Organizing Ideas So Kids Remember What You Teach

We cannot store every piece of information our brain encounters in our memory. How does it decide what needs to be remembered? Well, since our brain likes to avoid thought, if we spend a lot of time thinking about something, it decides to store it. It must be important and our brain doesn’t want us to have to go through the slow and laborious process of thinking about it again so it stores it away in long-term memory so you can get back to that information quickly and easily next time.

(You are reading the third post in a series about cognitive science in your homeschool, click here for the introductory post and links to the other posts in this series.

So whatever your kids are actually thinking about is what they will remember. Well, that explains a lot!

“Memory is the residue of thought.” Willingham

Examine your child’s assignments and think about what they will really be thinking about during the assignment. What do they have to think about to complete the assignment? What do they have to think about the MOST to complete the assignment? This is why some novelty-type assignments seem like a waste of time and effort. Because they are drawing the student into thinking about something which is really not the subject we are trying to help them remember. They may be thinking about measuring for a recipe, or how to draw a soldier, instead of thinking about a war, its causes, and soldiers daily lives. Maybe they ate biscuits, and you can too, but don’t expect that to help your child remember anything else about the war. Of course, I am all for teaching kids to cook, but it is for the sake of knowing how to cook, not so they can remember that soldiers ate biscuits. If we want them to remember that soldiers ate biscuits we need to ask questions about why they think soldiers ate biscuits, or better yet, start by asking what they think soldiers ate. I don’t want to upset people who like to dive into activities like this, but I do want us all to understand that it is not necessary and also not what will help our child remember the lesson. Making biscuits will help them remember how to make biscuits, so we really don’t have to sweat it if we don’t have time to incorporate every suggested recipe connection into our lessons. (This is also just an example, there are many other suggested activities which are actually leading our child’s brains off-topic. If it seems irrelevant to you, it probably is.)

We have all had THAT day. The day we created the most beautiful, engaging lesson. We had exciting examples, deep content, great questions, problems to solve, and a clear message. Then at dinner, your husband asks your kids what they learned today. Blank stares. Head scratching. None of them can think of anything. These are the moment’s homeschool moms may not be able to eat their dinner. One moment, you are on cloud nine thinking you had a great, productive, smooth running day. The next, you wonder where your kids were, were you just teaching the lesson to yourself? Instead of crying you shake your head, take a deep breath, and prompt them with a question from your exquisitely choreographed day of learning. If you are lucky, your questions jog their memory a little and they go “Oh, yeah, I remember something now.” If you aren’t lucky, they just keep staring at you.

Not all dinners can be full of sharing new epiphanies, but we can keep trying!

There are three things that could be going wrong when your kids can’t remember anything from a lesson.

First, we have to get information into working memory, before there is a chance it will move into long-term memory. This means the student needs to have to do something with that information. They need to pay attention to it. They need to think about it. So if they were daydreaming, that is a problem.

Second, they could have the information in long-term memory, but be having trouble getting to it. The process of getting that information back out can fail, and I will go into more detail about this in the next article.

Third, the information may no longer reside in long-term memory. It may have been forgotten. (This is more likely for information learned a week or month ago, and not used, then what they learned earlier that same day!)

The things we remember about something will be what we have spent time thinking about. If we think about what something looks like, that is what we will remember. If we think about how something sounds, then that is what we will remember. If we think about what something means, then the meaning is what we will remember.

Most of the time, what we want our students to learn has to do with meaning, so getting them to think about the meaning behind things is the best way to ensure that they are using their working memory and therefore more likely to store the information in their long-term memory.

So how do we make sure the kids are thinking about meaning?

Willingham suggests that all good teachers have two things that make them great teachers. They are a nice person. Their class is well organized. This is again, based off of research and an interesting point he makes is that good teachers can come with a wide array of effective personalities, but the personality is not itself what makes them great teachers. It is the personal connection, combined with well-organized material that made their teaching effective.

Personal connection, do we have an advantage here? Well, I suppose, as homeschoolers, who are the parents of our students, we may have a leg up on the personal connection. But I think at the same time it is important to cultivate and nurture that connection. It will not stay strong and healthy as our children grow if we don’t take care of it. I also think this is sometimes the underlying struggle in our homeschools. If we are not deeply connecting with our kids, we will not be effective teachers either, so this needs to be a top priority, not just for emotional and spiritual reasons, but also academic reasons.

Next, we just have to be well organized and present every lesson for every child in a well-organized manner. Piece of cake! Right? Well, as homeschoolers we probably need to be flexible with how we organize. Your way of organizing may need to change from year to year as your children grow and their needs change. You also need to demand a high level of organization from any curriculum you use. The truth is you probably don’t have time to re-write the curriculum to make up for a lack of organization. If a curriculum is not well-organized then what are you paying for? Information is free these days. You are actually paying for the organization of ideas, so make sure you are getting quality in that area. This is true no matter what style of homeschooler you consider yourself to be.

Now, for the great realization of cognitive scientists that there is one type of presentation of material that is used in a special way by the brain.

A story, stories are what Willingham calls “psychologically privileged” which means they are treated differently in memory than any other type of material. (I may have to do a future post on exactly how the brain treats stories!)

Willingham suggests that the organization of a good lesson should follow the same general format as a story. We can use this information either in developing our own lessons or just as a way to judge curriculum we are thinking of purchasing. Here is the story structure and how Willingham suggests we can work it into any kind of material.

The structure Willingham suggests is a simple and straightforward method called the four C’s.

Causality-This is the set-up, where we lead the student into caring about the question. In a Hollywood film, this usually takes around 20 minutes. It may take you the same amount of time, but Willingham suggests all the time we spend in this area is very valuable, even if we feel like we are not accomplishing much. We are getting students interested in the question, which will lead them to think about meaning.

Conflict- This is the question of the lesson. Do not present the answer directly after the question has emerged. Make sure you go through the complications and characters involved first. This will also help lead your student in the right direction, so they may get to the answer themselves.

Complications-This is all the additional details that make the answer more complex. To get here you could propose a wrong answer, and then bring in the details that don’t allow that answer to work. If your student is already somewhat familiar with the material they may even get excited about mom’s wrong answer and delight in telling you why that can’t be the correct answer.

Character-The characters may be hard to think about for some lessons, as they may not always be people. If studying a war, the characters are all the countries involved. (The big people-players of the war usually being supporting cast.) If studying chemistry, the characters are the elements. If studying math, the characters are both numbers and symbols. I am not saying we need to personify an equals sign, an equals sign already has a strong character, which is clearly defined, and unyielding in meaning.

Reasons stories boost comprehension: Our brain is familiar with the pattern of stories and so information presented in that pattern is easier for us to interpret, stories are interesting (this may because they require inferences that our brain rewards us for figuring out, stories with an excess of detail are less interesting probably because no work is left for our own brain to do), they are easy to remember. Because we have to connect many dots inside of a story our brain is busy thinking about meaning the whole time. Also, because of stories causal structure once we remember one part of the story we can usually remember the whole story.

“My intention here is not to suggest that you simply tell stories, although there’s nothing wrong with doing so.” Willingham

“The story structure applies to the way you organize the material that you encourage your students to think about, not to the methods you use to teach the material.” Willingham

One thing to remember is that an answer by itself is not very interesting, it only becomes interesting because of the question, and if we want students to think about the meaning we have to remind ourselves again, and again, to start with the question and also not to rush to fast towards the answer.

Okay, so what about topics that seem meaningless, or lists of facts students actually need to know before they can move into a skill. Such as needing to know the sounds of the alphabet before they can read. Or spelling, how much meaning is there in spelling words that are not phonetic in nature? (Well, I have to say, there is usually interesting history behind those words, so usually, we can actually get to meaning even there.)

The point is, there are times you may decide your student needs to rote memorize something as a stepping stone to being able to understand the meaning behind something. This is perfectly okay when the material calls for it. Since there is no intrinsic meaning we cannot use the story structure without it being somewhat contrived (although I will always love you, Alphablocks, for turning the learning of letter sounds into a story). What is the best method for rote memory?

Willingham goes over various mnemonic devices, but here I am just going to focus on the ones he suggests are the most effective. The acronym method can be helpful if you already know the facts, it can help you remember all of them. Can you name all of the Great Lakes? Even if you can’t, you know that you know them. What if I tell you to use HOMES as a clue to help you, (each lake starts with one of the letters). For me, the acronym is the difference between being able to recall them all and drawing a blank. But acronyms are not magic, your student still has to get all of those names into long-term memory, this is where repetition comes in. Once your student spends enough time thinking about the names of the Great Lakes, their brain is going to go “Hey, I think I need to store this info, it is causing a lot of work for me!”

Another way is through song. My 14 year old recently claimed he cannot remember anything unless it is in a song! Well, he is coming to some self-understanding and awareness, so that is good! Now he will just have to become a songwriter so he can spell words! The only problem with using a song is that it takes a lot of work to write a song. Another thing about using songs for learning that drives me nuts is the lack of the quality of a song. If the song is painful to listen to, your brain is probably going to try to block it out! Having said that, when you do find good songs that cover material that needs to be memorized, use them. Chanting in rhythm also helps, and is a bit easier to do than writing a song.


In Your Homeschool

Be judgmental of lesson plans, whether they are your own or from a curriculum source. What is the plan really going to be getting the kids to think about? Sometimes assignments inadvertently divert a child’s attention to a different area.

Think about when in the lesson to use attention grabbers, students may be served better by first having some background knowledge of the subject before the exciting event. A baking soda and vinegar volcano may be so exciting that once it explodes your child will be fixated on the explosion and not hear anything you say about the reaction and what caused it. It may be better to set up by exploring the concepts you hope to impart, introduce characters (acids, bases, chemical symbols, formula) first. Then ask the question, what will happen if we dump this acid and base together? (Your really don’t even need a volcano, this demonstration really has nothing to do with volcanos if you think about it.) Afterward, it will not matter if your child tunes you out, replaying the reaction over and over again in their head it doesn’t matter because they already spent time thinking about the material you want them to think about. Willingham suggests attention grabbers like this are often better placed in the middle of a lesson to sustain student interest instead of at the beginning. Think carefully about attention grabbers and how they are connected to your material, and how you will draw your student’s attention into that connection. Make sure your attention grabber is not actually an attention diverter.

Willingham suggests discovery learning be used with caution. Although there are many benefits for students when we use discovery learning, which is based on student interest, exploration, and inquiry, it is best used only in cases where the student receives immediate feedback. A student can keep going a long way with an incorrect assumption and wrong meaning if there is no feedback. In discovery learning, the parent or teacher is more of a resource than a director. It can be very motivating for the child to be able to take the reigns and direct their own learning, but we need to be aware and involved enough to redirect them if they are spending a lot of time doing or thinking incorrectly. If memory is the residue of thought, and they are thinking over and over that 2+3=4, this is going to be a big problem for them. Immediate feedback is needed to keep the memory clean, so either you have to provide it, or it has to be built into the system. (Such as computer programming, if you make a mistake, it doesn’t work, and the student has to correct their code.)

Make thinking about meaning unavoidable.

I want to conclude this post with one last point. You have probably heard about child-directed learning. I am all for teaching your kids about things they are interested in, but to only teach them what they are interested in and nothing else is not a service to them. There are many beautiful things in this world, also a lot a background knowledge that your child will need in order to be an active part of an intelligent conversation between adults. They cannot ask to learn about things they have not even been exposed to, the director of a child’s education needs to be an adult, because we know so much more than they do, and because we know some of the things they might look back and wish we had taught them when they are adults.

“Student interests should not be the main driving force of lesson planning.” Willingham

We do not have to bend over backward trying to make every lesson relevant to our student’s daily lives. I cannot say it better than Willingham, “If I’m continually trying to build bridges between students’ daily lives and their school subjects, the students may get the message that school is always about them, whereas I think there is value, interest, and beauty in learning about things that don’t have much to do with me.”

Time and time again I noticed my children do not fall in love with a subject all at once, their love builds up gradually as they gain more and more understanding of the subject. If one of our main goals as homeschooling parents is to help them find what they love and encourage them in that pursuit, then we need to give them enough background knowledge on a variety of subjects. Letting them pick only things that seem interesting to them, in the end, may be shrinking their world.

I want my kids to know what they love, and how much they love it, and what things they love even more than other things. Sometimes our kids’ talents are apparent, sometimes they are hiding, waiting to be uncovered. I am not suggesting we don’t encourage the interests of our kids. I am just saying we need to be the directors, their input is valuable and should be considered, but we need to remember how much they still don’t know.

Stay tuned for the next post which will cover why it is hard for kids to understand abstract ideas and what we can do to help.

This is just a short explanation of the concepts covered by Willingham. There is so much more in his book, and I strongly recommend reading it. One thing Willingham does in his book is take you through many more examples, persuading you as he introduces each idea. If I had a top ten books home educators should read, this would be on it.

5 Responses

  1. […] I often say, if a curriculum is not well-organized, what are you paying for? Content is free. This guide is worth the money because it is so well-organized. […]

  2. […] are treated in a privileged way by our brains. Stories are special and studies in cognitive science have shown that information learned through stories is remembered more easily with less […]

  3. […] FabuLingua uses stories and games to teach. Stories always receive preferential treatment in the brain. Our brain is just primed for stories and information presented through stories is more easily understood and remembered. […]

  4. […] Life of Fred is written like a novel. It is a series of stories, and stories are one of the best ways to learn. They are cognitively privileged. […]

  5. […] No matter what curriculum you decide to use for high school history, keep in mind that stories are given preference by our brains. This means that we remember and understand content more easily when it is presented in the format of a story. You can read more about what helps kids learn here. […]

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