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

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With the publication of a neuroscience paper on recall and 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 (especially within education) and so it is important.

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 (followed by a delay to allow 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 nuance to be appreciated scientifically. 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. It’s not necessarily strengthening the memory formation. Cold questions and retrieval quizzes at the start of the lesson don’t reflect what this neuroscience research says. What you should be doing is something lighter – 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 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). 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. 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 recruitment for 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. The recruitment part of this project is now running from March to July 2021. If you are interested in being part of this research 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, Senior Lecturer in Teacher Education

Copyright © 2021. James Shea. All rights reserved

Lockdown Learning for Schools in September

red and white signage
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When the lockdown came for us in teacher education here at UOB towers, it was like we had been building up to this, technologically, for some time. Little did we realise it, but the past two years that we had been piloting webinars, developing online teaching pedagogies and moving face to face delivery to online delivery were going to become very relevant. The reason we were developing this was quite simple: mentors having to drive a long distance to mentor development face to face sessions were delighted to sit and have a webinar from home instead with a cup of tea beside them and with no commuting. We had just started to experiment using the flexibilities offered by this technology with some of our trainees when the university shut its doors for COVID19 and our entire programme, overnight, moved online. The same content got taught at the time it was scheduled. Live and exceptionally well attended webinars replaced face to face sessions and it was as seamless as switch as you could imagine. From the trainees’ end, this was a bit of a shock (they relied on the physical library more than I thought), but to their credit they have been very resilient despite the challenges of losing physical interaction with their peers and tutors as well as a change in approach to teaching. No matter what we try to do as tutors, we cannot replicate the live synchronous and emotive experience of learning that happened in the physical classroom (I am from the reader response school of thought) and I think we all see the online version as an inferior substitute to the real thing. Though, to be fair to online live webinars, there are some sessions which have proved to better suited to webinars – ‘preparation for assignment’ type seminars where thinking time, intense question and answer sessions and the ability to record everything have proved to be a superior model.

We are fortunate in our School of Teacher Education to have well designed Virtual Learning Environment technology underpinning our delivery. Technology that was designed and used to deliver taught and assessed units within courses (as opposed to Zoom etc., being designed for business). The students, as I said, overnight, have remained enrolled in units, enrolled on courses and ‘attending’ designated sessions as timetabled. The staff are teaching as much as they ever were and apart from some tricky assessment modifications we’ve by and large ensured that the trainees have had a smooth transition in terms of academic input. This shows that we are benefiting from the level of technological infrastructure in homes, with trainees and with the university. Indeed, business and charities are in a similar position – the flexibility of technology has enabled us all to deploy social distancing as a strategy to push back against the R rate.

Thinking about schools now, it is clear that the way forward will be an adherence to the current rule no unnecessary close social interactions. If you can work from home or learn from home using the flexibility of technology you should and alternatively if you can run your business or attend somewhere with social distancing then you can do that. That’s the way the UK has chosen to keep R down (there are other models: Sweden, South Korea and so forth). Some people have to go to a workplace and more people will go back to a workplace as they open up with social distancing in place, but some people can continue to work from home. The same doesn’t quite apply to pupils in schools. Most pupils will have to go to school and be taught via traditional pedagogies by teachers in face to face sessions for some of the time if not all of the time. In the classrooms, social distancing  can and will have to be practiced (due to smaller numbers in school through rota systems). Some pupils will learn online effectively, because they have the environment and technology to do so. Some pupils who could stay at home will go to school because they don’t have the learning environment to learn from home. Those pupils who can learn from home will be taught by teachers using online pedagogies to supplement the face to face teaching. Teachers and schools from September will need to be able to teach face to face and to teach online. What teachers and schools are doing, on behalf of the government, is deploying the flexibility offered by technology to reduce social interactions. It could be that once the R rate comes down and test and trace becomes much better in terms of its success rate that the government will switch to an approach where social interaction is not so heavily repressed, but until we see the infection rate come down and the test and trace capacity increase we have to think about logistics based on current approaches.

My job as a course leader of teacher education is to ensure that the teachers coming in can teach online as well as face to face. We are already doing this for the outgoing cohort. They would normally have run a face to face ResearchEd style conference to finish the course. This year, they will run that conference as an online conference. Live webinars will replace the keynotes and the breakout presentations. They will put on an entire day of live webinar based learning for each other. We are already looking to enhance next year’s cohort’s knowledge of TEAMS and so forth as part of our planning.

When I look to the future (as someone who has written frequently about technology in education), I can see that blended learning is about to become a reality for everyone. You can have social distancing in schools because you must – for those who will attend school. You can have live teaching online because you must – for those who can study from home for some of the time. I know that live webinars are not as good as face to face sessions, but that’s not the important part right now. What’s important is to keep unnecessary social interactions to a minimum whilst maximising safeguarding and education.  There will be regional variations as well – schools and parents in an area seeing a rise in transmission could expect to be placed back on extensive lockdown. Teachers will be, for next year at least, waiting for the COVID19 phone call as opposed to the OFSTED call.

Fast reading and fast readers

“But the privations, or rather the hardships, of Lowood lessened. Spring drew on: she was indeed already come; the frosts of winter had ceased; its snows were melted, its cutting winds ameliorated.”

(Charlotte Brontë, Jayne Eyre)

I always recall the word ameliorated as it turned up in Jane Eyre when I studied it for A level. ‘What an unusual word,’ I remember thinking at the time. Clearly it means the weather improved or changed. An unusual word and it drew attention to the pathetic fallacy in the text reflecting the shifting plot. If I was reading it out aloud I’d add a spring like tone to the sound of it to add a reading cue for the listener. This is why when we listen to good readers we understand the meaning more efficiently.

What happened there was inference. As a reader, motoring through the text at full speed you meet uncommon words. You may, as was the case with me at the time, be meeting the word for the first time. However, most times, with a combination of grammar and reading cues, you can decode enough of the meaning to continue reading without pausing to look the word up. This is a very specific reading skill which overcomes the raised extraneous and intrinsic load of meeting a new word whilst reading at pace. Decoding and inference at pace is what you need to be able to do in order to be a reader who can switch to different texts at ease – older texts, texts from other countries, texts in translation, texts with stylistic adaptations for effect and so forth.

Now I say all this because recently an interesting paper garnered attention in the English teaching community. The paper focused on what it called ‘fast reading’. It’s an unfortunate phrase that gives you the image of a teacher rattling through a text at speed. In fact, it means a teacher reading without interruption, without popcorning to other children in the class, without pausing to discuss the impending doom captured by the cleverly inserted pathetic fallacy, but instead consciously embedding tone and emphasis which provide reading cues. There is much merit in this – fast reading will help children decode and infer at speed and be able to use this ability to infer meaning when reading other new texts for themselves. You would, of course, then still be wise to explicitly teach inference at pace amongst other aspects of the teaching of inference. Teaching inference is a large part of what an English teacher does and is rooted in reading, listening and in processing the language with sophistication.

All good so far, what’s the issue? Well, one thing teachers have taken to is pre-teaching vocabulary before a chapter. This means the teacher will pre-read the chapter, identify the new words likely to trip up the readers and then pre-teach them before the reading of the text. This removes the extraneous load of meeting a new word and therefore makes the reading experience have a lower intrinsic load. You can see here the immediate issue – the pupils aren’t developing the decoding and inference skills needed to process new words at speed in fast reading. Pre-teaching vocabulary isn’t transferable to a new text. A pupil can’t pre-read a chapter, identify the new words then pre-teach themselves the words before reading the chapter again.

The answer is complicated again. There are times when a word can be solved by grammar or reading cues to a strong enough degree. The reader has to be able to decipher the words to the degree needed to function. I could read, ‘The nearest elder, a Ntask, was still several miles away…’ I can see the unusual word ‘Ntask’ is a proper noun, a name of an elder, this person might have some kind of rank, status or gender, but in terms of reading I can carry on without needing to stop and start looking this up. If, however, the sentence becomes impenetrable and my reading is wholly arrested by my inability to decode a word I might stop, lightly hold my finger on the word and my kindle would very kindly pop up a definition of the word including ‘in usage’.

Now, in an English class, the reality is I can’t simply hold my finger on the word because we have paper books and I have a whole class of pupil readers with me. So there will be times when I pre-teach vocabulary. There will be times when I do pause at a new word with the class and quickly teach the inference needed to decode the word. I have got to expose them to the raised intrinsic load which has been delivered by the raised extraneous load and then teach them how to resolve this using decoding and inference.

Inference itself goes much deeper than this light touch analysis. We are English teachers and we can pause and dwell on a passage before going ever and ever deeper into a text. But at the same time, we must be careful to not think that removing extraneous load in reading is always helpful. In some instances, it removes intrinsic load and the pupil never gets to develop the transferable knowledge and skill necessary to read at speed in such a way that it brokers them to other texts.

Our challenge, as English teachers, is not to teach them solely for the measurable now, but also for the unmeasurable future. A time when we hope our former pupils are enjoying reading a wide range of new and challenging texts for themselves as adult readers.