On Remembering

I have hotly debated the merits of memorization with fellow educators and I have vehemently questioned the value of knowing the state capitals (my favorite example of knowledge useful only when playing trivia games down at the pub). In the Age of Google, the argument seems ridiculous – if for some reason I actually needed to know the capital of South Dakota*, I can look it up within seconds on my phone. Why memorize?

I recently read Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything by Joshua Foer. A participatory journalist, Foer delved into the geeky world of memory competitions and does a nice job describing the cultural history and scientific research into human memory. It’s a good read, much like an in-depth magazine article, and certainly a compelling story (Foer trains for and competes in the US and World Memory Championships).

As an educator, I was particularly interested in the ramifications for teaching … and I have revised my opinion regarding memorization. I still don’t think the state capitals are worth committing to permanency, but I can appreciate the merits of some memorization. Foer writes:

“A valid criticism of … mnemonics is that they are a form of decontextualized knowledge. They are superficial, the epitome of learning without understanding. This is education by PowerPoint, or worse, CliffsNotes. What can an [the mnemonics device of an] image of Lenin and Stalin the bathroom really tell you about communist economics? But [Raemon] Matthews’s point is that you’ve got to start somewhere, and you might as well start by installing in student’s minds the sorts of memories that are least likely to be forgotten.

When information goes “in one ear and out the other,” it’s often because it doesn’t have anything to stick to. This is something I was personally confronted with not long ago, when I had the opportunity to visit shanghai for three days while reporting an article. Somehow I had managed to scoot through two decades of schooling without ever learning even the most basic facts about Chinese history. I’d never learned the difference between Ming and Qing, or even that Kublai Khan was actually a real person. I spent my time in Shanghai roving around the city like any good tourist, visiting museums, trying to get a superficial grasp of Chinese history and culture. But my experience of the place was severely impoverished. There was so much I didn’t take in, so much I was unable to appreciate, because I didn’t have the basic facts to fasten other facts to. It wasn’t just that I didn’t know, it was I didn’t have the ability to learn … This [is the ]paradox – it takes knowledge to gain knowledge …

Of course, the goal of education is not merely to cram a bunch of facts into students’ heads; it’s to lead them to understand those facts. Nobody would agree with that more than [teacher] Raemon Matthews, “I want thinkers, not just people who can repeat what I tell them,” he says. But even if facts don’t by themselves lead to understanding, you can’t have understanding without facts. And crucially, the more you know, the easier it is to know more. Memory is like a spiderweb that catches new information. The more it catches, the bigger it grows. And the bigger it grows, the more it catches …

It goes without saying that intelligence is much, much more than mere memory (there are savants who remember much bud understand little, just as surely as there are forgetful old professors who remember little but understand much), but memory and intelligence do seem to go hand in hand, like a muscular frame and an athletic disposition. There’s a feedback loop between the two. The more tightly any new piece of information can be embedded into the web of information we already know, the more likely it is to be remembered. People who have more associations to hang their memories on are more likely to remember new things, which in turn means they will know more, and be able to learn more. The more we remember, the better we are at processing the world. And the better we are at processing the world, the more we can remember about it.”

Certainly something to think about …

*Pierre. I had to look it up – although forced to memorize the state capitals in elementary school, seems I’ve forgotten them over the past 30+ years.