The learning process: Part 4

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 four of a 10-part series.  Catch up with the series so far.

In this series of articles I’m exploring the process of learning which, I have argued, is the interaction between our sensory memory and our long-term memory.

Our sensory memory, I said, 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, meanwhile, is where new information is stored and from which it can be recalled later when needed, but we cannot directly access the information stored in our long-term memory – instead, this interaction between our sensory memory and our long-term memory occurs in the working memory.

In order to ensure our pupils learn, therefore, we need to stimulate their sensory memory, gain the attention of – and help them cheat – their working memory, and improve the strength with which information is stored in, and the ease and efficiency with which it can later be retrieved from, their long-term memory. In order to do this, we need to follow these three steps:

First, we need to create a positive learning environment.

Second, we need to make pupils think hard but efficiently.

Third, we need to plan for deliberate practice.

Last week I said that a positive learning environment is one in which all pupils:

  • Feel welcomed.
  • Feel valued.
  • Are enthusiastic about learning.
  • Are engaged in their learning.
  • Are eager to experiment.
  • Feel rewarded for their hard work.

Behind all these characteristics is a simple, albeit oxymoronic, aim: to ensure pupils are comfortable with discomfort (the focus of last week’s article). In other words, we want our pupils to know that the work they will be asked to do in our classrooms will be tough, that they will be challenged with hard work and made to think. We want our pupils to know that there will be no hiding place in our classrooms; they must ask and answer questions and attempt everything.

However, in so doing, we want them to feel safe and protected, we want them to eagerly accept the challenge, and to willingly attempt hard work because they know we’ve strung a safety net beneath them: they might falter but we will catch them if they fall.

But creating a positive learning environment is more than this: it is also about stimulating pupils’ senses in order to gain the attention of their working memories. To do this, we need to appeal to their iconic, echoic and haptic memories: sight, sound and touch.

Sight, sound and touch

First of all, a caveat: appealing to pupils’ senses does not mean identifying a pupil’s preferred or dominant sense and teaching in a way that appeals to that sense alone. It means utilising all pupils’ senses in order to make use of their visual and verbal processing powers and thereby expanding the capacity of their working memories.

Pupils are more likely to want to learn – and to actually learn – if their senses are piqued by the unfamiliar. All pupils crave variety; they need lessons to surprise them, to excite them, to ignite new sparks and pose new questions. They need lessons to unsettle them, too; to discomfort and challenge them.

In short, we all grow tired of repetition, of the predictable and prosaic, of the monotonous and mundane, and we all need a frequent frisson of freshness in our lives and, although I’m not suggesting that every lesson we teach should provide novelty value. I do believe that, in order to stimulate pupils’ senses and therefore make information “stick” in long-term memory, we need to make that information concrete by grounding it in sensory reality.

When we are exposed to new information, we process it and then attempt to connect it to existing information (in other words, we try to assimilate new knowledge with prior knowledge). The richer – sensorily and emotionally – the new information is, and the deeper the existing information is ingrained, the stronger we encode the new information in our long-term memories.

Ensuring our lessons provide variety and novelty, therefore, helps to appeal to pupils’ senses and engage their emotions – if nothing else, simply by piquing their interest in something out of the ordinary, we are making them think – and therefore the information we teach them is more likely to be retained over the long-term.

In practice, there are four ways to make information stick: Making it tangible, making it clear, making it satisfying, and making it concrete.

Make information real

One way to make information real is to use metaphor. Metaphor is good at making information stick because it brings ideas to life, it draws connections between new knowledge and existing knowledge. For example, if you are trying to describe how electricity flows through a material, you’ll need to explain the structure of atoms.

You might use a metaphor which describes atoms as “nature’s building blocks” to help pupils understand an atom’s function. You will then need to explain how each atom is comprised of protons, which are positively charged, neutrons, which have no charge, and electrons, which are negatively charged.

Then you would need to explain that, together, the protons and neutrons form the “nucleus” of the atom, and that the electrons travel around this nucleus. You might then use a metaphor which compares this “orbit” to the way the earth travels around the sun.

In each case, you are relating new information which pupils are unlikely to be able to process and therefore retain, with existing information (or prior knowledge) in order to help them imagine it, process it and retain it.

Make information clear

Another way to make information stick is to make it clear – in other words, we should make sure each of the lessons we teach in a learning sequence clearly articulates its “lead” (the big idea, concept, question or hypothesis you need pupils to think about).

Lesson plans should be focused on what pupils will think about rather than what they will do. And, although we are not naturally good thinkers, we do enjoy problem-solving – so we should frame our key messages (or “lead”) around a problem to be solved or an enquiry to be investigated and answered.

First, we need to decide on the vital “take-away” messages – rather than what will merely add hue and texture – then concentrate on writing questions rather than creating fun activities. We need to try to write a “big question” which forms the basis for the lesson. Alternatively, we could pose a hypothesis to be proven or disproven.

Make information satisfying

We can also make information stick by piquing pupils’ curiosity. Teachers tend to focus on imparting facts, but unless pupils know why those facts are important they are unlikely to retain them. Therefore, we should make sure that before teaching our pupils the facts, we take time to pique their curiosity and make them realise why they need those facts.

The secret to convincing pupils that they need the information we intend to teach them, according to Professor George Loewenstein at least, is to start by highlighting the knowledge they are missing. Another technique is to start a lesson by asking pupils to make a prediction.

Make information concrete

Another way to make information stick is to make it tangible. Pupils find it hard to care about or understand abstract concepts. Instead, we should try to make ideas concrete by using sensory hooks – the more sensory hooks we use, the better the ideas will stick.

Take, for example, Jane Elliott’s famous “blue-eyed/brown-eyed” experiment with third grade pupils the day after Martin Luther King had been assassinated in 1968. The purpose of the exercise was to teach her pupils the effects of belonging to a minority. Elliott had tried holding a class discussion about racism but said she “could see that (the pupils) weren’t internalising a thing”. Instead, “they were doing what white people do … when white people sit down to discuss racism … (they experience) shared ignorance”.

So, instead, she divided the class on the basis on their eye colour and treated some pupils less favourably than others. Once she had concluded the experiment, she asked the children to reflect by writing down what they had learned and it became clear that her pupils had come to deeply understand racism because Elliot had made it feel real, she had grounded an abstract concept in sensory reality and thus engaged her pupils’ emotions.

What Elliott’s experience teaches us is that we should obey the maxim “show don’t tell” wherever possible. Telling pupils something means we do all the work for them; showing them means they have to work for themselves.

Not only does appealing to pupils’ various senses make information stick, it also helps to utilise the limited space in their working memories. This approach is often called “dual coding”.

Dual coding

Dual coding is the combination of words and images. We have two specific yet connected cognitive subsystems: one specialises in representing and processing non-verbal objects or events; the other specialises in language. In other words, we process verbal and visual information separately and so can double the capacity of our working memory if we utilise both verbal and visual processing at the same time.

What’s more, dual coding allows us to boost the information traces in our long-term memory (as two connected traces are stronger than one single trace) and it enables us to recall – or recognise – the information in two different ways.

By combining an image with a complementary word (written or preferably spoken), we’re utilising both a verbal/semantic process (deciphering spoken/written words) and an iconic process (deciphering images).

However, as with all teaching strategies, dual coding only works when it’s done well. Reading a text aloud in parallel with the same written text on-screen (such as reading text verbatim from a PowerPoint slide) is a bad combination because pupils are required to conduct one and the same verbal/semantic decoding process in two different ways – rather than splitting and therefore doubling working memory capacity, it requires pupils to process twice the information using one process, thus halving working memory capacity.

As a result, working memory becomes overloaded in what’s known as “the redundancy effect”.

The best way to make use of dual coding is to, for example, explain a visual (a diagram, graph, mind-map, etc) verbally, not through text on the visual. If there is writing on the visual, it’s best not to explain it.

Furthermore, we should present visuals and text at the same time so that pupils don’t have to remember one part while processing the other.

Next week we will move on to the second or our three steps: ensuring pupils think hard but efficiently in order to utilise – and cheat – their working memories.



Follow me on Twitter: @mj_bromley


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