#Flashbulb Memory by @TeacherToolkit

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Ross Morrison McGill founded @TeacherToolkit in 2010, and today, he is one of the 'most followed educators'on social media in the world. In 2015, he was nominated as one of the '500 Most Influential People in Britain' by The Sunday Times as a result of...
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How good is your memory? How much can you recall from your own schooling and can you think why this has stuck with you?

Flashbulb Memory


As I get to grips with writing my second book, I have been increasing the breadth and depth of my own research and re-thinking how memory can all be applied into all things teaching and all-things as a teacher. Now, for this particular blog and as a future reference, despite having taught A-level Psychology this academic year, I do not claim to be a psychologist; not even remotely qualified, nor do I claim to know enough about ‘memory’. Given that, it is clear that as teachers and readers of UK educational blogs, we are gathering wind in our sails as teachers become more and more interested in evidence, memory, psychology and what makes learning stick. This is a great accolade for our education system to read that more and more classroom practitioners are becoming passionate to understand what , why and how we learn.

As we become more and more sophisticated in our understanding; as our knowledge and application increases, it may take several years before our knowledge as teachers – not as psychologists – filters into every classroom. It has been reassuring to read many school leaders and teachers gathering valuable information in this field and beginning to embed this complex subject into teacher-culture and schools. With this in mind, I want to share something I have been reading as I prepare to complete my new book.

Autobiographical memory:

How much can you remember throughout your life? At school? In the subject you loved as a child? And in one lesson? You might like to spend some time testing yourself on the following questions. Better still, you might want to dig out an old school photograph like the one I have displayed below – no laughing please – and recall all the distant memories and cues from this moment in time. Another example is here.

@TeacherToolkit in 1985 (Year 7 - Heaton Manor School, Newcastle)
@TeacherToolkit in 1985 (Year 7 – Heaton Manor School, Newcastle)

“Bahrick et al. (1975) investigated the ability of adults to remember their high school classmates form an old school photograph, and found that most of their subjects will still match up the names to those in the photos. Bahrick et al. concluded that memory for a real life experience tends to be far more accurate and durable the memory for items tested in a laboratory experiment.”

n.b. replace my photo above with your own year-group photograph with all of your classmates; what memory is triggered?

Flashbulb Memory:

In a recent study (2008) Bahrick asked people to record the assessment grades at various times in the latter lives. The participants performed surprisingly well, on average they recalled 80% of the grades correctly, even after an interval of 50 years! With this in mind and for this particular blog, I want to discuss Flashbulb Memory and not Autobiographical Memory and how this may apply to teachers, teaching and learning and retention of knowledge and/or skill.

Here are my year 11 mock exam grades from March 1990. I can still recite them all vividly (even without this photograph):

@TeacherToolkit mock exam grades c. 1989
@TeacherToolkit mock exam grades c. 1990

To put this in to context, here is the definition of Flashbulb Memory:

“Flashbulb memory is a subject’s recollection of details of what they were doing at the time of some major event or dramatic incident.”

Groome (2014, pp 196).

Photo Credit: kevindean via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: kevindean via Compfight cc


The first study of flashbulb memory was carried out by Brown and Kulik (1977). In their study, they hypothesised that a special memory mechanism was involved, which could create a memory trace that was “unusually accurate and immune to the normal processes of forgetting.” In essence, a survival advantage to recollect traumatic events in order to avoid similar dangers in the future. However, this notion has been challenged as far from infallible and no more accurate than other type of memory. Whilst there is no doubt FM may have unusual and detailed longevity, it can probably be accounted to underlying mechanisms of ‘normal’ memory.

Flashbulb memories have six characteristic features:

  1. place,
  2. ongoing activity,
  3. informant,
  4. own affect,
  5. other affect,
  6. and aftermath

Classroom Application:

Okay, hands up! This is not quite the same as a 38-week academic year with 2-3 hours per week in the classroom. So, what’s my point? A flashbulb memory is a highly detailed, exceptionally vivid ‘snapshot’ of the moment and circumstances in which a piece of surprising and consequential (or emotionally arousing) news was heard. But, I wonder how we can translate this theory into the classroom as teachers? It would appear that we may have flashbulb moments as students; but that these are extremely rare and that FM may not be entirely applied in the same methodology for each and every lesson.

What if we could approach flashbulb memory, stickability even, to make learning stick (to memory) more frequently?

Considering we study such a broad curriculum over such a long period of time, the opportunity for flashbulbs to be generated dwindle significantly, and that any hope for applying what we teach day-to-day, to help students retain long-term memory within our subject may be futile … I don’t know the answer and I do accept that this comparison may well be invalid. Again, I can accept this, but I want to put this out to the readers of my blog for consideration.


In my own education, my school flashbulb moments from ages 5 -16 are thus – and not necessarily ‘learning’ as we define today:

  • a 1/4 pint of milk every morning (1977)
  • the belt across both palms for not singing along to a television programme (1979)
  • 25 x 25 multiplication tables by rote: forward and backwards (1980)
  • my first recollection of being inside a headteacher’s office (1983)
  • reading intervention (1983)
  • queuing up for a second helping of semolina pudding (1984)
  • Drama and performance on stage (Ms. Butterworth – 1985)
  • a school journey to La Rochelle, France (1985)
  • being the victim bullying (1986)
  • being able to recite one key sentence in Welsh before being able to sit down (a starter activity?) (1986)
  • French lessons and being quite good at it (Ms. Peachey – 1986)
  • a chalk duster thrown across the room at me in a Maths lesson! (Mr. Scammel – 1987)
  • setting a new school triple-jump record at sport day (1987)
  • completing an ‘Ossie Ardilles rainbow kick’ on the tarmac playground. (1988) Please do click play; it’s beautiful.

(Sorry, I had to add that one in there.)

  • Programming in ICT, particularly coding a set of algorithms in sequence to ‘Sweet Dreams‘ by Eurythmics (1989)
  • Orthographic Projection! (Mr. Jowett – 1990)
  • ‘You like kids; you like design, you’re good at it. Be a teacher’ (Mr. Boldy – 1992)

So, not exactly learning, or learning objectives, but certainly memorable moments.  In terms of lesson planning – and there will be many other all-things teacher and teaching examples and applications we can use – Flashbulb Memory could be called ‘Stickability‘. The reader may want to recall their own school report and re-look over what is written and capture the moments you recall.

For me, there are a few moments in my life that are flashbulb memory. I can picture  with lucid detail, the moment I heard my father had passed away whilst I was on holiday overseas. Or the time when I was in class as a child and was ecstatic to finally achieve my first-ever grade A for an English assignment as a spotty 13 year-old! Some of my own key flashbulb memories I have captured in my End Of Term assembly to my own school students. One flashbulb image is shown below.

How can we translate this complex theory of memory and convert this into the classroom and make memory (learning) stick? And is it possible? And can we make learning stick more frequently than I have alluded to?

NASA Challenger explosion (28.1.86)


Groome, D. ed. 3, 2014. An Introduction to Cognitive Psychology. Processes and Disorders. Psychology Press.

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5 thoughts on “#Flashbulb Memory by @TeacherToolkit

  1. Really interesting Ross; I agree they there is a lot from A level psychology. that can be applied to teaching & learning.
    You’ll be aware that not all psychologists agree that flashbulb memory exists, the alternative explanation being that our memory of newsworthy events is consolidated and reconstructed) from revisiting them through discussion and via the media.
    Your list is probably made up of several effects including, I see, pain! I hope it didn’t put you off singing!
    I think for ‘stickability’ in learning the key is to make difficult knowledge & concepts memorable by coupling them with unusual and/or startling examples, illustrations, etc, but then to revisit them coupled with discussion.

    1. Hi Rodger. Thanks for the tweet & the comment. I am aware that psychologists have disregarded FBM. I have chosen to ignore this for now, as this is my first foray into this area from a T&L perspective.

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