by Jackie Brock
Confession time. I believe fervently in the importance of attainment and achievement. I detest the way our education system marches our young people through an increasingly narrow range of options to the extent that on results day their learning journey – and its success – is judged by their grades at national and higher levels.
As a mum, my rhetorical views, have been challenged by this year’s Results Day and my child’s “disappointing” grades.
My rose-tinted assumption of a smooth journey to university was overturned. My annoyance that his school could have been more challenging and supportive clouded all the great achievements of the previous years.
Then, of course, we got moving. We explored all the options, identified a college course and life again feels full of possibilities.
But I don’t want to lose sight of how quickly my fundamental beliefs were challenged and, if I am not alone, how much we have to do to get behind the Scottish Government’s ambition to improve excellence and equity in our schools, early years settings, colleges and universities.
I have no doubt, now more than ever, that we need changes to be made in Scotland’s education system and changes in how we value and reward success among children and young people.
For me the question is who is our education system for? If it is for every child then how are we valuing the achievements and attainment of every child? Saying things like “university isn’t for everyone” or “there are some very good colleges”, is incredibly patronising and in no way demonstrates value. Beware: every young person and parent has antennae that can pick up tokenism instantly.
A critical starting point is the engagement of parents.
Recently I had the pleasure of chatting to volunteers who had been working in schools over the last year. One of those present was also the Chair of his child’s school’s parent council who said how pleased he was with his own child’s learning and the way in which teachers were monitoring and supporting progress.
I later outed myself as once being a civil servant who had been involved in the implementation of Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence (CfE). I told him that I had rarely heard a parent talk so positively and knowledgably and it was a great sign that progress is being made.
We always knew that once we reached a tipping point with parents buying-in to the benefits of CfE, we would have succeeded. While it’s great to have international recognition that our system is innovative – for me, nothing beats a child, young person or parent speaking passionately about the benefits of CfE for their learning.
The Scottish Government is right to focus on priority curriculum areas, such as those highlighted last year by the OECD – literacy, numeracy and the uptake of mathematics. The equity gap between most and least disadvantaged, as well as between girls and boys is also critical to address, which is why we need to retain our efforts to improve wellbeing. As well as all the other benefits, these are real, tangible improvements which parents can buy into and feel increasingly that Scotland’s education is doing right by their child.
Before the summer, the Scottish Education Secretary John Swinney published the government’s plan to deliver excellence and equity in Scottish education. Many of these ideas are reinforced in his formal Education Delivery plan. The extension of the Scottish Attainment Challenge is also underway.
Announcing the Programme for Government to Scottish Parliament yesterday, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon also reminded of her promises around nursery provision, and school reforms. These include the provision of a qualified teacher or childcare graduate in nurseries in deprived communities as well as plans to consult on a new funding formula for schools in 2017.
These are all welcome developments but it is crucial that we take the action needed that will take forward the practical support required to support families and schools in areas of deprivation.
In early years we need to focus on reinforcing the opportunities for our toddlers to learn through play. We need to extinguish the notion that time spent playing is time wasted. It has very real and evidenced social and developmental benefits. We need to recognise this and enhance the opportunities available for some of our youngest learners.
We need to support parents to support their children. Helping develop parents’ confidence will enable them to better support their children’s learning. Equally, secondary schools need to work closely with parents to make sure they know about their achievements as well as their attainment and make sure that parents can feel confident in how they can support their children around their choices and, particularly on results day, play their part in responding constructively and supporting options, if the results are unexpected.
School leaders must have the very best access to evidence for improving literacy, numeracy and health and well-being. We need to emphasise whole-school approaches and share more widely what’s working on a practical level, and what’s getting the best results.
We need to build on the best of the support currently provided, such as the brilliant work and support on offer from the Scottish Book Trust and the Paired Reading programmes provided through Scottish Business in the Community.
Finally, we need to reduce the bureaucracy which can inhibit school leaders working with the third sector. There are a number of wonderful resources available through the third sector but increased bureaucracy often means partnerships can be too difficult, cumbersome or simply too time-consuming for school leaders to negotiate.
By bringing together the coalition of partners who want to support schools, communities and families, and reducing bureaucracy in education, we can start to plan practical action that will help deliver in areas of deprivation and where the attainment gap is most evident.
These should in turn improve overall attainment levels for pupils in Scotland and increase the opportunities available to them.
If we are all better at navigating the education system, valuing every stage of the learning journey and engaged meaningfully with parents, it might even bring stress levels on Results Day down a notch.
About the author
Jackie Brock is Chief Executive of Edinburgh based charity, Children in Scotland. She took up post with the charity after 12 years in the civil service, during which she led on the development of Curriculum for Excellence in her position as Deputy Director of Learning and Support. Jackie’s key priorities are improving educational attainment, tackling child poverty and improving the early years.
It is thought that most of human evolution took place on a grasslands environment, but how does that affect learning and memory today? Image by Diana Robinson.
Humans have evolved over the course of millions of years. Since we last shared a common ancestors with chimpanzees more than 6 million years ago (White et al, 2009), a number of hominin species have evolved - most, of course, have died out (as recently as 100,000 years ago, 4-5 homo species existed concurrently).
For most of this time, our ancestors and near relatives probably lived in grasslands environments, hunting and gathering. This environment has shaped our physical bodies as well as our behaviour - from our appetite for fatty and sweet foods, to our large brains which facilitate cooperation and interactions in large tribes.
Role of evolution in memory
Beyond a general acknowledgement that our brains and cognitive abilities are the product of evolution, human memory research has largely ignored our evolutionary history, focusing on short-term processing (see Bahrick, 2005) and using tasks which take little account of the context in which things are encountered in the real world.
An important advance was made when James Nairne and colleagues conducted an experiment demonstrating that people remember information better when they process it in a grasslands scenario. In an ingenious study, participants were shown a list of words such as truck, juice, chair and sword and were then asked to rate how relevant these objects were to the following scenario:
Remarkably, in a later surprise test, participants remembered the words significantly better having thought about them in this context compared to the other conditions used in the experiment - one of which involved a moving house scenario, and the other required participants simply to think about the pleasantness of the word (a standard memory intervention which promotes deep processing).
If this sounds like a fluke, the effect has been replicated several times and by many different researchers; other comparison scenarios have been tried - for example a bank robbery (Kang et al, 2008), zombies in the city (Soderstrom & McCabe, 2011), and even an 'in the afterlife' scenario (Röer et al, 2013) - but none have proved superior or even equal in promoting recall of a set of items.
Is this truly 'survival processing'?
A simple but very general question arises from this work - assuming that our evolution has prepared us to do certain things better than others, how specific are these abilities? Have we really been hard-wired to process grasslands survival situations better than other situations in a way that affects all of human memory today?
Alternatively, is the grasslands research scenario somehow drawing on a more general aspect of memory that the other scenarios fail to tap into?
My reading of the research literature so far gives the impression that many researchers are trying their best to demonstrate the latter. Three particularly interesting possibilities include:
- It causes us to plan more more than other scenarios, and planning leads to better encoding to memory (Klein, 2014).
- It causes us to encode items more richly (Bell et al, 2015). Elaborative encoding is well known to benefit long-memory - which, after all, is based on making meaningful connections.
- It allows for more creative thinking in terms of how the objects are used. In keeping with this possibility, Wilson (2016) found that a grasslands scenario was also better at promoting creative thinking about object uses than any of the other widely used comparison conditions. If we think creatively about something, we may well remember it better due to the generation effect.
The exact variables at play are still under investigation, and it could be a combination of these factors - the grasslands scenario may promote more creative, future-focused and meaningful thought processes. It is curious, however, how no other scenario has so far proved to be comparably successful in boosting memory - at least with the original tasks and materials.
What does this mean for education?
As a relatively new area of research, survival processing has not yet had a significant impact on education, but it does have potential. With further testing, a set of principles could be established, allowing classroom activities to be designed to incorporate elements of risk/danger, future planning, creativity, etc.
Survival processing is not the only possible effect of evolution on memory that could impact on education. For example, we also remember animals better than inanimate objects - an effect which has been trialled for use in the learning of language vocabulary (Nairne, 2016).
More broadly, many of the most robust findings from the study of memory make perfect sense from an evolutionary perspective. The spacing effect, for example, fits with the idea that any animal needs to deal with a one-off problem, but needn't waste mental resources storing the responses long-term. In contrast, if something happens periodically with time gaps in between - a type of food that grows seasonally, migrating predators or occasional floods, for example - the adaptive response is to create a more lasting mental record of any any relevant details as well as successful responses that we have previously used.
Similarly, the perspective that students learn better if tasks connect to their interests and social context makes a lot of sense from a survival point of view (at least for social species such as our own), as does the idea that interleaving our learning - something that would happen a lot in the natural world - is advantageous in the 'inductive learning' of patterns and rules.
The classic Zeigarnik effect - incomplete tasks being better remembered than complete ones - also fits well with a scenario where an unfinished task could be a matter of life or death.
Clearly, we can't deliver entire school courses via a grasslands scenario like the one described above. We could, however, pay more attention to the ways in which memory has evolved to work, and establish ways of building these principles into classroom tasks.
Bahrick, H. P. (2005). The long-term neglect of long-term memory: Reasons and remedies. In A.F. Healy (Ed.), Experimental Cognitive Psychology and its Applications. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Bell, R., Röer, J.P. & Buchner, A. (2015) Adaptive Memory: Thinking about function. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory & Cognition, 41, 1038 – 1048 http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/xlm0000066
Kang, S. H., McDermott, K. B., & Cohen, S. M. (2008). The mnemonic advantage of processing fitness-relevant information. Memory & Cognition, 36(6), 1151-1156.
Klein, S.B. (2014). Evolution, memory and the role of self-referrant recall in planning for the future. In B.L. Schwarz, M.L. Howe, M.P. Toglia and H. Otgaar (Eds.) What is Adaptive about Adaptive Memory? pp. 11-34. Oxford: OUP.
Nairne, J. S. (2016). Adaptive Memory: Fitness-Relevant “Tunings” Help Drive Learning and Remembering. In D.C. Geary & D.B. Berch (Eds), Evolutionary Perspectives on Child Development and Education (pp. 251-269). New York: Springer.
Nairne, J. S., Thompson, S. R., & Pandeirada, J. N. (2007). Adaptive memory: survival processing enhances retention. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 33(2), 263.
Röer, J. P., Bell, R., & Buchner, A. (2013). Is the survival-processing memory advantage due to richness of encoding?. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 39(4), 1294.
Soderstrom, N. C., & McCabe, D. P. (2011). Are survival processing memory advantages based on ancestral priorities?. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 18(3), 564-569.
White, T. D., Asfaw, B., Beyene, Y., Haile-Selassie, Y., Lovejoy, C. O., Suwa, G., & WoldeGabriel, G. (2009). Ardipithecus ramidus and the paleobiology of early hominids. Science, 326(5949), 64-86.
Wilson, S. (2016). Divergent thinking in the grasslands: thinking about object function in the context of a grassland survival scenario elicits more alternate uses than control scenarios. Journal of Cognitive Psychology, 1-13.
Most students take notes during lessons, but are they adding information to memory? Image by Nick Olejniczak
I believe that memory is very important in education. This might seem obvious - of course children and students need to remember things. Perhaps it also seems threatening - reducing education to mere passive memorisation?
I don’t think so.
In my view, improving how we use memory is not threatening because remembering is essential regardless of your view of how teaching should be done, or what the syllabus should consist of. Whether you are talking about lectures or discovery learning, a minimum requirement is that the pupils retain some of the information that you have been teaching, and develop skills and understanding over the long-term.
Indeed, educational approaches tend to be judged, at least in part, according to whether people remember anything in terms of their performance on tasks (real or artificial) or tests at a later date. As a learner, a class might be a lot of fun, but I would ask myself whether it was a worthwhile use of my time if I later couldn’t remember anything about it.
From a psychology or neuroscience perspective, we are talking about encoding facts, skills and schema knowledge that is retained over the long-term. This learning is represented in the physical brain by changes to neural structure. There is no learning without these things happening!
Perhaps memory can seem to be a threat because it appears reductive - breaking education down to a list of testable facts. But actually, this may just be a matter of definition; cognitive psychology takes a broader view of memory than that used in everyday speech, and includes any change in behaviour or thinking. This could include developing our creative skills, for example, or our ability to write an essay. There are, of course, various different types of memory - memory for a fact, an experience, a task, and so on. But all of them require, on some level, that the learner takes something in, and that it persists for long enough to affect their future actions and/or thoughts.
I would agree that too much of what currently passes for education is founded on shallow memorisation - much of what is crammed for exams is swiftly forgotten, particularly if not well understood to begin with. But this is exactly where research can come in - by telling us how to make learning last.
As for the role of memory being obvious, well… Perhaps something so fundamental should be seen as obvious, but as such it is easily ignored and neglected. I’d argue that the role of memory is not prominent in current educational debates, and plays too small a role (if any) in teacher training and CPD.
When we talk about improving education, we are essentially saying that we want pupils to do better at maths, science, languages, social science etc, in a way that will allow them to:
- pass exams
- retain skills that they can use in future
This means that they need to retain key facts (such as what hydrogen is) and skills (such as how to multiply two fractions) for long enough not just to pass an assessment, but also to use it an unspecified period of time in the future - i.e. it must be retained in long-term memory, and be amenable to transfer.
The newly re-elected Scottish Government has made it very clear that education is a top political priority, and First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has highlighted that we must try to ‘close the attainment gap’ in terms of the academic under-peformance of the least well-off young people in our society. I would certainly commend that sentiment. I would also suggest that interventions that have been shown to improve attainment exist in the psychology research literature, and has increasingly been applied to real settings and with authentic learning material.
What’s more, any such interventions - although they can help everybody - are likely to benefit to the lowest achievers most. This is simply because the less you have learned up to now, the greater the potential for improvement; the worse your study habits, the more you can improve them. In contrast, some other possible interventions tend to preferentially help higher achievers, for example more homework or smaller classes.
A major challenge, then, is to engage with the wealth of scientific research on memory that is out there, digest it, and communicate it in a way that teachers, learners and parents can actually use. There needs to be an increased psychological literacy when it comes to human memory - we need to understand how our own learning processes work, and how to use them better.
That is the aim of this blog.
The classic kitchen timer. Image by alexhung
Coursework, data analysis, revision... It can be hard to concentrate on a task all day, or even for an hour or two! Which, of course, can lead to procrastination, and to short breaks that become long breaks.
The pomodoro technique is a method of time management that encourages us to focus for 25 minute spells, each followed by a shorter break of 5 minutes or so.
Why 25 minutes?
The exact time can depend on the individual - each of us has a different attention span - but 25 minutes is brief enough that most people can keep up concentration even on a dull or repetitive task, especially with the prospect of an imminent break.
Why such short breaks?
A 3-5 minute break is considered ideal, because it gives your eyes and mind a rest, but avoids stopping for so long that you lose track of what you are doing. Suitable break activities could include going for a short walk outside, getting yourself a drink, doing some press-ups, or playing a tune on a musical instrument.
However don't worry - after 4 'pomodoros', you are advised to take a longer break of 20-30 mins. So you will get your lunch!
Pomodoro means 'tomato'; the technique is the creation of Francesco Cirillo who initially used a tomato-shaped kitchen timer to time his 25 minute work periods. He explains that the action of twisting the timer and the mechanical 'clicks' as it slowly revolves are helpful to boost focus (Cirillo, 2012).
But really, any shape of timer will do!
Personally, I am more likely to use the timer of my phone - and you can also download apps specifically for this purpose, some of which are free. I have found the technique very useful for breaking up long and concentration-intensive work, such as marking a stack of exam papers. I think it would be ideal for revision, too.
If you have tried the technique, why not share your views in the comments?
Further reading: Time management and stress
Cirillo, F. (2007). The Pomodoro Technique (The Pomodoro). Retrieved 27 May 2014 from http://baomee.info/pdf/technique/1.pdf
A live event will take place at the Edinburgh Corn Exchange on Monday 21st March at 11am, as part of the Scottish Government’s ongoing work to ensure that children and young people are at the heart of decisions which affect them and their education.
This event follows initial work undertaken last year that saw over 100 children and young people from across Scotland sharing their experiences of education and ideas for the future at a scoping event in Edinburgh and Summits held in Inverness and Oban.
Young people aged 16 and 17 attending this summit will hear a brief opening from the First Minister, before having the opportunity to put questions to Ms Sturgeon in an open question and answer session. You can join us live in Glow and ask your questions via Twitter on #askTheFM.
Sign up now join us live in Glow TV – A Conversation with the First Minister.
If you unable to join us for the live event you can always catch up with the recording at another time – Glow TV’s Watch Again.