Peps Mccrea’s ‘Memorable Teaching’: memory in the classroom

12 May 2017


“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.”

L.P Hartley ‘The Go Between’

In the opening of L.P Hartley’s ‘The Go Between’ (sloth like process through the A-Z of classic literature reading challenge!) the protagonist, Leo Colston, discovers a red cardboard box which is full of inconsequential objects and a diary from over fifty years ago. This fascinating discovery leads him to reflect on his childhood experiences. Reading ‘The Go-Between’ and Peps Mccrea’s excellent ‘Memorable Teaching’ simultaneously this week has led to much pondering on the nature of memory and how it can be developed.

So to take a brief step back to the start of my own teaching career. If I stumbled across a box that was full of objects and notes reflecting my tentative steps into our delightful profession, what would it consist of?

  1. Dusty group roles sheets. Each combined with a personalised image and a catchy alliterative name linked to the text. Hours worth of joy.
  2. The Ofsted outstanding lesson criteria: yellowing and covered in eager finger prints. This became a bible for the first two years of teaching: I must deliver an outstanding lesson! Not outstanding learning. On no. That matters not: only the holy grail of an outstanding lesson.
  3. Objects: I would spend many a weekend hunting for exciting objects, things to “bring texts to life.” Perhaps the thirty mini daffodil badges might stumble out at this point: Wordsworth’s poem has never been so powerfully rendered. Cough. At its most arbitrary each student would have an individual object they would have to highlight how it linked to whatever literary adventure we were on. Hours worth of joy.
  4. Superflous clips: Must couple this with a clip. Any clip. Need a clip. Lesson not complete without a clip.
  5. Epic lesson plans for individual lessons: Like a Shakespearean scroll they will tumble out, every minute painstakingly justified, every learning intention colourfully illuminated.
  6. PowerPoint masterpieces. My word could I craft a delightful PowerPoint. They would ooze artistic intent, coupled with the most ornate and hilarious images known to mankind. These images would surround essays of instruction: explaining every step of our “learning journey” (other classic) to my bamboozled students.

As an NQT I spent a disproportionate amount of time scrupulously studying how to construct an ‘outstanding’ lesson. For those precious observed moments I would spent hours planning lesson of Oscar winner potential, coupled with resources that were painstakingly constructed and differentiated for every child. My delightful mentor would (sometimes!) say some lovely things then quizzically pose the question: so what is the next step?

Cue awkward pause. Next step?

I had absolutely no idea how to plan for learning over time; how to look at sustaining learning; how to build on skills. Nobody had talked about that during my training. Instead they threw around “engagement” “collaboration” and “learning styles” like confetti. I don’t recall hearing the word “memory” at any point. In those early days I would eagerly rush to see the “magic” pay off in students’ assessments and slump into a corner: why wasn’t any of it sticking? Those carefully honed individual lessons vanished into the ether: rather delightful but utterly meaningless (ironically) memories.

I was a walking metaphor for what was wrong with grading individual lessons: it leads to misaligned and myopic thinking that detracts from reflection on learning over time. Luckily this daft business has been predominantly consigned to the proverbial teacher diary (the past is indeed a foreign country). Refreshingly, the dialogue is now more sensible: how to sustain learning, how to understanding memory and how to teach to retain information. Just read this excellent post from Dave Grimmett, in which he outlines his vision for teaching and learning in his department based on knowledge and retention.

So why should we justify our precious time as busy practitioners with some serious reflection on memory? The opening question Peps Mccrea’s poses in his book is a good place to start:

“Memory underpins learning. Why then, as a profession of learning enablers, is it something we spend so little time talking about?” ‘Memorable Teaching’ pg 5.

Entering the world of teaching my understanding of memory and how it functions was in a complete vacuum. Only in the past two years have I started to give this some serious thought: in the face of the new challenging English GCSE and the scope of information that requires students to exercise their memories to marathon levels. Given that is one of a range of GCSE exams they are faced with – the strain on their memories is significant. Yet I still feel wonderfully ignorant about how memory works and how I can engineer my teaching to support students capacity to remember information. The issue is often the complexity of dialogue about memory. There are lots of terms that are ubiquitous: spaced retrieval, interleaving, metacognition and metaknowledge to only warm up. I have always nodded sagely when they arise, masking my memory insecurities and inside crying: what on earth does it mean for my teaching?

Mccrea’s book arrives to answer all those questions that we know we should be thinking about but perhaps don’t fully grasp (or have the time to seriously read about!): offering a lucid and remarkably clear analysis of a range of theories about memory. He splits his book into nine very easily digestible nuggets with practical examples. I finished the book with a genuinely marked better understanding of learning and memory than when I began. Refreshingly, he also appears to speak directly to my earnest NQT’s approach to learning:

“Memorable teaching is an unfunny, unshowy approach to building learning. It relies on simple routines executed with frequency, and is predicted on the idea that learning, and teaching, takes time” ‘ pg 107.

Having placed the Ofsted outstanding lesson criteria back in the box, these are some of the elements of ‘Memorable Teaching’ that I will be working on developing in the classroom and then repeating until they are imbedded in my practice. First it is useful to begin by considering how memory is constructed:

“From an educational perspective, the most useful way to think about memory is as a system of two interacting components: Long-Term Memory (LTM) and Working Memory (WM).” ‘Memorable Teaching’ pg 6

Given my utterly unscientific brain the idea is that these two work in tandem (the Matthew Effect), and understanding how they work will assist in improving our teaching. Very simply: Long Term Memory is knowledge and Working Memory is thinking. The book goes out to outline some tools that can support to build a powerful Long Term Memory by developing the Working Memory. It starts with our tendency as teachers to overwhelm and distract students (epic PowerPoint slides back in the box):

“From an educational perspective, any information that our students can use to think closer to the learning intention is desirable. Everything else is a distraction”. pg 24

Streamlining learning is vital to ensure that students can focus their full attention on what is important. By jamming my lessons full of “engaging” objects/slides/help sheets/outcomes etc I was actually causing cognitive overload for those poor overwhelmed youngsters. There is still the temptation to do this: to pack lessons full of “stuff”. Mccrea argues for a narrowing: less redundant information, less of the incessant and repetitive classroom narration to enable a focus on learning. A key point of reflection moving forward – what could I cut down in the classroom to enable real focus on the learning and eliminate distractions?

This is followed by a fascinating section on streamlining communication – how what we say and present to students has a real impact on their capacity to remember. Sounds like an obvious point – but certainly one we don’t spend enough time reflecting on. There are some useful tips on how to stress information for students to orient attention. Then it is about considering how much we are presenting young people with:

“Expert induced blindness makes us prone to underestimating the complexity of tasks and so overestimating the load our students can comfortably bear. It creates an empathy gap that is hard to bridge” (pg 48)

This is were breaking down tasks into the smaller components is essential and Mccrea gives a number of useful tips to ensure that we are thinking about how effectively we are reflecting on task complexity. In part it is about stripping it the bare fundamentals: looking to see when misconceptions might arise.  By doing this we are harnessing the power of the Working memory, massaging its capacity to ensure that it can work with the Long Term memory.

Now given that Year 11 are stepping into the world of exams over the next couple of weeks, some reflection about how well I have sculpted their long term memories is in order. As Leo says later in ‘The Go-Betwen’: “One remembers things at different levels.” In ‘Memorable Learning’ this follows a range of steps, beginning with ‘priming’:

We can increase the chances of learning happening by activating, or warming up relevant areas of LTM before exploring a new topic… Priming for learning is a bit like priming for painting. We prepare the surface to help our material stick better. (pg 59)

I found the section on memory retrieval a particularly interesting one, having read ‘Make it Stick’ and trying to build this into lessons recently (see this on teaching ‘A Christmas Carol‘). There are some excellent tips:

“The less assistance we provide students during retrieval, the greater the strengthening effect. This is why posing your students questions about a topic is more powerful than presenting that topic again. Retrieval beats re-explosure.” pg 81

This includes guidance on how to implement spaced retrieval into teaching, returning again to the importance of “regular cumulative quizzes” to “supercharge impact” pg 83. It deconstructs how to approach interleaving and automacy (“the mechanism that allows us to decode multiple words in succession during reading and simultaneously focus on the learning of a passage), each combined again with practical examples.

Finally metacognition is another term that I tend to smile politely about – not fully grasping its importance in the classroom. Another beautifully simple surmise from Mccrea:

“Our impact as teachers may be significant, but it severely limited by how our students approach their learning… The practice of thinking about thinking is called metacognition.” pg 94

The first step is teaching Meta Knowledge – building students capacity to understand how their own memories work. I have shown some of my classes this week ‘Memorable Teaching’ and explained some of the ideas about learning – they seemed interested: it is, after all, what they invest all of their days doing! We have talked about how we can grow ourselves better as learners. Mccrea also notes that we “can support this process by routinely outlining the rationale underpinning our teaching approaches.” Rationalising the purpose behind activities and learning is often lost in the busy world of teaching. Doing so opens up students thinking and justifies the purposes of lesson.

The area of self-regulation is also one I am very interested in. It involves exploring how to develop strategies to encourage students to monitor their thinking and start to be able to auto correct their thinking and, in turn their outputs. Mccrea gives some strategies then highlights the validity of this approach:

“Over time, your students will spend more time thinking desirably, and less time distracted. But perhaps more importantly, they will end up with a greater sense of agency over their thoughts and actions” (pg 102)

Much like the younger Leo in ‘The Go Between’ we are starting to hear the whisper of the long summer and its languid days. The examination stress is about to dissipate, replaced with the important reflection on our teaching and planning to go one step better next year. Both can be beautifully coupled with some consideration on the importance of memory: and Peps Mccrea’s ‘Memorable Teaching’ is a perfect starting point.

Thank you for reading, the question is: how much can you remember?


Jamie Thom

English teacher, host of @TES English teaching podcast. Author of 'Slow Teaching.' MEd in Practitioner Enquiry, doctorate student #StrathEdD. Runner.

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