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 seven of a 10-part series. Catch up with the series so far.
The process of learning is the interaction between our sensory memory and our long-term memory.
Our sensory memory, as I have previously explained, 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 three steps…
First, we need to create a positive learning environment. Second, we need to make pupils think hard but efficiently. And third, we need to plan for deliberate practice.
So far in this series we have explored the first two steps and so are at the point where new information has been encoded into long-term memory. But that’s not the end of the learning journey.
Now we need to help pupils reduce the likelihood of forgetting this information, and increase its storage strength in long-term memory so that they can access it at a later stage. We also need to improve the retrieval strength of this information from long-term memory so that pupils can recall it with ease and efficiency when needed. In short, we need to help pupils practise what we’ve taught them – we need to repeat, repeat, repeat…
The art of repetition
The art of effective repetition is that each time a pupil revisits prior learning it must be as hard as it was the first time they learnt it. After all, when information comes easily to mind and feels fluent, it’s just as easy to forget it again. In short, challenging learning is long-term learning.
Retrieval practice – and we’ll examine a few different types in a moment – makes learning effortful and challenging. It is important to acknowledge and make pupils aware of this apparent paradox because they’ll often think they are doing badly if they can’t remember something.
But the mental effort required to retrieve information is the key to improving the storage and subsequent retrieval strength of that information.
When we feel like progress is slow, we do our best learning. In short, the more difficult the retrieval practice is, the better it is for long-term learning.
Struggling to learn – through the act of “practising” what you know and recalling information – is much more effective than simply re-reading, taking notes, or listening to lectures.
In a moment we’ll explore some examples of retrieval practice, but first a note on the power of practice more generally, or perhaps I should say the “superpower”, because practice physically changes our brains…
The wiring of our brains
Our brain is like the back of an electrician’s van: a tangle of coloured wires – about 100 billion to be imprecise. These wires are called neurones and they are connected to each other by synapses.
Whenever we do something – think, move, read this article – our brain sends a signal down these neurones to our muscles.
In other words, every skill we possess – swinging a golf club, writing great fiction, playing the piano – is created by chains of nerve fibres carrying small electrical impulses like the signals travelling through a circuit.
Each time we practise something, a different highly specific circuit is illuminated in our heads like fairy lights strung round a Christmas tree. It is these circuits, not our muscles, that control our thoughts and movements. Indeed, the circuit is the movement because it dictates the content of each thought and the timing and strength of each muscle contraction.
More importantly, each time we practise something – be it a mental or physical skill – our nerve fibres are coated in a layer of insulation called myelin which acts in much the same way as the rubber insulation that coats a copper wire: it makes the electrical impulses stronger and faster by preventing the signals from leaking.
Each time we practise a skill, a new layer of myelin is added to the neurone like the lagging on a boiler.
The thicker the myelin gets, the better it insulates our nerve fibres and, therefore, the faster our movements and thoughts become.
But that’s not all. As well as getting faster, our thoughts and movements also become more accurate as we add more and more layers of myelin, because myelin regulates the velocity with which those electrical impulses travel through our nerve fibres, speeding up or slowing down the signals so that they hit our synapses at exactly the right moment. And timing is all important because neurones are binary: either they fire or they don’t. Whether or not they fire is dependent on whether the incoming impulse is big enough to exceed their so-called “threshold of activation”.
Imagine, for example, a skill circuit where two neurones have to combine – doubling their impulses – to make a third high-threshold neurone fire, for example to serve an ace in a game of tennis. In order to combine their forces effectively, the two incoming impulses must arrive at almost exactly the same time (and by “almost”, I mean within about four milliseconds of each other). If the first two signals arrive more than four milliseconds apart, the third neurone won’t fire and the tennis ball will be called out.
Left to their own devices, because our brain has so many connections, our genes are unable to code our neurones to time things as accurately as this. That’s why we coat our nerve fibres with myelin to help us achieve such precision.
If you are feeling somewhat dubious that myelin can hold to key to developing every imaginable human skill – from playing sports to playing Schubert – then remember this: everything on Earth is made from the same stuff – atoms. We may not closely resemble a fish or a tree, but we are all made from the same material and share the same cellular mechanism to convert food into energy.
Myelin is also universal: everyone can grow it, most swiftly during childhood but also throughout life. And it is indiscriminate, its growth enables the development of all manner of skills, both mental and physical.
In short, although skills vary in every which way – learning to play tennis is as different from learning to sing as learning to sing is from learning to write poetry – they all, without exception, rely on us growing more layers of myelin around our neurones which, in turn, relies on us practising over and over and over again.
Every skill is improved and perfected by performing it repeatedly because this helps us improve by honing our neural circuitry. And yet not all forms of practice are equal. We create myelin most effectively when we engage in a form of retrieval practice called deliberate practice…
Deliberate practice is about struggling in certain targeted ways – placing artificial barriers in the way of our success in order to make it harder to learn something. In other words, we slow our learning down and force ourselves to make mistakes.
In the fifth article in this series (see link in further information), I introduced what Robert Bjork calls “desirable difficulties” – the idea that, by slowing down and making mistakes, we ensure that we are operating at the edges of our ability, avoiding silly mistakes by over-riding System 1 with System 2 – i.e. thinking slow.
So the best form of practice – and therefore the best way to create more myelin – is to set yourself a target just beyond your current ability but within your reach.
If the task is hard yet just within our grasp, then we will learn. And because we struggle but overcome the challenge, our brains are rewarded with a dose of the naturally occurring chemical dopamine which makes us feel good and encourages us to keep on learning. As an example, consider these two lists of word pairs:
If we are given the first list to memorise in, say, a minute, on average we are likely to remember seven of the pairs. But if we are given the second list we are likely to remember more than seven pairs because we have placed an artificial barrier in the way of our learning. Because we have to fill in the missing letters, although this may take but a microsecond, we have to stop and stumble until we work it out.
That microsecond makes all the difference – in that moment, we don’t practise any harder but we do practise deeper. We slow down and locate what Robert Bjork calls “the sweet spot” – the optimal gap between what we know and what we’re trying to do. When we find that sweet spot, Bjork says, “learning takes off”.
Returning to myelin
Let’s return to myelin, our magic insulation. Deliberate practice or desirable difficulties – whatever you wish to call it – is the notion that targeted, mistake-focused practice is the most effective means of developing skills. And it is so effective because the best way to build a fast and accurate neural circuit is – to quote Daniel Coyle – “to fire it, attend to mistakes, then fire it again, over and over”. Why? Because “struggle is not an option, it’s a biological requirement”.
In summary, practice does not make perfect, it makes myelin, and myelin makes perfect. And myelin is not built to respond to fond wishes or vague ideas; it is built to respond to actions – the electrical impulses travelling down nerve fibres. As such, it responds to urgent repetition.
This is why, once we have taught something for the first time and pupils have encoded it in long-term memory, we must return to it again and again and, each time, ensure that retrieval practice is hard work.
Only by repeating learning in deliberate, targeted ways, will pupils improve the storage and retrieval strength of that information – and thus learn it in any meaningful sense.
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