When we look back on our school days, our strongest memories are probably a mix of big occasions – trips, plays, and sports days – alongside more personal, emotionally charged events. What we don’t tend to remember vividly, if at all, is actually learning the substance of maths or English or DT.

Which leads to us making the entirely reasonable hypothesis that if we want students to remember what we teach them, then we need to make our lessons more like those special occasions.

Memorable events, so we assume, should form the template for creating memorable lessons.

Yet as reasonable as it seems, this is a myth. It is a myth because human memory works in two different ways, both equally valid, but one of which is much better at enabling us to transfer what we have learnt to new contexts. This transfer is an essential prerequisite for creativity and critical thinking.

Contextual clues

The two forms of memory are known as episodic and semantic. Episodic memory is the memory of the ‘episodes’ of our life – our autobiographical memory. This takes no effort on our part, it simply happens. We don’t have to consciously try to remember what happened yesterday, those memories just happen automatically. But there is a downside.

Episodic memory is ‘easy come, easy go.’ If you try and remember what you had for lunch yesterday, you will probably succeed. If you try and remember what you had for lunch a year ago, you will have no idea.

Semantic memory on the other hand involves much harder work. We have to expend effort to create semantic memories. This is the kind of memory we use when we consciously study something because we want to remember it. Unlike episodic memory, it does not just happen. The upside, however, is that the effort involved leads to long lasting results.

Episodic memory is highly contextual – memories come bundled together with the sensory experiences and emotions we experienced at the time. You’ve probably had this experience with your classes.

You ask them to tell you what they were learning the previous day. And sure enough, they remember all sorts of things: that Mollie was late, that you spilt your coffee – but the actual lesson content? Memories of that are much weaker.

Episodic memory is so tied up with context – those emotional and sensory cues – that it is no good for remembering things once that context is no longer present.

This means that it has serious limitations in terms of its usefulness as the main strategy for educating children, since whatever is remembered is so bound up with the context in which it was taught.

This does not make for flexible, transferable learning that can be brought to bear in different contexts and circumstances. Yet it is this transferability that is the essential prerequisite for creativity and critical thinking.

Think about it

Fortunately, we also have semantic memory. Semantic memory does not have the limitations of episodic memory. Semantic memories are context free, which means that once a concept has been stored, it is more flexible and transferable between different contexts.

Semantic memory is therefore central to learning that can be put to use in novel contexts to solve unexpected problems. Semantic memory is what we use when we are problem solving or being creative, because both of these involve applying something learnt in one context to another.

Forming semantic memories requires practice. If you want to remember something, you need to think about it, not just experience it.

The cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham explains that “memory is the residue of thought.” The more you have thought about something, the more likely it is that you will remember it.

So we have to make sure that our lessons give students the opportunity to think about the things we actually want them to remember, rather than some extraneous other thing.

We need them to think about the message of the lesson, rather than the medium we use to teach it.

This is where ‘fun’ lessons can unintentionally prevent learning happening. If the medium chosen to deliver the lesson is too obtrusive, it is that the students will think about, rather than whatever it is we actually want them to learn.

So, when we plan lessons, we need to be mindful of what children will be thinkingabout during each part of the lesson, rather than what they will be feelingor doing.

Wise choices

Some kinds of activity involve hard thinking, but not about the central things we want children to understand. For example, practical science experiments involve lots of thinking about planning.

In fact, the practical elements can require so much mental energy that there isn’t much cognitive bandwidth left over for thinking about the concepts the experiment is meant to prove.

Which is not to say that children shouldn’t do experiments, but rather, that children are unlikely to come to an understanding of scientific concepts through them alone.

The same is true for research activities. The cognitive effort of locating information is unlikely to leave space for children to remember much about what they have found out. Teachers need to bear in mind that extra time, either before or after the research activities, to think hard about the content, will be necessary.

It should be pointed out that it is possible to overstate the separateness of episodic and semantic memory; in fact, there is a degree of overlap.

Strong emotion makes things stick in episodic memory, as does novelty; so doing some sort of less routine, novel or exciting event to round off learning might complement semantic memory – a trip at the end of a unit of work for example.

Nor is it the case that episodic memory is in some way ‘bad’ or inferior. It’s just different.

The deliberate building of semantic memory is much more likely to result in long lasting, flexible and transferable memory than putting most of your energies into the episodic basket, so this should form the bulk of what we spend our time on.

But not every moment of every day. Knowing the limitations of both forms of memory can help us make wiser and more productive choices.

Clare Sealy has spent 30 years as a primary school teacher, and is currently head of curriculum and standards for the States of Guernsey. She is also an author, most recently contributing to The ResearchED Guide to Education Myths (John Catt).