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It’s a simple premise: if you think memory is important to learning, then memory formation is, by this very argument, important as well. And memory formation comes before memory conditioning, With the publication of a neuroscience paper on memory formation we now have convergence between cognitive science’s research in how memory works [in education] with neuroscience’s research in how memory works. Remembering knowledge over time and how to do something, after a gap of time, are very much vogue in education right now and rightly so. However, this article is about the publication of neuroscience research and what this neuroscience paper suggests about the way some in education will approach their lesson design as a consequence (a longer write up of these ideas can be found here).

Let’s get some caveats out the way. The research in this paper is about cells in the the brain and formation of memory through the expression of genes. It’s not about the more social concept of mind, nor indeed does the paper suggest what teachers might do with this new knowledge of the brain. I’m not claiming that this paper proves anything about how we should teach, but I’m aware that it does bring criticality to the way that some think that memories are formed and need to be conditioned (especially within education) and so it is worth investigation. It’s such a simple premise: do you think memory is important to learning? If the answer is yes, then memory formation is just as important as memory conditioning.

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So what does this neuroscience paper say? Well it said that the formation and recall of memory works a bit like a body reacting to a vaccine. The first jab makes the body receptive to it and gets it ready for the booster. When the booster arrives a surge of gene expression takes place, the strength of which controls the number of cells ready to be recalled in case they are required (e.g. if an infection shows up then the body is ready to react). So there are three parts of the process. The initial activation is the first step – this is where memory is formed for the first time. The next part of the priming process is at a genetic level – a reformulation of the cell architecture which is effectively ‘readying architecture for gene expression’. Finally, a warm reactivation event in which expression of the arc gene happens across the reformulated architecture ready for future remembering. The reactivation event is the crucial event. We can speculate then, that when you teach you are laying down the first activation- a first pass of the schema* itself, but the gene expression at this point will be small. Indeed, over time, the effectiveness will wane as the potential memory cells have not had a second reactivation event (weak remembering is why teachers are using the conditioning approach of retrieval practice). When you do enter the reactivation window that is when you supercharge the memory cell formation. Further, should you need the schema to be ready for recall and to be produced on demand (e.g. an examination), you undertake a warm reactivation event yet again to prepare for the recall (retrieval) event itself. Instead of going straight into a full retrieval of memory cold, there should be a warm up process where you are getting the memory ready to access the schema in case it is required. Then you should ask for a full retrieval. It is very important to note the distinction between retrieval (accessing memory cells) and retrieval practice (conditioning a rote response to stimuli). Our work here is focused on the strong formation of memory and subsequent strong remembering, not on conditioning a response.

*Note discussions around the concept of schema

3 Stage Process of Priming

Stage 1 – teaching and re-teaching of new/schema through an acitvation phase (followed by a delay of some days to allow the biological reformulation of architecture)

Stage 2 – warm reactivation of the schema leading to revisiting the schema from Stage 1 (this triggers the expression of the arc gene needed for memory formation)

Stage 3 – remembering of schema associated to Stage 2 alongside teaching of new schema

How does this affect teaching then? Well, currently, there is a lot of focus on retrieval practice, a psychological conditioning process – retrieving knowledge repeatedly with the view to making the recall stronger. Yet this paper is suggesting that there is a big elephant in the room. Memory formation needs to happen first. And memory formation takes much longer than you think. If you go straight for a retrieval quiz then that’s the equivalent of asking the schema to be recalled without having reformulated cells ready to express the arc genes. You are still in the activation phase. It’s not necessarily strengthening the memory formation. Cold questions and retrieval quizzes at the start of the lesson and very soon after the first learning don’t reflect what this neuroscience research says. What you should be doing is something else – controlling the priming event. Think about discussions and recaps of the topic – quite wide ranging discussions rather than small minutiae. Then, in the main part of the lesson, the small minutiae will more accurately be recalled and more importantly, the process of priming and the subsequent remembering (producing memory to face the challenge) will work more effectively. It is important to see the nuances here of some of the things we do in teaching. Retrieval at the start of a lesson of content that is not going to be used is reactivating the wrong (cells containing the) schema. In addition, that’s a different process altogether – that’s conditioning – (retrieval and retrieval practice are two different things). According to the science in this paper, you want to be ensuring that you actually work with the schema for which the cellular architecture was created as that will lead to expression of arc genes which are responsible for creating more memories. In some ways the paper informs us on the gaps between cognitive science and neuroscience.

The main gap is this – much of the work is on what we do as teachers once memory has been formed: reducing extraneous load, conditioning memory through revisiting and so forth. However, all of this practice is reliant on the idea that memory is formed in a one off event and that we begin the conditioning process immediately. What the science in this paper says is that is not how memory is formed. And this has implications for the way we as teachers approach learning. There is a period of time where memory is formed. It’s not instantaneous and nor is it the time for conditioning. Instead, it’s the time for supercharging memory formation. If memory is important to learning, then creating strong memories could, we speculate, lead to more efficient use of time by a teacher later on once memory has been formed. Less time spent conditioning memory would free up time for more learning of further knowldge to take place – but that’s something for our research study to consider.

The future could be, one could speculate – not starting the lesson with the conditioning process of retrieval practice, but starting the lesson with warm reactivation of the schema and with a teacher awareness of who is not meeting this learning for the second time (e.g. absences, barriers to learning) and how long it has been since the activation phase. In particular, you should not start the lesson with retrieval of schema which won’t be used in the lesson as this does not lead to expression of the arc gene necessary for memory formation. The lesson itself should contain both remembering and new learning together as the brain constructs the new knowledge (or skill) into gene expression and starts to get further architecture ready for the next warm reactivation event. When that happens, it will be ready to swing into action with both the original knowledge and the new knowledge constructed into a single schema. This stronger formation of memory will lead to better remembering and require less future retrieval practice (because we currently use conditioning to supplement weak memory formation). Retrieval should still form part of the lesson, but if incorporated into the main lesson following a warm reactivation event at the start of the lesson then it will be more effective. And lastly, remember, the schema used should be relevant to the lesson.

It is a potential change in the sequence of learning that we have come to see become quite mainstream. First, an activation event, then a gap of time to allow for reformulation of the cell architecture, then either a warm reactivation event alone or warm reactivation and new knowledge together to start the architectural reformulation necessary for expression of the arc gene in the next warm reactivation event. In addition, less retrieval practice is necessary. This is because we currently use retrieval practice (interleaved or not) to condition a pupil into producing knowledge in response to a question. By making the original formation of memory stronger through the priming process (expression of the arc gene) remembering will be stronger. You are supercharging the formation of memory through creating more gene expression at cell level. We have worked up further thinking here on what the implications would be for interleaved retrieval pratice, Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction, OFSTED inspections, NPQ and even SEND. All of these areas could be affected by this concept of supercharging memory formation.

There is lot of theorising there and I’m sure those with good knowledge of both science and education will be able to add more thoughts. This paper does not at any point inform us how to teach and it’s important to emphasise that point. There is a major caveat also which is that taking science and turning it into educational practice has lots of limitations in terms of ecological validity. However, it is an interesting paper and it does suggest a different, and scientific rather than theoretical, model of how memory is formed and how a priming event could be better than retrieval for the start of a lesson.

We have launched a two phase project to investigate the concept of priming and enhancing the formation of memory using these ideas. The active part of this project will run from September 2021 to July 2022. We have recruited 40 schools who are currently participating in this research. If you are interested in being part of this research (we still have space for further schools in phase 2) or any other research projects then drop me an email at james.shea@beds.ac.uk or you can find me on Twitter at @englishspecial.

Dr James Shea, Principal Lecturer in Teacher Education

Copyright © 2021. James Shea. All rights reserved

4 thoughts on “Cognitive Science v Neuroscience: retrieval at the start of a lesson or not?

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