Working memory is a balancing act. We all juggle pieces of information to solve problems, understand different situations and acquire new knowledge. The amount that we are able to retain and manipulate in our short term working memories is called our cognitive load. The average person can only retain about seven chunks of new information at a time and can usually manipulate only about half of it. Cognitive load theory uses "knowledge of the human brain to design teaching strategies that will maximize learning" for students. In essence it is really looking at how to optimize to load on individual students' working memories to avoid overload and preventing them from mentally shutting down and failing to learn new concepts.
Simply put, learning takes place when students successfully transfer new information from their working memories into their long-term memories. Once those decks are cleared, their working memories are open to absorbing new knowledge and begin the process over again. Long-term memory is like have a database in your brain. You can draw on any of your stored memories without effecting your ability to add new learnings. It is one of the reasons why learning processes tend to be sequential, as each new piece of information or concept is laid out and applied on the foundation of previously acquired knowledge. In other words, the more that you can draw on your long term memory, the more you can reduce the cognitive load on your working memory and optimize your learning.
At KGMS, this aspect of our practice was highly informed and improved a few years ago through insights gleaned from a New South Wales (Australia) study entitled Cognitive Load Theory in Practice: Ideas for the classroom. It looks at three key steps in the learning process that vary according to the level of knowledge and understanding housed in a student's long term memory - their personal baseline.
The steps are simple and not surprising:
1. When teaching new content to students without much pre-existing knowledge, teachers should provide students with lots of detailed, fully guided instruction;
2. As the students’ knowledge and skill increases, teachers should provide a mix of guided instruction and problem-solving practice; and,
3. Finally, as students become very proficient, teachers should provide minimal guidance and allow students to practise their skills with lots of problem-solving tasks. Some students will progress to independent problem-solving faster than others.
A lot of this seems intuitively logical, but it doesn't mean that we always practice it. A great many classrooms ignore steps one and two and jump to learning by discovery - asking students to research issues or solve complex problems in an information vaccum. As a result the learning ends up being disjointed and its utility is transitory and quickly forgotten. Very little gets stored in a student's long-term memory.
To make the learning "stick" it is essential to follow the third pillar of the process, distributed learning.
The idea behind distributed learning, that the use of constant repetition and reinforcement to firmly root information in long-term memory, it not new. It has long been known as Ebbinghaus's Forgetting Curve. Ironically, although Ebbinghaus's research was something that I had learned about as an education student in the 1970s, I had totally forgotten about it!
In the 1880s, Hermann Ebbinghaus conducted research with respect the factors that could support the strengthening of memory for individuals and his results are widely accepted as a general theory for how we learn and retain information. Graphing his results, he developed a formula for how long items remain in our memory. Some people may remember better than others, but the general trend for how long we retain information is the same. (see chart above)
According to Ebbinghaus, the level at which we retain information depends on a couple of things:
1. The strength of your memory
2. The amount of time that has passed since learning
He went on to theorize that basic training in mnemonic techniques can help overcome those differences in part. He asserted that the best methods for increasing the strength of memory are:
- better memory representation (e.g. with mnemonic techniques)
- repetition based on active recall - especially spaced repetition
Sound familiar? Ebbinghaus's research was replicated in 2015 with similar results. Both studies agreed that each repetition in learning "increases the optimum interval before the next repetition is needed (for near-perfect retention, initial repetitions may need to be made within days, but later they can be made after years). Later research suggested that, other than the two factors Ebbinghaus proposed, higher original learning would also produce slower forgetting." Spending time each day to remember information, such as our tutors do with repeating and building upon phonemes, basic number facts, and mastered vocabulary, greatly decreases the effects of the forgetting curve. Reviewing material in the first 24 hours after learning information is the optimum time to reinforce memory and to reduce the amount of knowledge forgotten. That is the rationale behind our daily one on one tutoring.
Often repetition is not enough. If there is not a personal connection made with respect to the information that you are learning and its regular application to ongoing tasks or things that you have already learned, then your ability to remember it is bound to decline. It has to become part of your active knowledge base that you use every day. This is why learning to decode, read and comprehend has to be a continuous, systematic process that continually builds on what you already know and understand.
So, when the parents of prospective students tell me that their child is having OG tutoring after school a couple of days a week and ask me if that is "good enough". I tell them that it is "good" but not "enough". Regular repetition and reinforcement of learned information, as a cumulative and sustained process, is essential to cement those skills and knowledge into our students' permanent memories. Just ask Ebbinghaus!
In a literate society such as ours, every child should be taught to read effectively. It is a fundamental right, and an essential skill to succeed even in our modern digital world. The onus to master this critically important life skill should not be on the learner (or even their parents). It is our duty as educators, schools, and systems to ensure that every child in our care is able to access this fundamental right. To parasphrase Neil Postman's quip, schools saying "We taught them how to read, they just didn't learn to do it" is the academic equivalent of a car salesperson saying "I sold them that car, they just didn't buy it"!
Those excuses really don't cut it any more. At Kenneth Gordon, we believe fundamentally in the "right to read" and we bring every resource to bear to make it happen. All schools and school systems must do the same.