What is learning?
1 Looking from the outsideThere 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
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 that fire together, wire together."
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
3.1 Chemical connectors - synapses
3.2 Long-term potentiation: the memory mechanism
- a 'small gate' which opens easily from the outside
- a 'big gate' which can only be opened from the inside.
3.3 Short term memoriesWhen 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!).
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 hierarchyYou 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
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 teachingBecause 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.
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
"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 LearningThese 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.
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')
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.
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 explainThis 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
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.