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Reflections of an IB science teacher

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How we Learn – Reflections, part 2

A few weeks ago I wrote a post on my personal reflections of the first quarter of Benedict Carey’s “How we Learn” in a bid to get my head around how the books insights could be used to better my students learning.

Well, during the flight back from a school expedition to Nepal across the holidays (Watch this space for reflections from the trip) I’m pleased to say that I have just completed 50% of the book and that it’s time for another ponder!

Where we left off

To attempt to summarize the main elements of the last post, I learned;

  1. Students should frequently have to retrieve covered material
  2. Students should learn in as large a variety of ways as possible
  3. Topics should be covered little and often
  4. Students will forget, and should forget, and should struggle to remember often. It’s the struggling to remember that convinces the brain to make the information easier to retrieve later on down the line.

Where we are now..

We continue with something that builds off point 4 – that students will forget, and that without struggle their brains are not set to make the information easier to retrieve. We continue with the inherent danger of a skill called fluency.


As an international teacher, I recognise fluency as something to strive for. Fluency is the ability to cover material accurately and quickly. It is the ability to run through content with ease. So, of course it must follow that fluency is something that we should encourage in our lessons, right?


The irony isn’t lost on me that after years of wanting to see my students as fluent as possible, this isn’t actually how learning takes place. Time spent “Being fluent” is wasted time, and I get that now. I should have got it when I first understood that mental effort is what forces the brain to retain information.

An interesting statistic detailed in the book is that only 40% of the time spent learning should be spent digesting the subject material. The rest of the time should be spent on some form of “Retrieval practice”. A fantastic new name for good, old fashioned “Testing” designed to rid the preconceptions of grades, scores, percentages etc. None of these are suggested to be even remotely as useful as the questions and their model answers.

The Power of Failing

In all the years and all the schools I have taught, one thing stands true above all others. Students fear tests.

Even in the IB MYP course where students frequently submit essays worth just as much as the test, and lab reports that are worth TWICE as much as the test, nothing comes as close to instilling fear into a class as the announcement of an upcoming test.

One of the main reasons for this fear is failure. And that’s a real shame, because failing has been detailed both in this book and in many books, talks, journals and blogs before it, as one of the best things you can do to learn.

But one thing I hadn’t seen explained so thoroughly before as in this book, was the power of pretesting. That is, testing the students on the topic before you’ve taught them it!

The idea behind this is that having our answers shown as wrong and then quickly being given the correct information actually changes how we think about and store that information. The effect of this, is to increase the likelihood that we will answer a similar question correctly in future.

The book makes a very strong case for this, so much so that it has altered the structure that I have chosen for my on-line physics courses for the next academic year!

4 Stages of “Eureka!”

The book starts to move into the realms of problem solving now, and we’re introduced to four stages of solving a problem.

1. Preperation

Simply the time time you spend actively working on the problem

2. Incubation

This is where you step away from your work. Put down the pencil, close the laptop, and go and do something less demanding for a while.

3. Illumination

The moment the pieces of the puzzle come together and you have the solution in mind.

4. Verification

Checking your solution against the problem.

The stage that many of us are reluctant to pass through here is “Incubation”. And it is one we should not avoid as it helps us achieve two things;

Firstly, it allows us to take mental cues from the environment, or from seemingly unrelated processes.

Secondly, it allows us to unfix ideas that were previously “Fixed”


A creative solution often uses an object or an idea for a purpose that was previously unconsidered. The reason that these things are often unconsidered is that we have a fixed notion of what they are for. On reading about this I was immediately reminded of this experiment.

Percolation and the Zeigarnik Effect

Funnily enough, I had been introduced to the Zeigarnik effect before in a book called “59 Seconds: Think a little, change a lot” where the same study is described to highlight the same point: If a task is unfinished, it remains in the subconscious. When we are learning something, that’s exactly where we want it to be.

So, to apply this to the classroom, it appears that the best way in which we can ensure that the topic remains at the forefront of thought between one lesson and the next, is to do our best to interrupt the students whilst they are as stuck as possible. To send them off just as they are in deep concentration, and leave them at a cliffhanger just like a good T.V. drama.

That’s all well and good for lesson content, but I also want to try this across a larger time frame and with a larger problem. I think that this could work wonderfully well if I begin the unit with students planning a structure for an essay question on the topic before they study it. Not only is this a rather all-encompassing form of pretesting (“Use everything you know on this topic already to construct an argument”) but it should result in the students reaching a suitable level of “Stuck” for percolation to take place across the entire topic.

Anyway, those are the main points that I’ve taken from the second quarter of the book and some reflections on how I intend on using them, but I fully recommend reading your own copy of “How We Learn” to get a full idea of the level of research behind these idea’s, including points and examples I’ve omitted for not standing out for me as important for my goals in teaching.


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How we Learn – Reflections, part 1

I am now 25% the way through “How we Learn” by Benedict Carey and I have to say that so far, I am incredibly impressed by Carey’s pace, style and the thoroughness in his research. He manages to convey the science and the theory with the right level of scepticism as to hint at it’s use without making false promises.

So, what have I learned about how we learn and how could this apply to the classroom?

1. There are two key factors in memory: Retrieval and Storage

Our capacity for storage of memories is incredible high, and in fact very few memories are not thrown into our memories storage bank. But that does not mean to say that they are stored alphabetically on some figurative bookshelf in the brain. No, memories are more like the contents of a teenagers bedroom – scattered about in a loose order. Memories of a texture linked to a particular colour, or memories of an old man’s face linked to the scent of his aftershave. We can increase storage simply by increasing the number of memories we have connected to a piece of information (More on this later).

Retrieval however, is fickle. It is gained or lost fairly quickly depending simply on how frequently the memory in question is required. Further to this, it’s capacity is limited. We can only call up a limited number of facts at any one time.However, retrieval strength can be built up quickly by simply making sure that we have to work hard to retrieve a memory. There is an interesting connection between this and a major point from the book “Bounce” by Matthew Sayed, where an example from psychologist S. W. Tyler is used to show the correlation between mental effort and memory retrieval.

2. Storage relies on connections

In point 1 we mentioned that we can increase storage by increasing the number of memories that we connected to a piece of information. This is the big picture of the well known adage that we should study in a similar environment that we expect to be tested in. The theory on this is that knew memories hand on other memories that were formed at the time – for example, studying algebra for a maths test with Jazz music playing in the background and then taking the test with the same Jazz music in the background will produce better results because notes or phrases in the Jazz music can create cues for the knew things we learnt within that revision. The real kicker here is that silence then, proves to be quite a useless study environment because it is rather void of cues or memories on which to hang this new information.

So, to form knew memories we hinge them on other memories and experiences created at the time. Therefore, to maximise memory retention we should also maximise the variety of the environments and the contexts in which we learn it.

This is one of the findings in the science of learning that I feel that we most fail at making use of. Schools do a very good job at compartmentalising subjects. “Science is science and it is taught in the science block and your science teacher is Mr Copeland and you will sit in this seat and work with this student and you will listen in silence.

Perhaps we should listen to what research is telling us and try to mix things up a little more at school. Why not borrow the P.E. hall, or the design block for science classes and create lessons that show connections between science and those subjects? Could schools have teachers rotating concepts rather than classes, meaning greater variation in the number of science teachers a student has across a year? How often are you mixing your seating plans so that students can connect different concepts to different places and partners? Is music in the classroom necessarily a bad thing if a student remembers a song and vastly increases the volume of content that comes to mind?

3. Less time more sittings

Another idea covered by the book is the idea of “spacing out” learning. Some pretty rigorous research has determined that shorter length but higher volume sessions are more effective than longer length and lower volume sessions that have the same total length of study time. For example, three 20 minute sessions spaced out over time are more effective than a single 60 minute session.

Now, quite regularly I will plan my lessons in lesson parts and activities, with previous parts or activities usually building up towards the later parts and activities. But this finding makes me wonder… What if each lesson part was actually on a different topic, but topics were repeated throughout the term? For example, in grade 6 we teach Energy, the Periodic Table and Cells. The obvious approach would be to teach “Energy” for about a term, assess, and then move on to the “Periodic Table”, and assess before finally moving onto “Cells”.

But now, what if we instead covered all three. In lower volume, but higher frequency. What if we had a lesson where there was a 20 minute activity on Energy, followed by a 20 minute activity on the Periodic Table and finally a 20 minute activity on Cells. And then next lesson we spent 30 minutes on energy and 30 minutes on the Periodic Table. And then we had a 120 minute project on Cells, but we did that in 30 minute bursts whilst alternating between the Periodic Table and Energy for the other 30 minutes…

Students would have to keep retrieving what they learnt on Energy, or the Periodic Table, or Cells. High retrieval. Even if teachers change or seating plans change, they are still working on all three disciplines. High storage.

“But student’s will keep forgetting what they learn’t”…

4. Forget to Learn

One of the biggest revelations for me in this book was the concept of “Forget to Learn”. You see, new information is “Forgotten” incredibly easily. And so it should be – “We never needed this before, we should we need it again?” our brains seem to think.  But then we call upon the information again and it is difficult, and this mental effort makes our brains think again. “Wow, I needed that information again and I really didn’t enjoy straining to remember it. I’d better make the retrieval a little higher for next time”.

In short this holds two lessons for teaching. Firstly, your students will forget stuff, and they should. Secondly, it should be a struggle to recall. And this second point creates an important addition to our new learning model. When we re-introduce topics to students we are doing them a disservice by handing them a summary of everything they should remember. We are doing then a disservice by showing them a revision video or letting them Google the answers too early on. We are essentially saying to their brains “Don’t worry about retrieval, here it all is again”.

So, perhaps in our model, we could begin each activity with a short quiz on what they should already know. No books. No Google. Just Brain.

Anyway, these are the main points I remember from the book. I’ve just challenged my own retrieval, so hopefully I’ll remember more when I’m in conversation with someone about the key points of the book. Furthermore, I’m in a coffee shop at the moment so for the occasional times I’ve had to dive into the book to remember a concept, hopefully I’ve extend my storage cues. There were actually a few things I’d forgotten, too. I must be learning!

To buy “How we Learn” by Benedict Carey, please follow the link below;

How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where and Why It Happens