master mind pic

Cue the heavy, serious tones of a certain quiz involving timed questioning and an intimidating black leather chair.  Spotlight on, memory engaged and it begins – that thing called memory (defined as remembering past experiences) is switched on and begins its process of retrieving information.   It’s interesting to note that the highest score on the programme was forty one, set in 1985.  Impressive, when you consider that the lowest score of a specialist subject was four.  So why the difference?  It seems that to think like a master mind, we need to consider how the mind works – a complex notion to consider, in which neuroscientists are still discovering and understanding how the human brain functions.  Aristotle called it a blank slate, until through neurological experiments it became apparent that memory is a brain-wide process of creating, storing and recalling memories. All these functions work together, beginning with ‘attention, encoding then proceeding to storage and, eventually, retrieval’. (Cognitive Model for Educators Sense and Sensation 2013)


Attention is like a filter, we pay attention to some things and not to others.  Imagine you are teaching over a split lunch lesson. There may be an office phone ringing, students chatting outside, colleagues joking as they walk past and a delivery of books being wheeled to the storeroom.  Some of these sounds may be present most of the time, but we filter them out and our attention amplifies what is important to us – the engagement of our students with our teaching in the classroom. Eventually, when we hear these sounds often enough, they sit in our memory.  What we pay attention to is what we learn – in this case, the amount the students have understood rather than how many times the phone rang.  It is a strong reason as to why the bar is set high for one hundred percent listening when whole class teaching is taking place.


In my classroom, I use what I call ‘thinking threads’.  If I show my students a picture of the dagger from Macbeth, it serves as a stimulus for them to attach knowledge of the plot, characters, quotations/words, themes and motifs.  For them, they will notice the dagger and identify it.  They do this because they have prior knowledge to attach to it.  If I follow this with a picture they have never seen before, but had a link to the text, the picture would be contextualized through their previously learned knowledge.  This is how encoding works – it attaches new knowledge to old.  Each time we encode, we are retrieving the information again, strengthening it and reinforcing the memory in our brains.


A few years ago, I embarked on a navigational course adventure in the Lake District.  By the end of the two days, I was confident in all things map reading and compass use.  Great – but here lies a problem.  I haven’t used some of the skills I’d learned and now I have forgotten how to use them – I haven’t rehearsed them since.  However, if the encoding had been strong – I had gone out (and still went out) with my map and compass and challenged myself with new experiences that I could attach to my old navigational course knowledge, those skills would still be present.  My storage would have been strengthened.  For Bjork (1992) the more storage strength, the bigger the boost in retrieval strength.


Bringing something to mind is recalling a memory of an experience.  Retrieving this information begins the learning cycle described above, for to encode, we have to bring forward old knowledge to link to new and if we bring forward this knowledge, then we are bringing it to our attention.  With this procedural knowledge I created a ‘Brain Drain’ – a platform for retrieval with memory cues linked to student prior knowledge.  It looks something like this when I am using this strategy with conflict poetry:



Storm on the Island






My students recall prior knowledge of quotations, words, themes and context connected to each of the poems.  They colour this in one colour.  Anything they cannot retrieve is coloured in another.  These retrieval challenges are then used with proceeding lesson content, leaving longer gaps between each time they retrieve the information.  Low stakes quizzing and quick sixes (with increasing spacing between topic/text content to be recalled) are other examples.  Research indicates that interleaving enhances long-term learning and with expanding retrieval practice, it becomes an optimal learning schedule.

Be a Wordsmith

Research has shown that generating words, rather than just reading them, makes them more memorable.  ‘Be a wordsmith’ is a technique I use to teach target words which I then build around the context of the poem.  For example, Simon Armitage’s poem ‘Remains’.  Rather than reading the poem and focusing in on the title as a starting point, show a target word connected to the content of the poem, for example, ‘nonchalant’ – ‘Who can give me an example of when someone is nonchalant?’  Through questioning and discussion we can grow the word(s) around the context of the poem.  ‘Why would the soldier in the poem be nonchalant?’  It works.  Increasingly, my students are becoming wordsmiths as they transfer this knowledge to other poems and texts.

Master Mind Strategies

Ultimately, we want our students to have transportable knowledge.  A range of strategies that encourage long term retention of the knowledge is crucial.  Here are my top five strategies to strengthen students’ storage and retrieval strength, encouraging long term retention:

  1. Regular retrieval practice with increasing gaps between content being recalled
  2. Vocabulary challenges to encourage encoding and context building
  3. Lagged homework – supports retrieval practice, increases the recall gap and encourages encoding between texts through interleaving prior knowledge
  4. Deliberate use of the above precision teaching strategies that support student long term retention
  5. High expectations – students will always live up to our expectations of them – high or low

There are around thirty master mind chairs in a classroom, occupied by students taught by us in our ‘specialist subjects’.  In using the strategies outlined above, we can begin to build student master minds and strengthen the skills that are crucial to success in their learning.

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