‘Knowledge is like a garden; if it is not cultivated, it cannot be harvested’
In my last blog titled ‘A Tapestry of Knowledge Part 1’, I reflected on the strategies that could help to build student vocabulary. ( Tapestry of Knowledge Part 1 ) In the final part of this blog, my reflection moves to building schemas connecting individual facts, and how spacing and interleaving are part of the process. Structures are key to organising both the learning and the retrieval, and if they are to impact as the building blocks for student cognitive process, then the subject schemas which teachers hold in their own heads need to be shared – so I’m going to share mine.
Under a microscope
I’d like to start by zooming in on schemas. Schemas was once a term only used in psychology. Now, it is part of the greater picture of knowledge in the classroom – and, I think, rightly so. On its own, the word schema may seem daunting or complex, but it is, of course, possible to grasp. I think of it like a molecular structure in the brain. (Forgive me any chemistry teachers out there for any chemistry misconceptions – I’m only using molecular structure as a visual representation!)
Imagine those folders of knowledge inside a student’s brain being like the molecular structure of gas with each atom as a schema. Connected to those schemas is knowledge. If the knowledge is not connected to schemas through a tight structure of explanation and organisation, then ideas will float around leaving room for misconceptions and knowledge gaps. Building a solid understanding of subject knowledge and skills becomes more difficult.
What if those folders of knowledge were tightly packed and attracted to each other through clear connections with the content of the subject? Like the image, a solid building block can be created, on which more cognitive building blocks can be built. In a solid, each atom wouldn’t move past the next, but would vibrate with the attraction. I think of it as student schemas ‘buzzing with organised and connected knowledge’ – schemas created to organize knowledge into folders full of stored information and its use.
Taking a step back
Our English faculty has been reflecting on schemes of work, ensuring that overarching ideas are clear and the content progressive in knowledge and its application. This is where I zoom out and look at what I am presenting in my scheme of work to structure and organise how I will share my subject schemas to the students I teach. Below is a stripped back, two lesson snapshot of my scheme of work on Jekyll and Hyde.
As the scheme progresses, more knowledge and skill connections are made so my students remember and associate previous learning. Knowledge can be activated in order to continually build and organise cognition so deeper learning, using this growing knowledge for analysis and synthesis, can take place.
From a distance
If we are to look at how students retain and retrieve knowledge over topics, we have to have a good idea of the strategies to use that can help make knowledge stick. The ‘Forgetting Curve’ is a good place to start. It began with the German psychologist called Herman Ebbinghaus who, after experimenting with made up words on himself and seeing how long he could retain them for, concluded that when the words were reviewed, retention increased. Therefore, if we want students to be able to remember things, we have to keep returning to them and reviewing them. If we teach in block topics, it makes this more difficult to do. If we use spaced retrieval practice and interleaving, it creates platforms for this to happen. It has implications on two things:
- Curriculum design
- Strategies to enable spaced practice and retrieval to take place in the classroom
If we teach in block topics, as shown the example below, it is more challenging to return to content and review it. Less opportunities for retrieval equates to lower retention of taught knowledge.
In English, it would be looking at a text, then bringing in another text, then another and so on. Texts can be taught over a shorter space of time and returned to, which creates opportunity for further retrieval and reviewing of content. Another way this can be addressed is through spaced learning and also lag homework (homework that connects previous topics). In an English curriculum, the early stages of idea mapping might begin to develop as shown below. Considerations of the core elements, themes running through and the building of students’ background knowledge whilst fulfilling syllabus criteria would be at the forefront of team discussion.
Here, English knowledge and skills are interleaved throughout the set texts. Research shows that mastery and long-term retention are much better if you interleave, rather than block teach. Be cautious – any such practice as the above should be at the forefront of discussion – what’s working and what isn’t. If it is felt that it isn’t working, consider what examples of practice/student work can be looked at to make a firm conclusion.
Strategies in the classroom
- Memory platforms to start each lesson – use questions with a progressive time scale – week one, week two, last half term, last term.
- Dual coding – pictures and words to trigger knowledge over time
- Threshold concepts – building in what is important and keeping them in sight
A final thought – all that I have reflected on is a consideration on how to make knowledge stick. Both interleaving and spacing are ‘desirable difficulties’ (Bjork and Bjork, 2011). If both are used, it may prompt learners to seek meaningful connections during concept learning. It’s about making connections through reflecting backwards, whilst moving learning forwards. Be patient. It takes time. Rome wasn’t built in a day.