Tony Gurr

How to make LEARNing ‘stick’…

In Book Reviews, Guest BLOGGERS, Our Schools, Our Universities, The Paradigm Debate on 18/11/2011 at 11:36 am

With all the hoopla and hullabaloo surrounding the EduBlogs Awards, I almost forgot I was in the middle of a series of guest-posts from Andrew Churches, Lee Crockett and Ian Jukes. 

This one is #5 in the series – and follows on from Getting FLUENT with the 5 FLUENCIES… – in it the “boys” discuss what really matters in a 21st Century LEARNing Environment.


There’s an old saying you might’ve heard: “I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.” There is a lot of truth in this statement. In fact, there are decades of research telling us that what we are doing in education isn’t working.

Talking at and teaching at students is not effective.

Only learning that has meaning sticks. Only teaching that is relevant to the learner is effective. This is called Velcro learning. A learner must be able to connect to what is being taught. Otherwise, the learning is like one side of Velcro: it just doesn’t stick. Let’s talk about what we know does work and how we can shift our instructional approach to create a 21st-century learning environment.

We know for certain that for students to remember and internalize information, they must move it from their short-term (working) memory to their permanent memory.

For this to happen, four things are required.


1. Make It Sticky

The new information must connect to something the learner already knows and has already made meaning of. If the connection isn’t there, the learner has to make one on the spot. Unless a connection is made, new content stays in working memory for only a few seconds. This is the difference between rote learning and meaningful learning.

Writer Eric Jensen says that we discard 98% of everything that comes into our brains.

  • Have you ever been introduced to someone and instantly forgotten his or her name?
  • Have you ever given your students a test on something and had them do really well, only to give them another test on the same material two weeks later and find it’s as if they’ve never heard of the material before?

If the information is not meaningful to the learner, regardless of whether it’s meaningful to the teacher, it will be quickly be discarded by the learner’s brain. I want to restate that, because it is constantly forgotten by teachers: If the information is not meaningful, in other words relevant, to the learner, learning will not occur.

It makes no difference if it’s interesting, meaningful, or relevant to the teacher. It must be relevant to the student.


2. Draw From the Past

The second element is that new information must connect to previous knowledge and previous experiences. In other words, what students bring with them into the classroom determines not only what they’ll learn but also if they’ll learn.


3. Repeat, Repeat, Repeat

Learners have to be given differentiated learning opportunities that are repeatedly distributed over extended periods of time. If students don’t understand something the first time around, you can’t just walk up close and start talking to them more slowly and loudly and expect that method to work any better. Because learning doesn’t usually stick the first time, students need multiple opportunities and a variety of experiences that provide both the time and the context for the ideas to be internalized.


4. Give Positive Feedback—Frequently

Students must be provided with consistent, positive feedback. They need to have their efforts reinforced regularly and meaningfully.

According to a top video game developer, video games are designed so that game players are asked to make a critical decision about every one-half to one second and are positively reinforced or rewarded for those decisions every seven to 12 seconds.

In contrast, according to a recent research study, students on average receive positive reinforcement in the classroom only about once every 12 hours. Quality, formative feedback and positive reinforcement give learners what they need to better retain information. Students need to know that what they’re doing is right, and then they need positive suggestions on how they can improve their performance.

If teachers do these four things consistently, research tells us, measurable learning will take place.


On a recent trip to Japan to visit his family, Lee took his 11-yearold niece, Anna, to the aquarium in her hometown. There was a huge shallow tank that all of the kids had their hands in. All over their hands were hundreds of garra rufa fish, also known as doctor fish.

These fish are found in river basins the Middle East and also live and breed in some outdoor pools in spas in Turkey. They feed on dead skin cells, and since they will only eat infected or dead areas, leaving the healthy skin to grow, they are used to help treat patients suffering from various skin disorders, such as psoriasis and eczema. Doctor fish spas have opened in Japan and dozens of countries around the world, including the United States.

Anna was curious about these fish, and the staff at the aquarium explained everything I’ve just told you. They also recounted that Cleopatra used to bathe with doctor fish to keep her skin beautiful. Suddenly, for Anna, a door was opened to inquire about geography, ancient Egypt, ancient Rome, and so much more. Why? Because these subjects are interesting to Lee? Because they’re in the curriculum guide?

No; because there was a real-world connection that brought relevance to the learning.


For LEARNing to occur, there must be relevance, not to the teacher, but to the learner. So the first component of the 21st-century learning environment is relevance.

As teachers, we all know that we start to see significant retention when we move to active receiving. For example, participating in a discussion involves thinking about the information and forming an opinion or question. Comparing, contrasting, and evaluating are all necessary for participation, and overall higher-order thinking skills are used.

The most dramatic results come from simulating a real experience. Actually doing the real thing, or teaching it to another person, increases retention by as much as 90 percent. The information learned through this method sticks. In short, for learning to happen, as we have said before, there must be relevance in context for the learner.

Again, don’t get hung up on the actual numbers. All the studies show that we remember very little of what we read and a whole lot of what we do. The argument that process- and problem-based learning takes too long just doesn’t stand. In light of this research, which is more effective? Reading and lecturing or creating a real-world simulation?

Students are much more engaged when given the opportunity to do, to participate, and to create. Engagement means being involved or engaged in the process, and students need to be allowed to participate in and not be passive recipients of their education.

In every classroom and in every district where change is needed, teachers and students must make the shift. The switch to process- and problem-based learning can be uncomfortable at first, and it will take time to make this transition, but the payoffs outweigh the difficulties for both teacher and student.

Consider this: When students are engaged, there are fewer discipline problems. When students are allowed to create real-world products to demonstrate their understanding of the content, and the teacher is wise enough to pose problems and get out of the way to let the learning happen, those students amaze the teacher with what they’re capable of doing. Teachers in turn are excited about coming to school every day, because they can’t wait to see what they’re going to learn from their students.


The third component of the 21st-century learning environment is real world.


In a 21st-century learning environment, students use higher-level thinking to create realworld products as solutions to relevant real-world problems.

  • Do you enjoy being lectured at all the time?
  • When you were a student, did you enjoy having your teacher talk at you all the time?

Now in the same breath, let’s be absolutely clear: there most certainly IS a time and place for “telling” – for full-frontal lecturing. It can be very useful when a lot of content has to be delivered quickly – we just can’t do it all the time.

We need to shift our instruction from the traditional and predominantly full-frontal lecturing model to more of an emphasis on discovery learning. This method generates interest and therefore the relevance that is critical to learning.


Think about a scary action movie. Watching as the actors narrowly escape certain death and listening to the music creates a suspenseful atmosphere that keeps you on the edge of your seat as you wonder what’s coming next. The experience is indelibly etched in your mind.

But what if just before the movie began, someone told you what was going to happen, and that all of the actors make it through without a scratch? Or what if the people next to you talked to you throughout the movie, telling you what was going to happen next? It would rob you of the experience of finding these things out for yourself, because it would remove the elements of wonder and surprise. That’s the problem created when we tell students what they need to know all or most of the time: It takes the excitement of discovery out of learning.


When students learn the material for themselves, it becomes their learning, not our teaching, and because it is their learning, they own it. They will remember it, they will be able to apply it, and they will be able to use it as the foundation for new learning and creating.


This guest-post is adapted from Chapter 10 of Ian, Andrew and Lee’s new book Literacy is NOT Enough. 

  1. I agree that literacy is not enough ,but breaking that kind of chain as a Turkish teacher is a bit hard as they are not grown up as autonomus learners until university years.
    I also would like to say that I like the way of your presentation via stories 🙂

  2. […] One last thing: a link to an interesting article about experiential learning, and a link to another article about 21st century learning. […]

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