“If you have a spare half-hour or so, you could read Memorable Teaching from cover to cover. I doubt you’ll find an education book with more useful insights per minute of reading time.” – Dylan Wiliam – Emeritus Professor of Educational Assessment, UCL @dylanwiliam
“These are just some of my reflections from Peps Mccrea’s genius book. I can only describe the contents of this book like going to the opticians for my regular check-up and having the optician telling me, after my eye test, I need to purchase new lens for my glasses, now I see better and with Peps’ insights I and my students will be better at learning in the future.” @mrdavidjoyce65 July 2019 Thanks to @PepsMccrea
What does our “memory architecture” consist of?
“Memorable teaching is about building deep, powerful and lasting understanding, by making students more confident and independent, by making you more informed and effective.” (Peps Mccrea)
So, as teachers, where do we start? Firstly, we must understand how our brains work in the first place and then apply this knowledge to a simple model, in a contextual way, to understand how we achieve memorable teaching, our goal.
How we learn (figure 1) Ambition Institute @Ambition_Inst
Our brain comprises of two interacting components, Working Memory (WM) and Long-term Memory (LTM) and their actions are at the heart of how we learn. Our LTM is where we store knowledge, this in turn, represents our view of the world around us and who we are. This knowledge is dynamic; it is constantly being updated or deleted as a result of thinking and interactions with our environment. Peps draws a useful analogy that “our LTM is more like a forest than a library.” All teachers want to increase the life chances of their students, the best way we can achieve this is to help them develop more powerful LTM.
To develop a more powerful LTM requires knowledge, comprehensive and organised, to allow depth; and we want students to access their LTM easier so they build on their learning when faced with new information, we want durability, we want it to last, not be forgotten. Pep reminds us of our responsibility as teachers is to help our students build deep and durable LTM, to build enduring understanding (see figure 2)
How do we achieve Depth and Durability? We need to know how WM works…
WM facilitates three interacting processes:
- Attention We select what to focus on for further thinking.
- Short-term memory We temporarily hold these foci in our mind.
- Elaboration We attempt to make sense of these objects of focus, drawing on our LTM, and modifying that LTM as a result
The interactions of these three processes in the context of LTM will determine what is learn, whether that is a lot or little, however, we can shift the learning in a favourable direction by having a greater understanding how the actual process works so our teaching has the highest impact on our students’ learning.
We need to think of LTM as the Knowledge and WM as Thinking, that way, the more we know, the better we will think and this idea has become known as The Matthew Effect, as teachers, we must see ourselves as the catalyst for this effect, but first we need a set of memory-oriented teaching principles to guide our practice that acts as the desired catalyst with high potency.
How does Mccrea suggest that we manage information and streamline communication?
As teachers working in an environment rich in information, from multiple sources, it is important we use our expertise and energy to decide what to focus our thinking on next, where best invest our attention.
If attention is our friend then distraction is a foe. Distraction can come in many forms, you might already be thinking low level disruption in the classroom, students talking but not about the learning, however, it goes much deeper than that, remember, attention drives thinking, so whatever information you present to your student must make them think the shortest route to your learning intention, and Pep refers to this as a desirable. Everything else is a distraction. Teachers must eliminate/minimise distraction and maximise desirables. If it does not add to the learning then it will subtract learning, not desirable.
Firstly, to minimise distraction you need to know what they are, for example:
- Displays – Unless the information is desirable, regularly used or in the moment, then it will be a distraction for the student and will subtract from the learning.
- Clocks – Can trigger inappropriate thinking; if you need one put it at the back of the classroom facing away from their viewpoint.
- Music – Unless it offsets a greater distracting sound then it is a distraction.
We need to be conscious of these entities, what things add and what things subtract so our students’ attention is focused on the information that will get them to the learning intention the shortest possible route.
Well established classroom routines will have a big impact on desirable thinking, Do Now for example, Specific, Concrete, Sequential and Observable instructions ensure focus, the silence provides no interruptions, no distractions, and thinking is focused on the task. Peps talks about Interruptions are the enemy of critical explanation & discussion; they slow learning and increase mistakes. Building a culture of strong discipline encourages desirables and reduces distraction. Having a No Phone policy reduces the distraction. Probably the most common distraction is by the teacher, I’m guilty of it and I make a conscious effort to regulate it, what am I talking about, feeling the urge to talk when my students are in silence, working independently and as of a result I have interfered with my students’ thinking.
Learning tasks and activities
Pep goes on to talk about Learning tasks and activities and the fact they can themselves be a distraction:
- Redundant information – Only include text & images which are really needed on activity slides/worksheets and including our economy of language, do not use unnecessary words in our expositions/explanations, concise will lead to focus, focus has our attention, attention dictates our thinking, we want our thinking taking us on the shortest route to the learning intention.
- Real-life context – A big misconception teachers have acquired in recent years is that somehow putting the learning intention into a real-life context makes it easier to learn, it does not. Why? Because it levies additional burden on mental processes e.g. adding to cognitive load. Only use if it actually helps them to understand quicker/better or is part of their learning outcomes.
- Unnecessary complexity – Beware of embedding learning into a game or even a poster/PowerPoint; these methods do more damage as the learners’ thinking is distracted e.g. Using PowerPoint their attention is drawn to fonts, colours/sizes, inserting pictures/videos etc, and shifts the learning pathway (shortest possible route) away from the learning intention.
We are reminded of the challenges we teachers face in a digital world which has evolved at such an alarming rate and is prevalent in all of our lives on a daily basis.
The key takeaway message (see figure 3) for teachers is “eliminating distractions is a liberating practice. It frees up more time to spend on desirable thinking. How do we make the most of the time and information we are left with?”
How does he suggest that we regulate cognitive load?
We must understand what we mean by cognitive load before we can think about how we can regulate a person’s thinking. Cognitive load is how much information we can process in our WM at any given moment in the present. The challenge then becomes not only managing what our students are thinking but also how hard they are thinking. “Learning happens when people have to think hard.” Coe
Our WM has evolved to process 2-3 big ideas at once, evidence-informed research beyond this performance rapidly declines, and this is referred to as overload by default. This phenomenon has a constant presence in our practice and we must respect it and act accordingly knowing the implications it will have on the learner if we break the rules. Because teachers are experts a lot of knowledge is familiar to them and it can be tricky deciding how much information you will give to their attention, too little and they will not learn, too much and they will not learn. Pep refers to this as Expert induced blindness. The answer is obviously a balancing act to ensure you have the right amount. As my practice has developed over the years I find it most helpful to think backwards from the learning intention; what information do I need to answers that, what did I need to know to get to that and keep going backwards until to you get to the start of the task. The rationale I use is I need to think like a novice at the beginning and by the end (learning intention) I am thinking like an expert. Pep reminds us that we are continually exploring unfamiliar materials with our students and giving those tasks which they cannot do yet and this is the risk we need to consider and put in suitable control measures to avoid the hazard, cognitive overload. Using Stop & Jot frees-up cognitive load by the students writing down the key information you want them to know and thus removing from their WM. Turn & Talk promotes it’s retrieval from LTM so not using WM. If we can keep cognitive load reduced (less information in their heads) then the learner can use more of it to think and manipulate the information/knowledge we want them to learn.
The demand put on the WM can be regulated by adjusting the following factors:
- Complexity – number of elements at any given time and how they interact
- Dependency – How much prior knowledge/skills are required?
- Autonomy – How much are we asking students to do in their heads?
- Familiarity – The ease the students can recognise and navigate the activity
Peps recommends several more strategies for regulating load and to what degree they are effective:
- Decomposition – Chunking (breaking down into small pieces)
- Recycling structures – Do Now, I Do, We do, You do, Exit Tickets, Cold Call, Show Call, Stop & Jot, Stretch Task, Mastery Quizzes, etc
- Outsourcing – leaving visible Persistent examples or important knowledge
Substituting LTM – Knowledge Organisers, writing frames, exemplar models (this only works short-term so the goal is to remove the scaffold)
by David Joyce July 2019 @mrdavidjoyce65