Slides from my VNET curriculum talk are here.

This post forms part of the Curriculum In Science symposium, the brain-child of Adam Boxer, who needs a medal for being the most skillful cat-herder of all time….

Attention and conscious memorisation

I’ve always been rubbish at pub quizzes! I’ve led a full and varied life, but ask me a question about… well… lots of things, and I can seldom remember the answer. I’m the worst person to have on your quiz team!

When I deliver training about memory, I often ask people to recite their phone number from when they were growing up. Those of us over a certain age(!), can do this pretty easily. We had to laboriously dial phone numbers and write them down, so they became embedded in our long-term memory.

But when I ask teachers to remember something else (say the Queen’s birthday), they invariably struggle. Yet, at one point, they will have heard that it was the Queen’s birthday on the radio, or read about it in a newspaper. But they didn’t pay attention to it, or make a conscious effort to remember it, and the date was forgotten.


Memory and long-term retention

I have experienced many things over the years, and I have enduring memories, both good and bad. But, unless I’ve made an effort to remember them, I tend to forget trivia-type facts. Yet, if you ask me to study for something specific, I’m your woman! My ability to retain information, when I make a conscious effort to do so, has stood me in good stead for all sorts of things: teaching unfamiliar subjects, giving talks, performing in job interviews, exams… Long before I’d heard of Dunlosky, years before I discovered the existence of past papers, I was an expert at studying.

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This was possibly because of my background in music. I’m a flautist, and I know that, however talented a flautist you are, you will not be able to play Poulenc’s Sonata, if you haven’t practised that double-tonguing section on the first page until you can play it standing on your head! This requires rehearsal and repetition; it means you have to break the phrase up and practice it a little bit at a time; and you need to know when to stop, take a break, leave it alone, stop getting frustrated, and to return to it another day…

With hindsight, I intuitively did all the things I teach students about now: retrieval practice, spaced review, elaboration… but over the past few years I have learned to identify these things, and explicitly teach them to others. This is the role that research and, specifically Cognitive Science, has played in my teaching development: understanding why certain things are likely to be more effective than others, and pinpointing the aspects that should be emphasised.


As Scientists, we need to memorise certain things, and we need to automise particular processes. These steps are vital, if we are to make links between the knowledge we’ve gained and the concepts we’ve mastered. We need this memorisation and automaticity if we are to apply our understanding creatively in order to appraise and solve novel problems.

So this post is about how you build and shape the curriculum, to help your students to become better Scientists, rather than the specifics of what goes into it.

As a teacher, I want to teach tomorrow’s scientists and today’s citizens, with an awareness of how Science affects the world around them. I want my students to enjoy science, and to understand how it links together. I want them to be able to use what they’ve learned to influence others and solve problems.

I also want them to enjoy lessons and gain satisfaction from the knowledge they build, but I understand that, if they’re going to do all this, they also need to remember what I’ve taught them! So however interesting, knowledge-filled, skills-based, world-relevant, exciting, interesting and scientific our curriculum may be, we must also build it with memory in mind.

What goes in?

This is not to say that discussions around content are not important. But John Holman (who helped to write the original National Curriculum for science in England and Wales in 1988) offers a note of caution to those designing curricula in Science, that “science curricula are always too full of content.” and we should be “cutting [content] until it feels too sparse and then cutting some more.”

As Tim Oates said in a recent article, there have been very few large shifts in fundamental knowledge in the last century, only the changes in the emphasis and the context or application, and he argues that we should concentrate on the fundamentals, and the foundational concepts.

“The application of genetics may be changing clinical practice daily, but the fundamentals were laid down by Mendel – in 1863 – and the structure of DNA explored by Crick, Watson, Franklin and Wilkins in the 1950s… If a National Curriculum focuses on contexts and application, rather than fundamental concepts, it will be destined for constant change… With limited time and space in the curriculum, choices necessarily need to be made.”

This idea is a common one, and it is one that I can relate to: work out what your big questions/ big ideas/ key concepts/ bottle-necks/ hurdles/ Threshold Concepts are. These will always hold true, even if the specific content changes.


So, for the purposes of this Symposium, I am less interested in the detail and content of a good curriculum, but rather I am interested in which aspects of the curriculum (once established) have to be memorised and automatized, and how we might use our curricula to support deep learning and long-term retention.

Helping us do the interesting stuff

I used to balk at the idea of memorising things, as I associated it with robotic, unthinking students. But you’ll waste much less time doing longer calculations if you’re not worrying about which formula to use, or what 7 x 7 is, and you’ll be left with a greater capacity in your working memory to process more complex (and interesting) stuff, if you can retrieve and access information easily, or carry out processes automatically.

Singaporean students apparently perceive that they rely less on memorisation in maths than UK students do, but this might actually be because they prioritise factual learning earlier in Singapore than in the UK, meaning open-ended learning is much more accessible to them later on. (Evans, Impact)


People do still argue that nothing needs to be memorised in an age of Google, but I am interested in developing scientific thinkers, or at the very least scientifically-literate citizens, and this demands a certain degree of familiarity with key ideas and knowledge, whether it’s out there awaiting them in the internet or not.


Every time I see my students scanning the Periodic Table blindly for even the most common elements, I’m reminded of how we develop a feel for where things are positioned over the course of time, and how much this helps us. My feeling is that the more we can increase familiarity with (for example) the elements and their positions, the more we can feel comfortable with predicting their key characteristics. So it’s not just about processes and calculations, it’s also about developing a Scientist’s ‘intuition’ about things.

Memorisation, automaticity and familiarity

I never learned the Periodic Table “off by heart”, although I am of course very well acquainted with it now. Some regions are more familiar than others! No teacher who has taught KS4 Chemistry for a few years can fail to know the identity and position of the elements in group 1 and 7, for example. And there are other elements that I could point to without really thinking: carbon, nitrogen, boron, aluminium, silicon, magnesium, various d-block elements and so on. But I’ve spoken to people who did memorise the Periodic Table, and they say that, although they seldom chant the order of the elements sequentially, the memorisation itself has really helped them to gain a feel for elements.

The first step in any question involving elements is generally to consider its group, period and electronic structure. The difference between a novice and an expert is that the expert will have internalised this information about the most common elements.

What an amazing resource the Periodic Table is! Just by knowing where an element is positioned, you can deduce so much about it. So in memorising the Periodic Table, they have an increased familiarity with the characteristics of the elements within it.

Novices, experts and making links explicit

But this is not the end of the story. Scientists don’t just know stuff, they also do stuff. And they apply stuff: they do stuff with the stuff. But the best scientists make links between the stuff, because they understand the underlying concepts and principles behind the stuff they have learned.

This is the thinking behind Johnstone’s triangle: once you have understood the sub-microscopic and symbolic aspects of an observable (macroscopic) phenomenon, it’s much easier to make the links between other, apparently unrelated, phenomena.

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We have to remember that “as teachers we are the experts in the topics we are teaching. Many key details and relationships that seem obvious to us are simply not obvious to students… While an example may seem obviously related to what you are discussing in class… keep in mind that most novices will focus on the surface details and may miss the structural details you are trying to highlight.” (5 Teaching and Learning Myths – Debunked).

I have written before about how the links between ionic processes are obvious to me, as an expert, but students tend to focus on the macroscopic details.

So, whereas they might see:

  • beautiful blue crystals that dissolve in water to form a blue liquid
  • a black rod “going red” when dipped in this blue liquid, and connected to a power pack

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I need to make sure they understand:

  • beautiful blue crystals that dissolve in water to form a blue liquid
  • the ions that made up the crystals are still there in solution, but they’re solvated. They’re still charged. The copper ions can be represented as Cu2+.
  • a black rod “going red” when dipped in this blue liquid, and connected to a power pack
  • the ions that made up the original crystals are still there in solution, but they’re solvated. They’re still charged. The copper ions can be represented as Cu2+. Because they’re positively charged, they’re attracted to the negatively charged graphite electrode, if we apply a voltage across the solution. The copper ions, which can be represented as Cu2+, gain electrons, and form copper metal.

 Even better if I consider in my planning:

  • beautiful blue crystals that dissolve in water to form a blue liquid
  • Before I introduce electrolysis of copper sulphate solution, I’ll remind my students of the properties of ionic compounds, including solubility and electrical conductivity. I’ll remind them about lattices, including ionic lattices and metallic lattices. I’ll make sure they remember what colour copper metal is, and why metal ions have a positive charge. I’ll remind them that electrical current is a flow of charge, and doesn’t have to involve electrons flowing in a metal wire….

We have to make the links for our students at first, so that they’re able to make the links themselves later. When designing curricula, we need to know which are the most important concepts , and we need to ensure that there are sufficient opportunities for students to explore these ideas and make connections between them. But we also need to build in time to guide them in making these links and to be explicit in our teaching of them.

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Curriculum design with memory in mind

So what does this mean in practice? How can traditional curriculum designs support long-term learning and deeper understanding?

A spiral curriculum allows for repetition and spaced practice, both of which support long-term retention. But if mastery isn’t achieved during the earlier stages, you might see only superficial progress later. And if the curriculum is not planned carefully, with spaced practice and retrieval specifically embedded, it can lead to topics simply being re-taught again and again, rather than being developed to support long-term retention.


A mastery curriculum has, at its heart, an understanding that breakthroughs in understanding and application seldom happen immediately. But the higher “success rate” comes at a cost: students necessarily move at a slower rate, which is at odds with the common context of regular high-stakes assessment (and linked accountability).


But it’s not always within the gift of classroom teachers to pull their curriculum apart and re-work it, so how can they shape and tweak what they’re given, to ensure that they support deeper understanding and retention?

Firstly, they can spend more time focussing on fundamental ideas and key concepts, rather than simply rushing through and trying to “cover everything”. Threshold Concepts can provide a useful framework for this kind of curriculum planning. Identify common misconceptions, then to use low-stakes assessments that specifically test understanding of them. Encourage students to be patient during inevitable periods of uncertainty, and reassure them that it’s normal not to understand everything immediately. But, most importantly, re-visit these fundamental conceptual ideas repeatedly, using a variety of contexts and question types. These are your foundation stones that deserve a greater proportion of curriculum time.

Another simple approach for a classroom teacher with no curriculum influence is simply to build in regular retrieval practice or cumulative testing. Whether or not you have direct control over the content of tests, there’s probably nothing to stop you sticking a couple of extra questions at the end, and gradually building up the content that students will need to revise for successive tests. Or if this isn’t possible, just build in lagged homeworks (from previous topics), as you move through the year.

What’s the point?

As a teacher, I want my students to enjoy science and to use what they’ve learned to influence others and solve problems. But I understand that, if they’re going to do all this, they also need to remember what I’ve taught them! So however thorough our curriculum may be, we must also build it with memory (and retention) in mind.