Moving forward with my teaching, I’m going to be continually thinking to myself, “How will students get this (whatever I’m teaching) into their long-term memory?” This is a slightly different emphasis and framing that just writing learning objectives. And I’m going to think of this picture as I plan how to teach my curriculum.
For the purpose of this post, I’m not going to try to explain in my own words how short term and long term memory works, because I’m not an expert, and experts can explain it much better than I can. If you’re not yet familiar with this picture and some of the corresponding terms I suggest you start by looking at Dr. Efrat Furst’s website here. I’m also not going to write about instructional strategies that come out of this research quite yet. However, I will reflect on why I’ve found it important to understand what memory is, how it works, and why it’s so important for teachers to understand it.
For too much of my teaching career I’ve misunderstood how memory works, and why it’s important. (We barely addressed it in my teacher education program.) I equated memory with the process of memorization, and thought of that much in the same way as this author of this 2013 Atlantic article, “When Memorization Gets in the Way of Learning.” The author is frustrated with school systems and cultures that encourage students to “Memorize the necessary facts in the ten minutes before class, and forget them in the ten minutes after class.” He then goes on to talk about the need for learning – making meaning – of content. His argument is exactly what the title suggests.
Just a few months ago, I wouldn’t have had any critique of this article. However, after a couple months of reading and watching videos on the research around memory by cognitive scientists, I see that the author may not understand what exactly memory is, how it works, and why it’s important. This is evident in lines like, “Certainly, knowledge matters. A head full of facts–even memorized facts–is better than an empty one. But facts enter our heads through many paths–some well-paved, some treacherous. Which ones count as ‘memorization’?” We know that the brain and mind aren’t empty vessels to be filled. That’s not how it works.
What cognitive scientists have concluded based on the most recent mind, brain, and education research is that, “The concept of understanding is really ‘memory in disguise’. This means that our schemata are more fully formed, are more interconnected, and can be explored and recalled more fluently.” (Sherrington, 11). And, “More generally, the idea that learning is a generative process is important.” (Sherrington, 39). Indeed Dr. Yana Weinstein says, ““Actually, I would argue that everything we do requires memory in some form or another.”
Retrieving or drawing on information from memory, and making connections with information in short term and long term memory is necessary for understanding. I’m learning that having a lot of information in long-term memory, and being able to draw in that information, is incredibly important for reading comprehension, problem solving, and critical thinking.
Educators like the author of the Atlantic article I cited above aren’t wrong that students must do more than just memorize facts for a test. I think everyone, especially cognitive scientists, agree this isn’t learning that we aim for in education. But dismissing memory, or conflating it with the process most of us think of as “mere” memorization, is a grave mistake. It’s important that we educators know that students who cram for a test and then forget that information are just keeping that information in their short term memory. It’s inevitable that they’ll forget it without techniques that encode information into their long term memory (where they can access it at a relevant, maybe even authentic, moment weeks, months or years later).
Understanding memory has serious implications for our pedagogical decision making. Without a strong understanding of memory, teachers may “cover” too much information too quickly, knowing it’s not the best but still thinking it could work. Or, they may not give enough time to practice or review. Without focusing on memory we’ll give students a poor knowledge foundation to build on as they advance through school, interact with texts and art, and continue to respond to and influence the world. I know I want my classes to matter, for the content and skills to be remembered and useful. I can make that happen by asking myself, “How will students get this (whatever I’m teaching) into their long-term memory?” Fortunately, cognitive scientists and psychologists, and other educators literate in cognitive science, have some answers!
I’m still new to thinking how to apply cognitive science to my teaching. It’s woefully absent in teacher training and development programs. If you’re a teacher who also feels new to this, I’ll share that I got started with this blog post by Blake Harvard, which my colleague @jaredpeet shared with me.
Are you a teacher who is more familiar with cognitive science and research on memory? How have you applied it in your classroom? How did it change your pedagogy? Anything you think I need to revise here? Share your thoughts!
Furst, Efrat. “Introduction: Learning in the Brain.” Teaching With Learning in Mind, Apr. 2018, sites.google.com/view/efratfurst/learning-in-the-brain.
Orlin, Ben. “When Memorization Gets in the Way of Learning.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 12 June 2018, http://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2013/09/when-memorization-gets-in-the-way-of-learning/279425/.
Sherrington, Tom, and Oliver Caviglioli. Rosenshine’s Principles in Action. John Catt Educational, 2019.
Weinstein, Yana. “In Defense of Memory.” The Learning Scientists, The Learning Scientists, 17 Nov. 2017, http://www.learningscientists.org/blog/2017/11/17-1.
Gustafson, Jon. “Making Lessons 85% Review: The Genius Behind Engelmann’s Teaching to Mastery.” JON GUSTAFSON, 29 Apr. 2020, mrgmpls.wordpress.com/2019/01/13/making-lessons-85-review-the-genius-behind-engelmanns-teaching-to-mastery/.
ResearchEd. “researchEDHome 2020 Daisy Christodoulou: How to remember anything, forever.” Commentary by Daisy Christodoulou. May 18, 2020. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vZDRSwB9B10
Harvard, Blake. “Getting Started with the Cognitive Sciences.” The Effortful Educator, 14 May 2020, theeffortfuleducator.com/2020/05/14/cognitive-sciences/.