It is a situation familiar to every teacher….
In the early days with our new classes, we can often be left tearing our hair out, wondering why nothing that the previous teacher assured you they have learned seems to have actually stuck. Your children cannot access the learning you have planned and some refute all knowledge of ever having heard of some of the key concepts you are referring to….
Ratio? Nope, never heard of it! Fronted adverbial – what is that? Allegro? We didn’t do that.
It is reassuring to know that there is a reason for this, and that the answers can lie in cognitive science.
The fact is; a child may well have demonstrated that they can tick that box once, but encountering a new piece of knowledge is only the beginning.
Ensuring that learning is securely stored in a child’s long-term memory – in a form where it can retrieved when needed and applied to a range of learning– is the ultimate goal of teaching.
Like everything in teaching though, this journey is never straightforward!
It is really worth taking the time to understand some of these key principles of cognitive science, for two main reasons:
- To make sure we do the right things to ensure that what we teach makes it securely to the right destination – long-term memory!
- Therefore, we are aware of some of the ‘traps’ along the way which might prevent this from happening.
At Services For Education, we actually put on a course specifically to cover this topic because we think it’s that important/ tough to get right: Teaching For Long Term Learning
Make sure children remember the right things
Our working-memory is highly selective – if we remembered everything going on at every moment we would become overwhelmed – a phenomenon known as cognitive overload.
Our brain focuses upon the things that we pay close attention to – our attention can be seen as the ‘gatekeeper’ to our working memory.
It is crucial that we think really hard about what our children will actually be thinking about during learning time – is it always what we hoped it would be?
For example, using resources like pizzas and cakes can be seen as a fun and engaging way to teach fractions.
However, remember what they focus on, and if their attention was on the food and the fun – where is the learning about fractions?
Adding unnecessary complexity to learning before it is secure can have the same impact – ‘real life problems’ can cause the children to spend more time thinking about the reading and the context of the maths, whilst not being able to attend to the actual learning.
Plan learning that ensures children think about the right things.
‘Memory is the residue of thought’ – Daniel Willingham
Our brain will let memories fade if they are not being used. Pragmatically, it will assume we only want to store long-term memories that we are actively using on a regular basis.
Therefore – a concept can make it into the learner’s long-term memory, but it won’t stay there without regular use.
Think of it like training in the gym – it is no good expecting muscles to stay defined if we aren’t putting the work in to keep them that way!
We have all experienced the great feeling when a lesson has gone well and children appear to have learned everything we taught with real confidence.
And the crashing feeling the next week when they appear to have remembered nothing…
It goes against all our gut instincts as teachers, but forgetting something is a necessary part of that important journey from working memory to long term memory.
It will be a relief to know that the so-called forgotten memory is not really forgotten; it is definitely in the long-term memory, but needs to be pulled back and used to make itself stronger (just like those muscles!).
Memory strengthening is most effective when the memory has been forgotten. For example, remembering something successfully at the end of a lesson only tells us about its recency, not about its storage strength.
Trying to remember it a week later strengthens it.
It is natural for us, when something is forgotten, to want to re-teach it. It is what teachers have done for years. However, cognitive science tells us that this might not always be the best idea…
It can seem a bit cruel – but the act of making children struggle a little to remember is what actually gets those memory muscles working. It tells the brain ‘Look – I really want to recall this stuff!’
We call this the ‘retrieval effect’ and it has been extremely well- researched. The best way to use the retrieval effect in class is via quick, low-stakes quizzes which revisit key learning that may still have low storage strength.
The more the memory is pulled back, the stronger it gets.
The important point here though, is that the quizzes are fun and low-stakes – this is a tool for learning and NOT for assessment!
Of course, if children have had a first, perhaps failed attempt at recovering a memory, then of course, we must reteach it. This time, when it is remembered again, the memory will be stronger. That is why it can be good practice to start lessons with a problem from the previous lesson to reactivate that long-term memory.
Retrieving something from long-term memory just once is not enough to build a strong, robust memory. Preferably, children should be asked to practice and rehearse key learning at increasing intervals: two days later, a week later, a month later, next term.
This ensures that the brain gets the message that this learning is significant and needs to be remembered.
To supercharge these memories, build in opportunities for children to retrieve them in a way that is unannounced, perhaps in the middle of learning about something new and different….
For example, in the middle of a sequence of lessons about the passive voice, ask pupils to use a relative clause (which has been taught at an earlier point). Alternatively, if you are looking at perimeter, throw in some questions with a fraction focus to really make the brain work hard. This process is called ‘inter-leaving’ and research has shown that this ‘interleaved’ practice is much more likely to result in durable memories.
Factor in regular low-stakes quizzes at spaced out intervals to encourage children to try to retrieve what they have previously learned.
If you would like more support on Long Term Learning, please do come along to our course Teaching For Long Term Learning where we cover the principles of cognitive load theory and how this relates to children’s learning.
Or, if you think your school could do with more in-depth Curriculum support, we also offer a full-day course to cover Intent, Implementation, Impact.
Finally, if you would like some advice from our team, please feel free to call us on 0121 366 9950 or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org
About Tricia Bunn:
Over a career spanning 20 years, Tricia has been involved in primary Education in a variety of contexts – as a teacher; senior leader; headteacher (within an LEA and within an Academy) and teacher educator. She is an experienced, successful headteacher, having led two schools since 2010.
For three years Tricia was Senior Lecturer in Primary Education at the University of Wolverhampton. In this role she was Module leader for English and Lead Tutor for the PGCE. Tricia is part of our School improvement team and is a tutor on the SFE primary initial teacher training programme.
She is the Lead English Adviser and co-leads on our curriculum development programme.
Another key part of her most recent work has been embedding an understanding of cognitive theory into CPD, and ensuring this is the basis of work going forward.