Disclaimer: my knowledge and experience of neuroscience amounts to seeing a pickled brain in a classroom once and knowing the definition of the word.
Over the last few months, I have read numerous blogs about the inner workings of the mind and browsed several articles on how knowledge is more important than skills. From all of these I am coming to some of my own conclusions about memory and more importantly learning.
We all suffer with the same experience in the classroom. You ask a child about what happened in the last lesson and what nugget of gold they learnt through the meticulously planned lesson you tailor-made for their enjoyment. They look at you stunned. You probably haven’t given them enough thinking time, so you give them so more thinking time. And some more. And a bit more. A tumbleweed rolls across the classroom and in the distance you can hear a solitary bell ringing. You try to prompt them with words, gestures and semaphore signals. Nothing. Zilch. Not a glimmer. Why? They have forgotten it. The fantastic lesson where even the angels and archangels in Heaven were singing by the time the plenary arrived and they, the students, can’t remember it the following day, week or, not surprisingly, month.
The problem is short-term memory. The drive and thrust of our education system is on short-term memory. Everything we do feeds into the short-term memory. Our assessments. Our teaching. Our approaches. Our ideas of teaching too feed into this. A student’s memory is like a small purse. They pick up some coins (unofficial term: learning units) in period one and then in the next two lessons they pick up some more coins of a different currency (stay with me with this comparison). By the afternoon, the students have a purse full. After lunchtime, the student then tries to fit in a few more coins. However, there is no room, so something has got to go. They can slip in two more coins but only if they ditch the two pound coins that the English teacher worked so hard to give the student at the start of the day. Then, it all starts all over again the following day. More coins are added and the older ones go.
We are constantly trying to fit £100 in a purse that will only fit £50. Short-term memory has its uses. It is great, but it is not as good as long-term memory. We all want to commit the knowledge and skills we teach to permanent memory, yet we commit it to temporary memory or the short-term memory. That’s why I get fed up with students forgetting a book we studied last term. The majority of the lessons I taught were geared to temporary retention rather than permanent retention of information. Yes, but you are teaching the skills and that is more important than knowing the book. The recursive nature of English means you will repeat skills but not the text.
I am starting to think that the unitary structure of our curriculum feeds into this obsession with short-term memory. We teach topics and assess the topics at the end of the unit. This structure, I think, supports temporary memory. Students after the assessment can dump all that knowledge because they have completed the assessment. What happens afterwards? Do they use it again? Is it referred to? Often, and I am talking about my teaching here, you refer to it in another topic, but the learning isn’t repeated again. It is assumed that it has moved over to permanent memory, because an assessment has been done. More than likely it hasn’t because the purse could only take so much.
Take Year 11: the year of constant cramming and rushing to cover the course. We all panic because they have forgotten something or their knowledge of a topic is weak, so we employ their short-term memory again to plug the gaps. We all do it. I do it. Surely, most of Year 11 should be about developing the long-term memory in preparation for exams and life? Yet, the curriculum is jam packed with so much that it means short-term memory is employed because there isn’t enough time for developing long-term memory. This Mr Gove could have fixed by slimming down the curriculum and focusing on less and concentrating on quality. The current system (thanks Dickens) sees students as empty vessels to fill with facts, facts and more facts. Sadly, our students are small pots and can only take so much. Better to teach a few things properly than lots of things ineffectively.
So, how do we develop the long-term memory? I can’t find the blog here, but there is a brilliant one about repetition and using repetition in the classroom. Repetition is one way of achieving things. At the moment, I am employing some of these techniques in my classroom. One thing I hate is whistling, but another is the student who asks me: ‘What exam is this one?’. I endlessly tell students the details of the exams. Before, I used to think it was laziness on their part, but now I realise that they are not committing the most basic (and vital) of information to permanent / long-term memory. Therefore, I have been teaching them in a very repetitive manner the basics of the exam. Weeks later when I test them, they can recall all the information.
Fundamentally, I think we need to look at the structure of our curriculum. My department is currently looking at how we teach the novel to students. Each year we teach a novel, or more, depending on the circumstances. The novel usually takes a term to teach and we assess students through an essay based task. We questioned if this structure really helped them to ‘learn a novel’. Our conclusion was negative. They often forgot key things and knowledge wasn’t always carried over. Look at GCSE and we expect students to ‘learn a novel’ and we constantly refer to it across the course. Their learning is mixed with other things, but their long-term memory is developed as a result of this method. So, we are changing how we teach the novel in Years 7 -9. Instead of narrowing it down to one term, we are spreading the teaching of the novel over the year. Each year group will have a novel. Interestingly, Year 8 will have ‘Great Expectations ’. Over the year, the teacher will teach the novel and at the end of the year they will have a large assessment. The hope is that their memory will be pushed to hold a story and key things over the year and instil things to their long-term memory. Time will tell, but that is the thing with short-term memory: it is quick and simple, but long-term memory takes time.
I would love to hear your thoughts on this.
Thanks for reading,