May 4, 2021

Sticky Learning: Knowing More and Remembering More

In this article, Emma Adcock considers two important principles of sticky learning and how we can adapt how we teach the curriculum to achieve ‘knowledge that stays with us forever.’

How does Learning happen? 

Learning happens when pupils make sense of ideas in relation to what they already know. When we talk about knowledge in the long-term memory, we often refer to this as Sticky learning. Sticky learning is effectively the knowledge that stays with us forever. In other words:

Learning is defined as an alteration in long-term memory. If nothing has been altered in long-term memory, nothing has been learned.” 

(Kirschner, Sweller and Clarke, 2006)

So why does learning not always stick? Pupils do not always learn what we intend them to learn for a variety of reasons: Reasons include:

  • Attention deficits
  • Lack of prior knowledge
  • Memory overload.

In this article, I will consider two important principles of sticky learning and how we can adapt how we teach the curriculum to achieve ‘knowledge that stays with us forever.’

When designing your curriculum, it is important to remember:

  • Knowledge is generative – the more you know, the more you can understand
  • Learning is an alteration in long-term memory
  • Vocabulary size relates to academic success, and schooling is crucial for increasing the breadth of children’s vocabulary.

Curriculum Design

We cannot talk about curriculum design without turning our attention to cognitive science. Research has revealed that when learning is new, a child’s cognitive load will be high. Therefore, we need to expect children to forget newly taught content. 

As educationalists, we understand the value of spaced learning and the impact that revisiting previously taught content can have on the long-term memory. The Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve presents a stark reminder that just minutes after being taught something, children are starting to forget that knowledge. If we analyse this curve further, it demonstrates that just one hour later, the learning which was initially clear, is now hazy and pupils will only remember some of it; the loss will be significant. 

What are the implications for our curriculum? 

Mastery has fallen out of favour with the Inspection framework, but one of its main elements facilitates the act of ‘knowing more remembering more’. The mastery approach is to take longer to deepen leaning – to firmly embed knowledge in the long-term memory before dashing onto new content. 

To echo the sentiments of Mary Myatt, are we forsaking learning for curriculum coverage? Only to find that a term down the line, the knowledge we felt they had grasped, is in fact insecure. 

To avoid the tyranny of content coverage, an important job for every subject leader is to identify the concepts within subjects, and make sure that these concepts are at the forefront of planning. The teaching of concepts is important because they help pupils to develop understanding in the long-term memory, which helps them to make connections with new knowledge. When pupils understand concepts, it makes learning ‘stickier’. Concepts allow us to think deeply and to make links and connections to prior knowledge. 

Traditionally, we might have taught Content 1, then assessed that content, before moving onto Content 2 and only assessing Content 2. By not revisiting the content from Content 1 that pupils didn’t understand, gaps in understanding emerge.  There is a view that “I have covered Content 1”, so the learning gets parked. If we truly want children to know more and remember more, when we assess knowledge from Content 2, it needs to include previously taught knowledge from Content 1. If pupils get used to the fact that we want them to remember what they previously learnt, then better recall will be achieved. 

It is also important that we view quizzing not only as an assessment tool, but primarily as a learning tool. When we use retrieval quizzing as a learning tool, we are bringing current and past knowledge to the forefront of our minds. Cumulative quizzing in consecutive lessons is also beneficial. The act of cumulative quizzing involves a few questions being asked in every lesson; for example: Lesson 1 (questions 1 – 3), Lesson 2 (questions 1-6) and Lesson 3 (questions 1 – 9).

The quote made famous by Michael Foreman and Christine Counsel is worth keeping at the forefront of our minds when we are considering the implication of the curriculum on the acquisition of sticky knowledge: 

“The curriculum is the progression model.” 

Progress means ‘knowing more and remembering more’. It centres upon building (mostly transferrable) knowledge of vocabulary, events, people, places, concepts and procedures. In summary, if a child has learnt the curriculum, they have made progress. 

Let’s consider progression from the perspective of knowing more and remembering more. We need to establish the required knowledge that we want children to learn, and we need to decide how that knowledge fits into the Long-term plan for that subject. Instead of a having a sole focus on the question “Why this? Why now”, let’s also throw into the mix “Why this knowledge? Why teach it here?”

I cannot write an article about Sticky Knowledge without acknowledging the importance of prior learning. Let’s start with cognitive load; one way to reduce cognitive load is to take new material and relate it to prior learning. Our taught curriculum should be related back to the knowledge that pupils have already been taught. By doing this, pupils will engage with the curriculum more, experience success and it will enable pupils to make connections. 

In a curriculum, it is important that we can demonstrate the following: 

  • The prior learning that pupils need to have learnt (not just covered) to access current learning
  • How current learning builds on prior learning and prepares them for future learning.

The important point is this. Do pupils understand:

  • How what they have learnt before is going to help them to access this new topic?
  • How is this learning going to help them to access new learning in the future?
  • How does this learning link to something they will be learning in another subject?
  • How this learning links to something they have learned in a previous term or year group?

High Leverage Teaching

In “The Hidden Lives of Learners”, Graham Nuthall concluded that single learning experiences do not manifest themselves as learning; that pupils need multiple opportunities (three being the magic number) to understand knowledge from different angles to make sense of the new information and slot it usefully into existing schemata. 

What do we mean by high leverage teaching? High leverage teaching is about optimum inclusion and progress. High leverage teaching harnesses the power of memory for enjoyable lessons, where every pupil achieves. 

When planning ‘high leverage’ lessons, we need to keep at the forefront of our minds, what we want the children to learn. A recent Ofsted report made the following claim: “Year 3 did not become secure in key religious ideas or practices. Pupils spent most of the lesson making a present for a baby, which did not deepen their understanding of Baptism.”

In my opinion, there are three main guiding principles for securing high leverage teaching:

  1. Lessons focus squarely on the knowledge identified as powerful. These lessons do not include activities that distract from the goal of the knowledge
  2. Pupils are given opportunities to over-learn the knowledge and vocabulary identified as powerful. Research tells us that over-learning is good for making knowledge stick. Teaching provides pupils with multiple opportunities to recall information
  3. Pupils are helped to fit new knowledge into their existing schema. 

What else can we do to ensure that pupils know more and remember more? 

We can:

  • Build strategies into lessons around securing attention, inclusive questioning
  • Break concepts and tasks into smaller practicable steps and elements, to avoid memory overload
  • Increase the range, intensity and frequency of practice tasks so that pupils gain confidence and fluency
  • Engage in CFU (Checking for Understanding) and spaced quizzing so that long-term memory and recall are strengthened away from the recency of knowledge.

Emma Adcock

Director of Training and Research, Join the conversation with me on twitter @EmmaAdcock4

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