Building Schema to Make it Stick

This is a guest post from Zoe Enser (@GreeboRunner), Director of Improvement and CPD at Seahaven Academy.

Building Schemas in the English Curriculum

‘But we did this last week!! How can you not remember?’

We hear ourselves say this with annoying regularity and the urge to sit and quietly sob at your desk almost can be almost overwhelming at the end of a long day, week or term.

This repeated cycle of ‘teach, learn, forget’, not quite as catchy as ‘mark, plan, teach’, has, at times, been the blight of my career and I know I’m not alone. From students who don’t remember who Banquo is, to students who steadfastly refuse to recall the dates of the second world war, to those who stubbornly reject the correct use of the past participle, we have all at times suffered under the gaze of that sea of blank faces that make us question what precisely we thought we were doing in the last lesson, last week or in fact our whole last scheme of work.

Organising schemas for retention

Recall and the retention of key facts is obviously an essential part of our teaching and we rightly spend a significant amount of time working on this. New research on knowledge retention in students from disadvantaged backgrounds is emerging which suggests that working and long term memory may be a significant issue for this group. This is something which is especially poignant for us. Therefore, we quiz, we test, we revise and we reteach, again and again, and frustratingly, again. However, something isn’t sticking, and I have been really wondering why for the last few years.

Nested knowledge – knowledge placed inside knowledge like a Russian doll

Oliver Caviglioni ( gave a talk at the Kent Research Ed conference before Christmas on cognitive load and building schemas. Nested knowledge, knowledge which is related to other knowledge, placed inside it rather like the parts of a Russian Doll, has the added bonus of being ‘sticky’. We are more likely to retain information which lives under a heading of ‘Everything I know about Dickens’, subheading ‘Everything I know about ‘A Christmas Carol’’, sub-sub-heading ‘Scrooge’, sub-sub-sub-heading ‘quotes and information’ than a disparate group of seeming unconnected topics scattered across our minds. This is of course seems obvious and we already make those groupings and links very clear to students under our topics, be that ‘Electromagnetism’ or ‘Urbanisation’. But if this is how the memory works at its best, ensuring knowledge is more clearly categorised so therefore easier to retrieve and apply, then perhaps this is something we could capitalise on further when we are planning learning.

For example, in English our Year 10 GCSE begins with a study of ‘An Inspector Calls’. The plot is relatively straightforward; the characters are very explicit archetypes which allows students to clearly see the writer’s intent and it combines a number of genres to explore. This text is a good starting point as students can build on these ideas further when we look at morality in ‘Christmas Carol’ and ‘Macbeth’, and explore the intertextuality between Dickens and Priestley, with their ideas about the didactic nature of Literature. We can even examine elements of the Gothic in relation to ‘Inspector Goole’. The elements of duality of human nature complement each other beautifully in ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ and ‘Macbeth, and the repression and oppression of desires crosses over in both texts too.

Seeing the bigger picture

I have always made these links explicit in my teaching over the years, but, when considering issues with recall and the long term memory over the last year, I have become mindful about emphasising these further. Every time I revisit ‘An Inspector Calls’ because ‘Isn’t this just the same attitude we saw in Mr Birling’ whilst teaching ‘A Christmas Carol’ I am embedding something more in the pupil’s schemas. Connections are being made as recall happens with a regularity that weekly testing just wouldn’t be able to do. The bigger picture is emerging as more and more information relating to the original topic ‘sticks’ to what they already know, thereby strengthening their ability to retain knowledge and therefore apply it. I simultaneously no longer see the learning happening in my lesson as being about the one text, but more about the body of knowledge they are acquiring which happens to be focusing on one area at the moment. Thinking about their retention of knowledge has changed my thinking too.

Initial responses from my Year 10 seem promising, with even some of the weakest pupils showing greater confidence in tackling exam questions than I have ever seen before at this stage of the course. It’s not perfect, we still have a long way to go in refining their responses and ensuring we are accessing the most relevant knowledge, but seeing them writing continuously for an hour, with relatively few scaffolds still in place, is exciting.

And of course their journey didn’t start in Year 10. We have had years of schemas to build upon. Key Stage Three provides the foundations for these schemas and this is most definitely the next part of the puzzle. If we can tackle embedding those key concepts in Year 7 then those issues with have with retention could well begin to be a thing of the past.

Further reading:

5 thoughts on “Building Schema to Make it Stick

  1. This is what my colleague and I are working on here in California. We’re being much more intentional about spaced practice, compressing/chunking knowledge together to build schemas for ease of access, and helping students develop heuristics/procedural knowledge for when to deploy their developing skills.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Really interesting to see how you are putting these ideas into practice; thanks for sharing. I think the foundations for these schemas will form much earlier than KS3 – might be worth looking at the primary history curriculum, e.g. Victorians, industrial revolution.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: Teaching with a Knowledge Organiser: retrieving knowledge, making connections, applying it in practice – How then should we teach?

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