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Engaging young minds: Part six

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By Huw Thomasheadteacher and writer

The final part of this series discusses how understanding memory and thinking can improve children’s learning

Illustrated head and cogs

Previous articles in this series looked at how a stimulus causes brain cells to make connections with other brain cells – the stuff of thinking. If that pattern of firing is strengthened it will form a single memory, something called Long-Term Potentiation (or LTP).

Your memory of what you are reading now is a ‘working memory’. Long-term memories deep within the brain are like stored books or files. Short-term memories of the moment are like this current reading matter and are referred to as ‘working memory’. As we think about something and apply working memory, it may find its way to the longer-term store.

The ‘Simon’ memory game on the Learning Games for Kids website will stretch children’s working memories.

Cognitive scientist, Daniel Willingham, writes: ‘Your brain lays its bets this way: If you don’t think about something very much, then you probably won’t want to think about it again.’ He suggests that the way to secure a piece of learning is to get children thinking about it. That prompts the brain to rate it as worth remembering.

In some ways it seems like stating the obvious, but we should enter into teaching asking ourselves: What will my learners think? Four questions we can ask ourselves before a lesson are:

  • How many different main thoughts will I prompt?
  • When is the best time to bring up these main thoughts?
  • How can I phrase these ideas in an engaging way?
  • How will the children connect thoughts from this lesson with other memories from their learning?

Memory curves

From the moment children engage with learning, a curve downwards is working against those of us who seek to teach. Within minutes of learning something it is leaking away. Next time you feel like saying: ‘But we learned this only yesterday’, remember that a day is a long time on the curve!

What we need to do is curve the dip upwards with review. Teacher and trainer, Mike Hughes, once commented: ‘Trying to learn without review is like running bath without plug.’

Review should be built into the life of the classroom, and there are a few ways of doing this over time:

  • Key learning: The vocabulary, facts and concepts that we want to be firing up children’s neurons over time. These should be displayed and referred to regularly during and after lessons in the days ahead.
  • Teach it: Asking children to take a piece of learning and teach it to someone else, whether another child, and adult or someone at home
  • Posters: The working walls of a classroom should be just that – walls that are working, doing something. Display posters, flipchart examples and other materials and refer to these at least five times an hour in lessons.
  • Talking about it: Encouraging children to recall learning out loud, to the class or to a partner.
  • Fresh start within a lesson: Find new ways of refreshing the exploration of material as the lesson progresses.

Begin and end

If learning works in a downward curve it has implications for where we place our key learning in a lesson. Here are some key points to consider:

  • The most important content should be unpicked at the start and set out before learners. Links to prior learning can follow this, and support this.
  • Routines like a tables test should never be the start of a lesson – always placed later on.
  • Errors and misconceptions need to be tackled later rather than sooner – they are part of the unpicking of new learning, not the first encounter.
  • Think where to put ‘wow’ moments – the bicarb and vinegar volcano may get a ‘wow’ at the start of a lesson, but could be better later in the lesson once some of the content has been thought through, creating a curve upwards.
  • Don’t introduce anything new later in the lesson.
  • Make the last words the most important words. Instead of ‘There goes the bell. Tidy up’ make the last words matter.

Meaningful connections

Ask someone to say the word ‘Milk’ 20 times, at speed, then when they finish quickly ask them what a cow drinks. Did they say ‘Water’?

The associations we form create links in our learning and this has long been exploited to support learning. An ancient method of memorising material, going back to the Ancient Greeks, is to associate material with different places in the home and then recount these by thinking of a walk round your house.

The most meaningful connection can be doing something with learning. Research has shown that learners remember a significant amount more of what they do than what they are told. The main difference was found to be between passive learning and actively doing something with it – so a game where pairs of facts are connected and need to be reunited can help secure that memory. Simply put, we learn what we do!

What’s that all about

Remembering things is about making meaningful connections. Read this text and figure out what it’s about. It gives an interesting example of how meaningful connection helps us learn about something.

The procedure is actually quite simple. First, you arrange the items into different groups. Of course one pile may be sufficient depending on how much there is to do. If you have to go somewhere else due to lack of facilities that is the next step; otherwise, you are pretty well set. It is important not to overdo things. That is, it is better to do too few things at once than too many. In the short run this may not seem important but complications can easily arise. A mistake can be expensive as well. At first, the whole procedure will seem complicated. Soon, however, it will become just another facet of life. It is difficult to foresee any end to the necessity for this task in the immediate future, but then, one never can tell. After the procedure is completed one arranges the materials into different groups again. Then they can be put into their appropriate places. Eventually they will be used once more and the whole cycle will then have to be repeated. However, that is part of life.

If I now give you the title: ‘Washing Clothes’ – does that help?

Types of memory

Working memories can find their way into the web of connections in our brains that makes our longer-term memories. There is the declarative type – knowing certain facts or memories that could be declared, as opposed to the non-declarative type, which retains processes you do or habits you have – when you ride a bike you don’t consciously think ‘Left pedal down, right comes up, then right goes down…’

When it comes to classroom application there are four subdivisions of memory I would flag up to apply to teaching.

  • Experiences: Learners benefit from links made between learning and experience – applying learning to actual activity, such as taking learning about area and measuring awkwardly shaped areas of the school floor surface, turn maths to experience.
  • Information: We remember personal information such as our phone number, academic learning such as historical dates and random facts that may only be of use in a pub quiz. We’re very hot on this as teachers and so the message here isn’t just what do children need to learn, it’s also what don’t they need. In teaching a topic we need to be clear about the most important content we want to see transfer to learning.
  • Procedures: We learned to swim, to ride a bike, make biscuits. In doing so, we learned processes that we can now repeat, sometimes without thinking about them. Can we build processes into our learning? There is an interaction between facts and processes that we can use. The process of writing a sentence becomes second nature, so can we unpick the elements of what we just wrote to enrich it? Can we keep the link between learning how to do a maths process and what we’re actually doing with the numbers as we undertake it?
  • Emotions: Like experiences, we remember not just what happened but also how something felt. Exploring the emotional content of learning can engage children’s interest and prompt their memories – to imagine what it felt like to be a Victorian street child is one way of retaining some of the facts of the time.

Don’t forget…

to take a look at the other five articles in this series.

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