Brain-friendly Teaching in Practice: Nick Bilbrough Introduces Memory Activities for Language Learning

Memory, or rather its quirks and limitations, in language education is sometimes like the weather in that old joke: everyone talks about it but no one does anything about it. Yet memory limitations affect every aspect of what we as teachers and programs are trying to do. In the last few years, “brain-friendly” teaching, “brain-targeted” teaching and “neuroscience-informed” teaching have all been tossed around. In this blog, I’ve covered several books that deal with this (here, here, and here, for example). There are programs and resource sites like the Neuro Education Initiative at John Hopkins University, The NeuroLeadership Institute (associated with author  David Rock), USC’s Brain and Creativity Institute,  Harvard’s Mind / Brain / Behavior initiative, and an Annenberg Learner Resource called Neuroscience and the Classroom.  But none of these are by or for language teachers specifically. I’m sure there are  teachers who putting all this new knowledge to good practical use in the classroom, and I’m equally sure that much of what is being sold as “brain friendly” is what has always been done by good teachers anyway. But if you visit a lot of language classrooms, you might be amazed at how brain unfriendly some are.

In my job as a teacher trainer, I just don’t see all that many approaches and activities that show an appreciation for the finickiness of human memory. There are, as I see it, two possible reasons for this. One–a failure to take note of the mountain of research and how it sometimes screams out the need for pedagogical change–I would like to lay squarely at the feet of language teachers and language teaching programs. The other–a general lack of published materials and accepted classroom techniques–has and continues to be a problem; but Nick Bilbrough’s 2011 book Memory Activities for Classroom Learning begins to correct this problem. Much of what has worked in language classrooms over the years has done so because it has been sensitive to the cognitive limitations of learners and has leveraged the affective and social elements of content and classrooms. What is needed is a new lens, a new way of interpreting  successful activities that will inform the selection of activities in a task sequence or syllabus. That’s what this book does.


Memory research has advanced greatly in the past few years and Mr. Bilbrough does a good job of summing up and presenting what you need to know in short executive summaries at the beginning of each unit. If you don’t know why Ebbinghaus, or Craik & Lockhart, or Sweller are important for  your job, or  if the terms phonological loop, visio-spatial sketchpad, and episodic buffer don’t mean much to you, this book will provide a good introduction. And if you are familiar with all these, you’ll find the way Mr. Bilbrough turns this theory into actual classroom activities very interesting. It is my belief that even if you don’t use any of the ready-made activities directly from the book (most of which are very well-chosen by the way), your perspective on your own approach in your classes will change. Because once we start to think of why some things are better held in working memory or why some things are more likely to be stored in long-term memory, we’ll naturally feel the need to adjust our explanations, our pace and timing and selection of activities. Learners and teachers both want variety in lessons; but they both also want to see learning happening. This book will help you understand and apply some ideas for making things easier for learners to remember, which means easier to learn.

I think Mr. Bilbrough has done a very nice job identifying the key points connected to memory and how it affects the learner and the classroom. If you look at his unit headings, I think you will agree. There is enough flexibility here in the topics covered to meet the needs of teachers who are wedded to textbooks and those who use a more Dogme-ish approach.

  1. Mental Stretching
  2. Making Language Memorable
  3. Retrieving
  4. Repeating and Reactivating
  5. Memory Techniques and Mnemonics
  6. Learning By Heart
  7. Memory Games

This book is a nice start. I think that Cambridge may want to revisit many of the wonderful old books in the Handbooks for Language Teachers series and reorganize some of the content in line with more recent research and pedagogy. Books on affect , arts integration, skill mastery and transfer,  learning environments, challenge, fun, formative assessment, etc. are all needed. But for the time being, Memory Activities for Language Learning is a step in the right direction. And if I may be permitted to expand on my suggestion a little, a little more attention to relevant research would be a good idea, I think. One problem with this book is its sporadic use of citations. Some areas provide good references, others are devoid of references, and at least one reference is kind of puzzling. I love Chip and Dan Heath’s books, but calling them “educational psychologists” gives them more academic gravitas than they warrant. Teachers who are interested in finding out more about research and findings in memory will get precious little help from this volume beyond those good unit introductions to the basics, I’m afraid. The choice of online resources is also disappointingly limited.

But these criticisms are very minor. I highly recommend this book. Every language teacher should read the chapter intros and browse through the extensive list of suggested activities.

A year ago I wrote this post on working memory that you may find interesting if you are looking to further explore the topic of memory and learning.


Making Teaching and Learning More Effective: Julie Dirksen’s Design For How People Learn

This wonderful book by Julie Dirksen (New Riders, 2012) manages to do something that is very difficult: it is compact yet comprehensive, and it takes some fairly difficult topics and makes them clear and memorable. It is aimed at online instructional designers, but only in the most general way. It is a book about human learning–goals, gaps, memory, attention, skills, motivation, and environmental considerations–and it organizes and explains those topics in a way that will entertain you, refresh your memory, and help you to put knowledge to effective use, whether you are going to apply that knowledge or explain it to others. It covers the basics, but I’m pretty confident in saying that it has just the right level of detail to appeal to almost any educator. Even seasoned instructional designers will find something for them in it. Different people will enjoy it for different but overlapping reasons: for it’s readability, for its “stickiness“, for its concise explanations.

I teach EFL teachers, or at least I try to, and I often find myself trying to distill research findings in such manner that our session participants can “see” it. That is, I want the teachers who come to our sessions to understand the concepts and recognize how they work in a class. Ms. Dirksen’s book does that brilliantly well. She has a genius–yes, genius–for explaining things and I am going to borrow some of her metaphors for upcoming training sessions this year. At the end of each chapter there is a Summary section, as there is with other books. But here, instead of working my way through the list trying to recall the various points, I found myself jumping from point to point–check, got it, check, check, check, got’em. I could mentally have written the points myself, that’s how well they had stuck with me. There is a lot of Kathy Sierra (Creating Passionate Users blog) in this book and in Ms. Dirksen’s approach, something that she clearly acknowledges, and that is not a criticism. (If you like her blog posts, you’re pretty likely to enjoy this book. And if you have never visited her blog, go take a look).

If I ran the circus, I would make this book mandatory for all teachers. At this point in time, I do believe there is not a better summary of current understanding of the psychology of learning as it applies to teaching situations. Do yourself a favor and get this book. I promise you won’t be sorry. Ms. Dirksen’s blog is also very good, and she is a very dependable Twitterer. In the world of educational design, she’s a good person to have in your corner.

Make Yourself Smarter?

An article in the New York Times on the weekend called Can You Make Yourself Smarter?, mentioned the double n-back training that is being done to increase working memory (formerly known as short-term memory–Susan Gathercole can fill you in if you need an update on working memory). It’s a little long, but quite interesting, and a little controversial, too, it seems, as I found when I visited Larry Ferlazzo’s ESL/EFL Website of the Day blog, where he had posted his comments on this article (which he didn’t like) and another on exercise and the brain (which he did like–link below). I had stumbled across the double n-back a few months ago when I was doing a little research into working memory and the phonological loop, even trying the online version, which I recommend before you read the Times article or Larry Ferlazzo’s critique of it, or even before you read any further into this post.

Here it is, at a site somewhat appropriately labelled Soak Your Head. Go ahead, give it a try. I’ll wait……….

The Times article is more balanced than Mr Ferlazzo’s comments lead you to believe. The author, Dan Hurley (currently writing a book on intelligence, BTW), reports mostly on the finding of Susanne Jaeggi and Martin Buschkuehl, now at the University of Maryland, in a paper from 2008. They used the double n-back system to train people to improve their working memory and found improvements in their fluid intelligence as well. The claim that you can improve performance on a specific memory task doing it 25 minutes a day for between 12 to 17 weeks is not controversial. The claim that you can improve general working memory across the board is somewhat controversial. The claim that you can improve intelligence–reasoning, abstract thought, problem-solving intelligence–well, that causes a lot of controversy (see Randall Engle’s Attention and Working Memory Lab site for a truckload of blowback).

Many people agree that working memory capacity, especially phonological loop capacity, is critical to good performance at school, particularly for foreign language learning (see some of the many articles by Gathercole). But whether sitting at a computer screen for 25 minutes a day for what amounts to a semester of colored square and audio letter memory practice in increasing levels of difficulty (remember the last one; remember the one before the last one; remember the one 3 stimuli back) can help you, is questionable. It might help your working memory, but it is without doubt the closest thing to torture that I have ever seen in education. A person might elect to do it themselves, but I would not want to be responsible for imposing it on people, particularly at this time when researchers are finding different things.

But in Chicago they are doing it in a school system. And Torkel Klingberg, who invented the technique that  later modified and did their experiments with, well, he formed a learning company and later sold it to Pearson Education. And all sorts of other researchers are moving ahead with similar projects to stretch working memory and improve intelligence. A lot of people apparently see something there… A lot of people also like the work done by Jaeggi and Buschkuehl, according to the article. They just seem to want to move in a slower and less grandiose way forward I guess.

One researcher mentioned in the article, Adrian Owen, is quoted as saying the following after his attempts to replicate J and B’s study:

No evidence was found for transfer to untrained tasks, even when those tasks were cognitively closely related”

Yup, it’s the transfer problem again. You learn what you do in the way that you do it. I can think of a lot of other things I would rather my students be doing for 25 intensely focused minutes per day for 17 weeks. But I have to admit, I really wouldn’t mind if they went home and instead of playing Temple Run for two hours, they played for one and a half hours after they spent half and hour “exercising” their working memories. Or better yet, do aerobics for half and hour, stretch working memory with the double n-back for half an hour, and then run in the game like a madman for the last hour, with malignant demonic monkeys forever hot on your heels.

Jan. 2014 Update: Here is a Guardian article on the same topic. It covers some of the same ground (gaming, computer-based brain training), but also electrical stimulation of the brain, specifically the headset. The article ends with advice to take Andrea Kuszewski’s advice and just try to challenge yourself more.

June 2017 Update: This study found no effect when training adults. Here is the reference: Clark CM, Lawlor-Savage L, Goghari VM (2017) Working memory training in healthy young adults: Support for the null from a randomized comparison to active and passive control groups. PLoS ONE 12(5): e0177707.



Labs for Learning

One of the great things about the convergence of higher education and the Internet is the existence of websites for labs. Below are some that are great for teachers trying to stay up to date with recent research. Many thanks to the generous people who make their research available this way.

The Mindalab at the University of Western Ontario does research on categorization, learning, and affect that I have found both fascinating and useful.

The Brain and Creativity Institute as USC is where you can find work by Antonio Damasio and Mary Helen Immordino-Yang and other very bright and readable researchers.

The Approach-Avoidance Motivation Research Group at the University of Rochester has some interesting research on motivation and cultural differences.

The Dynamic Development Lab at Harvard headed by Kurt Fischer has lots of great content that can impact teaching practices.

Investigative Journalism on Memory: Joshua Foer Goes Moonwalking With Einstein

As just another aging baby boomer with a dementia-distorted parent and a career in language education and a propensity to misplace items on mental shopping lists, interest, awe, and fear of memory are never far from the tip of my tongue. I have thought about it, read about it, and studied it. But Joshua Foer’s book–squarely aimed at that large group of memorywarts like me–includes a dollop of how-to to in a book that is part narrative and part meander through a palace of memory.

As a recent graduate and an aspiring science writer, young Mr. Foer covered the World Memory Championships and the American Memory Championships and, being convinced by the participants themselves that there is more learnable technique than anything else, decided to give it a go. His account of his introduction to competitive memory and his training for the US Memory Championship that he eventually wins provides the  narrative structure for the book. Along the way, however, he slides in asides related to memory–the importance of knowing facts in learning, expertise training, an introduction to memory misfits, etc. Most of these will not be new to most readers I suspect. But they are interesting enough and there are enough nuggets  to be found along the way that as a refresher course in introductory memory and a collection of memory-related magazine articles they are pleasant enough. His journalistic style makes the content easier to read and remember than Baddeley. He also goes into detail on how to use the method of loci and some of the techniques used by memory champs to do amazing things. Readers can decide how far they want to go in trying some of the techniques–a few can be done with the book closed on your lap for a bit, but some will require serious effort and practice–but this is a book that encourages you to try these things out for yourself.

Reading the book won’t improve your memory; it will put memory in perspective for you, though. And it will start you off with some powerful techniques that you can use to practice your way to improvement–not for everything, but for some things–and for me that was worth the price of admission.

But if you are just after the techniques for improving memory, there are print and web resources galore. The techniques everyone uses have mostly been around since the Middle Ages and it seems literally hundreds of people are making a living off  re-packaging them. Do a quick web search on the method of loci to find out as much as many “experts” know in a very short time. Foer is set apart by the fact that he has a science background and is a relatively good writer, but there are dozens of similar books on the market, most of which are probably extremely similar. One interesting and comprehensive  website I did find is by Fiona McPhersona, a memory expert (author/researcher) with an strong interest in practical application. It  is called Mempowered. It covers both the mechanisms of memory and techniques for improvement. And there is something here for all memory hopes and worries.