Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ Memory and Memorization

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Jan 07, 2012

From my post titled 'Wrong':

I get where Gary Stager is coming from. Learning is not the same as remembering. By the same token, I made myself a set of flash cards this week as an aid to remember my past participles in French. So there's another side to it.


Vicki A Davis, January 6, 2012
Gary missed the whole point of what I was saying in my piece for the New York Times. The flaw with adaptive learning is we have no feedback loop to parents. The fact is that this weekend I have to help my fourth grader learn all of the irregular verbs, his spelling words, and the states and capital review for all 50 stated. many theorists argue we shouldn't be doing rote memorization but the fact is our kids are in a system that rewards it. I find that apps help make the learning happen in less time and with less strain on my relationship with my child but there is no feedback loop to help me know if he is getting it or not. Whether we like it or not, there are times our kids have to memorize.

nboruett, January 7, 2012
Stephen writing from a bus heading to Dodoma Tanzania from daresaalaam a journey of six hours. Thank you for sharing the flash cards. I find the revised. Blooms taxonomy useful. You can not understand what you cannot remember. You then apply what you understand. The rest follow

My Response:

Vicki that's a fine comment for someone who was tired. :)

Here's my thinking: what we need to foster is not memorization, but remembering. However, in cases where we are unable to foster remembering, we need to turn to memorization.

Let me give an example from the perspective of cognitive load theory (I don't need the theory to make the example work, but it's more fun if I use it).

The traditional perspective is, we can remember only seven items at a time. So, I give you seven digits: 4 5 6 2 1 1 6 6 and that's what you can remember. If I give you more 3 2 1 1 3 4 9 4 3 2 you can't do it. Say.

But if you are good at remembering, you'll manage this with no problem because you'll chunk the numbers. 321 - 134 - 9432. Now we can remember it. It's a phone number. It's easy.

Moving beyond cognitive load theory, we are able to remember better if we are able to discover relations, threads, patterns or regularities between what we're trying to remember and something we already know. That's the (crude) purpose of menomics - we convert the long string of things to remember into a simple thing to remember and a rule to convert it into the long string.

This is what we're doing when we're theorizing (what educators like to misleadingly call 'making meaning'). What we're trying to do is to find the underlying thread that connects everything we're trying to remember. A theory. A perspective, or world view.

Sometimes you can't find these regularities overtly. Sometimes there's no rhyme nor reason, or its buried in complexity or antiquity. That's where practice and memorization comes in. By repeating and rote, your brain (which is a fantastic processing machine) will find the patterns you can't find cognitively, and you'll remember.

People who remember really well reach for these associations cognitively, and do the work required to produce them sub-cognitively. That's why, in learning my French verbs, I'm doing some memorization of the stuff there's no rules for (past participles for the irregular verbs), using a mnemonic to remember a subset ('vandertramp'), rules to understand verb-object agreement, and personal discovery to find the key underlying rule (that isn't in the book) that explains everything.

For those who are curious, here's the rule that underlies everything: the verb (extra 'e' for feminine, extra 's' for plural) always agrees with the direct object (You'll never see that stated in the French text, because most of the language is an exception - you see, you have to know what the direct object is, which means you have to have one, it has to be before the verb, and it is sometimes oneself, in which case you conjugate with être instead of avoir).

What you want is the underlying rule that explains everything (or, more accurately, a sense of what underlies everything, because often it can't be explained as a simple rule, but is just felt as a sense or a feeling (which is why cognitivism is wrong - you can't always 'make' this, you often have to grow it).

It's because when you have that underlying grasp of a thing, you are able to manifest expert behaviour - you can know what the thing should be without even thinking about it (which is a good thing, because when you add it all up, if you have a lot to think about).

So, to summarize: remembering really depends on understanding, which is why all the new-fangled progressive teaching methods work better, but understanding can't always be reliably created or scaffolded. It is better to teach students to be able to understand, but also to ensure that they know that sometimes the best and fastest way to understanding is a brute force process of practice and even memorization.

And I might add: this last bit is the work ethic and expectations part of it, and is the place where parents come in. A teacher is not typically in a position to instil the desire to undertake the effort required to practice and sometimes memorize, because this is something that is the result of socialization and culture - the product of a lifetime, not a one-hour-a-week class.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

Copyright 2024
Last Updated: Jul 23, 2024 10:49 a.m.

Canadian Flag Creative Commons License.