Why is it that some things we experience are quickly forgotten and others become permanent memories? We all know that much of what we teach isn't remembered, but not why this happens. As with so many things in life, the answer is emerging from scientific research.
In 2005, I read an article - "How to Make Memories Stick" - in Scientific American because I thought it might be useful in my school. Written by Doug Fields, one of the world's leading neuroscientists, it reported discoveries in the chemical and genetic processes of creating memory.
The difference between short and long-term memory is that one is temporary, the other permanent. In the neurons of the brain, this difference is physical: in short-term memory, the changes in neurons fade within hours; in long-term memory, the changes strengthen neural pathways and are permanent.
The real problem was how could a single cell in the brain "know" which memories to make permanent and which to let fade?
Fields' focused on the "chemical pathways" that are active between the cell's surface when it responds to a stimulus and the nucleus.
Some of these pathways were tuned to quick storing, which faded. Others did not respond to continuous stimulation, but could sustain chemical signals between periods of inactivity - and could turn on a "DNA switch" that made the permanent change.
The difficulty was how to stimulate a cell to make the permanent change. Constant stimulation did not work. After considerable experimentation, Fields' team made a remarkable discovery: the important factor was time, the temporal pattern of stimulation.
Stimulating the cell three times with 10-minute breaks caused them to make a permanent change. This makes sense; cells only make permanent changes when a particular stimulus "proves" its importance.
This was a "temporal code" that lay at the heart of much memory. Perhaps it held the key to how teachers could help pupils create long-term memory. But it is one thing for scientists to discover such a time code for memory, quite another to create a pattern of learning that uses it.
Working with Angela Bradley, our lead teacher for neuroscience, and other staff, we created a learning experience of three repetitions with two 10- minute breaks.
The learning experience needed three repetitions at a very fast pace.
Terry Whatson of the Open University, an expert on learning and neuroscience, suggested that the ideal activity for the breaks might be physical exercise.
The whole process is named "spaced learning". Doug Fields told me we were the first to take his discoveries and apply them.
For the past three years, we have been experimenting in controlled trials, and have seen a positive effect. Academics such as Professor David Reynolds, of Plymouth University, have advised us on our methods.
Our strictest test was to use spaced learning on a topic that pupils had not covered before, to find out how much they learnt from scratch.
We ran a single two-hour spaced learning trial with 48 pupils in Year 9 who took the GCSE modular science 1B exam three days later. The exam covered challenging subjects such as genetic engineering, adaptation and evolution. The pupils took the exam 12 months early, before starting GCSEs, and without studying the first module (1A).
The results astounded us. The biology 1B paper is multiple choice with four possible answers for each question, so you would expect an average of 25 per cent correct even if they had learnt nothing.
We hoped that spaced learning would improve on this, giving an extra 10 percentage points or so. Instead, the average was 58 per cent - a massive 33 per cent higher than random answers.
The lowest score was 40 per cent and the highest 90. Some pupils obtained A grades. Many achieved or exceeded the grades they were predicted for Year 11 by Durham University's Yellis tests.
The surprises did not stop there. The same pupils then began GCSE science, and took the 1A module six months after the trial. They had four months' normal teaching by the same teachers who taught the spaced learning, as well as plenty of exam practice. When the pupils took the 1A exam, they were older, doing the first module, and were used to this type of test.
The real shock was that 13 pupils - more than a quarter - had the same or worse scores in 1A than 1B. In spaced learning - and less than two hours - they had achieved as much, or more, than after four months of lessons and practice.
Despite this compelling evidence, spaced learning is not "the solution" to how pupils learn. But it is a clear indicator of how quickly they can assimilate complex information.
What spaced learning certainly does is demonstrate the potential of unconventional lessons and challenge us all to create, test and share better ways of learning based on science, not tradition.
Leading article, page 32
- Paul Kelley, headteacher of Monkseaton Community High School in Whitley Bay, North Tyneside, is author of `Making Minds' (Routledge)
How it works
20 minutes The whole unit compressed into 70 PowerPoint slides with teacher commentary, delivered at a speed of at least two or three slides a minute.
10-minute break Physical activity, such as basketball outside, or juggling inside.
20 minutes The whole unit is presented again, but with variation: more interaction (pupils fill in any missing words or phrases).
10-minute break Physical activity.
20 to 30 minutes The unit is repeated, but with more gaps for pupils to fill things in. They also get a complete paper version with the correct answers. This section can be extended to 30 minutes, depending on how much work the teacher wants to do with the class on the paper version.