The learning process: Part 2

This article was written for SecEd magazine and first published in September 2017.  You can read the original version on the SecEd website here.  

You can access the full archive of my columns for SecEd here

This is part two of a 10-part series.  Read the first part here. 

In the first part of this series on “how to learn”, I attempted to answer the question, What is learning?

Although it’s a simple question, it is not easy to answer because learning is multi-faceted. Some forms of learning, like learning to ride a bike, are immediate and observable but other types of learning are neither of these things. A pupil’s immediate demonstration of knowledge or skill could be mere performance, mimicry rather than mastery.

There’s nothing necessarily wrong with mimicry if it helps a pupil pass a test and get a qualification but, assuming we want to do more than teach to the test and assuming we regard education as something meaningful and life-long, a way of becoming an engaged and active citizen, and an inquisitive, cultured adult, then surely we must aim to move beyond mimicry and towards mastery.

We must, therefore, teach in such a way as to ensure our pupils not only acquire new knowledge and skills but can apply them at a later time and in a range of different contexts.

The process of learning

The process of learning, meanwhile, is the interaction between one’s sensory memory (sometimes referred to as our “environment”) and one’s long-term memory.

Our sensory memory is made up of: what we see (this is called our iconic memory), what we hear (this is called our echoic memory), and what we touch (our haptic memory).

Our long-term memory is where new information is stored and from which it can later be recalled when needed, but we cannot directly access the information stored in our long-term memory.

As such, the interaction that takes place between our sensory memory and our long-term memory occurs in our working memory, which is the only place where we can think and do.

It might be helpful to think of our sensory memory as a haulage truck, our long-term memory as a warehouse, and our working memory as the holding bay where new deliveries are received, processed and labelled ready for stowing. The payload cannot be passed directly into the warehouse, it must first pass through the holding bay to be sorted.

In order to stimulate pupils’ sensory memories and thus engage the attention of their working memories and make them think, we need to create classroom conditions conducive to learning, conditions that stimulate pupils’ iconic, echoic and haptic memories. In other words, we need to engage pupils’ senses in order to gain their attention.

It might sound like common sense – indeed it is – to say that, in order for our pupils to learn, we must first gain their attention, but it’s all too easy for learning to fail simply because we haven’t stimulated our pupils’ senses and therefore gained their attention, or because we have focused their attention on the wrong things.

Let me give you an example…

I’m sure you’ve seen the dancing gorilla awareness test before. In short, observers are asked to watch a video of some people playing basketball and are told to count the number of passes made by the players in white, ignoring the players in black. In the middle of the game, a man in a gorilla suit dances across the scene, weaving his way through the players.

Most observers count the passes correctly but utterly fail to spot the gorilla. Their attention is not grabbed by the gorilla because they don’t expect to see such an incongruous thing, are told to ignore figures in black, and are only focused on the ball as it passes from one player in white to another.

It’s just as easy for pupils to focus on the wrong things and ignore the right things. For example, if I wanted a class to research the origins of two online encyclopaedias, Wikipedia and Microsoft’s Encarta, and find out why Wikipedia – with no money and a reliance on volunteers to act as contributors – proved more successful than the encyclopaedia backed by big business, boasting an army of well-paid, qualified staff including Bill Gates, and asked them to do so on the internet, there’s a danger that they would focus their attention on the act of researching rather than on the topic they’d been asked to research.

In other words, if I didn’t explicitly teach them the skills needed in order to carry out the task and learn about Wikipedia, they would use all their working memory capacity on acquiring and using these skills and none, or very little, on the actual content.

They’d have to think about where to search, what search terms to use, how to sift information and make decisions about what was relevant and what was not, and what was reliable and what was not. However, if I’d explicitly taught them how to conduct independent research – such as the use of three independent sources, skimming and scanning for key facts, names and dates, how to use quotations, how to detect bias, etc – then modelled the process and got them to practise the skills until they become automatic, they could then have focused their attentions on the information they’d found about Wikipedia. In short, their attention could have been focused on the right things.

This matters because if pupils don’t think, they don’t learn. We must gain pupils’ attentions and make them think hard in order for information to be processed in their working memories and then be encoded in their long-term memories. And if we get them thinking hard about how to research, then they will process and encode this and learn nothing – or too little – about what they actually researched.

In short, stimulating pupils’ sensory memories and focusing their attention on the right things is essential if our pupils are to engage their working memories.

Talking of which…

In order to help pupils utilise their limited working memories (depending on which research paper you read, it’s thought that we can only handle between five and nine concepts in working memory at any one time – see, for example, Miller 1956), we need to ensure they are made to think hard; are challenged with work that is difficult but achievable.

If the work is too easy, pupils will be able to complete it through habit without thinking – this is called “automaticity”. For example, if I asked you to calculate 2 x 5, you would do so automatically, through habit, without having to think about it because you mastered your times tables many years ago.

If the work’s too hard, pupils will be unable to complete it because they will overpower their limited working memories with too much information (what’s called “cognitive overload”) and the learning process will fail. For example, if I asked you to calculate 367 x 2,892 in your head in a minute, you wouldn’t be able to do so.

Either you’d not attempt it because you’d quickly assess the task to be beyond your reach and therefore a pointless waste of energy, or you’d attempt it but be unable to hold so much information in your working memory and so would fail. Either way, you would be demotivated by your failure and, more importantly, you’d not have learnt or practised anything so the task would have been pointless.

In other words, we need to pitch class-work in the “struggle zone”, or what Robert Bjork calls the “sweet spot” at the edge of pupils’ current knowledge and abilities, albeit just within their reach.
But, in making pupils think hard, we also need to help them think efficiently. Thinking, as we have seen, will fail if pupils overload their working memories.

As such, we need to help pupils cheat the limited space in their working memories (to mitigate cognitive overload) by learning new things in the context of what they already know (allowing them to “chunk” information, thereby reducing the space required) and by teaching requisite knowledge and/or skills before they need to be applied because, as Dan Willingham puts it, “memory is the residue of thought”.

Once pupils have been made to think hard but efficiently and have processed information in their working memories, we need to ensure they encode that information in their long-term memories and can easily retrieve the information at a later time.

In order to help pupils store information in their limitless long-term memories (long-term memory is so big, it will take more than a lifetime to fill it), we need to plan opportunities for deliberate practice. In particular, we need to use two teaching strategies called spacing and interleaving.

Only by repeating learning and by doing so in a range of contexts, will we increase the storage strength of the information in long-term memory. The better the storage strength, the more readily available will be our knowledge and skills.

Repeating learning – the very act of recalling prior knowledge and skills from long-term memory – also improves retrieval strength. The better the retrieval strength of information, the more easily, quickly and efficiently are knowledge and skills recalled from long-term memory and brought into the working memory where they can be used.

In summary…

And so, to my mind, there are three steps to improving the learning process:

  • To create a positive learning environment in order to stimulate sensory memory.
  • To make pupils think hard but efficiently in order to gain the attention of – but cheat – working memory.
  • To plan for deliberate practice in order to improve storage in, and retrieval from, long-term memory.

In the remainder of this series, we will take a closer look at each of the three steps in turn, starting next time, with creating a positive learning environment in order to stimulate sensory memory.


Follow me on Twitter: @mj_bromley


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