Remember, Remember the 5th of Whenever…

Posted by Laura on Feb 16, 2016

I think Matthew Syed’s comparison of learners and top athletes and sports personalities was very interesting. Many of us have experienced an education system based on recall of facts and processes that have been taught, revised and occasionally remembered over a number or years. It has to be said that highlighting the downfalls of this system is nothing new and questioning the link between remembering something a truly understanding it has been done by educators for some time now. Why is it then that Syed is taking us back to this base?

I think this question becomes clearer after looking at Daniel Willingham’s article. Here the link seems to be made between understanding and recall, highlighting that actually some of the best recall is done once understanding has been established. Both men echo the idea that the best performance, whether it be in a sporting competition or in remembering information for a test, comes from not only repetition, but from looking outside the main point of focus, whether it be a tennis player studying the movement of his opposition instead of looking at the ball or a student asking questions around a topic to deepen understanding of a key point.

I think at first glance much of what is being said here appears to contradict what we have talked of so far however the deep relational understanding of Skemp and fascinating, engaging mathematics of Meyer is all but useless if students cannot remember it after some time. The ways of teaching the subject spoken of earlier all lead to understanding and searching questions which Willingham advocates as helpful in retaining information.

Willingham also highlights one important point however; how do we get students to commit the correct amount of time needed to really remember what they need to know? It is not only the problem of those students who underestimate how much time they will need to spend studying to retain information properly, but those who are disinterested in the subject and are happy to move on from something as soon as they have got an acceptable result or pass mark. How can we encourage these students to invest that extra 20% of time in their studies to really achieve mastery and total recall?

At the end of his talk Syed speaks of the different in growth mindset and fixed mindset learners. Could this be part of the key to encouraging the extra time to be spent on committing information to memory? It has been said that those of growth mindset, who have been praised for endeavour, strive for the next stage and further improvement, so are more likely to put in the extra time whereas those of fixed mindset, who are more likely to have been praised on ability and outcomes, are more likely to be content with a result and halt their learning. Does the key perhaps lie then in promoting the growth mindset in our schools and an ethos of constant search for improvement?


  1. pepsmccrea
    19 February 2016

    Some outstanding synthesis here. Seeing remembering and understanding as complementary processes is powerful. And very interesting ideas at the end to help generate leverage… keep up the great thinking!

  2. marcus
    21 February 2016

    Your think-piece provided me with another interesting read this week, Laura. I really like the way you have talked about Meyer’s and Skemp’s ideas within education and linked them to Willinghams article on committing information to memory.

    I’m really intrigued by growth mindset, as a whole, and I think it’s impotant for teachers to consider that approach… The trouble I’m having is being able to show students that its a good way forward, any ideas?!

    • Laura
      21 February 2016

      It’s a good question Marcus.
      Having had a growth mindset system in our school for a little while now I am yet to see a device that can really encourage the students to fully buy in to the idea.
      I’ll let you know if I find one…

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