Sunday, 13 May 2018

Learning Theory Pt 4: What is learning?

(This page is draft.  Please help us improve it by adding your comments (giving the paragraph number) at the bottom of this page.  The aim is to have a bare-bones introduction to the question 'what is learning?'.)

What is learning?

1  Looking from the outside

There are many definitions of learning, see these ten.
This one, by the authors of 'Make it Stick', is typical: “Acquiring knowledge and skills and having them readily available from memory so you can make sense of future problems and opportunities.”
That's what we see when we observe someone from the outside, but it doesn't explain how they do it.  To understand that we need to look inside the brain and see the actual physical process of making a long-term memory.

2  Looking from the inside

Learning in the brain happens when long-term memories are formed.  The links between brain-cells become permanently changed and the memory-pathway can be accessed at any time (so long as it is linked to prior-knowledge pathways)
"Cells that fire together, wire together."
The basic unit of the brain is the neuron, or brain-cell.  The process defined above implies a permanent  change in the brain with the new learning stored in an accessible way.  Looking at how the brain does this we see that the main change is not to the number of cells, but the connections they make.
Cells communicate with each other at chemical connections called synapses. Learning happens when some synapses are triggered into a new state - long-term potentiation.

3  Forming memories

Neurons:  brain cells

The way that the brain stores information turns out to be quite different from the way a computer stores it.  If you had a video camera and a bunch of hard drives, even the newest ones, you’d probably fill them up if you videoed your life over the weekend.  But the brain doesn’t ever get full, and the reason for that is that it stores the information in quite different ways. 

It is made up of brain cells; information is collected from other cells by the dendrites (left) and transmitted to others on the right.  When you're very young these cells have potentially 500 connections, so learning involves creating pathways which are preferred. Some of those 500 just fade away, but the preferred ones get stronger: and that’s what we call learning.

3.1  Chemical connectors - synapses

Cells are not directly connected, they have chemical-junctions called synapses. This diagram shows three brain cells joined together, (greatly simplified).  At the junction there’s a gap: a synapse.  The link is chemical with neuro-transmitters moving across the gap.   The reason why the brain has evolved (or was created) in this complicated way (rather than actually joining) is that it’s the way we learn. If you were born wired up, you wouldn’t be able to learn anything. At birth, a lot of the human brain is just sitting there, ready to be connected.

We can tell we have chemical links by observing what happens in our own brain.  If you wake up in the morning feeling a bit dull and you have some coffee, the caffeine boosts your neuro-transmitters and you wake up a bit.  Later on you're feeling wide awake and you have a few too many drinks, the alcohol suppresses your neuro-transmitters. Your speech may get slurry and you may lose your inhibitions (as the synapses from that area cease functioning!).

3.2  Long-term potentiation: the memory mechanism

This is the mechanism by which long-term memories are made. The synapses (gaps between brain cells) for the memory pathway become permanently changed, which means that the signal can flow easily along the path.

We can think about this in terms of gates. The signal arrives at the sending side of the synapse and causes neurotransmitters to be released. These neurotransmitters attach to the receiving side, triggering the signal in that cell.

There are two types of receptor on the receiving side: 
  • a 'small gate' which opens easily from the outside
  • a 'big gate' which can only be opened from the inside.
When the pathway is used repeatedly, the big gate is opened and remains permanently open. In other words, a long-term memory is formed.

This video below gives a technical explanation of this process.

This video gives a simplified version.

3.3  Short term memories

When we first start to learn something, we may appear to have formed long-term memories because we can answer questions later in the lesson.  However, these traces can fade completely if they are not backed up by repetitions to induce long-term potentiation.
These short-term memories are therefore just the early stages of long-term ones (not something different)

4  What are memories? 

Memories are not stored like they are on a computer. If you took 100 pictures all with blue in them and stored the images on your computer, the blue would be contained in every single picture.  However, we’ve got a part of our brain which detects different colours: blue, green, red. Every blue object in your memory will be connected to the blue area;  the computer is much less efficient than the brain (but much more accurate!).

This diagram shows the visual memory of a child who has a yellow cup (after seeing it several times). The small group of cells, represented by the yellow spot, is connected to the shapes that make up the cup, and to the colour of that cup. The ‘memory’ is simply a spot with connections, and so it takes a very small amount of space.   In a photograph you’d have all the information about the shape of that cup, but, in a brain-memory, you just have the links to the information.
Of course, no memory is only visual.  The child has physical sensations of holding and drinking and also an emotional response.  The full network of the memory has many components.

There isn’t one place in the brain for memories – they are simply links, so, for example, the memory for actions is in the same place as the action, while the names of things tends to be in the lower, left back part of the brain.  However, you have no sense yourself that this is the case!

4.1  Memory as a hierarchy

 You could say we have very basic shapes at the lowest level, and more complex objects are remembered just as the links to these basic shapes.  Clever eh!?

The spots in the ‘basic objects’ level in the diagram may represent your memories of table and chair, for example, and the spot in ‘complex objects’ could be your memory of ‘kitchen furniture’. So, everything is linked together in some sort of a hierarchy.
The knowledge in a student’s head (and in yours) is also hierarchical.  Sometimes students struggle for years.  Often the reason why, for example, they still can't do maths, is because the prior knowledge links were missing. The classroom research suggests that linking to prior knowledge is a good idea and a successful thing to do.   This means that the difference in students’ results between the teachers who link to prior knowledge and those who don’t, could be a whole grade.

4.2  Grandmother cells 

There is growing evidence that memory is structured as links. Researchers have found individual cells which respond only to one thing (for example: a picture of Jennifer Aniston on her own).  The term 'grandmother cell' is being used to label these cells - they are connecting point for all the components of a memory: the person, what they said; where you were, your emotional response etc

Further evidence comes from the observation that damage to certain small areas of the brain can result in the person being unable to make long-term memories.  This is not because the long-term potentiation has stopped working, but because 'grandmother' cells can no longer be formed.

4.3  Multi-sensory teaching

Because memories are networks of connections, the more the merrier!  If you only teach in words, your student will have mostly word-memories.  Adding some visual images (sometimes called 'dual-coding') adds an extra dimension.
Doing something practical or linking the learning to something exciting will also help.
However, as we will see in the section on Working Memory, it is important not to provide too much information at once.  Also, although doing something while looking at it and listening to the teacher's explanation is effective, expecting your students to read and listen at the same time is not.

4.4  Long-term memories are persistent.

Once a pathway is formed it is almost impossible to get rid of it.  memories you formed as a child, which you might not even think about for years and years, are sometimes immediately available years later.   People who have traumatic experiences would be really pleased to get rid of those memories!  
This can also tell us why people hang on to misconceptions and why it’s important to nip them in the bud as quickly as possible. (see the 'Feedback' section later on)

However, there is still sufficient space for us to carry on learning!

5  Forming long-term memories in the classroom

Sometimes we may feel that repetition might be a waste of time, because the students appear to already know it, because they’ve succeeded in the lesson. However, our own experience shows that students often seem to have forgotten what they appeared to have learned last lesson;  without repetition, the brain will almost ‘reset to zero’.  To secure the memory-pathway. you don’t re-teach the same material, the learners have to do the processing (which exercises the pathways).  It could be a plenary or questioning at the end of the lesson, it could be a recap or quiz at the beginning of the next lesson, or it could be a homework task which is repetition.
"Learning takes place through the active behaviour of the student: it is what the student does that they learn, not what the teachers does."

5.1 Performance v Learning

These terms are sometimes used to label the difference between the short-term memories in the lesson - where the student may appear to have learnt (because they can 'perform', but cannot perform a week later.  'Learning' requires repetitions.
Performance in the lesson is no guide to whether long-term learning has taken place.

5.2  Spaced v massed practice.

Normal teaching practice would be to teach your unit lesson by lesson, and the students apply the knowledge, and then you revise all the material at the end of the topic/unit: that’s called ‘massed practice’. By contrast, ‘spaced practice’ is: teach a bit, test, teach a bit more, test, review the bit you were taught first, retest etc. That works really well.
We know that building memories in the brain is completely different to computers, computers remember everything and they remember it first time. The brain has evolved, or was created, to forget everything that it only meets once.
You probably all have the classroom experience:  you teach something and the students even seem to understand it, and then next week they don’t even remember having done it. The memory seems to have been completely erased. Well, it’s not that it is erased, it was never formed.  
Now we know quite a lot about the memory forming process, we can make some 'rule-of-thumb' guidelines:

  • Teach the new learning (activating prior knowledge, presenting the material, setting a challenging task, and providing feedback).
  • Ensure at least three spaced repeats
  • Repetition 1 within 24 hours.
  • Repetition 2 within 3 days.
  • Repetition 3 within a week.

There needs to be a gap between the 1st activity and the 1st repeat so that a certain amount of 'forgetting' has taken place.  This can either be just a gap of time (the suggestion is at least 20 mins), or it can be the student doing something different for a while (see 'Interleaved Practice')
If first repeat is too soon, the brain effectively treats it as one visit. So if you did something at the beginning of the lesson and the students had to do something with it at the end; that would be a first repeat.  The first repeat is the most important because, if it was a few days before the next repeat, then the student may have completely forgotten.The brain is reset to zero, and those pathways are available for a completely different learning.
If we want to secure memories we have to structure the learning by giving our students the opportunity to process the same information on three separate occasions.  One at least 20 minutes apart, maybe for homework, certainly by the beginning of the next lesson, and then build in two more repeats before those pathways have faded.

5.2.1  ..but some of my students seem to learn without me doing any repeats!

The research suggests that all people learn in the same way. The reason why some people learn faster is because they actually do the repeats themselves, in a ‘mulling over’ process.  They tend to be students who are interested in the topic or have friends also interested.

6  What this theory can explain

This model (theory) of how memories are formed, and how they are links to existing memories, helps explain a great number of the things we see in classrooms:
  • students failing to learn due to lack of spaced repetition
  • students who 'can't do maths' (or another subject) due to lack of prior knowledge
  • students appearing to understand something one day, but to have completely forgotten by the following week
Using evidence-based methods, even without a theory, will improve the learning.  However, understanding this theory will help you choose the most appropriate method to use to solve the problem you see in your classroom and so significantly improve the learning of your students.  They can also understand why some of their students are failing to learn and be better equipped to help them.

7  In summary:

  • Learning involves making long-term memories.
  • Memories are links between neurons made by strengthening synapses.
  • The links require spaced repetition.
  • Memories are networks of links.  If prior knowledge is missing, memories cannot be formed.
  • Once formed, memories and habits are very hard to change.  Feedback is essential to ensure the right links are made.

Thursday, 3 May 2018

Learning Theory Pt 3: The cognitive science basis of the theory

The cognitive science basis of a shared theory of learning.

1  Existing theories

There are already many theories of learning:  behaviourist, constructivist, Piagetian, cognitive load etc (see this list)  When a discipline has many theories it often indicates that the subject is not understood.  As the evidence mounts, patterns emerge and the number of possible ways to interpret it falls.
This process happened in medicine during the 19th century.  At one time there were a whole range of theories which competed to explain the origins of disease: imbalance of humors, possession by spirits, bad air, sins of a past life etc.  Each had their own experts.  As the evidence mounted in support of physical-reality, evidence-based explanations such as blood circulation, germ theory etc, gradually the old theories lost effect.  A similar process is now taking place in education.

2  The basis of a unified theory of learning

Learning happens in the brain, so, any explanation of the learning process has to be able to describe the learning process as changes to the brain.
Before the arrival of brain scanning techniques such as fMRI etc, educationalists had to make educated guesses about what was happening in the brain.  Now we know so much more, it is now possible to link learning with other knowledge about the brain discovered by the cognitive sciences.
If we use the common language of the brain and cognitive psychology, we will now be sharing our model with neuroscience-trained educators such as Speech and Language Therapists and other brain-based therapies such as mental health practitioners.  By joining the club of other evidence-based theories we gain respect and credibility.

2.1  Sources of evidence

"The potential for the neuroscience of learning to form a foundation for teacher training is one area that offers further possibilities."
Foreword by Baroness Susan Greenfield CBE in  Neuroscience for Teachers: Applying research evidence from brain science. Crown House Publishing. 
How the Brain Learns. David Sousa

3  The language of the theory


  • Neuron
  • Neurotransmitter
  • Synapse 
  • Pathway
  • Cortex, visual cortex, frontal lobe etc
  • Plasticity
  • Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI)
  • Working memory, phonological loop, visual/spatial sketchpad
  • Cognitive load
  • Long-term memory
  • Long-term potentiation
  • Executive function

  • 4  Limitations of neuroscience

    It is not possible to take an insight from neuroscience and, from it, make recommendations for the classroom without extensive trials and evaluations.  This is the same as in medicine and other evidence-based professions: When a new drug is being developed, although a great deal of chemistry, biochemistry etc is known, it is still impossible to predict the effects of a new drug without extensive testing and trials.  However, this does not stop the use of biochemistry to explain the effects of the drug, once the evidence is available.
    The use of cognitive neuroscience to explain effective teaching does not mean that it can be used directly to give teachers advice on how to teach.
    Teachers should apply 'what works' using the evidence from experiments.  However, we can use the language and ideas of the cognitive sciences to explain how they work and to guide in us in sensible directions to develop new ideas and techniques that may work.

    5  Neuro-myths

    These are ideas which are common in education and are often presented with a brain-based explanation, but which have no evidence to support them.  Examples include 'left-brain: right-brain', learning styles, brain gym etc.
    Some people are concerned that using cognitive science explanations will make neuro-myths even more likely.
    However, there are plenty of myths in education which don't rely on pseudo-neuroscience explanations - and we can use very basic science to show why all the myths are myths.

    6  Level of description

    Clearly there is a fear that, by using the language and ideas of cognitive sciences, that the teacher will be overwhelmed and spend time learning complex facts and concepts which will never be useful in their classroom practice.
    However, all theories can be represented at different levels of detail and technical language.

    6.1  Example from surgery

    Any heart surgeon knows the arteries and veins which supply the heart muscle with blood/oxygen in a very high level of detail, yet they all probably started their understanding with a simple diagram (source) like this one while at secondary school.
    It is at the appropriate level of detail for the student to start their learning.  Later on they may start to use a diagram (source) like this one:
    As their skills develop, the surgeon uses more and more complex versions of the explanatory model.

    6.2  Appropriate theories for teachers

    A similar approach is available for the science of learning.  The level of detail required is one which allows teachers to make sense of what they see in their classrooms and can be taught during initial teacher education.  One example is this very simple model of memory:

    We start a draft in the following pages.

    7  Theory into practice

    Please don't judge the 'theory' on this page till you have seen some concrete examples.

    Friday, 27 April 2018

    Learning Theory Pt 2: Why have a learning theory?

    (This page is part of the EBTN 'Theory of Learning' project.  
    Please help us develop it by commenting at the bottom of the page.)

    The advantages of a shared 'theory of learning'

    1  Disadvantages of having no shared theory

    1.1  'Anything goes' in education

    Teaching is complex.  In the absence of a theory which explains the majority of the observations, it is possible for different teachers to come to quite different conclusions because they are aware of only some parts of the evidence.  This wide range of views means that almost 'anything goes'.  If it sounds plausible, then teachers may try to use it.
    This leaves teachers open to fads, whims and gurus all offering their take.

    1.2  Giving government power

    When government offers 'reform' (which are always intended to improve learning), teachers do not speak with one voice.  Most other professions, who have a shared theory, speak with one main voice and are able to confidently refuse to carry out ideas from politicians which they know to be unhelpful.  

    2  Benefits of a shared theory

    2.1  Having a 'textbook'

    At present the evidence is offered to teachers by different authors in different ways (and mixed with the old myths etc).  Teachers deserve a shared textbook which compiles both the evidence and it's explanation (theory) in one place.
    An effective, evidence-based theory of learning would need to be explicitly taught in professional teacher training programs to be spread across the profession. Having a theory will ensure that all teachers have the same quality of knowledge and understanding of how children learn best.

    2.2  Respect for the profession

    By politicians and wider society: A shared theory will form the basis of greater respect for teachers from wider society, less interference by government and faster progress towards better learning.
    By students and parents:  When students find that the methods used in their lessons are also found in the textbook of teaching, they gain confidence that their teacher is the expert.

    2.3  Saying "No!"

    Most professions with a shared theory and evidence speak with one voice.  If parents or government proposed something to engineers which they knew to be wrong, they simply refuse to do it - and cite their theoretical knowledge.
    At present, teachers do not speak with one voice.  Government simply 'picks its experts' and teachers speak with many voices.
    With a shared, evidence-based theory, teachers could say "No" with a united voice.

    2.4  Lower stress for teachers

    A secondary effect could be that the shortage of teachers would be significantly reduced if the stress-level caused by government interference and time-consuming, but low-effect methods were removed and teachers could produce the better results without overworking.

    2.5  Underpinning 'what works'

    We already have lists of effective methods compiled from the evidence.  We can be confident in using them in our classrooms.  However, if it is just a list, we do not know why they work.  Theory will provide an explanation.

    2.6 Dispelling the myths

    At present, myths such as 'learning styles' can linger in the profession long after the evidence shows them to be ineffective.  A shared theory would explain why these myths are unfounded.

    2.7  Identifying areas of research

    As well as randomly trying out ideas to see if they work, research could also focus on refining the model/theory and testing hopeful ideas based on the theory.

    2.8  Improving Special Educational Needs learning

    A theory of learning would help explain why some students are struggling (learning difficulties) and so direct support towards brain-friendly strategies which take account of the disability.

    2.9 Replaces unconscious theories

    Whenever anyone states an opinion about education, they are using a mental model to do so.  These mental models are, for the most part, unconscious and not-evidence-based.  (Sometimes the opinion is claimed to be 'obvious' or 'common sense'.)  By definition, an unconscious theory cannot be tested.
    By writing down a theory of learning we make it conscious and testable.

    3  Would a theory empower or disempower teachers?

    Some teachers are concerned that a 'theory of learning' could become 'one more stick with which to beat teachers'. However, this is not the case in other professions.  The 'sticks to beat teachers' have mostly been about methods, not theory. Examples have been:
    • Particular interpretation of the evidence on 'assessment for learning'
    • Insistence that phonics is 'the answer' for all pupils
    Most other professions are liberated by their shared theory.  Doctors or engineers do not feel oppressed by their anatomy or structures textbooks.  Theory gives the individual teacher autonomy and the opportunity to say 'No' when asked to carry out a counter-evidence task.

    3.1  Empowering the teacher

    At present the huge quantity of written material on learning and teaching gives the impression that learning is a very difficult thing to understand.  This empowers the 'expert' who can easily convince us that their opinion is fact that we should follow.
    A 'theory of learning' is, by definition, fairly short.  When teachers are familiar with the theory, they are much less likely to be controlled as we will be the experts too.


    Feedback from teachers

    These are the responses from teachers to the question:
    "In what other ways do you think that a 'theory of learning' will be helpful?"

    The text above is compiled using these contributions.
    • Blow some of the assumptions about education out of the water. Expand access to include more valuable participants within academia and economic traffic.
    • A theory of learning will also drive teacher education, making sure that most first year teachers come into the classroom with a common baseline approach to teaching.
    • Useful to share with students and parents - the key for me is that it will help students to learn better. 
    • It will provide a great structure and a way to validate what we do
    • It might form a base pedagogy that could be used to branch out from. My 'go to' with students is that in order to internalise something you need to encounter it 3-4 times and in 3-4 different ways. 
    • If shared with students it could increase their buy-in. 
    • I am wary - I suspect it could become one more stick with which to beat teachers. 
    • To understand the teaching role; empowering teachers but other stakeholders too
    • Working out effective general and subject specific methods of teaching
    • Having a theory will ensure that all teachers have the same quality of knowledge and understanding of how children learn best. Too many teachers provide activities rather than learning opportunities. Too many teachers still talk to the children instead of providing investigative opportunities. Teachers should have a responsibility to keep up to date with the latest research therefore children learn effectively. Having a theory will help to develop the idea that all teachers are forward thinkers and are preparing children for their future, not the teacher's past. Having a theory will help teachers to be classed as experts in their field.
    • Provide clear strategies for teachers 
    • Give reasons for strategies 
    • Provide a useful discussion forum 
    • An effective, evidence-based theory of learning would need to be explicitly taught in professional teacher training programs to be spread across the profession; the language of the theory could also be incorporated into lesson plan templates and teacher evaluation rubrics.
    • It helps to define what further research and observations should be undertaken in order to further our knowledge.
    • Help teachers to plan better lessons
    • The professional discussions that such a theory can facilitate will be powerful. It will also establish a common language which can work across all teachers and in all cultures.
    • In helping to promote best practice in classrooms
    • Allow teachers to argue for and against different classroom strategies from an evidence based stance. 
    • A 'theory of learning' should allow teachers and educators to be able to explain what they are doing and why to parents, employers and other professionals.
    • It will be an excellent resource for new teachers.
    • I think it will give teachers and leaders much more clout and ensure that we are taken seriously. We always seem to come across as whingeing when we challenge the government.
    • make teaching learning process more effective, students have better learning
    • It will educate teachers & help them to gain an awareness that their profession has been hijacked by managers & bureaucrats, most of whom have no vision or understanding of, or interest in, pedagogy. And it will improve teaching & increase impact on children's learning.
    • Helps to bring teachers together and equip us with the collective resources to fight off quackery - and to learn from each other.
    • It will help to underpin planning, and also help those teaching SEN students to look at new ways of delivering lessons.
    • In terms of teaching we must make provision to include the learner. This will also mean developing a suitable language with which to share the mental and emotional impact of learning.
    • I think a theory of learning can serve as a lens through which teachers can make decision about what constitutes best practice. 
    • Informing inspection and lesson observation processes. 
    • Contributing to a shift on the educational landscape! 

    Thursday, 26 April 2018

    Learning Theory Pt 1: What is a 'learning theory'?

    (This page is part of the EBTN 'Theory of Learning' project. 
    Please help us develop by commenting at the bottom of the page.)

    What is a 'learning theory'?

    1  What is a theory?

    1.1 A theory is:

    • a set of statements which helps explain a wide range of observations
    • an observation of the patterns in the evidence
    • a generalization of observations.
    • a useful model of the reality

    1.2 To be useful it must:

    • be self-consistent
    • explain most observations
    • make predictions which can be tested 
    • not be disproved by evidence

    2 What is a 'learning theory'?

    It is a theory which explains the learning process.  A model of the learning process.
    To be useful it would need to:
    • be self-consistent
    • explain observations made by teachers, classroom and cognitive science experiments 
    • make testable predictions about teaching methods which should improve learning 
    • have little evidence which contradicts the theory

    2.1 Theories develop over time

    We can never say that a theory is certain - it is always just the best explanation we have at present. If experiments based on the predictions of the theory show that the prediction was wrong, the theory may need to be revised.

    2.2  Can a learning theory make definite predictions?

    Theories in physics and chemistry can make predictions which are always right or wrong.  Teaching is more a biological or social science.  Individual differences mean that predictions about individuals are not possible.  However, we can say that 'on average', such-and-such a method will be more effective.
    Teachers will need to use their professional judgement to assess whether a method is working with them, their students, their subject.

    2.3  Can learning theory tell us how to teach?

    The learning theory is only part of the story.  We could say that the theory is the 'science of learning which supports the art of teaching'.

    Next: Pt 2  Why have a learning theory?

    Saturday, 14 April 2018

    The case for a 'theory of learning'.

    Why we need a shared theory of learning.

    “If we know how they learn,
    we can see how to improve our teaching?”

    Why Learning Theory?

     “A theory…is a model that accurately explains large groups of observations….and allow us to make definite predictions about future events”  Stephen Hawking

    (We are using the term 'theory' in the scientific sense of something derived from the evidence, not in the everyday 'that's only a theory' sense.  Alternative words are:  Shared model, shared understanding, shared conceptual framework.)

    Professionalising teaching

    Teachers’ universal complaint is the endless flow of initiatives from government.  Within a few years, most of these either fade away, or are found to fail.   The level of “policy failure” is very high.

    Why is it that, of all the professions, education is the one where government, journalists, parents and gurus all feel they are better-informed that teachers?  Why is it that engineers, midwives, archaeologists, meteorologists etc are all consulted for their expertise, while teachers are lectured?

    What the other professions have, which teaching lacks, is that shared model which forms the foundation of their professional understanding.  Wherever in the world you study midwifery, using the evidence-based medical model, you will be taught roughly that same material.  

    The precondition for a shared theory is wide agreement on the evidence.  In the past there has been little agreement, but more recently the level of agreement almost all those who look at the evidence about learning has increased dramatically.  All sorts of books, blogs and websites are offering very similar ideas.

    What makes a good theory?  

    Any theory is a simplification of reality.  Good theories:

    • explain a high percentage of observations
    • make predictions which can be tested
    • are not easily falsified

    The role of neuroscience

    Most observers agree that we are very far from the point where we can ask neuroscientists for advice on how to teach.  However, neuroscience - the study of the brain - can be used as the basis for an explanation of the evidence.

    The evidence-sources we can use are:
    • classroom experiments
    • cognitive sciences

     Let's 'give it a go'.  

    Would you agree with the following draft statements?  They are brain-based explanations for the evidence we see in learning.  (This is not meant to be comprehensive, just for starters!)

    Principles and Implications

    Learning happens when new connections are made between neurons in the brain of the learner.  For the connections to be long-term memories, the same pathway needs to be activated several times.  Unless this happens, the synapses gradually reset to their original state and no memory exists (forgetting).
    - Spaced repetition is vital for this process.

    For the new learning to be understood, it must link to existing, prior knowledge.
    - If the prior knowledge is missing, the new learning may only be retained by rote.

    Sense data enters the student’s brain all the time from many sources.
    - The student needs to maintain attention on the learning material.

    The information which is attended to enters Working Memory.
    - The student’s WM is easily overloaded.

    Accessing secure long-term memories uses less WM space.
    - Mastery of the basics is essential for higher learning.

    Repeated pathways create long-term memories whether they are correct or incorrect.
     - Feedback is needed during the learning process to avoid misconceptions.

    The brain has a huge capacity to process visual material with little effort.
    - Teaching materials should combine visual/images and words.

    If you would be interested to help develop this model/shared understanding/theory, please contact me at

    Other sources

    The theory we build will not be our own invention!  The theory is simply the patterns we see in the evidence and several people have 'had a go'.  


    “I’ve found an exception:  this disproves your theory.”  If this theory can explain the majority of the evidence - then it is good/useful. Simply finding exceptions does not invalidate the theory.  If a competing theory can explain more observations and make better predictions, then we can say our theory is defunct.

    “I don’t believe in theory – I’m only interested in getting the job done”. Many people are sceptical of the need for theory: However, whenever we apply any teaching method or policy, we are basing these decisions, consciously or not, on a set of values and assumptions.  If we do not examine these underlying elements we will not find out if we agree with them, or whether there is any evidence that they are valid.

    “Don’t you mean “Teaching Theory?”  We share the view that “There is no such thing as teaching, only learning”.  “Teaching” is the word we give to a number of different activities which may end in learning.  It is Learning Theory which informs teaching practice, not the other way around.

    Draft Mike Bell EBTN April 2018

    Saturday, 27 February 2016

    Six steps to outstanding learning.

    ‘6-steps’ summarise the evidence

    With evidence available from so many sources, it’s difficult to see the wood for the trees.  By grouping the effective methods into the six steps many teachers apply anyway, we can see they make more sense.
    It’s not just PAR: ‘Present>Apply>Review’, it’s OPPARR

    Orient>Prior knowledge>Present>

    You can find the comparison Hattie, Marzano and EEF on the website and we are working on including a range of contributions from cognitive science.
    Learning involves making new links between neurons in the brain.  If the brain hasn’t changed, learning hasn’t happened.
    Do you use steps similar to these six?

    Step 0: Setting the scene – ready to make links

    Improving behaviour has a high effect-size.  Do you have clear rules, applied without too much discussion and backed up by senior staff?
    Students who have a Growth Mindset achieve, on average, one grade higher than those with a Fixed Mindset. How does your school/college promote this?  Are you good at 'Not labelling students' ?

    Step 1: Prior knowledge – existing links

    1.1 Assessing prior knowledge
    Since new learning and memories are built on what is already known, do you assess the prior knowledge of your students before the start of a new unit?  What methods do you use to do this?
    1.2  Filling gaps in prior knowledge
    Can you assess students before the start of the course to give time to fill in the gaps?  What do you do when a gap is identified? 
    Effective ways to deal with missing prior knowledge include: early intervention, phonics, small group, one-to-one or peer tuition.  
    There are several interventions designed to help slow readers catch up: reciprocal teaching, repeated reading, vocabulary and phonics all apply here.  The meanings of words need to be secure in long-term memory.

    Step 2: Presenting new material – showing links

    2.1: Linking to prior knowledge
    Do you use Similes and analogies to create links between the new material and what the student already knows?
    2.2: Not just words
    Students can receive their first contact with new material either from your teaching, or by reading a book, watching a video or demonstration etc.    Of the four, reading (visual words) is the most problematic for some students.   Do you use Graphical or Tactile Methods?
    2.3: Big-picture and fine-detail
    Do you give students both levels?  Do you use Advance organisers give the big-picture at the start of a topic or  Summarising  to pull a big-picture from the detailed learning they have done.
    2.4 Limits of working memory
    Do you present new material in short chunks so working memory is not overloaded?  Do you keep instructions short for less able students?

    Step 3: Setting a challenging task – creating links

    3.1  Challenge
    If the task is too easy, it will simply exercise prior knowledge.  If it is too hard, the student will fail.  In both cases, no learning can take place.  Do you set a challenging task: which the student can achieve with a bit of struggle and feedback.  
    Do you think your tasks are hard enough?
    3.2 Worked examples and modelling
    Do you give your students model answers or worked examples so they know what a good answer looks like?
    3.3 Goals
    Are Goals and learning objectives clear so that students can focus on what matters?
    3.4 Promoting thinking
    While a few students can 'think things through' for themselves, most need help or training. Do you give students more complex tasks which link the material such as Hypothesis testing, problem solving, note-making or summarising or do you focus on simple factual recall)?
    Do you use collaborative or cooperative methods so students have to articulate their thoughts and decide whether another opinion is better than their own? 

    Step 4: Providing feedback – checking the links

    4.1  Giving feedback
    Feedback is essential to check that the learning is not mistaken (that the brain is making the right links).  It needs to happen during the process, not after it.  It occurs near the top of all three lists and should be considered essential.  Sometimes the term 'Assessment for learning' is used.
    What kinds of feedback do you give? Verbal or written? By the teacher, by peers or the student themselves using assessment criteria or mark-schemes.  Does it include what is correct (the medal) and what needs improving (the mission)?
    4.2  Making an improvement
    If the student does not act on the feedback, little new learning takes place.  Do you require students to act on the feedback?

    Step 5: Repetition – securing the links

    Repetition is vital to secure long-term memories.  Do you use spaced practice? 
    Mastery learning, repetition and homework (not at primary level) all give opportunities for repetition.  
    Once new knowledge is understood, do you require sufficient practice to secure long term memories?

    Back to Step 1

    Assessment of the new learning then shows whether a secure foundation (Prior Knowledge) exists for the next part of the learning. 
    Because long-term memories form over several weeks, learning needs to be in the form of overlapping cycles where the practice with recent material overlaps with new learning. 

    Mastery learning:  a technique where students keep repeating a piece of vital learning until they achieve 80% in an assessment.  This is repetition combined with a recognition of the need for secure prior knowledge..

    Saturday, 5 December 2015

    Should we get students to learn by rote?

    The question as to whether we should teach students to learn things by heart (by rote) continues to create debate in education.  What does the evidence show?

    The importance of secure memories

    We know for sure (from neuroscience, testing etc) that our brains have a very limited Working Memory capacity.  Although there is dispute about the number of items we can hold in our heads at the same time, the number 7 seems to be an average  while some students can hold 9 items.
    Working memory is the space where we think about things, work things out, mull over holiday plans, do mental arithmetic etc.
    If the sentence is too long, it does not all fit in working memory.

    This diagram shows a 5-slot working memory (WM). The first thing to see is that complex instructions can overload working memory.  Those working with less-able students know they need to break long sentences into shorter ones. (Young children's books always have short sentences.)  So, how do we ever think about something more complex?

    The answer is that long-term memories can be drawn into just one slot, thus freeing space for the rest of the thinking.

    Here is a trivial example:  If you are asked to remember the left-hand list

    UN DUN
    EU EUZ

     and you have these acronyms stored in long-term memory, you will be able to remember it much more easily than the right-hand list which has the same letters.

    This is sometimes called 'chunking', but this simply means that the unit is stored so securely (and the meaning understood) that it can be drawn into one slot in WM.

    In mathematics, this helps resolve the question as to whether we should teach students their 'times-tables'.  If, when faced with the problem 8 x7 (or verbally, 'eight sevens') the number 56 pops into your head without any thought, then more complex problems can be tackled than if WM slots are taken up with the process of working out that part of the problem.

    There are, of course, potential problems with  rote learning.  If the student has no idea how to work out 8x7 (or other simple multiple) then the memory will be meaningless.  Also, if failure to remember compulsory times-tables leads the students to believe that they are 'no good at maths', then the effect can be negative.

    Another problem with times-tables is that the students may need to chant the whole table until they arrive at the one they need. One solution is to teach number-bonds by rote rather than tables.   The table shows that there are only 30-40 which need to be recalled as there are repeats (8x7 is the same as 7x8) and some trivial ones (eg 10x8=80).










    In language teaching we never debate whether we should teach the meaning of words by rote or not!  We simply show the child a cup and give them the word 'cup' and get them to repeat it until they are fluent.  We do not try to explain why it is called 'cup'.  Equally, when teaching French, we simply require the student to know that the French for 'fish' is 'poisson'.

    The need for secure knowledge is better understood once we see the way memories are stored in the brain.  They are not like memories on a computer.  All the information about this page is stored in the file of this web-page.  However, in the brain, the memory of something is just a set of links to what is already known.

    If we teach about the Pope to someone who knows nothing about it, we may link to their knowledge of king and church.  However, earlier in their life they would have learned about 'king' by linking it to perhaps father' and 'country'. However, once the students has learned about 'Pope', they do not have a separate memory of Pope (as your camera has a separate memory of the photos you have taken), it has a huge network of links.  When we later want to use 'Pope' in a more complex sentence like "The Pope left the Vatican and celebrated mass in the Cathedral.", we are relying on these networks for vatican, cathedral etc to be secure so we can understand the sentence in our Working Memory.

    Summarising the evidence

    • Working memory is used for thinking and is limited
    • Secure memories are vital for thinking.
    • Understanding can only occur if the new knowledge is linked to existing knowledge.
    • Learning by rote things which are understood is valuable.
    • Learning simple facts by rote is not damaging.