I touched on this topic in a previous post. I’d like to explore it in more detail here.
I recently met the COO of Memrise, Ben Whately. He gave me a good analogy for how memory works by suggesting it’s like a party. If someone new enters the party and they don’t know anyone there they might stand by the peanuts for a little while, have a few sips of their drink, and then leave. On the other hand if you welcome them in and introduce them to a few other guests, maybe they’ll stay a while longer.
The more connected a piece of knowledge is to other pieces of knowledge, the greater its storage strength, and the more likely it is going to be possible to still retrieve the memory in the future. This isn’t the only way to build storage strength, but it is one, and it is important.
To understand what I mean when I talk about ‘storage strength’ and ‘ability to retrieve’ take a look at the image below, and consider the green curve to be storage strength, and the orange curve to be ability to retrieve.
This image was really designed – over 100 years ago – to show how forgetting lessened with repeated testing, but it still serves as a good visualisation for the interplay between memory storage strength and ability to retrieve a memory.
It’s this facet of memory – connected knowledge -> improved storage strength – that leads people down the ‘if you understand something you are more likely to remember it’ route. That phrase is the result of an incomplete understanding of how memory works, based on intuition and experience, but without theoretical underpinning or research. There is obviously some sort of truth to it, but the phrase as it is on its own just isn’t quite representative of reality.
If you do ‘fully understand’ something, then chances are it is connected to lots of other ideas. In some cases this will aid future retrieval. However, it’s actually entirely possible to understand something and then completely fail to recall it at a later date, just consider every documentary you ever watched for a plethora of easy examples. For me, proof that Root(2) is irrational is one that I saw again and again, understood every time, and still couldn’t recall from memory. Understanding does not equal memorised (just as memorised does not equate with understood.)
What is a framework?
A framework, in the context that I’m using it, is a web of connected knowledge, mostly simplistic, factual.
Countries and capitals is one for geography, but there are other possibilities, rivers for example, or mountain ranges.
In any given domain it would make sense to have more than one framework, so all three of the above might be possible frameworks for facilitating geographical understanding.
Why might they be important?
These are the guests at the party; you’re going to introduce the new knowledge to them. Without the party guests, you’re inviting someone to be all alone in an empty room – sounds a bit dull, maybe they’ll just leave now.
Taking the times tables as an example framework for mathematics, they can be memorised, requiring zero working memory space to process the results of, say, 7 x 8. There are other benefits beyond this, however. Because they are memorised all those numbers are connected together in long-term memory, easily retrieved when needed, and they will be accessed when meeting something else that might connect to them. For example, when learning to simplify fractions, you might quickly spot that both numbers in 49/63 are in the 7 times table and therefore be able to easily recognise this as a fraction that can be simplified, and how to simplify it. If you were able to procedurally calculate that 7 x 7 = 49 an 7 x 9 = 63, but you hadn’t memorised those facts, you would struggle to find a number that went into both 49 and 63, struggle to recognise it as a fraction not in simplest form, and might fail with it completely.
Other examples might include square numbers up to 144, cube numbers up to 125, and prime numbers up to 100.
Why only up to these limits? Well it’s enough that a child in school has sufficient numbers facts to work with to practice other procedural skills and spot the patterns they reveal, but not so many as to become overwhelming and a bit of a waste of time.
Considering the countries and capitals, you can rest assured that you’ll have some means of spatially interpreting almost anything that takes place anywhere in the world. As you go through life beyond school perhaps this will also aid the chances of that ‘organic learning’ mentioned before; the Matthew Effect comes into play once again, the more you know, the more you learn, the more your understanding of the world deepens and develops.
Frameworks are broad but shallow groups of ideas that help us make some sense of new information, new knowledge in a domain, and help us to make sense of the world around us, all while making it easier to hold on to new information with less effort.