A few weeks ago, I attended a brilliant course all about memory with Philippa Vince and Dave Taylor. Anecdotes from schools which have recently been inspected suggest that within the new Ofsted inspection framework, children have been asked questions like ‘What was your last history topic?’ and ‘What did you learn?’ If this is true, then it seems that building in opportunities to help children to remember their learning is going to be a key pedagogical focus moving forwards.
I agree that memory is important. Some people argue that you can look up almost anything on your phone in seconds now, therefore why would you need to remember facts? Memorising some very specific facts, such as listing the Kings of England or knowing the dates of specific battles might not be useful other that in a Pub Quiz. But crucially, much of our understanding comes from our brains processing related knowledge and synthesising that in some way. For example, you might watch Blue Planet and remember a fact about plastics; you then watch the news and see something about floods or fires which you then remember; you then recall a Science lesson from school about the Greenhouse Effect; you then read an article and see that Polar Bears are losing their homes. Now arguably, you could have ‘Googled’ each of these component pieces of information. But by remembering them, your brain is able to put them together and therefore you start to form your own understanding of the Climate Crisis, which makes it more meaningful. I argue that understanding can’t be achieved without knowledge, which inherently requires memory.
This doesn’t mean that I agree with the curriculum demanding that children memorise quotes and formulas for their exams. Even if you had the quadratic formula in front of you, it wouldn’t help you if you didn’t understand when or how to use it, so I think it is a shame for a child to lose marks because they misremember one letter or a minus sign from a formula, despite understanding the question.
However, whether we agree or not, the current curriculum does require memory.
So, how can we help children to remember their learning? Here are the top 5 things I learned.
1) Make it obvious WHAT they are learning and WHEN they are learning it.
A friend of mine who has dyslexia once said to me, ‘I don’t get how to highlight stuff in a textbook… I start reading and I just think it all seems important, so I end up highlighting the whole book and then I don’t know which parts to focus on.’
This is a really common difficulty for children and adults with dyslexia – they can find it difficult to isolate the important information. As teachers, we can do this for them. In a typical hour’s lesson, you don’t expect a child to remember everything that you said. But when asked afterwards, they often remember that silly joke you made or the fact that Jim fell off his chair or a ‘fun fact’ that you happened to mention.
It is a fact that you will remember more shocking or exciting things better than mundane, but often we do need to remember the mundane. For this, you can use a ‘Kanban Board,’ as suggested by Dave Taylor.
You tell the child what they will be learning, and then when they are learning it, you move the post it along so that they are aware that this part is important. When you have finished, you move it to show that it has been learned.
I created this mini version to use in 1:1 lessons.
I then move the post it notes to a new ‘Review’ board to allow for spaced practice. We come back to things we learned a week or two ago and check if they have been retained. If not, we put them back into the learning area so we can go over them again.
Spaced review is really important, which leads to the next point…
2) Forgetting is important to remembering
If someone says to you ‘Howard Carter discovered Tut’s tomb in 1922,’ then repeats it ten times, you will probably finish the lesson ‘knowing’ this fact. But that’s like knowing where your passport is because i
t’s on your desk. You can’t leave it there permanently – you have to file it away somewhere and then get it out for your holiday. To check that you truly know it, you need to give it a few days, and then have someone ask you ‘When was Tut’s tomb discovered and by whom?’ Your brain then has to retrieve that memory.
This tells us something about how to set up revision cards. Rather than simply writing out facts and going over them, we need to write out questions which will stimulate our retrieval process. That way, when faced with an exam question, our brains are familiar with the retrieval process for that particular fact and we can utilise it! You can write the answers on the back of the card so that you can check your answer too.
3) Working Memory is fixed
I will be doing a whole blog on working memory, as difficulty with working memory is common for children with dyslexia. However, it’s worth remembering that:
a) Working memory is fixed
b) Once it’s overloaded, it collapses and the information can’t be brought back
This is crucial knowledge for teachers, as we frequently over-load the children’s working memories without realising, for example with long winded instructions or by slightly changing our routine each day. Walk through your day, and think about how often the children have to hold information in their head and do something with it. Can you think of anything you could change?
And remember – once it’s gone, it’s gone. So if a child has forgotten an instruction, it can’t be retrieved with some prompting from you. You just need to say it again.
4) Organisation is Vital
Being organised and tidy frees up brain space. If you have ‘busy’ slides with weird transitions, children can be distracted by the swirling or gifs. I once read an interactive e-book with my class where a skeleton popped out of a box every so often to wave; I don’t think the children heard a word of that bit of the book, as they spent the entire time anticipating the next ‘pop-up’ and then laughing at it!
Children with dyslexia will also find it difficult to keep their personal stuff tidy, and so though I know it can be difficult and frustrating as a teacher, trying to double check that they have their homework or PE kit to take home can really help take the load off their memory. Parents can help with this too. You may even be able to come up with a checklist which they can keep above their peg or on their desk.
5) Comprehension Prompts
Children with dyslexia can sometimes put in so much effort to the decoding of text that they struggle to remember what they have read. The following process sounds a bit onerous, but it means that you don’t have to read the same page 5 or 6 times.
a) Read a sentence / line
b) Decide upon a very, very simple picture to depict it
c) Draw the picture
d) Repeat with the next sentence
This means that every sentence has to be comprehended in order for an appropriate picture to be drawn. The pictures can then serve as memory prompts for children when looking back over the text.