Are learning and memory the same thing?

The new Ofsted handbook defines learning as an alteration in long-term memory. James Bowen considers the implications of this

James Bowen

Profile of schoolgirl, with image of brain superimposed on her head

In the new Ofsted handbook, learning is defined as “an alteration in long-term memory”. According to the inspectorate, “If nothing has altered in long-term memory, nothing has been learned.”

I have been pondering the implications of this ever since the new framework was first released.

Despite some reservations about how it could be interpreted, I’m actually relatively relaxed about the use of such a definition. As long as we’re talking about concepts, ideas, skills and attitudes, rather than simply the memorisation of a list of unrelated facts, then I can see how this could be a useful way to conceptualise learning.

It feels relatively uncontroversial to suggest that as pupils learn to read, perform mathematical operations or even to bowl a cricket ball, changes in their long-term memory are taking place.

Thinking about learning in this way could also potentially lead to some really interesting thinking and conversations in schools. 

Know, remember and do more

I can see many advantages in teachers having a good understanding of how memory works, and considering what this might mean for their practice, as they seek to help pupils understand new concepts and ideas.

What concerns me, though, is the idea that through a few short conversations with a small group of pupils, inspectors will be able to determine how effective schools are at helping pupils to be able to “know, remember and do more”.

On the surface, this all seems so apparently easy and simple: find out what children in class 5B learned last term, ask a group of them how much they remember about it and, hey presto, you can quickly see whether or not this school is doing a decent job in helping pupils to learn.

If only it were so simple.

Before we can begin to determine the validity of such an approach, there are a whole array of questions that need to be considered.

For example, exactly how much should an inspector expect pupils to remember?

How much about the Romans topic from last year does a Year 4 child need to be able to recall for us to judge that a satisfactory amount of learning has taken place? 

What proportion of the curriculum do we realistically expect pupils to remember by the end of their time at primary school?

Also, for how long do we expect pupils to recall this information? If a geography unit looking at erosion was covered six weeks ago, I suspect the children being questioned by the inspector will find it easier to describe the process than if it were studied nine months ago.

The memory capacity of a five-year-old

Should we expect a five-year-old’s memory to work in the same way and have the same capacity as that of a seven-year-old? What about an 11-year-old?

I would argue there are likely to be significant differences. Is there consistency in terms of what inspectors are expecting to see in these different age groups?

Furthermore, how many pupils do you need to speak with, across how many classes, about how many topics, before you can start drawing reliable conclusions about the effectiveness of teaching and learning in the school?

I appreciate that this is a long list of questions and, to some, it may all sound rather pedantic. 

However, if – as the new handbook states – inspectors are expected to have “discussions with pupils about what they have remembered about the content they have studied” and use this as part of the evidence base when forming their judgements, then I don’t think it’s unreasonable to be giving careful consideration to such questions.

I’m certainly not suggesting that we shouldn’t strive to achieve a common understanding when it comes to fundamental concepts such as learning and progress. I also wouldn’t deny the important role memory plays in learning. 

But I do think great care needs to be taken when we start using such definitions as tools for measurement and evaluation.

James Bowen is director of policy at the NAHT school leaders' union and director of the NAHT Edge union for middle leaders

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