Do our current teaching methods always achieve the goals we hope for – and if not, why not? It’s time to plan with the intention of securing long term retention

I sighed as I looked through the GCSE mock exam scripts. I thought to myself: “It’s not my fault some struggled. What can you do? There is just so much to learn.” Too many of my students were unable to show “deep understanding”. There was little decent analysis because you can’t really analyse something you barely remember.

But just imagine, for one moment, that there is a gun to your head. A deranged epistemophiliac [a person with an excessive striving for knowledge, that is] promises he will fire if you don’t ensure your class learns that topic’s key details. He’s coming back at the end of the month … you’ve been warned!

What could you achieve with your class? What methods might you use? How would your lesson activities change?

So often in teaching we expose our classes to material and hope some sticks beyond the lesson

It was not a reflection on my class teaching that led me to conduct the thought experiment outlined above. The “gun to head” question sprang from my efforts to help my own young children with their numeracy. Siegfried Engelmann, the writer of a course I found, designed numeracy activities with incredible care to ensure the concepts to be learned were unambiguous and there was spaced repetition and very regular testing of all key knowledge and skills.

Engelmann’s methods appeared to ensure children really did understand and remember, long term, all they learned. It seemed quite remarkable.

Initially I could not see how those principles designed to help a child with basic numeracy could be successfully applied to secondary history teaching. The sheer breadth and complexity of the GCSE content seemed to preclude simple testing. How could I build repetition into a subject in which the content is cumulative, not hierarchical and when would I find the time? Also I didn’t want to start spoon feeding pre-packaged analysis, I wanted to ensure my classes remembered the crucial detail that would allow them to appreciate the complexities.

It was at this point that I asked myself the “gun to your head” question.

Finding answers to how I would teach differently if a life depended on it began with a change to my mentality. So often in teaching we expose our classes to material and hope some sticks beyond the lesson but we know, really, that little will be remembered in a week, let alone a month or a year. What if, in my planning, I began by identifying the non-negotiable content I expected all to learn long-term and then planned how that could be achieved?

I found that planning with the deliberate intention of securing long term retention was surprisingly empowering because I could see the impact of my efforts. I was struck by the increasing richness and originality in my students’ explanations of events when they drew on a fuller picture of the context.

But was I ignoring less tangible teaching goals? My PGCE and subsequent professional development barely mentioned strategies to ensure long-term retention of key detail. Instead training focused quite heavily on methods to achieve broader educational goals such as “independent learning using critical thinking” or on “developing cooperative skills”. The desirability of such attributes is indisputable.

Just how sure are we that our current methods actually achieve these goals? The findings of cognitive psychologists challenge the assumption that skills, such as critical thinking, learned in one context can be applied in another and suggest it is actually deep background knowledge of an issue that is most crucial to help you think critically about it. My own experience has borne out these claims. What is the evidence we are relying on to justify our goals and the methods used to achieve them?

The tangible gains from my new focus on long term retention give me some confidence that I can significantly improve my students’ recall and thus ultimately their understanding of history. However, if that deranged pedant appeared at your classroom door, which of the outcomes we are told our teaching achieves would you be willing to stand by? How sure are you?