Activity

2.1: What you will learn, and video introduction to the Block

2.1a: What you will learn

Time allocation

5 minutes (10 minutes with video)

Instructions

  • Look over the statements covered in this Block. 
  • Watch the video, which introduces what you will learn in this Block and why it is important. 
  • Take your reflections, and any questions you have, to discuss in your first mentor session.

In this Block, you will learn the following:

Learn that
2.1 Learning involves a lasting change in pupils’ capabilities or understanding.
2.2 Prior knowledge plays an important role in how pupils learn; committing some key facts to their long-term memory is likely to help pupils learn more complex ideas.
2.3 An important factor in learning is memory, which can be thought of as comprising two elements: working memory and long-term memory.
2.4 Working memory is where information that is being actively processed is held, but its capacity is limited and can be overloaded.
2.5 Long-term memory can be considered as a store of knowledge that changes as pupils learn by integrating new ideas with existing knowledge.
2.6 Where prior knowledge is weak, pupils are more likely to develop misconceptions, particularly if new ideas are introduced too quickly.
2.9 Worked examples that take pupils through each step of a new process are also likely to support pupils to learn.
3.7 In all subject areas, pupils learn new ideas by linking those ideas to existing knowledge, organising this knowledge into increasingly complex mental models (or “schemata”); carefully sequencing teaching to facilitate this process is important.
Learn how to
Avoid overloading working memory, by:
2a Taking into account pupils’ prior knowledge when planning how much new information to introduce.
2b Breaking complex material into smaller steps (e.g. using partially completed examples to focus pupils on the specific steps).
2c Reducing distractions that take attention away from what is being taught (e.g. keeping the complexity of a task to a minimum, so that attention is focused on the content).
Build on pupils’ prior knowledge, by: 
2d Identifying possible misconceptions and planning how to prevent these forming.
2e Linking what pupils already know to what is being taught (e.g. explaining how new content builds on what is already known).
2f Sequencing lessons so that pupils secure foundational knowledge before encountering more complex content.
2g Encouraging pupils to share emerging understanding and points of confusion so that misconceptions can be addressed

2.1b: Video introduction to the Block

Time allocation

5 minutes (10 minutes with 2.1a)

Instructions

  • Watch the video. 
  • The video outlines what you will cover in this Block.

Video transcript

Our memory can be a fickle thing. 

You might be able to remember the name of the first street you lived on, but you cannot remember where you left your keys last night or the name of that colleague who introduced themselves to you on the first day of term. 

While it can feel frustrating that our memory sometimes appears only to remember useless information, as opposed to the information we really do need (where are those keys?), in fact we now know a lot about how the memory works and, importantly for you as a teacher, how it affects learning.

Cognitive science that is the science of learning has come a long way in the past 30 years. Research into the functioning of the mind and the brain have greatly enhanced our understanding of learning, memory, intelligence and emotion, all of which have fundamental implications for education.

By understanding how the brain works, we can design more effective learning for our pupils in terms of instruction, materials, environments and experiences.

Psychologists and neuroscientists have known that there are different parts of our memory which perform different roles since the 1960s. Very simply we have a long-term memory which is where everything we know is stored. Examples of this include facts such as your home address or the formula for the area of a triangle. Information in the long-term memory is organised into groups or “schema”. These schemata are ever-expanding networks of knowledge which make up “what you know”. 

When we encounter a new idea or experience it enters our working memory, which is a short-term store for information while we are processing it. To help us make sense of the new material, we pull relevant information from our long-term memory to see if we can connect this new idea into an existing schema. If possible, we connect the new content to our existing knowledge; this makes it both easier to remember the new idea and strengthens the prior knowledge we had. 

So why do some items of information end up in the long-term memory and others not?

Well, there are a few reasons:

  • It might be that you didn’t have any secure prior knowledge to connect the new learning to and so the new information has nothing to tether it to a schema in your long-term memory.
  • It could be that you weren’t paying attention or actively engaging with the new material such as that colleague’s name when they introduced themselves.
  • Another reason might be that there were too many bits of new information in your working memory for you to deal with. We call this “cognitive overload”.

All of this is really important to remember when you are introducing new content to pupils. Pupils are constantly encountering new material. It might seem surprising to you, but pupils’ working memory can easily become overloaded and when that happens, no learning will take place. The same applies if pupils do not pay enough attention to the thing being taught, or if their prior knowledge is either insufficient or not activated before encountering the new content.

Luckily, what cognitive science has taught is that there are some well-evidenced techniques which you can use to prevent pupils’ working memory becoming overloaded such as:

  • Introducing new content in small, manageable steps.
  • Breaking complex material into smaller steps.
  • Making explicit links to prior knowledge so that pupils can more easily connect it to existing schema.
  • Reducing distractions as much as possible, such as superfluous explanations or visuals.
  • Sequencing lessons so that pupils secure foundational knowledge before encountering more complex content.
  • Providing opportunities for pupils to use new content again, spaced across the year.

If you haven’t come across this before it might feel a bit overwhelming to have to think about cognitive science and how the brain works at this stage in your career, but don’t worry. This Block has been designed to introduce you to the most important aspects of how pupils learn and to provide practical and easy to understand examples to translate into your classroom practice. This is perhaps the most important professional knowledge you need as a teacher if you don’t understand how pupils learn, or what prevents learning, then you cannot plan and teach effective lessons. Because of this, you will see that many of the ideas and concepts which you will begin to explore in this Block are repeated and expanded upon as you progress through the next two years. 

You will have plenty of opportunities to work with your mentor to apply the learning from this Block into your lessons. And don’t forget, you can always ask your mentor what that colleague’s name is!