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Long term memory and lessons learned

  • Leadership
  • Schools
B Lightman
Brian Lightman 18 February, 2019

Long term memory and lessons learned

Early in my teaching career, a German exchange teacher who partnered with me annually asked the question: ‘Every time I come here you are rewriting your schemes of work and changing your textbooks. Why is this? The German language hasn’t changed.

The reasons of course are familiar to those of us who work in English schools. Ever since James Callaghan’s famous Ruskin College speech in 1976 the powers of Secretaries of State have been added to during each parliament.  Though there was undoubtedly too little accountability in those days the role has now changed beyond recognition and way beyond what is necessary. Whenever there is a change of government, Minister or Secretary of State, impact has to be demonstrated before the next election or reshuffle. Each Minister needs to be seen to make a distinctive or different impact.   Added to this, governments are rarely willing to admit that even the smallest part of predecessors’ policies had any merit.

Instead of having the kind of long-term plans we see in other jurisdictions around the world, our schools and colleges, their students and teachers are buffeted around in a whirlwind of constant reforms all too often characterised by an oppositional and often uninformed debate from which many teachers and school leaders all too easily feel disenfranchised. Some of those reforms are, at the very least, potentially highly worthwhile; some less so; but most never get the chance to embed properly so we will never know how effective they have been. As the next reform arrives, the previous ones are consigned to policy oblivion.  Reflecting on 40 years working in the British education system this was the reason behind the question mark in the title of my book ‘Lessons Learned?’

Our entire education system has been bedeviled by a lack of long-term memory for many years.

 Change is a good thing. No education system should stand still and all professionals need to be reflective, open to new ideas and restless in their striving to improve. Nevertheless, for change to have this renewing effect it must be allowed to embed. Failure to nurture developments in this way is akin to planting seeds and then neglecting them while the young seedlings are overpowered by weeds and dried out from a lack of light and water.


On the other hand the experiences of the past carry a wealth of opportunities, successes and mistakes from which we can learn.

In the pages of TES and in the world of social media there have been many lively discussions about approaches in the classroom that people have found helpful for our students. In recent months for example many wise words have been written about the importance of long-term memory in the learning process and a vast amount of work is taking place in schools to revisit the ways in which we attempt to interleave and embed knowledge. Some would highlight such developments as new. Others like me would urge for fresh new ideas to be informed by a respectful, objective and forward looking reference to what many experienced teachers and school leaders have known for many years is good practice. That way, without harking back to a golden age that never existed, we would be able to learn from that experience.  

Much of the discourse in education policy circles over recent years has been about myths. Although this has in many respects been very helpful, the conversation would have been so much richer if it had been informed by the reasons behind the origins of these myths.

National Curriculum Levels were designed to provide a summative assessment at the end of a key stage and were certainly never designed to judge single pieces of work or be broken down into sub-levels as a means of measuring progress. Much of that development was directly driven by government driven initiatives such as APP (Assessing Pupil Progress).

 The profession has been deskilled in assessment techniques and is only now beginning to re-learn the theory and practice of integrating effective formative and diagnostic assessment into the heart of teaching and learning. For years teachers have been required to rely on external assessment criteria and provide ‘evidence’ to those who hold them to account. Similarly the culture of lesson grading and detailed marking came from the inspection system. The need to provide ‘evidence’ for inspectors was not a myth.

Many of the developments that have been recognised as poor practice have been driven by the accountability system. Formative assessment was sacrificed on the altar of accountability amidst ever rising stakes for summative examinations and threshold measures on which schools were driven to focus by the published league tables. Teaching to the test and so-called ‘gaming’ was caused by this.

And we must share the blame. Sometimes schools have overreacted to these drivers. Often our reaction as a profession to the latest direction of policy is to jump on a bandwagon and build a new mantra. Because this is too often done in a rushed way, the interpretation and implementation is flawed. This is how assessment for learning went wrong, why the important ideas of Carol Dweck have sometimes been translated into simplistic approaches as opposed to the encouragement of an embedded culture and how the valuable findings of recent research into neuroscience were turned into ideas like ‘brain gym’ and simplistic and flawed implementation of learning styles. Instead of debating important professional matters properly and learning from the underlying causes of these problems, some of the discourse on social media is sadly polarised and discourteous. 

In the numerous schools I visit I continue to see levels of dedication and commitment based on a passion to do the very best for every child in their care and a strong vision of what that looks like. Staff at all levels are tirelessly self-critical, always seeking to do more and better. The last year has been incredibly tough. I hope that the new one will give our profession the space and courage to do what they know is right.

 Brian Lightman