Learning Matters…

As our thoughts turn to spring, and with summer just over the horizon, learners and parents across the county are starting to look at how things are shaping up for the end of the academic year. So, I wanted to turn the focus of the next two articles on the practical steps, aside from taking on a tutor, that everyone can work on to improve their end of year achievement

I carry out many consultations in the homes of students and families who are eager to show their best in school and the end of year exams. Something I hear many times is the problem of students struggling with explanations, struggling with distractions in the classroom, experiencing difficulties in maintaining a focus and needing content going through at their own pace. These problems are compounded when the student asks for help, asks for a re-explanation, however sometimes the teacher is hampered from their best efforts to re-explain concepts due to other, pressing classroom demands. The lack of resolution of these struggles leads to underachievement, frustration, boredom and risks the development of a negative, and downward spiral. I hear this, and have come across this many times during consultations. I have also seen the frustrations first hand as a teacher and school leader.

So, what can be done?

One practical step everyone can take is to develop their memory and in particular their working memory. Working memory is the cognitive system that stores information in the brain for short periods of time (as opposed to long-term memory) and helps us to remember small pieces of information for a few seconds or minutes, so the information can be immediately used. The importance of working memory has long been understood by teachers, and felt by learners, and is increasingly a focus of educational research. It is amazing that schools don’t do too much about explicitly promoting the working memories of their students- rather it is assumed it develops, incidentally, as a by-product of teaching and learning.

Having an effective working memory impacts upon our capacity to keep up with learning, as it is happening. Teachers commonly give chains of information. For example, in discussing the digestive system ‘first the food is chewed by the teeth, mixed up with saliva and the tongue and swallowed. It travels through the oesophagus….’ You can see that if the second part is lost then not much else after is ‘digested’ either. This is why teachers use pictures; it supports the working memory. You may notice this phenomenon too, when you ask your child to do some job that has multiple elements, they do the first or second part but forget the rest after that. It’s not all about them choosing what to do or not what to do!

Working memory impacts upon all areas of learning and yet its development is often undermined by the trappings of modern life, with its multiple distractions creating a propensity to induce ‘butterfly’ mindedness, as well as technology itself often operating as a surrogate brain bank.

The good news is that working memory can be developed, and we can build in activities to promote it in our everyday life and so my tips for the coming spring are (do these with your children):

  1. Learn and recall spellings.
  2. Learn and recall multiplication tables.
  3. Play card games (e.g. ‘memory’, ‘picture bingo’).
  4. Play ‘what’s missing’; give a selection of objects to look at and remember, take one (or more) away and see if the missing items can be remembered.
  5. Play board games.
  6. Play language games: e.g. in a game of two players, the first player says, ‘I went shopping and bought a…’, the second player continues ‘I went shopping and bought (say first player’s item) and a…’ And so on!
  7. Provide plenty of practise and opportunity for recall e.g. spellings, multiplication tables.
  8. Have your child teach you something, or explain to you how they did something.

There are many more out there! And they are all fun. Little and often is a good maxim for many things and also applies to activities to strengthen working memory; try doing memory strengthening activities for 5 minutes, every day.

So, at this spring time, as the Forget-Me Nots begin to grow and bloom, let me make this plea for us all… to cultivate the skill of remembering, which in turn will help our learning to blossom!

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