldbook‘  by Tom Sherrington. This publication explores how ideas from ‘The Learning Rainforest‘, take shape in the real world of education, referencing the journeys that a range of schools and colleges have been on in recent years.

2 comments

  1. That’s is so true. Most of the teachers are born before technology and that adds on the challenges of using technology as a tool of learning. They forget which app is applicable for which methods of teaching? This results to teachers not being able to become creative, just focusing on delivering the lesson only. Negligence of how many learners understood the lesson.

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