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Learning at Thornden School

Over the last few years there has been an increased understanding about how the brain works and how we learn. If you as a student at Thornden School have an awareness of this, then you will understand and engage more effectively with the learning strategies that your teachers promote in lessons and regarding your home learning. This will help you to improve your learning and feel more confident. The reason that you learn so many different subjects at Thornden is so that you continually improve your understanding of the world around you. With more knowledge you will have a better understanding of the world. With a better understanding of the world you will make better decisions and take more successful actions in your life.

Learning and the brain:

The first thing to understand is that learning changes your brain. This is called ‘neuroplasticity’. When you learn new knowledge and skills new connections are made between the neurones (specialised cells) in the brain. The more that you practice the new knowledge / skill then the stronger these connections become.

Learning involves both your working memory (WM) and your long term memory (LTM). Your LTM is a bit like a map representing your understanding of the world.  Each day your LTM gets upgraded as you learn new knowledge. One reason you come to school is to improve your LTM in terms of its depth of knowledge and durability. Essentially your LTM in infinite in terms of the information that it can store. Understanding is actually memory in disguise. This means that if you are able to explain something clearly and accurately you are essentially pulling out knowledge from your LTM.

Your WM is the thinking part of the brain that is involved in problem solving. It is a bit like the pencil that draws the map. When you think hard about something then new knowledge is passed from your WM into your LTM.

Learning and your long term memory:

When new knowledge enters your LTM, your brain processes it and organises it into different ‘folders’ (schema). These stores of knowledge in your LTM act a bit like hangers or Velcro for new learning to attach to. For example, in a maths lesson where you are learning about multiplying fractions, if you firstly review what you remember so far about fractions (numerators and denominators) then this will support you in learning the new knowledge. Throughout your five years at Thornden as you develop more expertise in each subject, your LTM will start to make links between the different ‘folders’ and you will start to have a deeper understanding of each subject. As this happens you will find that things start to make more sense!

Learning and your working memory:

Your WM is involved with thinking and problem solving. The problem with your WM is that it can only hold several new pieces of information at a time. It therefore relies on the knowledge in your LTM to support it. If this knowledge is lacking or has gaps then you can get overloaded and struggle with a task. So, when you are solving a problem in lessons, your WM starts to unpick the problem and draws on knowledge stored in your LTM to support it. The more knowledge that you have stored in your LTM, and the better the connections between the packages / folders of information, then the easier you will find it to solve specific problems.

How does this all relate to learning in the classroom or at home? Essentially, the better we think, the more we know. The more we know the better we think. What this means is that to get new knowledge into your LTM (and therefore upgrade your map / understanding of the world) you need to really think hard about it. This relies on you really concentrating and avoiding distraction. The more knowledge you have in your LTM then the better you will be at problem solving and thinking because there is more information available to support your WM with thinking.

So, in summary,  to learn something new you firstly really need to focus on it and avoid distractions. This involves thinking about it (using your WM) in order to transfer it to your LTM. This new learning will need to be regularly reinforced as your brain easily forgets things. You then need to regularly practice retrieving the knowledge from your LTM by regularly testing yourself (remembering).

How to learn effectively in the classroom and at home:

Based on the evidence from cognitive science there are several implications for you regarding how to learn effectively at Thornden School and at home. Following the strategies and advice below will support you in becoming an effective learner and to upgrade your LTM to make it as powerful as you can!

  • Arrive at your lessons prepared and on time: If you pack your bag the night before then you will arrive to your lessons with your book, home learning and equipment. This will enable you to focus your attention on learning, rather than using up your WM thinking and worrying about not being prepared for the lesson. If you arrive late to your lesson then you will probably find it difficult to understand what is going on and essentially ‘lose’ a lesson.
  • Focus in lessons and avoid distractions: There is a clear link between student engagement in lessons and student attainment. Every student at Thornden has the right to learn and the information above indeed emphasises the need to concentrate and think hard in order to learn. Mobile phones are a distraction and should therefore be turned off and in your bag during the day.
  • Get into good habits by planning the use of your time each week: If you plan to do something, the more likely you are to do it. By organising your week you will find that there is sufficient time to complete home learning tasks as well as to take part in extra-curricular and social activities. Getting into a regular routine regarding where and when you complete your home learning tasks will really help you.
  • Maximise opportunities to practice new learning: The more you practice something, the better you will become at it. It is therefore important to really optimise the use of time in lessons and at home to practice your new learning.
  • Think carefully about the strategy that you are going to use when give a task to do or a problem to solve: All too often students will focus on getting a task done rather than thinking carefully about the strategy they will use to complete the task. Before attempting a task, plan how you will go about it and then evaluate how successful the strategies you used were.
  • Review your previous learning regularly: Learning is a change in your long term memory. To learn something new it is helpful to ‘activate’ the knowledge already in your LTM that links to the new learning. This is why your teachers will regularly ask you questions about your learning in previous lessons at the start of a lesson. This prior learning or knowledge in your LTM acts a bit like a hanger or Velcro for the new learning to attach to.
  • Use the six effective learning strategies from that are in your planners and will be modelled to you by your teachers, tutors and in assemblies over your five years at Thornden. These are spaced practice, retrieval practice, elaboration, interleaving, concrete examples and dual coding.