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Learning is a change in long term memory

Learning is a change in long term memory

In my sixth year of teaching, I feel I know less now than I did when I first started. Perhaps this is wisdom of realising how much there is to learn about pedagogy, or just the research I am reading is opening my eyes to a new branch of pedagogy, the science behind working memory and long term memory.

Over the Christmas holidays, I took a book out of our school’s professional development library – ‘Making every lesson count’. This book was chosen as I thought it was around developing maths lessons (the count being a pun), I was pleasantly surprised when I realised it was a generic book on developing teaching and learning based on six key principles.

  • Challenge
  • Explanation
  • Modelling
  • Practice
  • Feedback
  • Questioning

Each chapter began with a few scenarios, then was packed full of practical ideas, based on educational research to improve teaching and learning. This is one the best books I have read and would highly recommend for anyone, at any stage in their career. From reading this, I have explored other educational research around each principle and have started to subtly change certain areas of my practice

Modelling is not just about what you write on the board, or an example you may go through. It is flows through your classroom and is a crucial part of the learning and connections that go on inside a learner’s brain. In a practical sense, this is around the language I use in a classroom and when new words are introduced. In a maths classroom, as teachers we can sometimes “shy away” from using technical language, out of the fear of confusing learners. Rather than avoid using this, I have given time in my lessons to introduce new words with meanings, sometimes repeating a definition several times and asking learners to relay it back to me. This alone is not enough, consistency is needed when learners give answers to questions, ensuring they are using this technical language, in full sentences. Perseverance is needed in this, it is all too easy to slip into bad habits, but in doing so, I would be doing a disservice to the learners who won’t be shielded from this language in their GCSE examinations.

Perhaps the biggest change in my practice this book has inspired me to do, is in the practice principal. I consider myself to be a good teacher, someone who gives their very best and can get learners to understand new topics. A problem would be presented at the start of the lesson, I would then teach the learners the necessary skills for them to answer it, most if not all would then be available to then answer this initial problem. Not much thought was put into if they would remember this skill the next day, the next week, or the next month. My assumption would be that they would.

This book introduced me to the ‘power of 3’. When I talk about this now, I feel like a door to door salesman trying to sell the next big thing, but it just something that is easy to implement, but based on research can have a positive effect. Looking at Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve, it resonated with me greatly as a maths teacher. In a practical sense, I would look at revisiting a topic two more times once first learnt, this would not be on consecutive days to make sure that learners are not in their comfort zone. Dylan Wiliam recently quoted two lines that have stuck with me “Memory is the residue of thought” and “Learning requires forgetting”. This has had a massive impact on my planning, considering the further lessons when I can assess learners on new learning from a few days previous. When setting homework, this is usually delayed, having the homework be focused on learning from the week before.

This half term I have planned on changing my planning for two of my classes, based upon this idea of practice. My wonderful 8B3 are going to be taught using distributed practice. They have four lessons a week, each lesson will not be directly connected to the previous or next lesson. Instead, their learning will be on a 4-lesson cycle. For instance, we looked at pie charts on Monday, then the probability scale on Tuesday. We will next look at pie charts and continue our learning on the following Monday, with the idea being, that learners will improve their memory from having to use the thought process of recall.

The second class to undergo a slight change will be 9A1, an incredible class who love a challenge in lessons. They perform some exceptional mathematics in lessons, but struggle to show this on assessments. The change in their learning will be the introduction of a low stakes weekly test. They will get given a copy of this test on Friday to take home and look at, but be expected to undergo this under test conditions on the Monday. The test will be a mixture of questions taken from the previous week’s lessons, and questions from any topic studied so far, this year, in an equal ratio. The expectations of the class will be to achieve 80% on this test. The test scores will not be recorded, they will not be moving sets from this. The sole purpose of the test is for learners to recall knowledge, to help install this in their long-term memory. So that next year when they are looking at ever more challenging work on the new maths curriculum, their working memory isn’t being taken up by knowledge they will have learned in year 9.

Both changes in my planning are based on educational research, they are manageable and achievable. The reason for the changes are I see them as the part of my practice which has not been developed or focussed on.

The best thing about being a teacher is that I get to learn as much as the children I teach, I hope these changes have the impact that I desire them to have.


Mr Taylor‘s blog – “How do you plan yours

Mr Barton‘s Maths podcast (an essential for any maths teacher) – particular the one with Dylan Wiliam

Making every lesson count – Shaun Allison and Andy Tharby

The Principles of instruction – Barak Rosenshine (image)


1 Comment

  1. Mark Horley | | Reply

    Fascinating, thanks for sharing. It makes me realise that I need to do more distributed practice. I’ve always struggled with the planning and making it manageable. I tend to do it with starters but it’s a bit ad hoc. I’d be interested to hear how your Yr8 class get on. My first reaction is to reading your description was “that sounds a bit too much”, ie changing topics every lesson could be challenging for learners. But let us know what they think!

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