Please Try to Remember

December 12, 2013 at 2:04 PM Leave a comment

Memorize this: Students need to have knowledge for context so they can know more. They need an analytical toolkit and to understand when and how to use it. They need to be conscious of prior knowledge in the basics so they can get on with more interesting aspects of cognition. The greater the relevant stored memory they possess, the more exciting is the exploration. And growth becomes exponential.

My grandfather used to slip into a recitation of the Rime of the Ancient Mariner at odds times well into old age. His education was one of memorization of many things. It was a hyperbolic technique discarded decades ago, but on dreary days he took pride in his schooling. He was just another guy in dry cleaning, but he had a bookcase full of Harvard Classics that he knew by heart.

Today, any use of memorization outside of one’s lines in the drama club is likely to be maligned among educators. Drill and kill has become the label of doom for bad teaching. However, while a system of rote learning does not lead to deeper knowledge, the ability to extract a complex web of content from memory has become a forgotten part of critical thinking.

Students engage in the learning process and remember what they experienced. But there is no universal experience that guarantees they all learned the same thing. Nor is there a style of exploration that works well for all learners. So teachers have to show students how to evaluate their retention of information and their progress toward mastery of concepts, how to sort through their knowledge to validate its application in a given context, and how to study with intent. At times, It sounds a bit like bearing the fruit of memorization.

We are wired for vocabulary and concept mapping for intelligence. Learning and remembering tens of thousands of words is integral to our ability to think. Likewise, in the humanities, prior memory underlies any sense of metaphor, analogy, or contrast. We achieve abstract thought as our understanding of common themes and repetitive patterns frees our minds for the bigger picture.

In STEM, some students internalize algorithms more readily when they have conceptually realized them through independent exploration. Others prefer to be taught procedures and rules for application. Either way, the long term goal is to have adequate understanding and formalization of strategies to have ready access to analytical tools when called upon to apply them. Critical thinking cannot be a random walk in which one reinvents the needed tools through exploration for life. It is inefficient and, frankly, boring in the absence of periodic training to choose the right method intuitively and move on.

For students with Special Needs or English Language Learners, the issues of vocabulary, knowledge retention, and executive function complicate the learning process. Beyond that, students living in poverty may demonstrate extremes with memory, especially if under-served academically. For students who struggle with reading and writing, an uncanny ability to memorize details of a narrative or complex instructions may be their strongest educational asset. Asking such a student to memorize something might just put him or her in a happy place to jump-start engagement in a lesson.

Alternately, students trapped in chaotic lives may experience functional memory lapses. Where they have been and what they have seen might best be forgotten, suppressed for purposes of coping and moving forward in life. Memory needs to be retrained to overcome such blocks, and out-of-school time needs to be enriched with safe, memorable experiences to give the exercise meaning. It is not a simple matter of increasing processing time.

Anyway, back where we started…if you have an interest in the Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Google it and find a copy in seconds. But give memory a chance as an educator. Keep classroom experiences rich, but do not forget that students need to remember many, many things.


Entry filed under: Pedagogy.

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