‘Learning First, not Teaching First’: Creating the Link Between Research & Teaching in Practice, and the Crucial Role of Memory, with Cognitive Science Expert, Sarah Cottingham: Podcast Transcript

​​Ludo Millar
Hello, and welcome to the Qualified Tutor Podcast, the podcast that brings you the latest in the world of tutoring EdTech and education and hopefully inspires in us a big change that each and every one of us is capable of.

Qualified Tutor is an industry-leading tutor training organisation and an online tutoring community for 1000s of tutors around the world. This podcast is the voice of this community, where we aim to hear from tutors, teachers, entrepreneurs, coaches, business experts, students, tutor printers, and more from the world of tutoring about what inspires them every day, how they can help tutors like you and what they’ve learned about tutoring along the way.

The question is, what will you learn today?

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Ludo Millar 1:40
Hello, and welcome listeners to the 137th episode of the Qualified Tutor Podcast. My name is Ludo Millar, the host of this podcast. Welcome back to regular listeners. Welcome to any of you for whom this is your first time listening to the Qualified Tutor Podcast and a very warm welcome to our guest today, Sarah Cottingham. Sarah, welcome to the podcast.

Sarah Cottingham 2:53
Hi, thank you so much for having me.

Ludo Millar 2:55
It’s continuing on the theme of- this was a recommendation for a guest given by Arthur, who recommended Bradley who then recommended you, Sarah. So there’s a really rich vein of similar topics over the last few weeks, which I’m really, really loving. So I gather you know Bradley fairly well, which hopefully won’t mean too much repetition of ideas and more, a continuation of great ideas.

But for any of you listeners who haven’t come across Sarah before, just as a little background, so you know where we’re coming from today. Sarah has a background in educational neuroscience, and after a very successful stint as an Assistant Director at Explore Learning, Teach First came calling in 2012, which is where Sarah trained, going on to become an English teacher. And then from there, Sarah moved up to being a Development Lead at Teach First, which involves training new teachers in their craft, and kind of after leaving that, Sarah went on to become a Teacher Educator and Associate Dean at Ambition Institute where Sarah is now, which involves designing the the NPQs, the National Professional Qualifications, which help teachers really become the best teachers they can be and leaders to become the best leaders they can be, I guess, is a good way of putting it. They’re a wonderful set of qualifications. And really, alongside all of this, Sarah supports schools and businesses by improving their understanding of psychology and education, which is a bit more of the topic of conversation that we’re hoping to have today, and really how that psychology can best be implemented in working with children.

So, a really rich and storied career and Sarah, I’m very, very glad that you’re here with us today. Sarah, I’d love to start by asking: what’s giving you reason to smile today? Tuesday 25th October?

Sarah Cottingham 5:04
Well, I’m just really happy to be here and happy to talk to you about these things and also to learn a bit more about your world as well, Ludo and tutoring, which is not a world that I’ve kind of stepped into. Although, of course, there’s massive overlap, isn’t there, between thinking about how teachers teach in the classroom and how tutors tutor. So it’s going to be interesting to hear your questions and to get stuck into that. So that’s what’s got this smile on my face today.

Ludo Millar 5:35
Oh, thank you. That’s very kind. Now, regular listeners will know that we like to open up the conversation to begin with by looking back at those school days of our guests. And while I gather locating actual school reports might have been just a stretch too far, you did have some amusing tales about your school days or actually about your partner’s school days. Is that right?

Sarah Cottingham 6:03
Yeah. When you talked about school reports, it was really coincidental because we were just looking at my partner’s – my husband’s – school report. And he’s got s younger sister, about three years younger. And we were sort of comparing their school reports and siblings are often very different. But it was a stark contrast between their school reports, it was just hilarious. And I didn’t know him at that age. So it really gave me a window into the person I’ve met. And what he was like as a child, yeah, so his sister, Janine, her school reports were like, “A star. Absolutely amazing. She’s the best student ever, she could do whatever she wants in life”, like just the best glowing school reports [that] any parent would be proud of.

And then my partner’s school reports were like absolutely scathing. I feel like teachers, when we were younger, were a little bit less careful about how they wrote about things as well. Because this form tutor had summed up all the subjects in secondary school, all of their reports into this, just anger, seething anger. How wasted his talent was, and she’d written you know, “Kieran must apply himself if he wants any chance of getting through his GCSEs in 6th form, he is hopelessly wasting his talent”. Really emotional language and it just- in fact, I want to say that I laughed, but at first I just felt so annoyed because it reminded me of some of the kids that I used to teach that I was like, “You can do better. We all know you could do better!”.

So yeah, it definitely was, it was very amusing. And I took photographs of it and sent them to all my relatives, so they know just exactly what Kieran was like, as a child.

Ludo Millar 7:59
Who you’re going to marry [LAUGHS]. So are you more Janine or are you more Kieran?

Sarah Cottingham 8:05
Definitely Janine [LAUGHS]. I was such a goody two shoes at school. It was like, I think my school reports would have been like, ‘Should try a little bit less. Get a life, do something fun after school. Don’t read all the references”. That kind of thing. So yeah, I was definitely more Janine,

Ludo Millar 8:28
‘More of a Janine’. That’s a good moniker. So, you didn’t stop reading the references and you didn’t stop learning. And now you’ve done a great deal of research in your life, you’re co-authoring books, you have run the education of teachers at Teach First and now Ambition Institute, or at least you’ve been a large part of that. Sarah, what do you think is the why running through that then? What do you think those school experiences and obviously enjoying learning have led you to where you are today?

Sarah Cottingham 9:04
Yeah, I think like, my why now is probably different from why I got into teaching in the first place. And I think why I got into teaching was kind of enjoying being around pupils; enjoying breaking things down like that. I think a lot of teachers talk about that moment where they feel like kids get it, and that it’s quite a sort of elation, isn’t it, when you really feel like students really understood something that you said, I think that that kind of kept me going for a while. 

And now I train teachers. I think my why is slightly different. So I feel like I’m affecting people who can affect many, many people, many, many students. So I think what sort of drives me is like, there’s loads of good research out there, which can support teachers in their thinking about how to teach. I can’t tell them exactly how to teach. Nothing’s prescribed in research and nor should it be. But there’s loads of good research out there. But I don’t feel like it’s translated particularly well. And that we’re not supporting teachers enough to translate this research into practice, into their classroom.

So my why is, let’s get better stuff, better ideas, to help teachers to do what is an incredibly difficult job in classrooms, for tutors to do an incredibly different, difficult job, to get students to really learn stuff, and for stuff to really stick. We’ve got this research. And I feel like my why is that real translation and communication piece, which is why I started blogging last year, because I think blogs are an excellent way to force yourself to be clear. You have to write concisely. No one will read it if you don’t write really concisely, and really clearly, so you write about seven drafts of everything. And you just make it as crystal clear as you can possibly do, whilst maintaining the fact that there is obviously nuance around these things as well. So I’m driven by trying to communicate things clearly, to teachers, to people in education, who are teaching students so they can hopefully feel that they’re doing it really, really well.

Ludo Millar 11:18
That’s as good as why as we’ve had on this podcast. And the kind of question that’s formulating is perhaps a bit of a direct one. But who is the onus on to make that link between the research and the implementation more clear? Is it on researchers? Or is it on teachers to do more of their own research?

Sarah Cottingham 11:44
And this is a really good question, and I feel like it comes to another question which you want to ask around what educational neuroscience is. So basically, your question there is like, who should do more of the work? Who should do more work? The teachers or the other researchers? Well, educational neuroscience as a field is trying to bring together both of those sets of people. So if you think about- if you treat them as separate, what you get is you get neuroscientists who are asking questions that only pertain to neuroscience. So they’re like, “How does the brain do this particular thing?”. Or “How does this tiny minute process happen?”. And, as teachers, we don’t really care about that. And we don’t really want to plough through research papers, trying to find some things we can kind of take into the classroom. We don’t have time to do that, I don’t think. Well I certainly didn’t as a teacher.

And then you’ve got education, where they’re answering questions that are pertinent to the classroom, and what the field of education neuroscience is saying is, well, it’s ‘Why don’t we both decide what those questions are? If we both drive what those questions are, and we try to come up with ways to research those questions, then we’re kind of helping both fields and creating one field”, if that makes sense. So then you end up with questions that are, you know, the teachers going, “I’ve got kids with dyslexia” or “I’ve got kids who have another particular need”. And then you’ve got the neurosciences like, “Well, we’ve got some research on dyslexia, but we don’t look at it particularly in the classroom in relation to materials that you use when you teach, how about we ask a question that combines those two things, so we can get some really useful answers for the classroom?”.

Ludo Millar 13:30
That’s a really powerful way of seeing it. And certainly for our listeners, who will be either ex-teachers turned tutors or teachers who are still teaching and tutoring. That’s a really important way of seeing neuroscience because, for many, it might be, yeah, might be kind of conceptually out of reach. So I’m wondering if you had some insight into what teachers and tutors and educators could be doing now to engage with educational neuroscience a little bit more? Some really good places to turn to, or some particular kind of text to look at.

Sarah Cottingham 14:07
So I think the best way to start, if you’re not engaging with cognitive science generally, under that umbrella meaning, ‘neuroscience and psychology’, is probably to start with cognitive psychology, rather than going straight to neuroscience, because I think cognitive psychology does a better job because it’s slightly closer. Because it measures behavioural measures, it’s slightly closer to the classroom. Then neuroscience and I think there’s such a rich wealth of stuff out there from cognitive psychologists. That’s a really good way in.

So for example, the work of Daniel Willingham, who writes in the American educator, but also has books like, Why Don’t Students Like School?, that’s often where people start because his stuff is really accessible. We talked about the communication piece being really important. His stuff is really accessible. He’s come up with a simple one about memory, which is a really nice accessible way into thinking about how memory and learning kind of come together. So I would recommend his work.

But there’s also a wealth of great books that have come out about this stuff. And so we were talking earlier about The In Action Series. So, Tom Sherrington, who is quite prolific on Twitter. He’s brilliant and he’s written books on Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction. And there are various books in this series which will give you a way into different aspects of cognitive theories that can help you to think about your teaching. So I think I’ll probably suggest starting with cognitive psychology, and the accessible stuff that these people who are doing the translation are doing for teachers. Start there, and then build from there. I don’t think that teachers need to read Educational Neuroscience, I think that what they would want is to benefit from the insights that are then translated through my blogs, for example, or books that are written about it. I don’t- I would never send someone a neuroscience paper or educational neuroscience paper to read, because I just think that’s a mean thing to do [LAUGHS].

Ludo Millar 16:27
Their desk is full of things to do anyway. That’s really, really helpful. First of all, because listeners may not know, really, what cognitive psychology is. And obviously, these days, a quick Google search can give you a surface level idea. And then obviously, the Willingham book or The In Action Series, is that route into educators accessing it.

But you touched on something really nice there, which was the link between the field of cognitive psychology, the cognitive science, and memory, which is not only a word that we understand more easily in the English world – ‘memory’, that’s something we all understand straight off the bat – but also, tutors are constantly tapping into memory, you know, over the course of a session, over the course of a series of sessions, what is it that my student remembers? And how can I test whether they’ve remembered it or not? So I was wondering if you could tell us a little bit more about the science behind memory? And maybe what educators need to know about that?

Sarah Cottingham 17:35
So yeah, what’s really interesting is, I think, that- I don’t know, for anyone who hasn’t thought much about memory – I know you said that lots of teachers are constantly thinking about it – but when I was a teacher, I didn’t really think about memory that much. I thought about learning but I didn’t actually really connect it with memory, perhaps that sounds really daft. But it just, it didn’t really occur to me to think about how memory actually works. So I think it’s really great that educators are now thinking about memory, and how memory works and how that feeds into their teaching.

So you can see memory as having a- you have a working memory, where you process information, and that’s got a limited capacity. So if you’ve ever sat down next to someone at a dinner party, and they’ve told you their name, and you’ve forgotten it within two seconds, then that’s working memory. It has quite a limited capacity for things.

However, it’s supported by your long-term memory. So your long-term memory is where information, where knowledge, is stored. And you can more easily access things from your long-term memory. And long-term memory actually supports working memory. If we’re using, if we’re thinking about, things we’ve banked in our long-term memory, then we can hold more in our working memory.

So the sort of takeaway from that is we want to build knowledge in long-term memory. That’s what we’re all trying to do with our students. But when you first teach things, when things are relatively new to students, they’re really fragile. They’re in this encoding stage, where the memory itself is quite fragile.

So, you know, one of the key things that we would always want to make sure we do is we want to revisit and return to knowledge. We can never assume that [because] I taught it, they’ve learnt it. We need to come back to it and revisit [it]. So we’ve all probably had those frustrating moments where we’ve taught something and then two lessons later, we’ve come back and then we’ve gone, “How could they not know this? We went over it last lesson!” or they seem to get it but now they’ve just forgotten it. And the importance of returning to things in different contexts and getting them to think hard about it is really important.

The second thing I think that is probably the most important thing that I’ve learned from cognitive science is the importance of your students’ existing knowledge. So what students come to you knowing is a huge determiner of what they will learn, because we build on what we already know. And if the foundations are dodgy, then everything else is going to be dodgy as well. So those checks for understanding, checking what they already know, and making sure you link to it, and help them to build on it, and giving them time to make those links themselves, such that they’re kind of knitting it into what they already know, making sure that it’s stitched together, is absolutely fundamental to learning. And if they are lacking some sort of prerequisite knowledge, and we’ve all had this, where we’re trying to teach them something complex, but they’re lacking some of the knowledge that comes before, it’s like building with sand, isn’t it. You have to go back and make sure that those foundations are in place, as well.

So that second point, what they already know, is absolutely fundamental for what they can learn. And then a kind of- we talked about the revisiting piece, like retrieval is a really key- one of the most powerful strategies you can use. And according to the research, for consolidating memory, I talked about how, when you encode memory, it’s quite fragile. To start with, if you want to store it and stabilise it, retrieval speeds up that process. So what you want to do is teach them something, you know, get them to connect it with their ideas, and then next lesson, the lesson after whatever it is, you want to get them to retrieve it from memory as effortfully as possible whilst still being successful. And that can help to stabilise their memory.

So I’ve talked about three things there. The importance of revisiting things, the importance of what they already know, checking for it, and building on it. And using retrieval as a really powerful tool, the stabilising memory, there’s loads of other things to talk about. But those are three that sort of stand out to me,

Ludo Millar 22:13
You’ve just modelled a perfect mini-session! You haven’t given us too much. You haven’t, you know, damaged our cognitive load. You’ve revisited the topics at the end of the day, you’ve not impacted our memory. And the only thing we need to do now is practise a little bit of retrieval after this session, and that new piece of knowledge that you just taught us will stick in the mind for much longer. That was expert. I really love what you’re saying there about the what students already know is a huge determiner of what they will know because that seems like such an obvious comment, but when we are the educator, too often we skip to what we know already and therefore what we think the student will go on to know, not what they know. I’ve done it 100 times when tutoring. And sometimes it’s just hearing that said out loud, that can be the flick.

Sarah Cottingham 23:11
It’s been the biggest penny drop moment in my thinking about learning because neuroscience tells us that what you actually know determines what you attend to in certain situations as well. So if you imagine you’re teaching, you know, you’re giving them a text to read, or you’re teaching them a process in Maths, what I end up focusing on, what you’ve given me to read, or the process you’re modelling to me, is determined by what I already know. So I’m likely going to miss some really important things that are important, because of your great knowledge in it. And you would think our cerebral would definitely notice that that’s important. But I won’t, because my knowledge is not so good.

So just that importance of that wonderful skill that teachers have when they model things and they point out really explicitly the important parts of it. It’s just like when you see a teacher model like that, it’s just, it’s joyful and I know what they’re doing is they’re saying to the kids, implicitly, they’re saying, I’ve got better prior knowledge than you. Here’s the things that I noticed when I see this. Here’s the things that you need to notice when you see this because you won’t notice them, because your prior knowledge is not so good.

Ludo Millar 24:26
That’s really powerful that, and such a good mindset for an educator to get into. Being aware of our own practices is as important as being aware of our students’ practice. Yeah. Now you’ve talked before, Sarah, with I think it was with Mary Myatt and Rachel Higginson about the idea of ‘learning first’ instead of ‘teaching first’. Now, people can kind of take that in all different ways, but what could you tell us about what you mean and understand by that, and perhaps why that isn’t the way that we naturally view things in education?

Sarah Cottingham 25:09
Yeah. So, I’m lucky enough to work as a teacher educator, so I get to train teachers and work with them. And it’s kind of like how I’ve conceptualised teacher education in my head. So I used to go into lessons or to watch teachers teaching small groups and think about, you know, how are they teaching? What strategies are they using? Is that the strategy that I would use? Is that the best strategy and just focus on what they are doing. But I think if we reconceptualise it: well, if I reconceptualise it, you might think this is completely obvious. But if I reconceptualise it, teachers are there to catalyse the learning for pupils, right?. They’re there to sort of make sure learning happens and make sure it happens efficiently. And, you know, that’s one part of the teacher’s role. There are obviously many other parts, pastoral parts, etc of a teacher and tutors role. But in terms of the learning process, they’re there to really capitalise [on] it.

So what really matters is not that the teacher is teaching as I would teach, are they using techniques that I would use? What matters is the impact that they’re having on their learners. So what we almost want to do as teacher educators is refocus, and think and look at what signs and signals we can have, that things are benefitting or not benefitting the learning that’s going on in that room. So that’s moving from a ‘teaching first’ approach – “what’s the teacher doing? Are they doing it like I would do it? Right, I’ll give them a technique that I use and see if I can use it” – to a ‘learning first’ approach, which is, how is what they’re doing affecting the learning that’s going on with students?

So if I give you a concrete example, that might be a little bit easier. So if I go into a classroom, and I see that a teacher is there teaching, but there are some students not paying attention. They’re looking out the window, or whatever they’re doing, they’re not focused, then I can see that situation. And by focusing on the learning, I’m thinking, there’s an issue here, and it’s with focusing attention. These kids are not paying attention. If they’re not paying attention, they definitely are not learning, they almost certainly are not learning what the teacher is teaching. So the technique that I need to support that teacher to develop has to try to solve that problem. And the problem is that focusing attention isn’t happening. And I need a solution that supports them to do that. And I can talk to that teacher about that. And I can decide what that solution is.

If they’re pretty new to their job, they may need me to tell them what the solution is, model it to them and practise it with them, and help them embed it in their teaching. There are some teachers [for] who the problem needs to be highlighted to them, but they can come up with a solution that works. And then it can be driven by them, depending on their expertise. And I think the idea is that it gives the teacher much more. It treats the teacher as a real professional, because it’s saying, “We’re all working on these problems. Your problem in this lesson is focusing attention. Let’s talk about solutions that might solve that problem”. Rather than diving in there and going, “Your teaching is not how I would teach. Here’s a technique that you can use”. It’s quite complex, I’m sorry.

Ludo Millar 28:44
It’s not complex at all. You know, it’s funny. When I first read that, what I thought it meant was an approach to how we learn, focusing on learning first, rather than the way that we teach. It’s not too dissimilar from what you and Mary and Rachel mean by it. It’s an approach to how we teach educators rather than how we teach learners.

But I learned something huge just then myself. And I wonder if- I hope that listeners did as well. I think the way that you’ve explained it coupled with just an understanding that it’s the focus on the person who’s learning – whether that’s the teacher themselves or the students – [that] is much more important than our methods or how we look as the educator – whether that’s as a teacher, educator or as just a teacher. I think just that tiny, it’s such a nice little phrase as well, ‘learning first, not teaching first’. I think that will go a long way. Even if people don’t remember anything else about today’s conversation, which would be a disaster in and of itself, but even if they didn’t, that is such a nice simple phrase to be used to switch how you educate.

Sarah Cottingham 30:07
Yeah. Rachel referred to as like looking through a slightly different lens. I think that really resonated with me, it was just because that was how it felt. It felt like I was going in and watching teachers teach. And then no, actually, I was going in and watching the effect of what the teacher was doing on the learners to try to diagnose what the challenge that teachers face is, and then support [them] with coming up with a solution basically.

Ludo Millar 30:35
So awesome. A really, really lovely model there, Sarah, to add to the list of models in this conversation already.

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Ludo Millar 30:45
And now a brief word from last week’s guest, Katie Tyndale, whose episode you might like to catch after this.

Katie Tyndale 30:55
First of all, thank you to Qualified Tutor and to Ludo for inviting me to join a podcast with you, and something so completely out of my comfort zone and new to me and unlike anything I’ve done before. Ludo really made the conversation flow and it was great to think about things that perhaps I hadn’t considered so broadly before, and to meet a new community of people in a similar operating environment as myself. So working with schools, tutor groups, etc is a great chance to broaden horizons and think about things a little bit differently. So thank you again for the opportunity. I really enjoyed it.

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Ludo Millar 31:43

Now, before we impart too much cognitive overload on our listeners, there’s just one final question really that I wanted to ask you, Sarah, which we ask every guest who comes on to this show, which looks ahead to the future. So we’d love to know, Sarah, what’s next for you? What’s next for Sarah Cottingham?

Sarah Cottingham 32:06

Lots of really fun things, thankfully. So I still get to work at Ambition Institute, like you mentioned earlier. And Ambition is a brilliant, brilliant place to work because our motto is keep getting better. And it’s genuinely how we are. We’re all massively into reading and progressing our thinking and making things clearer to teachers, that translation piece, I get to still work there, which is great.

I am writing a book for that In Action Series that I mentioned earlier with Tom Sherrington. That should come out next year. And that’s about a fantastic theory called Assimilation Theory by an educational psychologist called David Ausubel. And that’s all about a theory of learning for how learners, how we help learners to build vast bodies of knowledge. So we’re never asking kids to randomly remember facts and ideas, we want it knitted together in a body of knowledge so they can answer really challenging questions and think in really complex ways. And this theory speaks to that type of learning. So that’s really something I’m quite passionate about.

And I also get to write a chapter for a research ed book that’s coming out on cognitive science, which will be really fun as well. I will stay part of Bradley’s cognitive science network, which has been so much fun so fa, Bradley Busch, and his work is just continuing down that vein of like, how do we really carefully translate great research for teachers so they don’t have to spend ages and ages and ages reading, but they can get a sense and delve into some accessible stuff? So yeah, I really recommend Bradley’s work as well.

Ludo Millar 34:02
And you can listen to Bradley’s episode, which was two weeks ago, so if you haven’t listened to that, do go and dive in. In next week’s episode, we’ll be chatting to the Founder of a new tutoring company called Interjoin Teach, which is changing the way that we see the connection between tutor and student and a really growing international tutoring agency. His name is Omar El Dokani so that’ll be a really exciting conversation as well. So do tune in for that. But Sarah, thank you so much for joining us and for giving up your time. There was so much in there for our listeners.

Sarah Cottingham 34:38
Thanks so much for listening to me. I really appreciate it.

Ludo Millar 34:41
If there is one way that listeners can get in touch with you after this, what’s the best way to do that?

Sarah Cottingham 34:49
So, I’ll give them two if that’s okay. So I’m @overpractised on Twitter, and I blog at overpractised.com. And there’s a Contact Me page if you want to ask any questions or anything.

Ludo Millar 35:07
Awesome. Both of those links will be in the show notes. So don’t worry about writing those down. But Sarah, for one final time, thank you so much for joining us. And we’ll speak again soon.

Sarah Cottingham 35:21
Thank you so much.

Ludo Millar 35:23
Bye then. Bye.

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Ludo Millar

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