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.

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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 (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

A new modern language is coming to your school soon. Are you prepared?

When I go over to Europe, like many other travellers I’m astounded at the amount and diversity of people who can speak in English. I have schoolboy French, cafe Spanish and a strong enough grasp of language theory to read signage, but there’s no denying my lack of fluency and in particular my inability to hear what they say back to me in another language. And that’s not because I can’t understand what they are saying it’s because I can’t hear what they are saying to understand them. Being profoundly deaf means relying on a narrow range of exceptionally unclear and underpowered sound frequencies alongside lipreading. Throw in another language with its nuanced sounds & new phonemes and the processing load is so much that I’m still trying to decipher their opening ‘estoy’ by the time they’ve finished their speech.

Which brings me to the idea of introducing a GCSE in British Sign Language (BSL). I have a confession: I don’t sign – mainly because I wasn’t brought up in a deaf community. I was one of the first in the country to attend mainstream school when all others with my ‘condition’ were shunted off to special school. It wasn’t much fun. Being in the top set for every subject should have gifted me the Education Endowment Fund confirmed top set uplift. However, the downside was no Special Educational Needs Coordinator (SENDCO), no teaching assistants, teachers who mumble, teachers who sat you at the back, teachers who only taught in one channel (my thanks to the dual coders of today – you are helping the deaf pupils) no fellow deaf people and most certainly no BSL anywhere. Which is why I don’t sign. I’m a hearing person in a hearing world who doesn’t hear well rather than have what the deaf community call an ‘I am deaf’ identity.

Today, signing is still uncommon. If a deaf child comes into the school then an Educational Health Care Plan can pay for a signer. Good luck with getting one of them. Better learn to be a lawyer at the same time as signing. And then finding a school that wants to pay the first £6,000 of your support. And then you’ve still got to contend with bearded mumbling teachers teaching in front of brightly lit windows (just because the deaf pupil has a slow, asynchronous second channel doesn’t mean they don’t need the first channel – ever watched live out of sync subtitles?).

Which brings me back to my opening bit about the Europeans being so good at speaking English. Nick Gibb has recently supported the introduction of GCSE BSL. You can imagine it would be quite a popular take up. Modern Languages would benefit from having this socially inclusive newcomer in its midst. A language that learners can use at home and abroad.

BSL is a modern language in its own right and one which is unique. Not because it is signed, but because it lives in perpetual fear of death. Most deaf pupils have hearing parents. They all have to learn BSL as a second language. BSL is only taught by deaf parents to deaf children if the hearing loss is passed on. That’s a very small proportion of the people who are deaf. The language is also struggling due to the migration of deaf children from special schools where deaf communities operate to mainstream schools where deaf communities are not in operation. If they are lucky, they’ll meet a few other deaf people and have access to a signer (as well as a career in law).

If BSL GCSE gets introduced and indeed if the take up is strong this changes BSL as a language. I saw a video where the MP Angela Rayner was talking to her constituents and when one of them was deaf she switched to signing (she has BSL level 2) seamlessly. That’s the vision of BSL – it helps the deaf person access the hearing world. That’s how we should look at Special Needs and Disabilities (SEND) theoretically. I’m only deaf if I can’t access the societal thing which I am experiencing. Disability has liminality. It comes in and out of existence depending on the context. That liminality can be affected by making the context more inclusive – which is why we love all the Europeans speaking English (even though we make our own efforts to learn one or more European languages). When everyone is speaking English we can, as monoglot English speakers, access their society. They even speak English to each other in multi-national cosmopolitan areas – it’s the unifying lanaguge for them all.

There we have the reason for introducing BSL GCSE (and maybe even some at a younger age?) – we can bring that European experience for the monoglot English to the deaf – and keep BSL alive at the same time. And it’s happening – the GCSE will come in, we will find teachers for it and pupils will learn it. It will be fascinating to see it unfold. Mind you, I really ought to learn to sign…

Transposable habitus not disposable habitus

We discuss epistemology frequently here at the university and one thing we look at is whether knowledge is disposable or transposable. If you prioritise knowledge, you want to learn it. You make a conscious effort to recall it. If you don’t value the knowledge, you might comply with holding the knowledge within a context, but then throw it away once you leave the context. Quite simply, it becomes disposable knowledge.

I coined disposable knowledge in my book on technology-led learning. The premise is quite simple and still holds – some knowledge is disposable. E.g., if I want to do something on the computer, I don’t attend a ten week course on Microsoft Word. I google or YouTube some direct instruction, I learn just enough temporarily to undertake the task and then I throw this learning away. I deprioritise it and forget it. Why? Because if I really need it again, I’ll look up the direct instruction again. I perceive that it has little value for me in future unknown situations and therefore it does not get added to my store of highly valued transposable knowledge. There is also no escaping that some knowledge can become more disposable as time passes. Scientific and technological advancement can transfer knowledge from the science domain to the history domain.

Transposable knowledge, habits and skills combined equates to habitus, that term coined by Pierre Bourdieu – whose work has attracted more attention since Ofsted embraced the idea of cultural capital. These ideas all explore a central theme, the unknown future. We build up cultural capital and a transposable habitus that enables us to be successful in different, unknown future areas of our lives. We accept, always, that there are limitations to these concepts of Bourdieu, but this concept of transposable habitus does have a place in education.

We now turn to our teachers and teacher education – where we find trainees are building knowledge, habits and skills for future unknown schools – their transposable habitus which will equip them for a career in teaching and education. However, if they are in a school with a very fixed way of teaching and, even more, if it is a way of teaching that the trainee doesn’t believe in or feels is not evidenced, then it becomes a disposable way of teaching. Instead of moving from one school to the next with a large transposable habitus, they throw portions of it away and enter their next school with a much smaller amount of transposable habitus about teaching. We are fortunate in that our partner schools and mentors understand this and help the trainees explore different ideas about teaching beyond that in their room, department or school. If the mentor doesn’t use a projector, they understand that another school might be passionate about dual coding and so ensure the trainee explores this approach as well as not using a projector. Group work is another example. A good mentor explores both teacher-led and student-led work with their trainee regardless of their personal opinions.

One assessment on our course is that the trainee has to design a sequence of learning (a scheme or unit of work) and accompany it with an essay written at Masters level justifying their designed sequence of learning. They will cite both subject-specific pedagogy, such as the teaching of inference, and they will cite non-subject specific theories of learning: such as cognitive science, constructivism and behaviourism. They can draw on their school placements, the pre-existing planning they have seen and their wider reading for this assessment and it helps them crystallise their professional and autonomous ideas about teaching their subject. The planned learning that makes it into this assessment is the planned learning that they believe in. We are, through this assessment, trying to create in the trainee, transposable habitus that they can take to any school in England.

In designing this sequence of learning they can draw in the ideas, teaching and planning they have undertaken in their school placements. They hold these ideas up to the robust criticality of writing at L7 and justify their personal choices. They begin to make evidence informed decisions about their design of a curriculum. This habitus is transposable. They will hold their future planning up to such standards.

When a recently qualified teacher arrives at your school to begin their early career you have to be careful not to be too judgemental. What if much of what they learned was not valued by them and thus not transposable? What if the ideas they have learned to value aren’t valued at your school? They could have a miserable first year which could end with them leaving the profession. They might write their training and first job off as evidence that they were not cut out for teaching and we might lose an otherwise excellent practitioner. This debate also shows the need for entrenching teacher autonomy. If we want to keep teachers in the profession then we need to think about how to utilise and develop transposable habitus.

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