All about learning by @mrnickhart

Asking teachers what learning is throws up disagreements of varying degree from polite dispute to outright warfare.  What makes sense to me is that learning is a change in long-term memory.  Too often, children don’t manage to transfer concepts from working memory to long-term memory and without that internalisation, we cannot say that they have learned.  All we can say is that they have done some work.  Now that work might well have been good, but teachers and leaders need to be aware of the difference between short term performance and long term internalisation.

This is a re-blog post originally posted by Nick Hart and published with kind permission.

The original post can be found here.

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Performance vs learning and the importance of desirable difficulties

The key paradox is that to improve long-term retention, learning has to be made more difficult in the short term even to the extent of being unsuccessful.  We remember what we think about and learning happens when we have to think hard about content.  If children are thinking about things other than what we have intended for them to learn (a distracting context, for example) then that’s what they’ll remember.  If they haven’t had to think too hard, they may well produce some decent work but the thinking behind it is less likely to be retained.  So what does this mean?  Units of work and individual lessons need to be planned around what it is that children will be thinking about.  Each decision about what the teacher will do and what the children will do needs to be justified with that question mind and amended accordingly.  We all get better at what we habitually do – we become more efficient – so if we require children to be able to remember knowledge, procedures, and concepts, we must give them ample opportunities to practise remembering those things.  The efficacy of the testing effect has robust evidence and seems to work because testing (either yourself or a teacher posing questions) triggers memory retrieval and that retrieval strengthens memories.  Flash cards are a perfect example of this in action.

What’s important is that this testing is low stakes – no grade, no mark at the end of it, just practice in remembering and feedback on responses.  Feedback can take two forms.  Firstly the feedback can be from teacher to child and is as simple as telling the child what they were good at and what they misunderstood, then correcting those misconceptions.  Secondly, feedback can be from child to teacher and involves the teacher using the information to plan what to do next to develop understanding further.

Low stakes testing is a desirable difficulty – one way of making learning difficult (but not too difficult) so that children have to think hard.  Other desirable difficulties apply more to curriculum design:

  • Interleaving (switching between topics)
  • Spacing (leaving some time between sessions on a particular topic)
  • Variation (making things slightly unpredictable to capture attention)

By presenting content to children little and often, with increasingly longer spaces in between, teachers can instill the habit of continual revision rather than only revising when some sort of exam is approaching.  As such, concepts are internalised and retained rather than forgotten.  Robert Bjork’s research on desirable difficulties can be found here:


The idea of knowledge can be divisive.  Recalling knowledge is often described as lower order thinking and many are keen, quite rightly, to get children to do higher order thinking. This can be dangerous because knowledge is necessary but not sufficient.  Higher order thinking skills rely on a sound basis of knowledge and memory so teachers must ensure that these aspects are fully developed before expecting success in higher-order thinking.  Knowledge needs to be internalised too.  It’s not enough to be able to Google it.  The more a child knows, the easier it is to assimilate new knowledge because more connections can be made:



Children are more alike than different in how they learn.  Attempting to teach to a child’s perceived learning style is nonsense.  Everyone, no matter what we are learning, requires three things: knowledge, practice, and feedback on how we’re doing.  It is, of course, true that children come to a lesson with varying levels of prior knowledge and to a certain extent have different needs in order to be successful.  Teachers may have (and many, I’m sure, still do) differentiated tasks three, four or more ways – an unnecessary burden on time and a practice that reinforces inconsistency of expectations, particularly of the perceived ‘lower ability’ children.   For those children that are behind their peers, if they are not supported to keep up with age-related expectations, they will be perennially behind and will never catch up:

Keeping up Differentiation

If we only cater for their next small step in development, we’re failing them.  Instead, all children should be expected to think and work at age-related expectations.  Teachers should scaffold tasks appropriately so that all can work at that expectation and we do not have a situation where ‘that’ table are doing something completely different.


For children that grasp concepts quickly (not our ‘most able’ children – heavy lies the crown…), teachers provide opportunities to deepen their understanding before acceleration into subsequent year groups’ content.  Undoubtedly, there are a small number of exceptions to this.  There are some children that have a lot of catching up to do before we can even think of getting them to keep up with age related expectations.  But if they are removed from lessons to carry out this catch-up work, then everything will always be new to them – they’ll miss seeing and hearing how children are expected to think and work.  It is much better to precisely teach, and get them to practise, the basics that are not yet internalised in short bursts and often so that they remain with their peers as much as possible, experiencing what they experience but having the support needed to catch up.  This could be basics such as handwriting and number bonds, for example, and teachers should work closely with parents where there is a need to catch up to set short-term, focused homework until the basics internalised.


When children misunderstand something, when the work in their books is not to the standard expected, is a crucial time.  Paramedics talk of the golden hour – one hour after an accident – where if the right treatment is given, the chances of recovery are significantly higher.  With children’s learning, if we leave misconceptions to embed or even thrive, we’re failing them.  Even if we mark their books and write some wonderful advice for them to look at and act upon the next day or the day after, we leave holes, holes which children can slip through.  When there is a need, we should intervene on the day so that children are ready for the next day’s lesson and are keeping up.  This, of course, requires a flexible and creative use of TAs and non-class based staff but from experience, it works. Interventions focus on the work done that day.  For some children, pre-teaching may be more beneficial.  Before the school day starts, they are shown the main content of the day’s lesson and carry out a couple of practice examples so that when it comes to the lesson later on, they have some prior knowledge which will improve their chances of success in that lesson.  This concept is in contrast to pre-planned, twelve-week intervention programmes where children are removed from other lessons for significant periods of time.

Learning is complex and relies on many interrelating and often unpredictable conditions.  That said, there is much that we can control and doing so greatly increases the likelihood that what we intend to learn is learned – really learned.

Featured image credit: By Michael Riedel on Flickr under  (CC BY 2.0)

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