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Video transcript

Presenter intro: Helena Moore

A key goal for all teachers is to help their pupils to learn and remember what they learn. The good news is that we know a lot about how learning works and the role that memory plays. Memory is an important factor in learning. It affects our ability to pay attention to something, to remember it, and to use it. Teachers need to know about the role that memory plays in learning and design lessons that maximize its potential.

Presenter main

Understanding a bit about how our memories work can help us to make better decisions in our teaching. Whilst there’s still a lot that we don’t know, cognitive scientists have learned a huge amount about how our brains process and store information. Teachers need to know this too. The following simple model of memory, devised by Professor of Psychology, Daniel Willingham, can tell us a lot about how learning works.

The model starts with the environment. There are thousands of things in the environment that you could pay attention to. You might pay attention to the sound of my voice. You might hear a noise outside. You might notice your mobile phone, but you can only pay attention to a small number of things at once. And it’s only the small number of things that you pay attention to that enter into your working memory. Working memory is where conscious, effortful thinking takes place, and we use our working memory all of the time. If I gave you some numbers to add up in your head, you’d have to hold onto one number whilst adding on the other. you’d be using your working memory. But working memory has a very limited capacity. It can only hold onto around four chunks of information at once, and if you bombard working memory with too much information, it can’t hold onto it. But assuming you’ve paid attention to something, and your working memory has been able to process the information, it should lay down a trace in your long-term memory. And this trace is the beginning of a change in long-term memory, and learning is a change in your long-term memory.

But long-term memory doesn’t just sit there passively, it’s not like files gathering dust in a filing cabinet. It actively supports your working memory when you’re trying to learn new information. What you have in your long-term memory helps you to hold onto more information in your working memory. It also helps you to know what to pay attention to. If you know the recipe for spaghetti carbonara, then you’ll be able to spot the ingredients in your cupboard more easily when you see them.

One important thing to bear in mind is that we easily forget information. Within minutes or hours, we will lose the detail of the new information that we’ve learned, so we need lots of opportunities to come back to it, to actively retrieve that information from our long-term memory, so that we can make the information stick.

Now that we’ve established a basic understanding of how memory works, we can think about how we might teach in a way that helps to overcome its limitations and harness its strengths. To begin with, we can support working memory by drawing on prior knowledge; drawing on information in our long-term memory, like knowledge of words or of number, frees up capacity in our working memory. This is one of the reasons why it’s useful to get pupils to commit some foundational knowledge to their long-term memory first.

Another strategy is to think about our exposition. This is the part of the lesson where we introduce new content. When teaching new content, we need to avoid introducing too much material at once and break the material down into manageable chunks. This will reduce the strain on the capacity of our working memory. We also need to remove any unhelpful distractions, like unnecessary classroom noise or redundant words in our instructions. The capacity of our working memory is limited, and anything that gets in the way of pupils’ thinking about what we need them to will only make it harder for them. Some pupils with special educational needs or disabilities may experience particular difficulties linked with working memory, and so strategies that reduce the strain on working memory may be especially helpful.

Next we need to give pupils plenty of opportunities to practise when learning new content. Effective practice gets pupils to think hard about their learning. It helps pupils to commit new content to their long-term memories, and therefore, remember it. Finally, retrieving content from our long-term memory helps to make it stick. This doesn’t just mean revisiting previously taught content time and again. Instead it means providing opportunities for pupils to draw up information from their long-term memory. Asking pupils a question or a quick low-stakes quiz can be an effective way of doing this.

Getting the balance right between exposition, practice, and retrieval isn’t easy. No formula exists about how long to spend on each. The time spent on exposition, practice, and retrieval will vary depending on your pupils’ prior knowledge and what it is that you’re teaching. Understanding how pupils learn and adapting your teaching to meet this is an important part of high-quality teaching. Ensuring high-quality teaching is an effective approach for all pupils, including those with special educational needs and disabilities. However, some pupils with special educational needs and disabilities may need additional support on top of the high-quality teaching. Teachers should work closely with the SENCo in their school and other support staff, such as teaching assistants, to ensure that they tailor their instruction to specific needs of some pupils.

Presenter exemplification framing

In a moment, you’re going to watch an Ambition Institute coach model a sequence of learning to a year one class. As you watch, focus on how they do the following:

  • Breaks complex material into small steps.
  • Balances exposition, repetition, practice and retrieval of critical knowledge and skills.

Exemplification: Ambition Institute Coach

In this model, I’m going to show you a sequence of learning that’s aligned with what we understand about how memory and learning work. For context, imagine that I’m teaching a year one class how to form the lowercase letter m. They already know what an m looks like and have practiced forming it in reception, but in year one, pupils need to refine their handwriting and make it much more accurate.

“The sound we’re going to be working on in handwriting today is, mm. Mm. Great. Now in a minute, I’m going to show you an example of how we form the lowercase letter m. Now in reception, we knew it as, down Maisie mountain mountain, but in year one, we need to be a bit more specific. That means, we need to be thinking about what m looks like, and how we are forming our m.

Let me show you how I would do it. I want you to pay really close attention to where I place my pen. This will help you be really accurate when you have a go on your own. [Teacher constantly checks pupils are watching as she models]

I’m going to start Maisie on the top of this middle line, and I’m start by going straight down, straight, straight down, and then back up. And I’m going to start my mountain at Maisie’s shoulder. [Teacher gestures to her shoulder] 

I’m going to go round the mountain and straight down, straight, straight down. Oh, I like that.  And then I’m going to go straight back up, and I need to make sure my mountains are the same size, here, the same size. [Teacher points at letter on white board]

And I’m going to go back round again and down. And at the end, I’m going to have a little bit of grass. Wow. I’m really happy with that.

Did you see how long it took me? It took me a really long time. Now I want you to tell me what to do.

Okay. So, what do I do first?

[Pupils answer]

 Yep, I go straight down, straight, straight, straight down, and then back up.

And where do I stop Maisie’s mountain?

[Pupils answer]

Her shoulder, brilliant. I go around and down and then back up. What size do the mountains have to be?

[Pupils answer]

Same size, yep, same size. Can you see that they’re the same size?

And then I go back down, and what do I have to have at the end? A little bit of grass.”

In the short sequence of learning, I made sure that my teaching was aligned with what we know about memory in several ways. Firstly, I built on pupils’ prior knowledge by linking to what they already know about the letter m. In this case, what sound it makes. Because during phonics lessons, pupils learn to associate a sound with a written letter, so hearing this should help them recall what the lowercase letter looks like. Having brought this image to mind, they can focus their attention on how I form the letter.

During my exposition, where I modelled how to form the letter, I took steps to focus pupils’ attention on the most important things. I want to ensure that their working memories are processing the most important information. I broke the model down into specific manageable steps that the pupils need to take, like drawing a straight line down, stopping at a point 2/3 of the line, which is equivalent to Maisie’s shoulder. Breaking the task down into component parts helps pupil to focus their attention. It provides a mental equivalent of the dotted outlines that they have practised using before.

I was also regularly checking to ensure that all pupils were on task, looking at me as I modelled, because I know that any low-level disruption can really get in the way of their thinking. And it helped that I was writing on a sheet of blank paper. There was nothing to distract them from watching me form the letter.

Finally, I provided lots of opportunities for pupils to practise, to help pupils commit the key learning to their long-term memories. During my model, I asked them to tell me how to form the letter, saying the key steps out loud, straight line down, straight line down, mountains the same size. It helps pupils to develop an inner teacher voice that they can use when working independently. It also meant that I could check to see if pupils knew these key steps before setting them off on their own. Pupils then had plenty of time to practise independently, and during this time, I was able to carefully check their work to make sure that they were not practising mistakes. I know that what they think about is what they will learn.

Even in this short sequence of learning, there are many ways in which I was able to take instruction for memory into account, making it more likely that pupils will be able to access and remember what I teach them.

Presenter key ideas

In this video, we’ve explored what we mean by instruction for memory and looked at some practical ways in which teachers can assure that their instruction is aligned with how pupils learn. Before we finish, read through the key ideas. Which of these do you currently take into account the most?

  • Balancing exposition, repetition, practice and retrieval of critical knowledge and skills
  • Breaking complex material into smaller steps
  • Reducing distractions that take attention away from what is being taught

Presenter summary

It’s quite likely that you’re already doing some of these things in your teaching practice, but everyone can get better. The more you understand about how pupils learn, the more effective your teaching will be.