How to Teach ‘Topic’ as if Memory Mattered

Why I’m creating a new scheme of work for our foundation subjects.

How many primary schools could sum up their approach to foundation subjects using this quote from Clare Sealy?

If the national curriculum said to teach Y4 the Aztecs, we’d teach it. Whether they remembered anything about the Aztecs by the time they got to Y5 was not something that had ever, in my wildest dreams, occurred to me.

It inspired me to write this short article for Teach Primary about the importance of getting lesson content into children’s long term memory, and now I’m trying to put my money where my mouth is.

I’ve started writing a scheme of work (this still doesn’t feel like the right term, but anyhow…) for primary history and would love some feedback before going any further.

Here’s a very quick look at the principles behind it (free download below for those who want a sneak peek):

1. I ❤️ Whole-Class Reading

Each ‘chapter’ in my scheme of work begins with a short, one-page text — designed to be read and unpicked like any other passage in guided reading. I’ve written a blog about my approach to whole-class guided reading here.

2. Small Steps 👣

Knowledge is sequenced in small, digestible steps to reduce cognitive load. I don’t want to be too prescriptive about how to use it, but I am imagining that each ‘chapter’ and its accompanying resources get used over one week.

3. Storify 📚

I want the scheme to have a clear narrative thread. The cognitive psychologist Dan Willingham has written a great piece on the potential power of narrative to help students understand and remember complex subject matter here.

4. Retrieval Practice 💭

Each chapter will come with quizzes, summaries and visual prompts to help children practise retrieval from long term memory. These resources should not only be used in the first lesson, but in the subsequent weeks and months too. Here’s a great (free) poster about retrieval practice from the Learning Scientists. Uploading the quizzes to a platform like Socrative could give you helpful data about who knows what in your class over time.

5. Dual Coding 👨‍🎨

I still have a lot to learn about this, but I’ve tried to include visual prompts with each chapter which can potentially be used in a myriad of ways e.g. to display while children listen to a passage from the text, as cue cards for verbal summaries or as part of a quiz.

6. A ‘Wealth of Words’ 💬

I was inspired (and persuaded) by Alex Quigley’s excellent talk at researchEd on the importance of vocabulary and how we need to ‘recalibrate our teaching and better help children to crack the academic code.’ I’ve tried to embed new vocabulary in as clear a context as possible.

7. A Means, Not An End! 🎒

In NO WAY is my scheme designed as a script to be stuck to, or the entire content of a lesson. I’m writing it as a kind of ‘long term memory insurance policy’ in the hope that whatever incredible experiences people build into their history lessons, there is a core of knowledge that can be retained in long-term memory for as long as possible afterwards. What the knowledge should be and who decides it is a topic of hot debate and always will be (great blog from Simon Smith on this here).

I suppose my advice would be if you don’t like it, create a better one!

Sneak Peek:

A PDF of the first chapter available to download below. Let me know what you think!

Download for free here