Cognitive Science v Neuroscience: ‘priming’ – could it change how we teach?

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Recently, @TeacherTapp recommended our blog titled: ‘Cognitive Science v Neuroscience: retrieval at the start of a lesson or not?‘ based on research in a neuroscience paper on how memory is formed and it has produced quite a strong, but positive reaction. Experienced and new teachers alike have said how the key process of ‘priming‘, a process of how memory formation happens ready for retrieval or constructing new knowledge or skill (a process which we established in our blog), resonates with their experiences and indeed CPD offered by many in education. It changes the debate around memory, the formation of it and how we approach education – if we believe that we can appropriate ideas from both cognitive science and neuroscience into education (note the many limitations with doing exactly that). This further blog aims to revisit key aspects of educational ideas and policies which are reliant on the notion of how memory is formed through this new lens of priming. It must be said that this blog is theoretical speculation and is done to give you some scope of where we will be looking to research the concept of priming and to explore if there is evidence to support this idea.

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The immediate response from the original blog was that interleaved retrieval practice could have more limitations than we first thought. For example, doing interleaved retrieval practice at the start of a lesson in which the retrieved schema is not going to be used in the lesson would be working with the wrong memory cells (containing the schema) if we follow the neuroscience research outcomes. Instead of readying the reformulated architecture or strengthening the memory cells for the lesson, it is readying unrelated memory cells that do not have reformulated architecture ready for gene expression. In other words, the start of a lesson isn’t the right place for interleaved retrieval practice. The good news is that online asynchronous learning has been accelerated in its development and uptake over the last year thanks to the reduction in the number of children going to schools during so called ‘lockdowns’ (schools never closed(!!)). Interleaved retrieval practice therefore could still have a place online and asynchronously. However, the practice would need to change from being cold retrieval practice to a two step process of warm reactivation and then retrieval practice. This could be achieved, for example, through undertaking reflection, watching a short video, viewing some modelling or perhaps writing out a non-assessed overview e.g. a synopsis of a play. There are clearly implications here for how online learning is constructed and so that area is something to revisit separately. Further, the gap in time between revisiting learning and the way we revisit learning is affected. Too soon and the cells have not reformulated their architecture ready for expression of the arc gene. Too late and with no priming then no expression of the arc gene takes place.

There are further areas where our ideas about memory are predicated in policy and practice. Take, for example, the notion that ‘learning is a change in long term memory’. This is a prevalent idea found in the OFSTED research framework and the OFSTED inspection handbook which talks about teachers ensuring that pupils ’embed key concepts…and apply them fluently’ (p.44) as well as ‘transfer key knowledge to long term memory’ (ibid). These ideas are now in the Core Curriculum Framework (CCF) for trainee teachers upon which the Early Career Framework (ECF) is founded and also the NPQ suite of qualifications (for first teaching 2021 onwards) have been built. The CCF and the NPQ suite of qualifications sets out ideas such as ‘…committing some key facts to their long-term memory is likely to help pupils learn more complex ideas.’ (p.11) and very importantly, ‘Requiring pupils to retrieve information from memory, and spacing practice so that pupils revisit ideas after a gap are also likely to strengthen recall’ (p.12). All of this language is clearly from ideas that have emerged through cognitive science. The fundamental ideas here stems from the paper from Kirchner, Sweller and Clark which focuses on the concept of working memory and the limitations of asking working memory to learn or problem solve without prior instruction (discovery learning). The neuroscience model of memory formation adds to this language and enables us to revisit some of these core concepts. Memory, according to the research in the neuroscience paper cited at the start of this article, is formed through expression of the arc gene. By controlling the priming process large increases in gene expression can be produced at the points of memory formation which leads to enhanced remembering. Why this process has evolved is unclear, but a workable analogy is that memory can be used as almost an immune response to threats (retrieval and/or problem solving/constructing new knowledge or skill (creativity?)). Problem solving, we could theorise then, requires a series of processes to be successful. An initial activation event, a period of time, and then a warm reactivation event in which both retrieval and construction of knowledge happen simultaneously – there would be initial activation and expression of the arc gene happening simultaneously. The key concept is that remembering works like an immune response to a threat. How strong that response is relies on the original gene expression at the point of memory formation. To respond to this threat requires both strong retrieval and constructivist thinking. If the memory has not been strengthened by expression of the arc gene prior to retrieval then the resultant retrieval will be weaker than if the full priming process had been used. Further, if you are undertaking retrieval practice to strengthen the memory (in cognitive science words, to put knowledge into long term memory) then cold retrieval practice does not necessarily lead to the expression of the arc gene necessary for a subsequent strengthening of the memory. Cold problem solving, cold questioning, cold retrieval practice; all these do not fit with the neuroscience evidence of how memory cells are strengthened (memory formation with gene expression) or used effectively to deal with the subsequent activities which rely on memory (remembering). I suppose it’s a little like the athlete who spends time visualising and reflecting prior to an event – in effect, getting themselves ready ahead of the event (threat) following winter training. Controlling the priming process enhances both the remembering (what to do) alongside the constructivist problem solving (how to resolve an unexpected threat). What ‘learning’ is then, if we follow this train of thought, is not necessarily ‘a change in long term memory’ – long term memory is not a static schema that remains the same. You learn it and then you strengthen it ready for future use. You then also are aware of the priming process for its use at a point in the future. Retrieval practice alone, then, does not strengthen as effectively as memory which has been formed through a priming process. The memories therefore require the full priming process if they are to be strengthened and in order to be able to work at peak effect at some unknown point in the future. Memory can wane just like your immune system can wane. Yet, given the right priming it can be ready to retrieve and problem solve a threat a long time after the original learning and priming process actually strengthened the gene expression.

At a visual level, imagine that there are ten cells. One becomes populated with memory through the initial activation, but no reactivation through a process of priming. Through conditioning (retrieval practice), you can make the one cell very efficient at producing the memory at will to a specific stimulus. Imagine now that controlling priming to enhance gene expression (the arc gene which is associated with memory) brings 9 more cells into play. The memory now sits in ten cells and thus the original formation was much stronger. The resultant remembering is supercharged and thus is able to be used more effectively within future learning opportunities. It also requires less future retrieval practice conditioning. Indeed, the science says that subsequent revisits to the memory are not having the same impact on the expression of the arc gene as the second encounter with the learning. That second encounter and how it happens is where the majority of gene expression is happening.

Learning, then, happens as part of a process. New knowledge is constructed into pre-existing knowledge but then needs to go through a priming process to be expressed in the form of the arc gene. The whole priming process is essential as this is what causes the amplification of expression of the arc gene to happen. Although the whole process is important, the ‘learning as a change in long term memory’, if defined by gene expression, is happening predominantly during the reactivation event. But alone, it is insufficient: it needs to be taught, a period of time allowed, warmly reactivated and then it is ready for strong remembering for ‘threats’. Those threats should be both retrieval (known threat) and constructivist retrieval (unknown threat). In short, it is a moving sequence vulnerable to time delays and cold threats rather than a static schema which sits in the long term memory.

What does this look like at the level of lesson or learning episode? Well it begins to adapt some of the pedagogical tools we use – in particular formative and summative assessment (threats) as well problem solving or creativity and the length of time between the initial encounter with learning and when and how it is revisited. A first teaching should be followed by a period of time to allow for cell reformulation . The warm reactivation becomes the super important event. It suggests that before introducing a ‘threat’ during the revisiting for the second time – whether that be Year 1 painting in primary school or leading a Q&A session in English, you would undertake a non-threatening priming activity as a pre-activity. Not low stakes retrieval practice, but low stakes warm reactivation. To be very honest, this is not wholly new – doing a pre-questioning session to make a Q&A session better than a cold Q&A session is something teachers already do. Questions like ‘Do you like Lady Macbeth?’ would be a clear warm reactivation question. There isn’t any right answer, but the cells containing the memories would be readied. If asked later on for Lady Macbeth quotations the pupil’s memory cells would retrieve these successfully and also this would lead to expression of the arc gene. This is a reversal of what is currently happening.

I suppose at this point we begin to reflect on cold assessment. Every teacher knows that cold assessment is never as successful as assessment where the learning has been warmly reactivated first. It makes us consider if our wholly cold national assessment system is an accurate way to measure learning amongst children as well as the quality of teaching in schools. It would be interesting to see what effect controlling priming would have on large scale assessment systems such as mock examinations. Warm reactivation before mock examinations could be more effective at strengthening memory that simply delivering cold mock examinations. There is something to be said there about how a teacher knows better what a student’s knowledge or skill is like because they see the student in operation when they are primed rather than in the cold examination hall. It possibly also explains how a student can prime themselves more effectively for an exam than they ever did in class and thus score more effectively in the cold formal exam than they did at school (e.g. in a mock examination where they were not primed nor motivated to prime themselves).

Another area worth revisiting is Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction. Here we see the idea that we should be reteaching that which has not been retrieved accurately. However, if the reason that the retrieval was unsuccessful was that there was weak memory formation then this reteaching could be simply relaying down foundational knowledge rather than creating the priming process for expression of the arc gene needed for a stronger future remembering. With the idea that memories can get better at responding to threats (retrievals) by being warmly reactivated first and then exposed to the threat, simply retrieving at the start is not the right idea. Indeed, one of Rosenshine’s key principles ‘…the review at the start of the lesson…’ (Rosenshine, 1982, p.8), is very nearly there. It’s just been conflated with contemporary ideas of retrieval practice and sometimes reduced to cold quizzes at the start of a lesson – further more, not enough attention has been paid to whether it is a second revisiting and how much time has lapsed between the initial encounter with the learning and the second revisiting.

It’s important to think about how we could further support children with learning difficulties through priming. By offering CPD to support teaching assistants in the theory of priming they could better understand just how important theories such as Porges’ work on the Automatic Nervous System (ANS). In his modelling, some learners who have had adverse childhood experiences (which could well include negative school experiences due to early issues with learning needs) have amplified ANS responses. In other words, when faced with ‘cold’ unprimed ‘threats’ (cold questioning, cold retrieval practice, examinations, etc.) some children respond with ANS driven fight or flight responses. By introducing warm reactivation ahead of such situations, support assistants could modify the ANS response, reduce behaviour-led responses and increase successful retrieval and construction of new knowledge or skills. Those with SEND can also have higher absence rates or simply have insufficient adaption in a lesson – this could affect the priming process: the initial event, the period of reformulation and then the expression of the arc gene are all susceptible to absences or issues with access to learning (barriers to learning).

I’m sure we could go on, but it is worth thinking about how enshrined our ideas about memory are into the way we train teachers, leaders, inspect schools and so forth. The new ideas from neuroscience both complements some of these ideas and challenges them, but also refines the language as well as lends criticality to the way we understand the processes. However, it does need a jolt of reality. Much of this is theorising and it is important always to be critical of everything we meet in education – every idea in education, after all, has limitations.

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

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