This is a good example of how misunderstood memory is. The idea was famously immortalised in Arthur Conan Doyle’s work:
I consider that a man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things, so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it. Now the skillful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic. He will have nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work, but of these he has a large assortment, and all in the most perfect order. It is a mistake to think that that little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent. Depend upon it there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge you forget something that you knew before. It is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones.
It’s just not true. There is such a thing as ‘retrieval induced forgetting,’ but this is distinct from and far more nuanced than ‘I’ve learnt something new, and therefore had to forget something else to make space.’
Our brain’s capacity has been shown to be so large as to be effectively limitless.
Only the super-smart could learn all this
“I think that many students would not have the intellectual ability to learn them, and indeed they would be put off Geography if this happened. “
“I think it is a noble aim, but arguably an arbitrary one, and one which would cause considerable distress to young people who may for a variety of reasons find such a task either incredibly difficult or indeed impossible.”
I think the first and third comments here were the most heart-breaking. As a maths teacher, I have to deal with low expectations all the time. Pupils and adults almost desperately want you to confirm their belief that ‘they can’t do maths,’ or ‘their chid can do maths,’ or will want to tell you that ‘I don’t / my child doesn’t have a maths brain,’ so that they can be excused from trying and failing. Combatting this maths anxiety and the sad myth of ability is something to which Bruno Reddy has now turned his hand.
There does exist a small, very small minority of people who would certainly not be able to memorise all these facts. These would be people you’d have to be happy to categorise with serious cognitive impediment, however, and that’s likely to be 1 or 2% of the population (made up statistic alert). For everyone else, it’s certainly possible, but our system is so set up that perhaps few have witnessed this kind of success yet. If you were one of those people, and doubted whether ‘virtually everyone’ could achieve this, then I would only ask you to think about the kid who is struggling with everything in school, but can tell you every fact about all those football players in the premiere league, as an example. There’s nothing wrong with their mind.
Here are a few examples of other people who’ve done work to break down this grotesque myth of ability.
Michel Tomas – in this documentary he took twelve seventeen-year-olds who failed French the year before, including one who was told she would never be able to learn a language, and taught them all to an intermediate level in one week.
Carol Dweck – as a Teach Firster I’ve heard so much about Dweck that sometimes I forget not everyone knows who she is! Dweck published Mindset, which (I think) first popularised the ideas of Growth and Fixed Mindsets in education. She taught us that effort matters more than ‘born intelligence,’ and explained how carefully chosen words, such as the power of ‘yet,’ can have a huge impact on the mindsets of those we teach.
John Mighton – published the appropriately named Myth of Ability. In it he gives anecdotal stories of his experiences tutoring kids in Canada who supposedly ‘couldn’t learn maths.’ He advocates for state-funded one-to-one tuition for those who are behind their peers, arguing that it can dramatically accelerate their learning to the point where they overtake those around them. He also has some very interesting ideas for teaching mathematics.
Siegfried Engelmann – has designed all manner of instructional courses principally available in America, and also published a savage diatribe attacking US state education for its apparent willingness to let people fail. Like Mighton and Thomas, he argues that if a child hasn’t learnt or understood something then it is the fault of the teacher, not the student. He does differentiate in this between instructional failings and behavioural failings i.e. if a child wasn’t listening to their teacher, or didn’t do the things they asked them to do, then of course it cannot be the fault of instruction that they didn’t learn. Whereas, if the child does all that the teacher asks of them and still doesn’t learn it cannot be considered the fault of the child; it must be the fault of the instruction (note, of the instruction, more so than the teacher per se.)
The idea that people view something as mundanely simplistic as ‘memorise 195 countries, capitals and locations’ as being beyond the capability of most human beings is a grievous tragedy. It is just spectacular that anyone could think this way… What on Earth did we do to plummet expectations and respect for human intellect to such depths…