12. The Learning Pyramid

Jakarta Bound is a travelogue about life in one of the largest and most densely populated cities in South East Asia.

Grand Prix in pool 1

Monday morning came around after what was becoming the usual restless night of broken sleep. I awoke, not so much bright, but early, so I decided to take advantage of the one luxury the Grand Prix Inn had to offer and went down to the pool for a swim; it felt like a Hollywood way to start the day. However, I hadn’t swum for a long time and my lungs wanted out pretty soon, so after a few lengths, I dried myself off and went back up to my room to get ready for school.

There’s nothing like an early morning swim to sharpen the senses, so after showering and dressing I was looking forward to my first classes and meeting my new students. The EF course material was already prepared in the form of Powerpoint lessons, so all I had to do was find out what my timetable of classes were and read through the teachers’ notes for each of the lessons. There were a few more short induction sessions to do on the Monday and Tuesday so I could ease into the teaching rota before my teaching timetable began in earnest on the Wednesday. After that, my new life as a full time teacher working for English First in Jakarta would be underway. However, Debbi had a little surprise waiting for me when I arrived at the school. She told me that she wanted me to prepare and deliver my own short lesson on business idioms. This I wasn’t prepared for and I only had an hour to put it together!

Necessity is the mother of invention and I had needed a lot of invention during my many years working to deadlines as a freelancer. Despite being a little pissed off at Debbi’s surprise lesson plan request, Google came to the rescue. I whizzed through a few websites, copied and pasted some text and images, did some editing and rustled up a pretty decent Powerpoint presentation on the subject of business idioms. I scribbled a page of teaching notes and just about had time to load my Powerpoint presentation up onto the big screen in the workshop classroom before the students began eagerly arriving to the lesson.

Good language teaching is very much like good directing, you should really try and get the learners to do the talking and elicit as much of their knowledge as you can. You then drip feed your knowledge and the target language at strategically appropriate times, aiding the learning process and steering them in the right direction when necessary. You’re often giving students strategies for learning as much as just telling them new things. So yes, you give them new information, but the process of teaching them to learn encourages students to solve problems, which in turn embeds this new information – knowledge. How the students then effectively use the knowledge is often the process of recalling the taught information. In language teaching, as is the case with all forms of teaching, different strategies are used to help embed this new knowledge. How easily accessible it is to recall at a later date depends on how effectively it is embedded – or taught. There’s a diagram called ‘The Learning Pyramid’ that explains this principle in terms of ‘passive’ and ‘active’ learning. So for example, simple lecturing is the least effective form of embedding knowledge (5% retention) followed by reading (10%), audio-visual (20%) and demonstration (30%). These are the passive forms of learning. Active learning is more a participatory teaching method and yields much better retention percentages. For example, the learning pyramid suggests that group discussions lead to 50% retention, followed by practice by doing, which is supposed to have a 75% retention rate. Finally there’s teaching others, which is right up there at the top (or bottom by virtue of the learning pyramid design) with a 90% retention rate. These figures are all highly generalised and this principle is merely one of many educational theories that are dependent on many other factors relating to the individual learner. But anyway, I’ve already drifted too far away from my narrative thread; my point is that I was quite pleased at how quickly I managed to put an effective short lesson together at such short notice, and after delivering it, my confidence was buoyed significantly.


Despite all my talk about the learning pyramid and retention rates of information, I am useless at remembering names; worse than useless, I’m practically impotent. Alzheimer sufferers would put me to shame at name recall. I’ve tried that thing where you repeat the name three times in your head, but it usually doesn’t work. Within seconds of the sound of that final syllable leaving a person’s lips, the name they’ve given me is usually lost in the vacant void of recall deficiency in my brain. But I’m working on it and it’s getting better. So to recall names, I try a combination of methods, including the repeating method, only I repeat the name over and over and over. I also try and remember the name as an audio rhythm and attach the sound of the name to something else that I’m familiar with. Relating the name to a feature of the person – where you met, how they look, what they wear etcetera, also helps. For example, Valeria from Bulgaria, Hairy Mary, or Masharaf with the head scarf. All of these things are helping to cure my mental affliction, but I’m still pretty shit when it comes to remembering names. So I didn’t remember any of the names of my first group of students, except for Suli, and I only remembered her name because she had the craziest of crazy paving teeth, but the most enthusiastic smile.

After I had delivered my first lesson for EF, I joined the rest of the staff for a group induction session on how to use the interactive Smartboards. These are the big white screens that have replaced whiteboards in modern classrooms. You link these large monitors to your computer and and they have a touch screen, which you can also draw and make notes on as well as modify your files. The generic name is an interactive whiteboard (IWB), but like Sellotape and Hoover, Smartboard is the main brand that makes these classroom accessories, so they generally get called Smartboards. That said, in my experience, Smartboards are a bit of a gimmic and a pain in the arse, so I avoid using them too much. However, I didn’t really know how to use them to their full advantage and this session turned out to be pretty good. It was delivered by Andy, the outgoing DoS from the Surdiman school in FX Mall, who happened to be a bit of a whizz on a Smartboard. His presentation, although pretty lengthy, gave a very useful and constructive overview of all the wonderfully visual and engaging things you can do with these glorified whiteboards. He actually managed to put the ‘smart’ back into the Smartboard and I learnt a lot of new stuff about how to utilise the various animated graphic features they have. However, the problem with Smartboards – or any of the other new technological school tools – is that teachers need time to practice using them in order to create good lesson material. Teachers just don’t get that extra time. So, after the Smartboard session Suki, Debbi, Kate and I were given an hour to play around with the boards and create a few things of our own using our new found knowledge. Unfortunately, we didn’t get very far. It seemed that most of what we had just been told in the preceding hour long lecture had already pretty much been forgotten – thus proving the 5% rule of the learning pyramid with regard to passive learning by lecture.