I recently read an excellent book by Joshua Foer, called Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything (2011), and it really struck a chord. In a world where we have access to an almost infinite amount of knowledge, what do we know? I mean really know. While I can Google, “How to speak Latin”, that does not mean I know Latin. What we retain, and are able to recall and to apply, constitutes what we know — and I believe the distinction matters. Foer (2011) talks about memory and how it is in essence, who we are. What we know, what we remember, helps make up our identity, so why do we know place so little value on remembering? I am guilty of this no doubt, every phone number I “know” would be lost if my iPhone ever bit the dust (don’t worry, I back it up), my synced calendar allows me to remember where I am going and what I am doing on a day to day basis, and I am pretty sure I would never remember my Dad’s birthday if it wasn’t programmed into my reminders.
Foer talks about the phenomenon of “external memory” (Foer, 2011, p.19), the use of systems outside of our own brain to store information. But if this information is stored outside of ourselves, can we really count it as our knowledge, part of what we know? This is all getting a little philosophical, my real focus is quite practical, specifically, how the concepts of “memory”, “remembering” and “knowledge” apply to education.
It may seem obvious that knowledge is an important part of education, but the subject is more divided than you would think. Much focus has moved toward learning how to learn, developing thinking skills, and navigating the vast amount of information that exists in places such as the internet. In turn, our focus has turned away from the content, or the acquisition of knowledge that was once the primary objective in school. The thinking is that if we teach students how to learn – where to find information and how to process it- then they will be able to learn anything, not just the small amount of content that we present to them in school. In theory, this is right on point. As the old adage goes, why give a man a fish, when you can teach him how to fish? The only problem is, what if we spend all of our time learning how to fish, hunt and farm, but we never actually get around to catching the fish, shooting the deer, or plowing the field. The “fish” is still important. What I am trying to say, is content or knowledge has value, in and of itself. When we learn about a particular topic we start creating this wonderful web of knowledge in our brains, it will stick if it has other related information to grab onto, and in turn, it will catch and retain more information as well. The more we know about a particular subject, the more we are able to learn (Foer, 2011). While it is true that you can “Google” almost anything if you need to know about it, having information “saved” in these external memory keepers doesn’t build the neural pathways, or the web, that retaining knowledge in your brain does.
The act of remembering or retaining knowledge actually takes some practice. Maryellen Wiemer (2014) explains that studies have shown that merely reading, or going over notes, for example, does very little to help retain the knowledge. In fact it can actually be counter productive because when re-reading or going over notes, we are lulled into a false sense of “knowing” because everything sounds familiar, when in fact, the information has not been learned (Wiemer, 2014). In order to learn something, you must actively process it, this may mean summarizing the content, reflecting on it, talking about it, teaching it to someone else, or using strategies such as mnemonics to really implant the information in your brain in a retrievable format.
While it is still up for debate if our memory is like a muscle, that will grow when exercised, it is safe to say that if you don’t use it, you lose it. Foer (2008) talks about the amazing memories that individuals in certain professions have, for example the memory of a waiter for remembering orders. It turns out that memory is pretty specific because of the pathways we build, so that waiter, likely won’t be able to remember old baseball stats just because he has a keen ability to remember 18 drink and food orders. So this brings me back to education, perhaps it is important to serve up a well rounded meal of content, to act as a net for future learning. While we are teaching the process of learning, we musn’t forget to help our students acquire background knowledge.
How do we go about doing this? As is described in The Outlier (2008) by Malcom Gladwell, experts aren’t born, they are made… through a lot of practice. You have likely heard about the 10 000 hour rule, where it takes 10 000 hours to become great at anything (Gladwell, 2008). Foer (2008) takes this notion one step further and talks about the type of practice that “experts” embark upon. It is not just mindless rote repetition, it is mindful and reflective. In fact, the main reason that people plateau at a certain skill level is because they have gotten “good enough” to perform the task, and autopilot turns on. Any practice from that point on will only maintain the current level of functioning. Instead, experts are constantly analyzing and receiving feedback on the parts of their “game” that they have not yet perfected. This allows them to avoid auto-pilot and continue their progress (Foer, 2008). As teachers we can learn from this. To help our students step up their “game”, we need to help them engage in active reflection and give them timely and accurate feedback so they can continue to take those tiny steps toward their learning goals.
In summary, learning how to learning is crucial but retaining knowledge is also very important. The more we learn, the more we are able to learn by creating a vast and sticky web of background knowledge that allows us to catch and retain new pieces of information. We must teach our students how to remember effectively and give them plenty of time to practice this skill. Lastly, as teachers we must encourage our students to reflect upon their learning and give them timely and accurate feedback so that they can continue to progress through obstacles and learning plateaus. Perhaps this all sounds obvious and simple, but in a world where knowledge is often consumed rather than valued, it is surprising how often these lessons are missed.
Foer, J. (2011). Moonwalking with Einstein: The art and science of remembering everything. New York: Penguin Press.
Gladwell, M. (2008). Outliers: The story of success. New York: Little, Brown and Co.
Weimer, M. (May 14, 2014). Is Rereading the Material a Good Study Strategy? In Teacher Professor Blog. Retrieved on July 2, 2014 from http://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/teaching-professor-blog/rereading-material-good-study-strategy/