Each time parents and children sit down to do eleven plus papers the name `Ebbinghaus’ should spring to mind. He was a German experimental psychologist who lived and worked between 1850 and 1909. He is remembered for his studies on human memory.
He invented nonsensical syllables, consonant-vowel-consonant letter groups that he felt would be difficult to memorise. He used himself as a subject and published his findings in a book called `Memory’ in 1885.
By now eleven plus parents will have their interest stimulated. “How can we help our child to remember what we have been talking about? She seems to have a selective memory and can remember any slights her sister has offered to her – but can not ever remember to tidy or room or bring fractions to their lowest terms.”
First of all Ebbinghaus learnt a list of nonsense syllables. Then he learnt a second list by systematically rearranging the second list. Sometimes the rearrangement was adjacent, sometimes every third item and sometimes every fourth. He found that he could remember systematically rearranged lists more quickly than he could relearn haphazardly rearranged or entirely new lists.
How is this applied to the eleven plus? Sometimes eleven plus children will seem to collect and organise elements of information and methods of working out problems more fluently than others. “I only have to tell him something once and he remembers it for ever.” At other times children, on the other hand, will appear to need help and assistance with acquiring even a simple system of learning and remembering. “Every single thing that I say goes out of the window. I don’t know why I bother, sometimes.”
What Ebbinghaus showed us was that most forgetting or loss or retention occurs in the first few hours after the original learning. This is called `negative acceleration’.
Some lists of instructions that parents offer their children may appear, to the child at least, to fit into the categories of nonsensical syllables. Take, for example, a list of the following stature:
"Bring your school books downstairs
Take your spare shoes upstairs
Look for the verbal reasoning paper we worked on yesterday.
Complete pages 12 and 13.
If you get stuck ask for help.
You may not have another cookie.
“Please do not stop to play with the dog.
You may watch T.V. once you have finished your work."
If your child rearranges this perfectly common and highly acceptable list he or she may hear:
You may watch T.V.
You can have a cookie.
You can play with the dog.
He or she may reject the rest of the list – using negative acceleration - because there may have been too much information that he or she did not choose to hear.
Ebbinghaus maintained: “Psychology has a long past, but only a short history.”
An Eleven Plus mantra: “The Eleven Plus brain has a long past, but can only remember a short history of what has been said.”