This post is in response to the article by Ben Orlin, ‘When memorization gets in the way of learning.’ I posted it on twitter several weeks back, and Will Burn rightly asked what my problem was with it. It’s a well thought out piece, and I think Orlin says a lot of the right things. However, it reads as if written by someone who’s never picked up a book about human cognition, and has no idea what role memory plays in ‘learning.’ The arguments feel ultimately colloquial; the disgruntled teacher frustrated with teaching kids how to memorise test answers, rather than teaching them anything about the damned subject. Valid, but so old hat, and the solutions offered aren’t solutions at all.
First, two quotes that have moved, and guide me:
“The aim of all instruction is to alter long-term memory. If nothing has changed in long-term memory, nothing has been learned.”
I read this during the Christmas holiday, two years ago. It comes from Kirschner, Sweller and Clark’s 2006 paper. I’d been teaching for four months. Despite weeks of pointless musing and speculation as to the purpose of education – at the behest of our academic tutors – with lots of polite nodding and relativist agreement that ‘yeah, maybe we’re all right,’ none of the usual suspects had offered me much guidance as to what I had to do on that first day in the classroom; or the many weeks after for that matter. You know the ones:
To ensure young people are fit for employment
- To produce well-rounded individuals
- To produce independent learners
- To gift children with a lifelong love of learning
- To enable everyone to serve as a fully democratic citizen
The list obviously goes on. While those above are repeated and echoed ad tedium, a curious addition I later heard was ‘The transmission of culture,’ followed by the increasingly popular ‘to expose young minds to the best of all that has been thought, and written.’ In these last two there was something more… concrete, something more tangible. I appreciated this, but it still didn’t help me with my lessons the next day.
Of course the problem with this exercise is that it is fatuous. Of course we all agreed that all of the above were valid; how could we not! Maybe each of the above is a better answer to the rhetorical question as to the ultimate goal of education, but once again, not one says anything therefore about what teaching should look like tomorrow; it is the languid philosophical debate of the cognoscenti, who need not trouble themselves with the gritty realities of teaching in a classroom.
What is the purpose of education?
None of this is to say it’s an unworthy discussion, just not one that’s going to be any use to a new classroom teacher, and therefore perhaps not one that we should have spent so much time on. By contrast, the quote above made is crystal clear what my role was: build long-term memory.
Suddenly, for the first time, I had direction.
My second quote comes from a Year 10 girl. I had taught her before, though only one lesson per week, in a low-middle set when she was in Year 9. I knew her reasonably well; she had also been in my form. Without going into much detail, she was a classic underachiever; I’m sure you know well the type.
A colleague told us something she said to him:
“What’s the point of learning this?”
Ah well yeah of course, the usual refrain of the truly unengaged. ‘What’s the point, when will I ever need this etc.’ To my surprise, that’s not what she said. To my mind, what she said was far more astute, and somewhat heart-breaking.
“What’s the point of learning this? Next week we’re just going to move on to something else, and we’ll forget it all anyway.”
She wasn’t even at the level of finding what she’d learned pointless; she was fully prepared, fully expecting to learn, and then forget. Surely this is the ultimate in hopelessness? I will work hard, I will learn, I will then immediately forget. Why bother.
What’s the point of learning anything, if we just forget it the next day?
I sat down to help her once some months later, as she worked on a GCSE paper. The question asked her to solve the equation: 2x – 4 = 10. She asked me what to do. I looked at her for a moment in disbelief. One of my enduring memories of this girl had been from my early months of teaching. Taking this group for that one lesson in the week, barely sure what I was supposed to do with them, no idea what they’d been taught up to that point, and somehow trying to help them learn how to solve equations, it turned out she already knew. She could turn an equation like that one into an inverse function machine, and arrive at a solution, with fluid ease. Like many underachievers in mathematics, once she mastered something, she was happy to do it all day. I’d watched her in that lesson effortlessly plough through a good couple of dozen equations exactly like that one, with 100% accuracy. She had undoubtedly ‘learnt’ how to solve equations by most people’s definitions. I told her this; I explained that I remembered watching her solve dozens of equations like that not so long ago. She looked at me perplexed. She couldn’t even remember that she used to know how to do it.
Does memorisation get in the way of learning? Memorisation is learning!
We can talk about ‘understanding’ and ‘problem solving’ and ‘creative thinking’ some other time, no problem. To start, though, let’s at least acknowledge the point made by Kirschner et al.:
“If nothing has changed in long-term memory, nothing has been learned.”
Because what my colleague didn’t know, and couldn’t have known, is that it’s through no fault of this child that they expected to forget, or that they forgot what they once knew. Yes there are those who shun schooling and education, pay no attention, do little work; but even for those who work hard, they will be doomed to forget so much of what they learn, because of what we as their teachers are doing, and how we as the education system are structuring their time and experience in schools.
Though profoundly disturbing, this is in equal measure an exciting opportunity. Imagine schools where things weren’t being incessantly retaught, year after year; where teachers’ resigned laments about how kids can never remember what they did yesterday, were a thing of the past; where the old jokes we’ve all made about forgetting everything the moment we left the exam hall, were no more.
An example I frequently use from my own experience is the proof that the square root of 2 cannot be written as a fraction. Over the past three years, I’ve seen this proof some 4-5 times. I understood it perfectly each time. I have a vague recollection of what’s involved. I cannot recall it. If I cannot recall it, and teach it to someone else… can we really say that I ever learnt it? Would that really be the correct language to use, to say that I once learnt the proof? Perhaps at best we would allow that I learnt it, but then forgot it. Built into our language then, is the idea that to have something memorised, that is to say, to be able to recall it from memory, is to have learnt it.
We can build an education system that empowers minds and breeds intellect at a rate we’ve never seen before, but it must begin by accepting one fundamental premise:
Memorisation is learning.
If not the whole of learning, it is the first step.
Memorisation is learning
So now, if that’s true, why do so many experienced teachers baulk at the idea? Why does Ben Orlin lament memorisation’s role in education? Why do so many, quite rightly, look to the problems in our system and point to memorisation for the regurgitation onto exam papers as a problem?
I’ll try to speak to that next, at least in part, by looking directly at Orlin’s piece on memorisation and learning.