The 3D curriculum that promotes remembering

In my previous blog I explained about how memory works, and how teachers can use strategies from cognitive science such as retrieval practice to promote long term learning. After all, the learned curriculum is the only curriculum that actually counts in the end.

The curriculum is the means by which we ensure that all our children get their fair share of the rich cultural inheritance our world affords.  A good curriculum empowers children with the knowledge they are entitled to: knowledge that will nourish both them and the society of which they are members. Because, as Angela Rayner, Labour shadow education secretary says, knowledge belongs to the many, not the few.

But if children don’t remember what we have taught them, then even the richest curriculum is pointless. Knowledge can’t empower if it is forgotten. So as well as thinking about what is the richest, best material to put into our curriculum, we also have to structure our curriculum in a way that make remembering almost inevitable. This blog relies very heavily on the thinking of Christine Counsell, so much so I did ask her if it was alright to use her ideas about building a memorable curriculum. She was much more concerned that the ideas got ‘out there’ than to claim ownership of them, but much of what follows is a result of her sharing her vision of a memorable, knowledge rich curriculum with me. The actual examples from different year groups come from me, so if you find the specifics lacking, that’s my fault, not hers.

Schools tend to spend a lot of time thinking about how children are going to learn, rather than what. Then when schools start to think about what they want children to learn – when they start to think hard about their curriculum – they overlook planning systematically how they can build their curriculum so that children remember it.

When I first started teaching there was no National Curriculum, or SATS and no Ofsted.  Schools were completely free to teach whatever they liked. Indeed, it was often down to the individual teacher to choose what they wanted to teach. My mother was a primary teacher and her colleague said she didn’t like maths so didn’t teach it. That’s pretty extreme. But it really was more or less up to you. The school I started in was more prescriptive than most – we had maths scheme and a reading scheme which means it was ultra-traditional for its time, but I was still asked what I wanted to teach for my first ‘topic’. Your topic drove the curriculum. The idea was that under the umbrella theme, you tried to find bits of learning from each subject that linked with it. So, for example, I decided for my first topic that I would do ‘the weather’ – actually quite a good topic, as it goes.  So we made rain gauges and wind socks and measured rainfall, wind direction and temperature, we learnt about wind speeds and the Beaufort scale in a geography/science combo.  We made mobiles with the symbols from weather forecasts. (I think that was art but it might have been DT). We wrote stories about storms. We played percussion instruments to make a storm. RE? well Noah’s Ark, obviously. We didn’t do any history that term. Not in a deliberately planned way, but just because it didn’t fit. Well I suppose I could have done the history of umbrellas or something.

This approach hasn’t completely died out either. Not long ago, some poor year 6 teacher on Twitter asked for help in planning what to teach in history that term to fit with her topic. Her topic was roller coasters. A topic chosen not by her but by some senior manager who decided that since going on a roller coaster was fun, learning about them would be too.

Actually planning a topic like this was quite fun and the best teachers were really inventive and taught good stuff. The rationale behind this approach was that by linking stuff together, it would be more interesting and hence more memorable than teaching a series of atomised, unrelated subjects. Strong links between the subjects was its raison d’etre. The problem was that it was just so arbitrary.  It was quite possible for children to do the same topic twice (or even three times) because it was just down to the individual teacher. Whole subjects could be left untaught for term after term after term, just because they didn’t ‘fit’ with the topic, and not because a strategic decision had been made to concentrate on something else. Or, in a desperate attempt to shoehorn a subject into a topic, tenuous links were made. I once joked that my topic that term was ‘tenuous links across the curriculum’. I was chatting to Christine Counsell the other day about this and she told me about a teacher who was doing a topic on colours. Desperate to fit in some history, the teacher plumped for teaching them about the Black Death!

But actually, this emphasis on links wasn’t completely misguided. If we want to build a curriculum that promotes remembering, we will absolutely need to build links in. In fact, we will need to build in those links in a far more systematic and structural way than the ‘topic web’ approach ever imagined. The very bones of our curriculum across the years and across subjects will need to link up in a highly well thought out way, so that knowledge taught in one subject is explicitly reinforced and revisited in a not only in other subjects, but in subsequent years. In this way, key concepts and vocabulary are reinforced because new words and concepts are encountered repeatedly in meaningful contexts. I am calling this way of building a curriculum a 3D curriculum, for reasons which I hope will become obvious.

First of all, vertical links should be deliberated constructed within a subject so that over the years, key ‘high yield’ concepts are encountered again and again. Not only are these concepts practised again and again through retrieval practice while the unit of work is being taught, the curriculum design provides planned opportunities to revisit the concept in subsequent years.

So, for example, let us consider the word ‘tyrant’ and its associates ‘tyranny’ and ‘tyrannical’ in the context of teaching history.

We first meet a ‘tyrant’ in year 1, when our students encounter King John (of Magna Carta fame) and learn that he was (until the barons got him) a tyrant. We don’t meet any tyrants in history again until in year 5 when we encounter Dionysius of Syracuse (the definitive tyrant) where his tyranny is counterpoised with the democracy of Ancient Greek city states.  While its quite a stretch to expect that children will remember the word ‘tyrant’ from 4 years previously, it provides an opportunity to remind students about the Magna Carta and how power is limited in Britain. Then in year 6, we can compare Hitler with Churchill. By now, we also know the adjective ‘tyrannical.’

Alongside this, we need to develop horizontal links between subjects in a year. These are the sort of links we loved back in the old days of topic webs.  In year 3 students learn about rivers in geography and the importance of the river Nile when learning about the history of Ancient Egypt.  In year 4 we learn that Vikings invade England, microbes invade bodies and about invasion games in PE.

Important grammar concepts, such as nominalisation – so important for academic writing – are also addressed when children write a non-chronological report or an explanation about something they have learnt in another subject. For example, children are taught that rather than writing that the Nazi’s invaded Poland we teach it is more effective to write about the invasion. Instead of saying the French were defeated we write about the defeat of the French and later about the opposition and resistance of the French.

Finally, we need to map out the diagonal links. That is to say, links that join concepts across both year groups and across subjects. So when in year 3 children learn in RE the story of the Exodus and encounter the brutality of Pharaoh they are reminded that he is behaving like a tyrant – a term they learnt in history in year 1!  To give another example, the word ‘source’ is the place where a river begins when studying the River Nile in year 3, but is also the person or book that provides information for a news story or for historical research when we discuss primary and secondary sources in later years. In English in year 6, students revisit our beloved word ‘tyranny’ when they encounter the Warden in ‘Holes’ and her tyrannical regime. A later study of the biography of Harriet Tubman affords the opportunity to describe slavery as being a form of tyranny, but of one group of people who ‘rule’ over another.

Each time a concept is encountered within a different context, not only is the concept more likely to be remembered, the understanding of that concept becomes more nuanced.

What is really important is that this revisiting is done in a deliberate, planned way and not as an inconsequential aside along the lines of ‘remember when you learnt about plants’ without explicitly reminding the students exactly what it is about plants that you want them to link with what they are learning now. So for example, explicitly revisiting the different types of plants that grow in different biomes when learning about adaptation. References to previously studied content need to build on or develop previous learning, as well as strengthening students’ ability to remember the terms. None of this should be ad hoc. These links form the bones of the curriculum. That’s why we can talk of the curriculum as the progression model.

I’m not saying building such a curriculum is easy. Primary school teachers are not used to knowing what children have learnt in foundation subjects in previous year groups, let alone which key concepts might provide fruitful opportunities for development. In other words, which key concepts really are ‘key’.  Indeed, in my experience, most primary schools are only just beginning to map out the kind of knowledge they think children should be learning, let alone thinking about the route map of key concepts within and across years and subjects.

Yet imagine the incredible head start our children would have if they arrived at secondary school will a sophisticated understanding, grounded in different contexts of the following concepts that I’ve lifted from our knowledge organisers: I’ve tried to give the word in its nominalised form where possible but obviously we need to make sure they know the other words in the ‘family’ too.

(Primarily from history) Ruler, king, monarch, monarchy, reign, democracy, election, tyranny, dictator, opposition, resistance, rebellion, invasion, conquest, triumph, parliament, government, tribe, emperor, empire, defeat, occupation, exploration, taxation, civilisation, citizen, culture, state, military, conflict, alliance, treaty, coalition, surrender, warrior, poverty, flee, exile, hostility, community, migration, persecution, oppression, liberation, neutral, eye-witness, source, archaeologist, expedition, navigation, exploration

(Primarily from RE) Creation, gratitude, compassion, victim, sacrifice, sacred, pagan, monotheism, polytheism, immortal, salvation, forgiveness, incarnation, prophet, liberation

(Primarily from geography) Climate, weather, temperature, erosion, fertile, irrigation, meander, crop, trade, settlement, environment, abundance, scarcity, resources, habitat, adaptation, population, predator, prey,

(Primarily for science) Flammable, conductor, insulator, dissolving, soluble, solvent, evaporation, condensation, pitch, volume, circuit, particle, reversible, irreversible, extinct, orbit, reflection, reproduction, sexual, asexual, friction.

This list is self-evidently far too long. We are only at the beginnings of building our 3D curriculum.

I gave a talk partly based on this blog at the conference at Reach Academy last Monday and someone asked me the very sensible question, am I talking about Isabel Beck’s tier two words? In case you haven’t read her work (and you really should, it’s all about vocabulary), Beck divides words into 3 categories; tier 1 are everyday words like table, cup, house; tier 3 words are technical, subject specific words such as photosynthesis or glacier; tier 2 are where we find words that provide a more precise or mature ways of referring to ideas they already know about. For example, knowing the word benevolent as well as kind or fortunate as well as lucky. See here for more. Tier 2 words are the words teachers should really concentrate on, argues Beck, because they lend a sophistication and maturity to communication that many child may not encounter at home and hence need explicit instruction.

While I agree with this, I think the key concepts we need to build a 3D curriculum from a set I’m going to call tier 2.5!  I’m still reflecting on this but I think the key concepts we need are ones that although often grounded in a specific subject domain (so tier 3) are also used in a metaphorical or loser way outside that domain (so tier 2 possibly?) For example, meander has a very specific – in fact tier 3 – usage in geography yet is useful word to use to describe thoughts or route through shopping malls. It’s probably not quite rich enough to from part of the endoskeleton of our curriculum, though ideally all our teachers will know that in year 3, children learn about meanders so that should the occasion occur where meander would be a useful verb, they will explicit reference river bends in their explanation.

Looking at my long list, it seems that the humanities afford more words able to be co-opted for use in other domains, whereas science vocabulary is more likely to be hyper-specific and domain bound. I also note that most of my history words tend to be about power and a fair few geography words about economics. I’m not sure if that’s by lefty bias coming into play or not? But since power and money are such powerful drivers, it is no wonder that words which formally mean one thing in once context – empire, for example – are pressed into service to describe more the commonplace human interactions of the power crazy. English teachers, I presume, would look on that long list of words first encountered in history lessons and be delighted to think that children would come to English lessons already with an understanding, albeit in a very specific context, of the word; an understanding is exploited when authors use words figuratively.  This is much less likely to happen with scientific words such as isotope. There are however still links to be made: coalition/coalesce for example.

Much of the detail of this approach is still tentative. I welcome comments.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The 3D curriculum that promotes remembering

Beyond the blame game –  the trouble with transfer

It’s a laugh a minute in the Sealy household at dinner as two teachers swap amusing anecdotes about their day while our sons listen on enthralled. Yes, I’m lying. The sons are sticking pins in their eyes in a vain effort to MAKE IT STOP while we drone on to each other about the trials and tribulations of our respective days.  My partner is a maths intervention teacher and trainer who mainly spends his time training other teachers and TA’s how to teach maths to children who are struggling.  The interventions he trains people in are all very effective and have tonnes of evidence to back them up (albeit too expensive to staff for most of us in these cash-strapped times when having a class teacher and the lights on at the same time is considered a luxury). Among his top ten moans[1] is the situation when class teachers fail to recognise that ex-intervention students are now actually quite good at maths, instead seating them in the 7th circle of hell that is ‘orange table’, where there might as well be a sign saying ‘despair all who enter here’ and where the cognitive challenge is low.  When the intervention teacher tries to argue their case, the class teacher, who does not consider their colleague to be a ‘real’ teacher, argues that ‘she might be able to do place value (or whatever) with you, but she can’t do it in the class room where it really matters.’  The unspoken assumption being that intervention teachers – who are not real teachers anyway – don’t really know what they are doing and are easily tricked into thinking that a child has got something because they’ve played a nice game with their not-real teacher who doesn’t understand about important things like Sats and tests and being at the expected level and obviously couldn’t hack it in the classroom. Indeed, a quite senior teacher, worried for her value added, once said to him that he ‘artificially inflated’ pupils learning by teaching them stuff.   To which he countered that all teaching ‘artificially’ inflates learning – that’s what we’re paid to do! We are employed to use artifice to achieve learning.

It occurred to me recently that cognitive science provides an explanation as to why this conflict happens; an explanation that blames neither teacher and also explains equally well why every September, class teachers shake their heads in disbelief at the assessment information provided by their colleague,  the former teacher, a disbelief that is amplified on the transfer from primary to secondary school.

Transferring learning is, quite simply, a bitch.  There are three cognitive hurdles to overcome on the journey from the pupil’s first encounter with an idea to them being able to understand whatever it is in a flexible and adaptable way. First, they need to be presented with the idea in an understandable way that make them think hard[2] about what they are learning. If they think hard about it, it is more likely to make that all important journey from their short term memory to their long term memory. Sometimes teachers try and make ideas memorable by making them exciting in some way. This can backfire if the ‘exciting’ medium becomes more memorable than the actual message the teacher wants to get across. I recall one child who was finding learning to count really tricky, so to engage him we used gold paper plates and toy dinosaurs. He was totally absorbed, but not on the maths, unfortunately – and did much better with plain paper plates and cubes.  But hurdle one is not where the intervention vs class teacher fault line lays.

The second hurdle lies in overcoming the ‘I’ve taught it therefore they know it’ fallacy, particularly common among less experienced teachers.  But even if our panoply of afl strategies tell us that a particular child has grasped a particular concept, it is highly likely that by the next day they will have forgotten most of what we taught them. That is just how our brains work. But that does not mean we labour in vain; the forgetting is an important part of remembering.  The forgotten memory is not really forgotten, it’s floating about somewhere in our long term memory, ready to be reactivated. All it takes is for us to re-teach the information and on second encounter, the material is learned much faster. By the next week it is all mostly forgotten again but with a third presentation, the material is learned very quickly indeed.  And so on.  Each time we forget something, we relearn it more quickly and retain it for longer.

This means that teachers need to build into our lessons routine opportunities to revisit material we taught the day before, the week before, the month before, the term before and the year before.  This is known in the trade as ‘spaced repetition.’  Each time we do so, we enhance the storage strength of memories. Ignorance of this phenomenon accounts for part of the professional friction between colleagues. It wasn’t wishful thinking on behalf of the ‘sending’ teacher.  The pupil genuinely did really know how to partition 2-digit numbers, for example, but has now forgotten. That’s an inevitable part of how our brains work and not some other professional’s ‘fault’.  When faced with a conflict between what it is reported that a student can do and what they appear actually able to do, the most charitable and scientifically probable explanation is that they have forgotten how to do something that they once could do well; with a bit of input it will all come back fairly quickly. If we remind ourselves on this each September and expect to have to cover a lot of ‘old’ ground, that will be better for our students, for our blood pressure and for professional relationships.

However, hurdle number three has, to my mind, the best explanatory power for this aggravating situation.  To understand this, I will have to explain the difference between episodic and semantic memory.  Episodic memory remembers…episodes…events….experiences. It is autobiographical, composed of memories of times, places and emotions and derived from information from our 5 senses.  Semantic memory is memory of facts, concepts, meanings and knowledge, cut free from the spatial/temporal context in which it was acquired.  Generally, especially where teaching is concerned, memories start off as episodic and then with lots of repetition, particularly in different contexts with different sensory cues, the memory becomes semantic and can be recalled in any context. This is the destination we want all learning to arrive at.

So when we learn something new, we remember it episodically at first.   We’ve all had those lessons when we remind our class about the previous lesson and they can recall, in minute detail, that Billy farted, but not what an adverb is.  Or they’ll remember that you spilled your coffee or that Samira was late or even that ‘we used highlighter pens.’  But anything actually important…gone!  Of course, when you recap on yesterday’s lesson, it will all come flooding back.  See hurdle two.  However, the problem for transferring this knowledge beyond working with this teacher in this classroom is that with episodic memories, environmental and emotional cues are all important.  Take these cues away and the memory is hard to recall. We don’t want a situation, for many reasons, where our children can only recall what an adverb is if prompted by the environmental cue provided from Billy’s posterior.  We are a proud profession, we aim a little bit higher than that. We want what we teach to be transferable to any context.  Until that has occurred, how can we say learning has successfully happened?

So, back to our maths intervention teacher. The pupil has learnt a whole heap of maths and made many months of progress in a short space of time.  However, although their teacher has got them to think hard about this material and got them to apply their new knowledge in many different situations, and although the teacher has also used the principles of spaced repetition and revisited previously taught material many times, there is still the very real possibility that the memory of some of this material is still mainly episodic, still mainly dependent on familiar environmental cues for recall.  It is not that the child is emotionally dependent on the familiar adult to boost their confidence – thought that can also happen – but that the academic memory is bundled with the sound and sight (and possibly, the coffee breath of) their intervention teacher and the room in which the intervention happened.  Without these, the memory is inaccessible.

This problem is only exaggerated when the transfer is from one year group to another – with the added difficulty that the student is unlikely to have been doing much hard thinking about either denominators or adverbs over the six weeks summer holiday. It is even more of a barrier when students are transferring to a completely different school, such as at secondary transfer, with all the other attendant changes that brings.

To counter this, when teaching material, we need to try and play about with the environmental conditions to lessen the impact of context cues. So when an intervention teacher asks to come and work in class alongside a pupil as part of their weaning off intervention, that is not some namby pamby special snow flake treatment by a teacher who clearly is too attached to their pupils, but a strategy rooted in cognitive science to help the pupil access episodic memories with most of the familiar context cues removed. Class teachers can try and break the dependence on context cues with material they teach by, at the very least, getting pupils to sit in different seats with different pupils from time to time.[3]  Year 6 teachers, now faced with the post sats quandary of what to teach now, would do well to teach nothing much new and instead ensure over learning of what pupils already know but within as many different  physical contexts as possible  – maths in the playground, or hall or even just by swapping classrooms for the odd lesson.  If pupils are used to sitting next to the same group of pupils in every lesson, now is the time to mix things up, to lessen the dependence on emotional cues (again, episodic) gained from the sense of familiarity of sitting with the same people day in, day out[4].

Transfer can also be facilitated by applying learning in different parts of the curriculum, using maths in DT for example, or in art lessons or maths through drama and also by applying the learning in open ended problem solving.  Indeed, the very sort of ‘progressive’ teaching strategies that card carrying traditionalists usually eschew, are fine for transfer, once the learning is securely understood, but probably still remembered episodically. It’s the use of these methods for the initial teaching of ideas that’s a bad idea – explicit teaching does that job so much better. Whizzy bangy stuff early on – or even in the middle – of a sequence of learning, runs the very real danger of getting children to think hard about the whizz bangs and not the content – so the whizz bangery will be what gets remembered in the episodic memory. See hurdle one. But that’s a whole other blog post.

Accepting the inevitability of the difficulties of transferring learning from one context to another can help us plan better for that and be less frustrated by it both in preparing to say goodbye to pupils in July and when saying hello to students in September.   It’s not that learning slumps as such in September, it’s that it is being reawakened and then transferred from episodic to semantic memory. Once memories have made this journey, they are so much stronger and more flexible, so worth the frustration.  So this September, when your new pupils don’t seem to be able to remember anything their assessment information would indicate they should know, take a deep breath, remember the three hurdles and that is just how learning and memory works. It probably isn’t their former teacher’s fault at all.  Maybe you just don’t smell right.

[1] Just in case a colleague of my partner is reading, he insists I make it abundantly clear this has not happened for a long while where he teaches. It does happen to some of the people he trains (in other schools) though – it is an occupational hazard of being an intervention teacher.

[2] Memory being the residue of thought, as Daniel Willingham explains in this book you really should read.

[3] I am relying heavily on chapter 6 of ‘What every teacher needs to know about psychology’ by David Didau and Nick Rose for all of this. This is also a very good book for teachers to read. If you read both this and the Willingham one above, you would be well set up.

[4] Not that I would recommend this in the first place, but if that is how you do things, shake them up for the last few weeks of term in the interest of better transfer

Beyond the blame game –  the trouble with transfer