It’s the start of the new school year and it’s time for learning. Staff’s learning and that of the pupils goes hand in hand. I’ve often said if you want it in the classroom you’ll need it in the staff room first. Effective pupil learning will be helped by staff having a greater understanding of what learning entails.
“… we mean acquiring knowledge and skills and having them readily available from memory so you can make sense of future problems and opportunities”
Make It Stick (2014) Brown, Roediger & McDaniel
Here’s my attempt to develop a schema of how we learn. It is my current understanding of the learning process; benefitting from the work and writings of others. It may not be totally correct; it is most certainly limited as I am no expert in the field of cognitive science. However, what I believe happens during the learning process will or should influence decisions I make as a teacher.
A sensory stimulus leads to chemical and electrical changes in the brain; these are the basic memory traces in our short term working memory. Cognitive Load Theory suggests there is a limit to the number of these traces that can exist at any one time in my working memory. Whilst by no means certain and there is variability between people; about 4-7 memory traces can be held in the short term working memory at any one time. However, the size of each of these traces/memories can vary from small to huge; it still counts as just one. This will be important to remember when we look at elaboration and generation later on. These memory traces soon disappear unless transferred from the working memory into the long term memory
Implication 1 – When teaching directly, don’t overload pupils’ limited working memory with “extraneous” information. Keep the instructions and information focussed particularly when pupils are meeting new material. This requires discipline from the teacher and careful thought about what information is needed, in what order.
The transfer to long term memory involves stabilising the traces by organising them and linking them to associated information, already known. This is the start of building up a mental model or schema. Once learnt the information is pretty much permanently stored in our long term memory; storage strength is strong.
Implication 2 – As new knowledge needs to be connected to prior knowledge, the order of teaching information must be very carefully sequenced. Planning the sequential development of knowledge, the learning flow, is the critical first step in planning a series of lessons or scheme of learning. If the sequential development of knowledge wasn’t important to supporting learning we could literally look at what pupils need to know or be able to do and teach the constituent components in any random order we like.
The real problem we have is often retrieving the information and bringing it back into our short term working memory; retrieval strength is weak and it takes time and effort to build up the retrieval strength through memory cues. Once sufficiently strengthened these cues allow, almost without thinking, the recall pieces of information from long term memory; that is, automaticity. Part of learning therefore involves forgetting and then recalling. The more effort that is required in the recalling the greater the retrieval strength becomes.
Implication 3 – We need to create opportunities for pupils to recall previously taught material, retrieval practice. The retrieval process could involve low stake testing/questioning. Start by retrieving the information taught in the lesson; a set of end of lesson multiple choice questions on the key information (quick and efficient but not requiring a great amount of effort to retrieve as the answer is one of the options provided) or a series of short response answers (require more effort as the pupils must use only their own memory cues) can be used. The correct answers should then be given and pupils mark their own work. This brings in the hypercorrection effect; pupils remember the corrected answer for longer than if they had guessed correctly in the first place. Retesting a day, week, month or months later keeps improving the retrieval strength.
Once recalled or retrieved the memory is now pliable; we can now reform it and add in additional knowledge which will deepen our understanding. In SOLO Taxonomy terms, the pupil is moving from multi-structural (lots of pieces of information) to the relational (the pieces connected together coherently) the to the extended abstract ( a more holistic understanding based on underlying principles or rules).
Implication 4 – We need to develop a spiral style curriculum where pupils are able to revisit key ideas over time; spaced learning. On each of these occasions teachers should require pupils to retrieve prior learning with the minimal number of external cues possible. There is then the opportunity to develop an iterative process where pupils can expand the mental model/schema/understanding of a particular area of the curriculum or life, in general.
Finally, we need to own the knowledge; the deepest test of understanding. Can we coherently and correctly apply our learning to explain a particular phenomenon.
Implication 5 – Periodically you should ask students to write a paragraph or two in response to a question that will test their new learning. Why can seagulls dive through the surface of water but not ice given both consist of H2O particles?
Why not take one or possibly two of these ideas and look to implement them in your classroom this term.
Brown, P. Roediger, H. & McDaniel, M. (2014) Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning. London, Harvard University Press
Wiliam, D. Creating the Schools Our Children Need: Why What We’re Doing Now Won’t Help Much (And What We Can Do Instead). West Palm Beach, Florida, Learning Sciences International