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Retrieval practice – the key to unlocking prior learning

January 24, 2023, 12:10 GMT+1
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  • Understanding how children retain and recall knowledge can improve attainment and progress, says Anthony David
Retrieval practice – the key to unlocking prior learning

“Do you understand?” I recall my PE teacher yelling at me. If I had been a bit bolder and older, I would flatly have replied: ‘No’.

Understanding is a delicate thing, not least as it can often reflect a point of view as well as facts. “Do you understand?” is a loaded statement which requires building.

You don’t simply understand in one hit – it suggests depth, which takes time.

Understanding retrieval practice

In its simplest form, retrieval practice is when we look to unlock prior learning and build onto it with new. At one of my schools, St Paul’s, we sought to align this with research that shows that this ‘building’ approach is the most efficient way to retain knowledge (Hattie & Zierer, 2018).

But prior learning can be elusive. Children don’t automatically draw upon understanding from the past, particularly if the subject was first covered one or more years ago, as happens in some foundation subjects.

Sometimes we need a nudge. This can come from another child’s recall, which they share with the class, or from the teacher who shares the “collective memory”. We have all sorts of names for this, with the least offensive being ‘magpieing’ – where you actively seek use another student’s ‘shiny’ idea. 

This takes time to embed. Children are, by nature, competitive with an innate sense of intellectual property; the phrase ‘he stole my idea’ took some time to quash. However, it was a wry comment made by Professor Sugata Mitra at a conference many years ago that consolidated my thinking: “In academia we don’t call this stealing; we call it research.”

This seems like good enough justification and so ‘active research’ was given licence at St Paul’s.

Three stages

It is important to understand the process behind retrieval practice in order to better appreciate why some children can retrieve more than others.

In 1968, the late Arthur Melton identified three stages for this: attention and coding, storage, retrieval.

All are separate but inter-related, and reliant on capacity. Ultimately, learning to retrieve is an art in and of itself, which is why we have set up a process for it at St Paul’s.

We recently revisited Melton’s process and added two further steps: application and transfer. 

Arguably it is these last two stages that contextualise learning and provide the learner with the future capacity to use that retrieved learning within a different context, but one that is equally valid.

Getting the language right

If we genuinely believe that retrieval is the start of all learning - or at least the basis from which we can build future learning - then we need to consider carefully the language that we use.

Is it lazy to refer to this as assessment? In truth, no, but there is a heavy weight behind that word. Unlocking a student’s learning should be exciting and light.

It is a great moment for a child to shine and at least to think “I know this, and I know more than you think I know”. It also sets out the stall for where learning will start. Really what we are seeking to unpick is a child’s understanding.

Knowledge organisers

The author and education blogger Joe Kirby has been identified as the modern leader of knowledge organisers.

A good knowledge organiser sets out the core aspects of learning that a student would expect to come across during a unit of work.

What Kirby did was rapidly broaden their appeal by setting them out in a simple and easily accessible way.

Today, it is hard not to come across a set of learning where there isn’t a knowledge organiser on the very first page. Yet, a decade down the road, are we really using them correctly?

At their best, knowledge organisers are a rapid route for retrieval - unlocking core language, facts and linking learning to prior understanding. At their worst they are simply wallpaper.

Knowledge organisers are an efficient way of retrieving past understanding (forgotten or otherwise), but they need interaction from the pupil, which demands intentional teaching.

Spaced learning

Primary curriculums don’t typically build on each other and look to deepen skills, like the sports person or musician who builds up their skills through constant practice.

Often, years can elapse between sets of learning. An example at St Paul’s was the teaching of colour. In Year 2, when colour is taught for a second time, it mainly considers how colours are made.

When we return to this topic a couple of years later, we are not just looking at how we create colour but how it impacts mood. It is a vastly different approach.

Providing space between learning can deepen understanding by giving it room to grow in a child’s deeper memory or it can be lost. There is an inherent risk that a child will have to rely more on ‘borrowed’ memory than their own.

The reasons behind spaced learning are often more practical than strategic, with time being the main contributor.

There is an argument for deep, intense moments of learning such as immersive weeks, but timetabling practicalities can make this difficult. 

Units of learning can often be spaced out, making the process of retrieval all the important to ensure pupils possess the understanding to move on to the next phase of their learning.

Retrieval practice is not a solo moment at the start of the lesson. It will only have a fighting chance if children understand both the context of their learning and can retain the new learning.

It requires constant checking for understanding. If the context is not understood, then there is an immediate risk to understanding the current learning. If the current learning is not understood then, naturally, future retrieval will be limited.

Building a solid base for learning

Retrieval practice is a rich and complex element of learning. When planned and delivered intentionally it can create a solid base on which to build new learning.

  • Collective memory is probably the most common approach. Applying an intentional ‘retrieval’ approach gives licence to children collectively owning a memory.  It is rare for one child to recall all of what happened in the past, much like it is rare for one person to recall everything that happened in a family event. We must approach the sharing of knowledge with the same grace that we share knowledge from a family event; joyfully and with the understanding that together we have a broader understanding.
  • Knowledge maps have grown in sophistication and style over the last decade.  They distil the essence of a bank of learning (for example a historic period) with key facts, word banks and ‘what to expect’ during lessons.  That said, to use them well needs planning and engagement otherwise they risk becoming wallpaper. However, they are a great way of launching and reviewing a project.
  • Spaced learning is inevitable in schools – it is usual to have months or years between topic themes. Providing space to reflect, retrieve or sieve memories from others is critical. Children (and adults) need warming up; it is not reasonable to expect somebody to immediately recall a unit of learning that is not part of the current working memory. However, if the learning has been impactful then a period of space can actually enhance the depth of memory and allow it to mature.

Anthony David is executive headteacher of a partnership of two church schools, Monken Hadley and St Paul’s CE primaries, in North London.