Cognitive Science v Neuroscience: retrieval at the start of a lesson or not?

Photo by Markus Spiske on Pexels.com

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 (e.g., retrieval practice). 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 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, but more importantly comes first in the time line. And, you might ask yourself, how long is that time line?

Enjoying this blog? Please consider tweeting it out to help share the knowledge in our community.

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 (forgetting) is why teachers are using the conditioning approach of retrieval practice so much). 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 through the ‘testing effect’). 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 activation phase (followed by a delay of some days to allow the biological reformulation of architecture). Update: Phase 1 trials suggest that a 3-7 days gap following activation is the optimum time span.

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 through something called the testing effect. 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.

Controlling the priming event means knowing architecture has formed and is only available for a short window of time and that you can take advantage of this knowledge through a variety of pedagogies. 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 on what we do as teachers is 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 (Phase 1 trials suggest the optimum time for this gap to be 3-7 days), 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 – known as the testing effect. 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, NPQs 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 and we have completed Phase 1. Our thanks to everyone who participated. We are now working on the tool kit for Phase 2. We recruited 40 schools who are currently participating in Phase 2 of 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

New Wave Progressive Teachers

Photo by mikoto.raw on Pexels.com

At a recent conference to prepare the trainees for schools, we asked them what would be the ethos and values of a school they would like to end up working for. The most common answer was ‘progressive’. Here at UOB Towers, we don’t accept the traditional/progressive dichotomy and instead embrace a pluralistic approach which sets out that the evidence informed teacher (and there is a debate about what constitutes evidence) selects the pedagogy best suited to their unique class at any moment in time. So we asked them – what do you mean by progressive?

It turns out that the prog/trad divide was not what the trainees meant. They didn’t mean do group work rather than teach from the front. They were not saying they wanted to work at schools that eschew SLANT and TLAC. What they were saying was they wanted to work for a school that provided a progressive curriculum and a progressive approach to staffing. We asked them what they meant by this. Their early answers on what kind of school they wanted to work for are really quite illuminating.

“A school that has good behaviour management and a strong belief in the arts”

“Accepting, forward thinking, values student and staff well-being, inclusive”

“Strong focus on equality and diversity.”

“A creative teaching environment – progressive.”

“One that values all parts of a student’s wellbeing, Not just the academic side of things.”

“Strong pastoral care and pupil well-being at the core of values. respecting all subjects equally.”

“Clear school-wide systems (behaviour, etc.) and also has staff welfare as a high priority.”

“A school with the ethos of being all about individual students achieving the best they can be – not through grades but in their own abilities.”

“A school that treats all subjects the same, every lesson is important.”

“Engaging with the local community and celebrating of arts, sports and culture.”

“Supportive, progressive and allowing for a number of different teaching approaches.”

These are just a selection, but key themes emerged: inclusivity, diversity, equity, caring, supporting of staff and students and high expectations around student behaviour. They wanted to work in a school which is a tight self-sustaining diverse community heavily supported by SLT with a flatter hierarchical structure where everyone is valued and respected regardless of subject, age, gender, etc., and encouraged to explore a wide range of pedagogies.

Still, this use of the term progressive by trainees who might have no awareness of the prog/trad divide and instead use it with a different meaning intrigued us. ‘Define progressive’ We asked.

“A school that keeps pace with the changing needs of education and the world beyond school – supported through education and extra curricular activities.”

“Progressive to me means continued training on problems that are new for the next generations, training for teachers on current mental health issues, up to date.”

“Progressive – open to new ideas and adapting to change. Modern and relevant teaching.”

“Willing to adapt and use new research along with key principles of teaching to continually adapt teaching methods and styles.”

“A school that won’t be too rigid with how they want lessons delivered. I want to be free to lead my lessons for individual classes and tailor them for their needs.”

The trainees want to be free to read papers and books and try out these new ideas in their teaching. This includes being inclusive, focusing on a work life balance, pupil mental health, approaching the issue of diversity in cohorts and teaching itself, teacher autonomy and really the biggest theme of them all – curriculum. They want a wide curriculum with contemporary relevance in which all subjects and pastoral care contribute to a strong starting platform for young people.

Now, this is simply a couple of hundred trainees starting on their training. Their ideas will change between now and the end of placement, but they aren’t inexperienced. Many come from a background in education or have already held a professional role prior to switching their career to education. It is interesting to see where they are starting from – their values and mores. Further, this is the next generation of teachers. Many of them will go into middle and senior leadership. Their ideas will permeate our profession over the next 5-20 years. It will be interesting to see just what the future might look like under the leadership of these new wave progressive teachers.

Tables in the classroom good. Tables facing the front better

 

You see it all the time, some edutweeters responding to an edutwitter discussion about how to teach with a self-defined single model version of teaching: ‘All desks facing the front, teacher at the front.’

And let me start by saying that there is a lot of truth in that particular model. If I have them in groups and then ask them to listen whilst I am giving instructions or doing a similar teacher led activity then I’m just asking for them to not pay attention. You can call it whatever you want, but sometimes it really does work if I have them all facing me when I am teaching.

However, once I’ve completed that learning event and moved on, then I need to consider what the best room layout is for the next learning event. I can’t have one model of desk layout always employed regardless of the activity.  If I was then doing an activity with group work, allocating different roles and they had to work effectively as a team, then I don’t want all the desks giving them physical barriers to represent their internal ones. They are going to have to learn how to collaborate because that’s pretty much what it means to be a citizen in a society – in work, rest and play. That’s why PISA are testing it and why we are good at it. Covid19 naturally affected this, but the reality is that are slowly returning to working collaboratively in groups within our classrooms.

So, I want to move the desks. Sometimes I move the desks into group tables. Sometimes, I reduce the number the tables in play by only giving a group a single table around which they have to sit. More room for the sitting part & my circulation and more intimacy for the group work – there must not be hiding room in good group work. Too often, we give them a tiny working area for close text or number analysis sat on an island of tables and mini-cliques can quickly emerge which render the group work a poor vehicle for learning. And then here is the important part, if I then moved to another teacher-led learning event I would move the tables again. Only, I would not do this personally – the pupils would be trained to move those tables on my direction, lift – not drag, in a display of co-ordinated table movement, rather like when one turns the dial on a prism viewfinder. I like teaching with plural models of teaching and I like teaching with plural models of desk layouts.

My tables are moved then, habitually, to suit the activity. Whole room clearance for drama pedagogy, Socratic questioning circles, work performance review, partial clearance for group activities and then back to formal rows for teacher-led and the opening and closing of my lesson. It sounds a lot, but in reality there might be 2-3 minor movements in a single lesson. Each movement of tables is an aesthetic display of coordinated memorised room shaping by the pupils. Once I had trained them into creating the half dozen table layout shapes I employed over the year they had no problem in creating them at speed. If you consider Sweller’s cognitive load like many do, then you should be buying into creating the optimum environment for each activity in your room, each and every time without any disruption. You should also be thinking about the limitations for any model of education in any particular situation with any group of people in a place of education. And you should be thinking about the limitations of always advocating a single model of teaching or education to others. Dichotomy in Edutwitter is a real issue and a red herring. You reduce teacher agency with educational dichotomies. Let well trained teachers choose how to teach each unique class that they have.

This plural approach to teaching models is the real demonstration of how teachers teach – adapting their classrooms for maximum learning.