The more we know about how information is encoded and then retrieved from our memories the more we can have faith in our teaching methods.

Teaching is a complex and incredibly difficult thing to do. Just look at how much discussion is generated by practically every single aspect of it, and how often these turn into heated debates. In the next 3 posts I will attempt to delineate my understanding behind existing pedagogical positions, positions that have certainly been mercurial over the past few years because new ideas about the encoding of information and how those encodings are retrieved have entered the mainstream. This new awareness of research into encoding, through its logic, makes for an ineluctable argument for teachers to carefully consider curriculum design more than ever before.

The more we know about how information is encoded and then retrieved from our memories the more we can have faith in our teaching methods. I will posit in the next 3 posts that there are 3 central aspects related to encoding and retrieval that should occupy every teacher’s mind: Engagement, episodic memory and semantic memory.



An important chiasmus: learning can’t happen without engagement, but engagement doesn’t automatically imply learning.

Learning can’t take place unless a student is engaged in some way with the content. It’s simply impossible – like being asked to give details about an event that you weren’t at. With this ostensibly modern epiphany, the notion of engagement then became education’s silver bullet, the antidote to traditional, stifling teaching that was diagnosed as the root cause of poor behaviour and poor academic performance. However, what constituted engagement became arguable, contentious and indeed polarising. 

Some educators took the term engagement to imply that students needed to be having fun, or that the curriculum needed to be less about the past and its outdated motivations for learning (the factory style model) and more comprehensively relevant to students’ lives. This deduction was then expanded to focus on skills that would be desirable for the future, a future conceptualised as an unknown that would demand adaptability and skills considered to be of the 21st century. Few could see the irony of criticising the past motivation and simply replacing it with another. For those who could, Ben Newmark mitigated and appeased the frustration in this excellent post about the purpose of learning, delineating the notion that learning is simply just good for the soul and needn’t have an extrinsic practical motivation.

In Deci, Jang and Reeve’s 2010 article, engagement is considered from two perspectives: STUDENT AND TEACHER PERCEPTIONS.

  • Students who felt their teacher was interested in their needs reported as being more engaged.
  • If they felt the teacher was interested in their success, they became more engaged behaviourally and emotionally.
  • Students who felt that their teacher was an expert in their field and knew what they were doing were more likely to be engaged in lessons.
  • Coercive engagement was not ideal but was still a form of engagement.
  • Teachers who thought students were engaged tended to give them more attention, and perpetuate a circle of engagement, but crucially, vice versa: teachers who thought students weren’t engaged gave less attention. 
  • Ideally a balance of structure and autonomy works best. If students felt they had some freedoms in what they were learning they self-reported as being engaged. (Further studies have provided a better understanding of this intellection and are discussed below)

Proponents of the 21st century model wanted to exploit this last notion of engagement being linked to autonomy, predominantly by placing the student at the centre of knowledge building as opposed to the teacher leading and directing the learning. The ‘guide on the side’ and ‘sage on the stage’ tropes became mantras. Technology found its niche as a conduit for such independent learning, and technology companies sprang up in the education environment, as ubiquitous forces, menacingly assertive, but inevitably pernicious in guise, inventing problems to suit solutions and dragging education into the competitive and lurid world of sales. Of course, not all technology companies were to be painted with the same brush, and not all acted so scrupulously. But while there have been many advances that have indeed made teaching and school administration easier, significant damage has been done.

A focus on independent autonomous learning also sprouted a strong constructivist approach to pedagogy, where students engaged in discovery or inquiry learning, predominantly through projects. Project based learning was designed to utilise the new understandings of what defined 21st century learning: an imperative on providing open-ended opportunities for students to develop skills that promoted independent adaptability above a range of other soft skills, such as cooperative learning, problem solving and creativity. The intention to create independent learners is admirable and understandable; few could argue with this aspiration, and when combined with visible student engagement, emanating from well-designed projects that appeal to students’ interests and usually involve a multiple sensory approach to learning, proponents of the practice appear validated.

Critics of the approach however, worry that teachers can be beguiled by levels of engagement and see them as proxies for learning. They cite research into working memory suggesting ‘inquiry’, ‘discovery’ or ‘constructivist’ learning is incompatible with the brain’s architecture, primarily because when a student searches for new knowledge (the chief characteristic of problem solving pedagogy) they effectively usurp the entire working memory capacity, rendering it physically impossible to problem solve at the same time. The push for engagement by passing over responsibility for instruction to the students places far too much stress on working memory, and then ironically becomes detrimental to learning. As discussed here, the number of interacting elements you need to process in working memory depends both upon the learning materials and the expertise of the learner. The distinction then between the expert and novice is critical in designing learning sequences.

Also of paramountcy in challenging the belief that engagement solely can be a proxy for learning is the research work done into storage strength and retrieval strength by Bjork, elucidated beautifully for the classroom context here by Joe Kirby. It is another aspect of encoding and retrieving that has significant implications for curriculum design, instructing teachers, and especially progress obsessed classroom observers not to ‘fall’ for the trap of assuming enthusiastic hard working students are doing any learning at all. Mark Enser brings to attention the notion that encoding of information and retrieving go hand in hand, and so whether the encoding is completed and indeed useful can really only be determined at a later stage in the learning process.  

It would seem apparent then that sequences that ignore the brain’s architecture potentially disadvantage all students but particularly those from backgrounds with low cultural capital, exacerbating the Matthew effect significantly. To determine your own position on how much autonomy versus structure you provide in your classroom it is vital that you learn as much as you can about the processes involved in the encoding and retrieval of information.          

And that takes us into the next section: episodic memory.

I’m Paul Moss. Follow me on Twitter @edmerger and follow this blog for more discussions about education and English teaching.

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