Monday, February 10, 2014

Remember How to Remember

Let's face an obvious truth in education.
You can't learn what you can't remember
You can't reflect on what you can't remember
You can't apply what you can't remember

The prerequisite to being able to comprehend, analyze, evaluate, categorize, debate, or carry out any kind of higher-order thinking process is to first simply recall the information. 

Therefore, one of the critical pieces to learning is memory.

Fortunately, we now have an entire field devoted to the neuroscience of memory. We are able to identify practices that improve memory and those that hinder, or even prevent, it.
In fact, a great example of what we are learning on this topic can be found in a webinar from EdWeb, presented by Sandra Aamodt.

One of the discoveries about memory that makes a lot of sense is the realization that teaching concepts in isolation of other concepts is a sure fire way to keep kids from remembering them. The brain naturally looks for patterns and relationships among pieces of information. Retention always increases when facts are learned in context and when they are connected to one another.

In fact, according to Dr. Aamodt, all learning is "re-learning" in a way because of how the brain organizes information each time it processes it. When the brain does not see the relevance to future activity or a connection to previous learning, it does not see the value in retaining the new teaching despite how fabulous a presentation might have been given in introducing the concept. The brain will simply dump the information.

This is not a matter of weak willpower, negative attitudes, poor classroom management, student irresponsibility, or any other fault of the teacher or student. It is neuroscience. It is how our brains work! 

It is, therefore, problematic that we often teach a ridiculously overwhelming amount of content in our schools and don't allow the time and space for the brain to make connections and organize the information properly for later retention. It is also disturbing when we then blame students' lack of studying and label them as "not caring" when they cannot recall all this information on tests and assignments.

Are some students irresponsible? 
Do some students refuse to study, which leads to poor academic achievement? 
Of course. 

However, if we are going to be professionally honest, then we have to face the fact that it is equally irresponsible on our part as educators to ignore the reality of brain functioning when it comes to academic performance!

Perhaps our starting point should be to focus on the teaching/learning process itself. How do the things we have control over in our system affect memory?

If we know that what we do makes a difference in what and how children remember, then at what point does it become a form of systemic, professionally endorsed "child neglect" if it does not change our scope and sequence, assessment practices, and instruction?

1 comment:

  1. What could changes in our practices look like to help memory?

    For example, we know that CHOICE is critical to learning. In assessments, we know that open-ended questions help retention more than multiple choice questions. When studying, we know that quizzing yourself is a step up from just reading over your notes. These are examples of "tweaks" that help, but what ideas does anyone have that could make a big or little difference?

    What else could we change about instruction, curriculum, assessments, etc.?