Memory in English

On Saturday 7th November, I was delighted to present at Research Ed Literacy in Swindon. I was speaking about memory, and began by saying this is something I have only recently been concerned with. When Michael Gove some years ago suggested teaching children poetry by heart, I thought this was a terrible idea – what a waste of precious curriculum time! They have so much to learn, why waste time with this? I have, however, completely changed my mind on memory, and not just because of external imperatives – though, of course, closed text exams at GCSE has been the trigger for many of us in starting to prioritise memory.

Memory is important because if nothing has been remembered, nothing has been learned. I have an A grade at Physics GCSE, but if I sat the exam now I would fail completely. Can I really say I know Physics? I don’t think so. I’ve crammed Physics, enough to pass an exam, but I haven’t learned it. 

Cramming is not the name of the game; we are not computers storing endless facts. Instead, our brains collect these seemingly isolated facts and embed them into networks of perceptions, allowing us to have a deeper understanding of the world around us. And these facts, this knowledge, is vital to all we do; in reading comprehension, a knowledge of the subject matter predicts your capacity to comprehend a piece, as Eric Kalenze brilliantly pointed out in his session, with an incomprehensible piece on American football plays.

As Daisy Chrisodoulou points out, though, we often underestimate our knowledge and overestimate students’. She makes the argument that general knowledge is like oxygen: vitally important, but we only notice it when it isn’t there. Furthermore, the more knowledge we have, the more we can get: knowledge loves knowledge; or, knowledge is like Velcro: it sticks to other things.

English has, in the past, been seen as a ‘skills based’ subject; but the idea we can transfer skills across texts with no regard for background knowledge of those texts is only slightly less ridiculous than the idea that if we can analyse a maths problem, we can analyse a cave painting. For a full and enjoyable debunking of the skills argument, I refer you to James Theobald.

Willingham tells us that ‘memory is the residue of thought’: we remember what we think about. Our job as teachers, then, is to ensure students think hard about our subjects. This links to Bjork’s idea of ‘desirable difficulties’: we need to make students think hard, not allow them to sit back and passively let the ideas wash over them, leaving no trace of their existence. But we must be careful with this idea: school is already very hard; students are shunted from subject to subject, having to come to terms with up to six a day; there is no need to surprise students every time they enter our classroom (‘today – nouns! Tomorrow, ‘Oliver Twist’! Thursday, poetry!’) – this is just too difficult. We only need to put something in place that makes students think a little more. Don’t just read a passage, ask a few questions about it that students all have to think about to answer. That’s a desirable difficulty.

How do we build memory? In my initial scripting of the presentation I had written: ‘it’s not just rote learning of dry, meaningless facts.’ But actually, I disagree with my summer self – it sometimes is. In learning a language, I had to learn how to decline nouns, or conjugate verbs, and rote learning of those dry, meaningless facts suddenly became very exciting and meaningful in the schema of learning a language. Once those isolated facts were committed to memory, they could then link up with hundreds of other ideas. We’re keen to skip this stuff as teachers, because we know it isn’t fun; but school isn’t about fun, it’s about learning. And this is how we learn.

Making children remember what you say can take many forms: Willingham says we are attuned to narrative, so we could make our lessons into stories – not too difficult in English, as we deal in stories, but not always easy to make each individual lesson story-like. He also says we remember what prompts emotion, but it’s really difficult to be sure all your children have felt the emotion you intended. Also, what if someone comes in a bit tired, a bit grumpy, or already very emotional? I don’t think emotion or stories are reliable enough to ensure we build students’ memory in the classroom on a day to day basis. What is reliable is quizzing: any teacher can quiz students about key ideas. When I visited Michaela Community School, in every lesson I saw at least 20 minutes of recap: unabashed testing of prior knowledge, from previous days, but also from previous units.

I shared some strategies borrowed from Joe Kirby and Daisy Christodoulou: first knowledge maps, and then multiple choice questions, and explained how these were quick and easy to get recap into lessons on a daily basis.

In building students’ memories in English over the course of their study, I suggested two guiding principles: first, what are the hidden bodies of knowledge in the subject? The things we just know, that we now need to systematically teach to our students? I’d suggest these are grammar, and the literary canon (in a cruel twist of fate, I was scheduled at the same time as Katie Ashford, who has to be the most forward-thinking expert on grammar working in schools right now). We then need to sequence these ideas in the optimal way to help students see the links between them, and build up their knowledge incrementally, building in time for revisiting and interleaving the core concepts we want students to remember in the long term.

If it’s not yet clear, I need to explicitly say that there is not one original idea in what I have said. I’ve read a great many books, contained in the presentation, and a great many blogs, and had a great many conversations; I’ve stuck them together and worked at these in my own context. I’m not the ideas person. Despite this, I am so grateful that so many people came along, and were so engaging and so warm in their interactions.

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Memory in English

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Memory: an inset session

On 1st September, I wasn’t as nervous about starting a new school as I was about standing in front of the teaching staff of the secondary school at 10am to make my pitch about knowledge and the curriculum. I advised myself that it is always easier to speak to people you don’t know, yet this did little to assuage my fears: whatever I told myself, first impressions count.

Happily, I have lucked into my second wonderful line-manager in a row, and together we worked on a session that would hopefully engage the teaching staff at the right level.

To begin, teachers had a multiple-choice quiz about memory, knowledge maps and multiple-choice questions. The idea was to put into practice what we would preach about pre-quizzing and how to construct MCQs.

We split the session into two parts: theory and practice. To begin, I took two key questions: how does memory work, and how can we teach to build memory? I used Hirsch’s example of ‘Jones sacrificed and knocked in a run’ to highlight that we don’t always know how important knowledge is unless we don’t have it and suddenly can’t access what looks like a fairly straightforward sentence (stealing from Daisy Christodoulou the sentiment that ‘knowledge is like oxygen: it is vitally important, but we only notice it when it is not there.’ I went on to explore other examples of sentences students required explicit content knowledge to be able to access ideas. Then, using Joe Kirby’s excellent ideas on knowledge and memory, asked what we mean by knowledge – after all, if many of us took a GCSE paper now we would fail it, having completely forgotten what we once crammed in. We need to move from a cramming culture to one of real mastery.

I then shared the forgetting curve, exploring the idea of revisiting to secure concepts in long-term memory, along with Willingham’s advice that ‘memory is the residue of thought’: we remember what we think hard about.

forgetting curve

The two practical implements we focused on were knowledge maps and multiple choice questions. Knowledge maps are hugely useful for three main reasons.

Firstly, they nudge subject leads to make decisions on what to teach. You obviously can’t teach everything about Frankenstein, for example; you must be selective and deeply consider the most vital information you want students to retain for a very long time.

Secondly, they provide clarity to teachers. The first question any new teacher has is ‘what am I going to teach them?’, and a knowledge map answers that in a single slide. They provide further clarity for subject leads in knowing that everyone in their department is on the same page, and are helpful for senior leaders to have more detailed knowledge of what exactly is being taught.

Finally, they are brilliant for revision. Not intended to be only for teachers, students too can be literally on the same page as their teachers. A knowledge map is a powerful tool for revision, helping students to know exactly what it is they need to revise, both as they are taught the unit, and in the months to come.

I then shared three organising principles for knowledge maps. Firstly, they are selective; you should only select what can fit onto a single page. Secondly, their terms are defined – a list of complex vocabulary without definitions is useless as a revision tool. Thirdly, they are organised into manageable sections, allowing teachers and students to focus on the discrete aspects of the unit.

To assuage the fears that MCQs could not test skills, I shared some examples. The first tests pure recall, which is of course important. The second two test application of that knowledge, looking at how well students can infer and analyse. I explained how each of these latter questions still relied on a huge breadth of student knowledge – you need to know the meanings of the poetic terms in order to decide whether they are being used in the example.

  • When did Coleridge write ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’?
  • a) 1665
  • b) 1793
  • c) 1797
  • d) 1815
  • e) 1816
  • ‘I, the true murderer, felt the never-dying worm alive in my bosom, which allowed of no hope or consolation.’ Which language techniques are combined here, and what is the writer trying to suggest?
  • a) In this quotation, onomatopoeia and religious imagery are used to emphasise how disgusting Frankenstein is.
  • b) In this quotation, a simile and religious imagery are used to emphasise that the death of Justine will never be forgotten.
  • c) In this quotation, pathetic fallacy and natural imagery are used to emphasise how destructive what has happened is.
  • d) In this quotation, prolepsis and a metaphor are used to suggest that the creature will wreak his revenge.
  • e) In this quotation, a metaphor and graveyard imagery are used to emphasise how destructive the guilt Frankenstein feels is.

Drawing heavily from people much smarter than I on MCQs, I explained three reasons for using them. Firstly, workload: although requiring a much greater effort upfront, MCQs are quick to mark and can be used year after year, compared with the uphill struggle of the essay, which is quick to set, but must then be marked 30 times, at length, year after year after year. Secondly, MCQs allow for a much clearer diagnosis of what students do and do not know – in an essay, where a student misplaces a comma, we might not be sure if they do in fact know how to use a comma, but were distracted by exploring Macbeth; or if they can use a comma for lists but not to separate clauses, or if they can’t use a comma at all. With MCQs, you can test each of these aspects separately, and have a much clearer diagnosis of what students know and do not know. Thirdly, MCQs enable teachers to test the breadth of their subjects, not just the depth; with MCQs, we can find out what students know about every single theme and language technique, compared with an essay which might focus on one theme, and include examples containing three or four techniques.

After sharing some key principles for creating MCQs – five options to avoid guessing, plausible distractors to make it challenging, unambiguous distractors to avoid contention over multiple responses, building misconceptions into the distractors, and including more than one correct option, subject teams had 15 minutes to make five using a subject-specific text they had brought along.

Finally, teachers re-did the do-now test as a plenary. Looking through teacher responses really helped me to see where my explanation had been clear, and where I need to clarify at a later inset. In particular, almost no-one managed to get the multiple correct options right; often they would get two of the three, for example. This made me consider that multiple correct options might be too tricky for students at the start of using MCQs, or that we should flag up how many correct options there are in the question.

I was excited to find for the rest of the inset days a number of presenters used MCQs, and my colleagues referring to ‘distractors’ as they noted some ‘ambiguous’ or ‘implausible’ ones where they occurred. More than that, though, I was overwhelmed by the excitement and energy expressed by so many teachers on these ideas.

Memory Inset

Handout

Research Ed 2015

There is surely no better way to begin the school year than immersing yourself in the genius of other educators. Compared with the last two conferences, though, this is the first I have attended every session, and not felt overly exhausted by the close – a testament, I think, to beginning the school year in a dynamic school with an exciting role, surrounded by supportive staff, but also to Tom Bennett’s astonishing capacity to gather together the best and the brightest to deliver and to dazzle.

Daisy Christodoulou: Life after levels

A long-time admirer of Christodoulou since reading her fabulous book, this session brought the theory and practice of life after levels to light. Noting that prose descriptors provide only the illusion of a shared language (after all, ‘Can compare two fractions and identify which is larger’ could apply as well to 3/7 or 5/7, 3/4 or 4/5 or 5/7 or 5/9), and ultimately ‘adverb soup’ she went on to share much wiser systems.

First, using the questions themselves, thus showing exactly what students can and cannot do, to provide clarity on exactly what they still need to master. Even better, use multiple choice questions, to probe student understanding more deeply by building in key misconceptions to the possible answers. Second, because of course we cannot get rid of essays, by ranking them instead of using spurious descriptors (as Christodoulou notes, we often get through half a class of marking and realise we want to change the first few – we are always, if only unconsciously, comparing essays for quality as we mark). This sounds tricky in practice, but I’m excited to explore ‘No more marking’, which presents essays to you to rank two at a time, before applying an algorithm to rank the lot.

Listening to Daisy Christodoulou is like listening to the future. I have often felt worryingly far behind where she is, but I am desperate to catch up.

Nick Gibb: The importance of teaching

Gibb, unsurprisingly, used his speech to provide examples of schools doing well as a result of government reforms. Along the way, he cited the BBC’s ‘Chinese School’ as a start to move towards a profession where we are focused not on our preferred teaching methods, but on those which deliver outcomes for children. He noted that ‘for some, a romantic aversion to formal teaching will forever trump the evidence,’ and I hope this is not the case. Gibb went on to also say that ‘pupil performance is not the sole aim of a school,’ explaining that although uniform might have no impact on pupil attainment, we wish to retain it for another reason.

Tim Oates: Other nations’ systems

This session focused on debunking many of the myths of other nations’ school systems. He opened with the assertion that we need to be exploring why some students are so much further ahead than our students, and closed by noting that we can’t adopt another system wholesale. Oates was scathing on a number of individual arguments, demolishing them with a mountain of evidence. On Singapore, for example, their case is often dismissed as their society is overly homogenous and their educational outcomes the result of high levels of private tutoring; yet Oates disputes both counts. He noted there was high social inequality in Singapore and large income variation, and yet their educational outcomes were outstanding (the subject of a worrying conversation later with Dani Quinn, who pointed out ‘if their educational outcomes are brilliant but there is still vast social inequality… Is our mission doomed?’). He noted that private tutoring usually exacerbates a gap between rich and poor, as the rich can afford the best tutors, and yet no such gap exists in Singapore.

Jon Brunskill: Moral psychology

Brunskill began by asking: what can moral psychology teach us about behaviour management? This fascinating session asked more questions than it answered, as we explored various moral dilemmas. He noted that children are often in the ‘pre-conventional’ stage of behaviour, where they believe the bigger the sanction the worse their act, and therefore behave well mainly to avoid such sanctions. He asked the troubling question of strict and successful behaviour systems like those at Mossborne kept students in this paradigm of behaviour, not allowing them to progress to the higher levels of behaving well because it is morally the right thing to do. He also questioned the idea that moral reasoning influenced moral action, sharing the Milgram experiment which involved participants delivering life-threatening shocks to others (luckily, actors) on the orders of men in white coats (also actors).

Towards the end, Brunskill began to unpick why some people act heroically, and explore some ways we as teachers can influence our students – I look forward to hearing more on this in the future.

Amanda Spielman: marking and remarking in exams

I’m not sure I have enough knowledge of statistics to have kept up with Spielman on marking, so I won’t try to poorly paraphrase the bulk of this fascinating talk. When looking at exam marking, Spielman praised the move to electronic marking, much despised by many examiners, for allowing unusual behaviour (overly quick marking; late night marking) to be picked up and addressed more rapidly. She also explored the issue of re-marking, noting that while 99% of grades do not change, often more marks are picked up by students, perhaps as a result of the markers’ sympathy in knowing these students are desperate to move up a grade.

Katie Ashford: The building blocks of literacy

I was so excited to hear Ashford speak, as I’m a massive fan of what she is doing at Michaela Community School with her phenomenal reading programme leading to astonishing student progress. She began by speaking about some of the low expectations we have of students noting ‘I want you to feel bad’ about saying things like ‘it’s not realistic for him’ to achieve a decent GCSE grade. After engaging the emotions, Ashford moved quickly on to the practicalities of teaching children to read, advocating robust assessments (‘a “4b” isn’t going to tell you anything about what a child does and doesn’t know’), a strong phonics programme like Ruth Miskin’s, and fluency and comprehension interventions. Finally, she went into detail about her reading plans at Michaela to have students reading 100 classic texts over their time there (or, ‘100 books kids probably wouldn’t read if they were left on their own’). She also noted the importance of reading across the curriculum, which is something I’m going to think hard about in my current role – what are children reading in every subject, in every lesson?

Sam Freedman: The five big challenges for the next government

Freedman began by asking how far we had come towards a school led system, and ended by asserting that such a system is still preferably to top-down initiatives led by government, which can provide a short-term push but in the long term do not make for sustainable system improvement. While government can devise what students learn, it is probably best for schools to have control over how students learn. The five challenges boil down to one: capacity. He then outlined challenges in resources, infrastructure, teacher supply, leadership and expertise, going over much-talked-of challenges in teacher recruitment and shrinking school budgets, and offering some suggestions for resolving these (make schools direct an easier thing to apply for; scrap fees for PGCE courses). The most important quote for me was that ‘schools are panicking and burning out teachers way too early in their careers.’ This is not a system issue, but a school issue; it is the job of leaders to shield teachers on the front-line from the stresses and strains of accountability, or we will be left with no more teachers.

I’m still digesting the genius of the day, and have added about ten books to my Amazon wishlist. The message of the day seems to me that we need to be critical and think harder, but not necessarily work harder.

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Recommended reads of 2014

This is something of a self-indulgent post, wherein I round up the best books I’ve read this year. In the past, I’ve stuck rigidly to my triumvirate of reading: one education book, one book for children (fiction), one book for grown-ups (fiction or non-fiction). I’ve let this slide somewhat for 2014; there is a definite bias towards fun fiction, perhaps an upshot of going on not one but two beach holidays, each involving a stack of paperbacks. For that reason, I’ll stick with two categories: fiction and non-fiction.

Fiction

Margaret Atwood: Cat’s Eye

It seems unbelievable to me now that the only Atwood I had read prior to this year was The Handmaid’s Tale, which I hated. I saw this book on a list of “realistic representations of girls in school” and, eager to gain an insight into my students (having been both female and a school child, I am constantly concerned I have subsequently unlearned all aspects of each) I picked this book up. It is a gorgeously rendered exploration of childhood, change and femininity.

Robert Galbraith: The Cuckoo’s Calling

This is sheer entertainment, and very much ties into my new-found interest in crime drama in general. The kind of book which, as you read it, you feel as though you are, in fact, watching it – that is how little effort it requires.

Sapphire: Push

I’d seen the film Precious, but the book is a much richer and more uplifting portrayal of the life of the central character. I wept at the bleakness of everything at the close of the film; ending this book I felt the opposite. There’s so much hope here, and it is cleverly expressed.

 R.J. Palacio: Wonder

Another book crammed with hope and inspiration, though never cloying – the central character feels realistically drawn; imperfect, self-aware. This was the book I recommended all of key stage 3 to read over the summer, and the one most students have run up to me to tell me they have read and loved.

Dave Eggers: The Circle

I really feel this is the 1984 of our time: a novel of the internet age, taking on every facet of life in a digital world. The silicon valley world feels real here, and if the love interest falls flat it does so for good reason.

John Green and David Levithan: Will Grayson Will Grayson

The imagination in this book is inspiring, and it’s a nifty venture – two authors writing consecutive chapters from different perspectives. The message is one of acceptance and love, and is one children and adults can learn a lot from.

Carys Bray: A Song for Issy Bradley

The tale of a mother dealing with grief in the context of her husband’s Mormon beliefs taught me a great deal about both. This was one of those books which left me feeling empty when it had ended; as if I couldn’t believe those characters had gone from my life.

Laura Wade: Posh

I missed seeing Wade’s play, and I’m sure reading it cannot compare; yet this play was so stark and so heinous, it made me really actually angry. But angry in a really good way.

Non-fiction

Martin Robinson: Trivium 21C

Robinson’s was the first book I read in 2014, and I couldn’t have asked for a better start to the year. The book is both a vision of how education ought to be, and full enough of personal insight to feel like a friendly conversation. One for re-reading into 2015.

Sheryl Sandberg: Lean In

I’m confused that so many people have strong emotions about Lean In, because I couldn’t see the controversy. This book felt like some really honest reflections about what it takes to be a successful woman, and the choices and mindset necessary.

Heather Kirn Lanier: Teaching in the Terrordome

I’m a sucker for a teaching memoir, and I’m a sucker for anything American. (what is the American version of a Francophile, a propos of nothing? I am that.) Lanier’s depiction of her Baltimore experience of Teach for America made me reevaluate everything I thought possible in my classroom.

 Malala Yousafzai: I am Malala

Of course, Malala is a complete inspiration for us all, but I would argue especially so for young women. This poignant and beautifully written book has been shared with all of my classes across the age groups of the school.

 Graham Nuthall: The Hidden Lives of Learners

I found this way of looking at the way children learn extraordinary. It made me consider that we probably do need to be much more careful about the evidence surrounding the way we educate, and left me with a lot of lovely quotable nuggets I have not hesitated to roll out in too many conversations.

Daisy Hay: Young Romantics: the Shelleys, Byron and other tangled lives

I’m not sure how, but the Romantics are a big gap in my literary knowledge. Preparing to teach Frankenstein to year 13, I sought to remedy this, and found in this particular volume a veritable sit-com of real-life entertainment.

Daisy Christodoulou: Seven Myths About Education

I wasn’t at all sure I would enjoy this book, as I’m not altogether fond of controversy or conflict, and it had felt to me that this book incited (or invited?) both, but after hearing Christodoulou sounding ever so likeable on the radio I decided to give it a go. Thank goodness – there’s nothing controversial here, just sensible observations on education, written in sparse prose (NO superfluous words – not even one).