Memories are made of this


It seems quite clear. Teaching has changed for good, again. No longer can we rely on drip feeding the right bits of information just before a piece of coursework is due, knowing that once complete the detail shall be lost to the mind of our students forever. Of all the things we are supposed to do, the government have suggested that kids need to remember stuff!! Amongst the nonsense and the rhetoric, they have a point. Why bother teaching if the content isn’t remembered? After all, if memory does not store the new information, learning has not taken place.


So, how do we cope when the 70% course work and multiple exam attempts have been fairly quickly eradicated from our day to day safety nets? How do we know what students know and how do we then teach them?

David Ausabel stated that the most important factor is to “ascertain what the students already know and then teach them accordingly”.

This week’s melting pot started with the sterling efforts of Charlie who was missing a good chunk of his face. He clearly only came back on Friday so that his wife would let him go to watch Stoke City the following day (who won 3-1 by the way!!) and by speaking at the melting pot he was justifying the purchase of a post match cheesy oatcake as his mouth would be proven to work again. Silly dog.

Charlie outlined his approach to ‘mastery’ assessment and how by using high quality assessment he can make sure that each student is working on a task that best reflects where they are in learning. Mastery assessment essentially lays out the things that students need to be able to do to succeed in each topic and unit of the course. Only when they complete the ‘mastery target’ can they effectively move on and ‘pass’. Of course if students can demonstrate each target they can move forward quickly. Creating the resources to allow this to happen is where the time and effort are needed as it would be rare that students are, except for day one, at the same point.

Mastery assessment allows some students to fly, others to catch up at their pace and although some way from his 20 year old ‘well learned’ method of ‘stand and deliver’ Charlie knows he is doing better by the students who come into his class. They are not bound by what Charlie wants to/has to teach as they can access the entire curriculum online. A number of successful early entries evidence the benefits. It is a work of many hours toil and graft, dedication and commitment. Charlie’s demo also quickly begged our question. 

Would ‘we’ able to do this? 

Natalie, who as Head of Languages has created a similar ‘multi-resource’ approach to lessons in a previous school said that the gains were very clear but after a time it became frustrating as some students did not maintain their own motivation and access the resources in the way that she hoped.

Some ‘melting potters’ felt that bright kids would gain and lower ability would struggle and we each had our own anecdotal evidence to support this viewpoint. This may, however, be true of every teaching method and Charlie agreed that the groups do ‘spread out’ quickly in terms of their achievement and knowledge gains. The benefits of a mastery system though allow both rigour and more effective support. Students ‘have’ to demonstrate understanding and knowledge before moving on. High flyers can be simply pointed further and further on and support can be targeted to those who need it.

There is of course an initial investment of time to create decent resources but maybe more importantly a culture change needed where teachers ‘release’ resources and loosen their control. This can feel most discomforting. 

  • Students coming to my lesson knowing what I am about to talk about?
  • But I like them all knowing nothing, it makes it easier as it is I who has the knowledge!
  • How am I supposed to teach when they all know different amounts?
  • What if they have questions I can’t answer?

All fair statements and questions. As is this:

Do our current teaching and assessment systems allow us to really know where a student is and then move him/her on at the appropriate pace so that they can achieve at their speed not ours?

Here are the thoughts of another blogger regarding mastery assessment .

Conversation turned to the type of knowledge that students could gain on their own ready to use it in lessons. Maybe where we need to focus effort and attention is on the building blocks of knowledge. The spellings, the key terms, the definitions. All subjects success requires them and these discrete bits of knowledge lend themselves to simplicity in terms of what we want students to do at home. “Learn these definitions by next week, there will be a quick test to see how you have done.” Simple, maybe obvious but boy oh boy, effective. 

Daniel Willingham states that “We learn things in the context of things we already know.” Each fact and piece of knowledge that is committed to memory will improve future learning. A student who knows 10 things/facts/words will always and forever more outperform a students who only knows 8 or 7 or 3. The ‘gap’, be it social or cultural or economic is there because some students learn lots of things early in their lives and some do not. Simples. One of our tasks is to close that gap.

There are many sources of knowledge that students can access. We can’t cross fingers, hope or expect that the opportunities for access will be taken. We have to force the issue a little. Small, frequent tests, tasks and assignments to assess mastery could change the knowledge of our students, permanently. The problem is obvious. Changes to our ‘meat and drink’ does not lie well. Many of us our on automatic pilot and we like to cruise. Its a normal human response. We had a look at this video that shows how quickly and seamlessly we can employ our ‘fast’ thinking and do what comes automatically. The video is based on the work of Daniel Kahneman, a nobel prize winner for his work on thinking in the world of economics.

  • Why would we think when we can just do what we did yesterday?
  • Thinking is tough and carrying on as normal isn’t.
  • I know what works and what doesn’t.
  • The kids behave in my class, they ‘must be learning.’

As teachers, busy teachers, we often set in ways that are hard to change, but not impossible. As teachers we always tell the kids, or at least I would hope we do that effort and belief is so important and that we can always improve. Trying to figure out how to adapt and refine our teaching to improve learning is a challenging task and of course one that is easy to avoid and give up on. In my opinion we have to structure our lessons, our schemes of work and our assessment around things that have the process of learning at heart. Whilst ‘melting’, we discussed the clear problem that students study a topic, forget it, ‘do some revision’ a year or more later, forget it again and then sit an exam. Why do they forget? Because you would too. Because each time they see the information it is essentially new, decided by the teacher that it will be ‘taught’ as part of normal lessons or as part of the ‘revision’ programme. One study that I don’t have the link to (sorry) found that students managed one activity brilliantly well in many lessons. Pretending to listen!

Great teaching does one thing very well. It gets students to really think about the content that needs to be remembered. As Willingham tells us ‘Memory is the residue of thought’. Revisiting this information afterwards just makes that ‘thinking connection’ more explicit, clear and retrievable. Technology can help, especially to provide opportunity for this crucial REPETITION – the father of memory and what better way to add another dose of meaning than a little test? Not the high stakes SATS, GCSE end of your life type test but the class based, diagnostic tool that tells learners and their teacher how things are going. The test need not even be written or even be a test in the true sense of the word. It doesn’t have to count towards anything except learning and knowing what you don’t know and feeling good about what you do. We discussed the merit of multi choice providing the options were close and that ‘thinking’ had to take place to select the correct answer. There are a million technological solutions to this type of test and most mean no marking as such. Wouldn’t that be nice, especially when the test would show the common misconceptions of your class, giving you the food to serve up in your next learning feast.


Next week we are going to delve into the world of behaviour. It won’t be straightforward.

Click here to read a bit further reflection around teaching and trying to improve memory retention. The blogger is an English teacher and the questions he poses to himself are ones you may also have of your own practice.
Dan x

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s