Walking the teaching tightrope – implications of emphasising memorisation in primary education

In tonight’s staff meeting we were discussing Clare Sealy’s @ClareSealy excellent blog post on memory https://primarytimery.com/2017/09/16/memory-not-memories-teaching-for-long-term-learning/ along with Dylan Wiliam’s (@dylanwiliam) TES podcast last week. This post is an attempt to organise my thoughts. 

Clare’s blog gives a clear account of the difference between, and implications of, semantic and episodic memories in relation to how we retain information. She argues, persuasively, that we should focus our teaching on semantic memory and, in doing so, strip out the pedagogy that creates episodic memory i.e. the many-hued resources for the complicated activity designed to teach a new concept over a one hour lesson. 

The problem, as Clare points out, is that the opposite (the monochrome, monotone, monotonous lesson) is also episodic because we remember the boredom, not the content. Emotions are never neutral and learning is never context free. That isn’t to say that we should ignore neuroscience. We have a lot to learn and intelligent application within our teaching will benefit many children especially, as Wiliam points out in the podcast, those who struggle.

For some children, the thoughts that overload or more accurately divert their minds are related not to the pedagogical devices with which we seek to engage but peer relationships. There is little difference here between adults and children. Our emotional state is tied up with relationship. Part of the human condition is to feel insecure about, and in, relationships with each  other. Children learn less effectively after a playtime because they’ve spent free time in the complex and challenging world of their peer group. Their memories of the day are episodic but focused not always on our exciting pedagogy but who said what to whom. In response to the children’s thoughts  being elsewhere,  we may teach in ways that keep their focus but don’t necessarily help store, and/or practice retrieving, new information in the long term memory. There are, of course, many other variables, beyond our peer relationships, that contribute to our emotions, the contexts of learning and the extent our episodic memories dominate our thoughts. These would include how much sleep, fresh air and exercise we have. 

In response to what neuroscience is telling us and what we already know, it strikes me that we have three choices. First, we can spend a disproportionate amount of time on social and emotional learning to try and help children become receptive to new information. Secondly, we can suppress children’s relationships and emotions within schools through contolled routine. Thirdly, we can seek to maintain a balance between development and memorisation that nurtures the child, engages through pedagogy and makes use of neuroscience to build long term memory in the learner. Another metaphor, alongside and related to “balance”, is of the teacher  walking a tightrope between pedagogical excitement and tedium. This tightrope is the third option above which will meet the learning and development needs of the largest number (but not all) children. 

For primary teachers, part of the  complexity of our work is curriculum design. Each subject we teach has both a unique knowledge base and way of applying that knowledge.  In every subject, emotion and imagination play a role once knowledge is acquired. However, the relationship between knowledge, emotion and imagination varies by subject.  To take an obvious example, to remove emotion from art is to downplay the humanity of the learner and of the subject. The same is true, in different ways, of maths or science. Just as, for a broad education, the differences between learners are as important as the similarities so the uniqueness of each subject is crucial in determining the way knowledge is stored and applied. With ten subjects to teach in primary schools, the tightrope of the teacher is that much harder to walk. 

Whichever way we look at our work, we must not lose sight of the children who face significant barriers to the process of storing and retrieving information in their long term memories. Increasing the amount of practice through tests and reducing the excitement in lessons may not support all children to store information in long-term memories. There never will be a magic wand for learning. Those children who struggle to store and retrieve must not be left to feel of lesser value. They must not be labelled as failures because this will feed a narrative of failure from a young age. Clare Sealy is a superb headteacher of a school that nurtures children in secure relationships. We all need to undertake teaching in all its complex fullness to be effective educators. In that context, applying the work of neuroscience is very important to the success of our children. 

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