When I started out as a teacher almost 20 years ago, I thought effective teachers were good lesson planners, knew the content they taught inside out, kept records, injected fun into their classes and marked essays on time with detailed written feedback.
I am ashamed to say that not once did I consider what is known as the ‘science of learning’.
How do people actually learn?
How do they commit knowledge, skills and actions to their short and long term memory?
How do they process information to make meaning from it?
Through my independent research, I came to realise that my perception of an effective teacher was flawed…and so was I.
The John Hopkins Science of Learning Institute states that,
The Science of Learning (draws) on many different methods and techniques to understand how learning occurs— with the ultimate goal of optimising learning for all.
This is where I wanted to be as an educator; so I began to adapt.
18 months ago, I set myself a challenge to level up my teaching and instructional design work so that they were driven first and foremost by the science of learning.
I was clear on 3 things:
My students’ social and emotional learning was as important (if not more) as any knowledge or skills they may learn in my classroom.
I was not pursuing rote learning as a strategy for learning.
My practice would be research-informed
My first step was to read the research on types of memory. I was drawn to the work of Hattie and Yates (2014) and understood that there were three types of memory that I needed to consider:
This is sensory memory and ultra-short term memory. If you look at one object you can see right now then close your eyes and ‘see’ it again, you are engaging your iconic memory.
Short term or working memory
This type of memory has a limited capacity. If you do not keep the knowledge/skill etc. active it will be lost. I remember when I was a high school student learning a new maths formula. I found it almost impossible to comprehend it unless I practised multiple examples. When new concepts and formulae were added on top of this I was utterly lost. I was trying to construct knowledge and understanding on foundations of sand. Hattie and Yates state that around four items of information can be held if they are being worked on and are unfamiliar. Eight items can be held in your short term or working memory if they are relatively familiar. To make any of this information stick it needs to be transferred to your long-term memory.
Long term memory
Think of this as your archive from which you can retrieve your memories. There is no known maximum capacity for this type of memory.
When I reflected on my teaching, I realised I was only targeting my students’ iconic and working memory; and I didn’t even realise I was doing that. My challenge therefore was to identify teaching strategies to help my students transfer information from their short term to their long-term memory so that their learning was deeper as opposed to surface level.
I thought back again to my own schooling where in my Latin lessons the whole class would recite verb endings. While I could do this like everyone else, I had next to no understanding of the relevance of this recital, and I can see that this was an illusion of learning mastery. That the only transferal of that experience to my long-term memory was the robotic feeling as opposed to the grammar tells me that I was not learning but performing.
This also made me think about the times I have used power point presentations to teach from, almost as a crutch. This approach places me, the teacher, at the heart of the classroom experience, not the students. In effect and at worst, I was presenting, not teaching.
Something had to be done.
Hattie and Yates put forward a strategy to tackle this called ‘CRIME’ which is designed to aid the transferal of information from short to long term memory.
CRIME stands for Chunking, Rehearsal, Imagery, Mnemonics and Elaboration.
This is where students can group, sort or organise information. By doing so they are creating meaning through the construction of their own mental models. This relies upon prior knowledge, reduces cognitive overload and helps the brain to recognise patterns – something the brain likes – more on this later.
This can look like repetition or rote learning. This is perhaps necessary and understandable for early learners trying to memorise numbers, times tables, maths rules or the alphabet but less effective for more advanced learners that need to think creatively and critically. That said, if you are trying to learn how to drive a car, repetition through repeated, active practice is essential. If you are learning how to edit video content or make reels on Instagram, the more you practise, the more you will learn and the better your output will be.
Picturing or visualising ideas, concepts or actions can support learning mastery and allow transferal of information to long-term memory. Like Hattie and Yates, McTighe and Silver (2020) also put forward the benefits of visualisation for deep learning. They link this to the concept of ‘dual coding’ (Paivio, 1990) where information is presented as words and images. The brain has two separate channels it uses to process information: a visual channel and a verbal linguistic channel. When these two channels work together, they empower each other and facilitate deeper learning. John Medina (2008) points out ‘the more visual the input becomes, the more likely it is to be recognised-and recalled’.
We can construct mnemonics to help us remember important and static information. For example:
Big elephants can’t always understand small elephants as a way to remember how to spell ‘because’
All Cows Eat Grass as a way to remember the notes represented by the spaces between the lines on the bass clef stave (A,C,E,G)
I found through my own experience that when I create my own mnemonics that resonate with me personally, I can recall them more effectively and they are archived in my long-term memory. When they are sung, funny or rhyme, I never forget them.
In order to process new information, you need to add to it in a meaningful way. This means that you will need to active your long-term memory to bring archived learning or memories to the fore to add to the new information. Brown, McDaniel, & Roediger (2014) define elaboration as ‘the process of giving new material meaning by expressing it in your own words and connecting it with what you already know’. Even something as simple as asking a student to put into their own words a piece of text or to request that they convey what this new information is ‘just like’ is a starting point for effective elaboration and transferal of information from short to long term memory.
Now that I had grasped CRIME and understood how I could apply this approach easily into any of my lessons, I began to look more deeply into how the brain processes information. It seems strange that as teachers and instructional designers our job is to optimise learning and yet the science of learning is not front and centre of any teacher training programme that I am aware of.
The more research I read, the more irked I became at how teacher training programmes are failing both teachers and students especially those that that prioritise ‘how to construct a seating plan’, ‘how to manage group work’ and focus on curriculum content. While these are the things that teachers in particular do on a day to day basis, they do not even touch on the how or why of education.
It is my view that some educational experiences are solely transactional where the teacher or instructor gives information for learners to consume but very little to no time is devoted to understanding basic neuroscience so that the teaching or instruction can optimise learning.
Just because the teacher or instructor said it or printed it out does not mean that any learning has taken place. This is why looking at notes and exercise books doesn't reveal that learning has taken place and the information has been transferred to long-term memory.
This transferal is clearly difficult to measure but as educators we need to think beyond ‘proof’ that teaching has taken place and consider the action steps we are taking to support learning mastery by optimising our learning and teaching strategies.
As I delved into more research into how the brain processes information, I realised how little I understood about learning, despite my almost two decades at the chalk face. What really stood out to me was that the human brain follows two prime survival directives where it seeks:
These directives drive the brain’s memory, effort and actions. To optimise learning for all, teachers and instructional designers need to know this. The brain stores new information by linking it to patterns it recognises as they are already stored in its existing memory.
Psychologist Jean Piaget (1957) described this as cognitive frameworks or schemas. The creation of these mental models would appear to underpin learning and provide the building blocks for subsequent learning.
This pattern matching helps our brains to make meaning and sense of information. We can draw upon these mental models to help us to move forward with new challenges as we can use this prior knowledge to interpret, hypothesise and predict what we could or should do next or what might happen to us next. When our predictions are correct, we experience a dopamine hit which gives us a pleasurable sensation that we seek out again and again. Because we want to repeat this feeling, we can become more focussed, motivated and curious.
This is hugely beneficial for our students as they will associate perseverance with pleasure and this can help to develop their resilience.
Stress, boredom and learning
The brain is programmed to prefer certain types of sensory input that include changes in unexpected patterns, so we experience something new or different. These unexpected patterns can result in feelings of stress or excitement. When the unexpected patterns feel stressful the brain’s survival responses kick in so that it preserves resources and reduces effort. This goes far to explain why when we feel stressed, we cannot learn effectively. When this is chronic stress over time it can change the brain structures involved in memory. Research has shown that high levels of stress hormones over time can damage the hippocampus. This reduces its ability to encode and form memories.
The multiple national lockdowns as a result of the global pandemic will have caused stress, trauma, uncertainty and isolation in many people. This will impact their memory, their ability to think clearly, creatively; their overall cognitive function may have been weakened.
Consider those learning online, quite unexpectedly, at home with their families, perhaps with a weak WiFi connection, limited hardware, loss of income among other challenging issues not limited to abuse, illness and bereavement.
A stressful environment can feel chaotic and disruptive and is not a place where any meaningful learning can occur.
This inability to focus weakens memory and so weakens learning gains. According to Sciencedirect.com, this is because the prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain that serves as a control centre to our emotions, keeping our impulse nature in check. In extremely stressful situations, the brain sends chemicals away from the prefrontal cortex towards the hypothalamus, which manages the stressful feelings.
The prefrontal cortex is sensitive to stress and provides regulation of behaviour, thought and emotion, generating the mental representations needed for flexible, goal-directed behaviour, including the ability to inhibit inappropriate impulses, regulation of attention, reality testing, and insight about one's own and others' actions.
While many rebuff the notion of a ‘learning loss’ as a result of online learning because lessons, broadband vouchers and laptops were provided for many people, in some respects all of the kit and teaching in the world could not overcome the impact stress has on learning and memory.
We should also consider the impact the monotony of living the same day over and over again. Being forced to isolate and having your day to day routine disrupted can be dispiriting. Each day you wake up is the same. Even if your environment is safe and warm, it can still be dull and unstimulating. When our brains are not stimulated and do not experience unexpected patterns, we can feel sluggish and stop paying attention because there is nothing new.
We are in stasis.
As teachers and instructors it is important to consider this brain function. If we do not disrupt our students’ thinking patterns by offering something new in terms of pedagogical practice we run the risk of unwittingly hindering the learning process.
This doesn’t mean reinventing the wheel or every lesson every day, but it could mean holding up a mirror to our teaching and instructional design practice while thinking deeply about the extent to which our intentions and actions lead us to ultimate goal of optimising learning for all.