Using the science of mental models in my classroom

Feb. 16, 2021
KatHoward

Kat Howard

Assistant Principal, Duston School in Northampton

Kat Howard, Assistant Principal at Duston School in Northampton, explains how combining an approach based on mental models with curriculum design has helped her to make learning stick.

All teachers will recognise the importance of making the learning stick, embedding it in their pupils’ memories for effective retrieval and utilisation, as needed.

‘Consolidation’ is the first module on the Master’s in Expert Teaching programme, and it has helped me tackle this important topic, not just in the classroom, but also when teaching remotely.

One of the approaches I've tried as a result of the programme is using mental models to tackle the recurring challenge of pupils’ forgetting lesson content, and not being able to make full use of their learning where needed.

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Taking this approach has led to a noticeable difference in pupil development and engagement following changes in practice. Students recognise the conceptual links that exist within our English curriculum and we have moved on from ‘we did poetry in year 7, so we know what poetry is in year 10’ to instead considering overarching themes of gender, power, conflict and morality across units of learning.

When collating feedback, we found students reported not only being able to use this approach within English, but actually recognised the value of making conceptual links within other subjects. This allows students to see the curriculum as an ongoing wider study sequence, as opposed to standalone units that lack a sense of cohesion.

By aligning our understanding of recent research around cognitive science with our knowledge of curriculum design and delivery, we can start lines of enquiry with students that not only harnesses what they learned previously and can make use of, but also make the implicit explicit to the students. They can see the benefit of what has been taught before and how this enables them to experience success later on in the curriculum.

"By aligning our understanding of recent research around cognitive science with our knowledge of curriculum design and delivery, we can start lines of enquiry with students that not only harnesses what they learned previously and can make use of, but also make the implicit explicit to the students."

This alignment has led to a more iterative format of discussion within my classroom, which demonstrates to students how what they’ve learned in the past can inform what they are learning now, and what they will go on to learn in the future.

This approach is now in use outside of my classroom. It was used as an anchor for discussions with the current Head of English around how we ensure that the intended conceptual links mapped out at the time of design are then actualized within the classroom. When designing retrieval practice tasks, an approach completely embedded as part of our practice as a school, teachers can start to consider how they draw upon key vocabulary or ideas presented in previously-taught sections of the curriculum to better aid their delivery of the current content.

Looking forward, I would like to see how this method might be used within other subjects, where appropriate, to truly be effective in making connections across the curricular journey.


Further reading:

Sweller, J., & Chandler, P. (1991). Evidence for cognitive load theory. Cognition and Instruction, 8, 351–362.

Karpicke, J.D., Blunt, J.R., (2011) Retrieval Practice Produces More Learning than Elaborative Studying with Concept Mapping, SCIENCE11 FEB 2011 : 772-775,

Bjork, ~· A., & Bjork,. E. L. (1992). A new theory of disuse and an old theory of stimulus fluctuation. In A. Healy, S. Kosslyn, & R. Shiffrin (Eds.), From Learning Processes to Cognitive Processes: Essays in Honor of William K. Estes (Vol. 2, pp. 35-67). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Clark, R. E., Kirschner, P. A., & Sweller, J. (2012). Putting Students on the Path to Learning: The Case for Fully Guided Instruction. American Educator, 36(1), 6-11.


Kat Howard is a participant on our Master’s in Expert Teaching programme. Find out more about the programme here.

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