Misunderstanding memory in the classroom

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This article was originally printed in Issue 412 (July/August 2014) of the Australian Mensa magazine, TableAus under the title “The Art of Memory forgotten in education?”.

The deepest dispute in education is based on a mistake.

In what must be now the most watched talk on the internet (and thus likely all of human history – what other speech could have ever reached twenty six million viewers?) Sir Ken Robinson calls for a revolution in the way we are educating children. He calls for a move away from fact-filled curricula and instead champions the teaching of creativity. He does not offer much in the way of a positive vision of what this revolutionary classroom would look like, but others using his talk as a rallying point often speak in terms of “21st century learning skills” which include information literacy, critical thinking, analysis and creative thinking.

The putative dispute between defenders of fact-based learning and advocates of 21st century thinking skills is however based on a false dichotomy and this dissolves once we understand the relevant science of memory. A synthesis of these views, as we will see below, suggests that the best way to promote 21st century skills is to embrace a 500 BC Art of Memory.

Supporters of 21st century learning skills conceive of thinking skills as being, in some important way, beyond the mere accumulation of memorized facts. However scientific research has determined that memory is central to complex cognitive processes such as thinking and problem solving.

The ability to sift through and critically appraise the value of information in any subject cannot be acquired without a significant body of knowledge in that area. The scientist George Miller demonstrated the importance of background knowledge to the use of reference materials, for instance, by asking a group of students to use a dictionary to learn new words. The results are humorous but clearly demonstrate the pitfalls of the anti-fact philosophy:

‘Mrs. Morrow stimulated the soup.’ (That is she stirred it up.) ‘Our family erodes a lot.’ (That is they eat out.) ‘Me and my parents correlate, because without them I wouldn’t be here.’ ‘I was meticulous about falling off the cliff.’ ‘I relegated my pen pal’s letter to her house.’’

If we really want to be able to understand and appraise information that comes our way we cannot be content to just look it up on Google.

Even something like ability in chess, often considered a game of pure reasoning and abstract strategy, depends crucially on memory. Herbert Simon, whose research in this area won him a Nobel Prize, demonstrated in a series of experiments that a player’s chess ability relied not on IQ or raw mental processing power but on that player’s memory-bank of typical chess positions and sequences.

In these experiments, players of various levels were shown different configurations of boards from high level chess games. The participants were then asked to reconstruct the boards from memory. The results were astonishing. Chess experts were able to recall the configurations of the chess pieces with almost perfectly. Novice players could only recall about a third of the pieces. The reason for this is that the expert chess players saw the board in a completely different way. Their vast memories of previous chess games meant that the configurations of pieces all had meaning. The superior memory ability of the chess experts was not just a by-product of expertise; it was the essence of their expertise.

For expert players, the source of their skill is what they can remember about a game and the way that those memories influence how they perceive the board in front of them. Similar results have been found across a range of different disciplines.

This should not come as a surprise. No creative idea that has changed the way we view the world has been invented in a vacuum of knowledge: Nobel Prize winners are able to develop their insights only after years spent accumulating knowledge. If their memories of their disciplines were lost to them, say through amnesia, so too would be their creative capacities.

If expert skill, and the creativity it entails, lies in the accumulation of vast stores of knowledge then anything that is going to increase our capacity to form memories and the speed with which we do it should be treasured. This is true even for those of us without aspirations to become world class experts. All of our mundane, every-day projects depend crucially on memory. Imagine, for instance, being able to absorb foreign language vocabulary like a sponge, internalizing the words needed to speak a new language in weeks rather than years.

Real life examples of high-speed learning exist. Every year, athletes gather from all over the world to compete in the World Memory Championships and, every year, they demonstrate startling learning abilities.  One competitor at the first world memory championships, Bruce Balmer, taught himself 2000 foreign words in a single day. Another competitor from the 1999 World Memory Championships famously taught himself Icelandic in only one week and then went on a talk show in that language. The most remarkable thing about these competitors, however, is that there is nothing special about them at all. Rather, they all employ a small set of simple techniques, known collectively as the “Art of Memory”.

The techniques of the Art of Memory originated over two thousand years ago in Ancient Greece. These techniques were almost universally practiced by the thinkers of the ancient world who believed that mnemonic training was essential to the cultivation of one’s memory, focus and creativity.  Creativity was an act of synthesis that could only occur within the mental playground of a trained mnemonist.  Appropriately, in Greek mythology, Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory, was the mother of the muses, the goddesses of creativity.

These techniques formed the cornerstone of western education and were employed and advocated by thinkers like Thomas Aquinas, Petrarch, Giordano Bruno, Bacon, Leibniz and Descarte. For most of the history of education, the view of memorization was one entirely alien to those of us concerned with so-called 21st century learning skills. The deepest dispute in modern educational debate is based on a mistake: If we really want to promote the abilities of critical reasoning and creativity then we would do well to recognize that the right place for the art of memory is not in memory competitions or in history books but in our classrooms and workplaces.

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