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7 Life Lessons: A Letter to My Students

Graduations remind me of diving boards: parents and teachers become spectators, waiting to see each student jump, spring, and dive into ...

Monday, 21 March 2011

Does Memory Matter?

Does Memory matter? Should students ever memorize anything?
Before mass literacy became the norm, people relied entirely on their memories for information. Teachers had to lecture and “teach,” and students had to memorize information because that was how all information was preserved and transmitted. Obviously, with the emergence of writing and reading, people became far less reliant on the spoken word for information, for stories, for ideas. People didn’t have to remember things anymore because they could write them down and then refer to the written word.
 In his travel book Nine Lives, William Dalrymple examines the remnants of the oral tradition in India today and then asserts that literacy kills the oral tradition. When people become literate, they lose their ability (or inclination? Or need?) to memorize and recite thousands of verses of poetry that have been transmitted orally from one generation to the next. Similarly, the cognitive psychologist Maryanne Wolf, in her book Proust and Squid: The Science and Story of the Reading Brain, describes Socrates' fears as he watched the world around him transfom from an oral society to a literate one. Among other fears, Socrates worried that a literate world would suffer from memory loss. People would begin relying on the written word, and in the process, they would lose their ability to memorize and remember.
When the world begins to change in revolutionary ways, much is gained, but much is also lost. Clearly, the written world brought tremendous benefits to our societies. It enabled us to communicate across distance and time. It allowed us access to far more information than we could ever commit to memory. And it made the preservation and the acquisition of knowledge much easier. It also made knowledge far more accessible, and thereby democratized knowledge in ways unheard of before. However, a newly literate world also saw the loss of a whole way of life. The written word doesn’t have the same life and vibrancy as the spoken word does. When one speaks, one communicates through language but also through tone, intonation, gesture, and expression. There is something alive and warm about listening to a story or watching a play.  There is a social element to the spoken word and the oral tradition that is lost when one engages in the solitary pleasure of a book. And of course, as so many thinkers and writers assert, when one begins to read and write, one stops committing words to memory.
I watched my own son “lose” his ability to memorize whole books as he became acquainted with the written word. As a preliterate toddler, he memorized  his storybooks word for word because he still had to rely on his memory to access information and stories.  Of course, at the time, I was convinced that he was a genius, but after a little research on the subject, I realized that this was very normal toddler behaviour. However,as he slowly and painstakingly became literate, he no longer recited and remembered every word in his books. He relied much less on his memory, and as a result, his capacity to memorize seems to have rusted over time.  Now, as a literate person, he can just look at the book and read the words; he doesn’t need to remember his books.
Does research support this idea that literacy kills or harms our memory? Apparently not. The only study I’ve encountered so far is by the French neuroscientist Stanislas Dehaene, who claims that the opposite is true. In his book Reading in the Brain, he cites a variety of experiments that he performed on literate and illiterate women in Portugal and concludes that the literate people had better memories. However, while there is no scientific evidence to suggest that literacy harms our ability to remember, there is tremendous evidence that it eliminates our need to remember. Writing simply removes the necessity of memorizing.
Which leads me to my next point: if literacy eliminates the need for memory, then what does technology do? With all our gadgets – laptops, blackberries, cell phones, ipods, and iphones – do we ever need to remember anything? When I teach now, I can look up pretty much anything instantaneously.  As a kid, I used to remember people’s phone numbers, but now, there is no real need for me to do this. It’s faster for me to retrieve a number from my cell phone contact list than it is for me to retrieve the number from my memory. From phone numbers to historical dates to poems to mathematical formulae: the answers are all a click away. And with the assurance that all this material exists outside us, safely stored in words and numbers on our various gadgets, we don’t have to bother to remember anything. So,  in a world where we are all electronically connected all the time, is memory totally and utterly redundant? We have our electronic memories, so do we need our human memories at all?
With this huge shift from a print based world to an electronic world, we are even less reliant on our memories than we used to be. So should educators make students memorize anything? Is there any value in memorizing a poem? Is there any value in memorizing historical dates and scientific facts? We still make students do this kind of work on a routine basis. Kids have to memorize and recite poems and Shakespeare speeches. They have to memorize historical information and scientific facts.  Are there benefits to committing information to memory? Should we be asking kids to remember things for “closed-book tests and exams” or should all our assessments be open book and open laptop assessments? What is the connection between memorizing and learning? Does an English student benefit from memorizing a beautiful poem? Perhaps. I’m not really sure. I know that I ask my students to memorize very little. They are always allowed to use their books and their computers for assignments, tests, projects, and presentations. Yet, this is obviously a huge shift in education. For millennia, educators have demanded that students commit vast quantities of information to memory. But has memory now become an obsolete tool of the past?

Lighting a Fire

“Such fire in the heart of the twig!
Without being struck,
How will it ignite?”  (Kabir, Baahar Kyon Bhatke?)
Kabir, the 15th century mystic poet, poses this rhetorical question, and then goes on to suggest that self-discovery is the means to striking and igniting this twig.  As an educator, I believe that Kabir’s question is central to the very purpose of education since an educator’s goal is to help students discover themselves and unleash their own potential.
As a high school teacher, I spend much of my time contemplating the very idea of learning. What does it mean to learn? And how does one learn most effectively? And, importantly, what is the connection between learning and teaching? Oscar Wilde once wisely commented that “education is an admirable thing, but it is well to remember from time to time that nothing worth knowing can be taught.” The more I ponder what it means to learn, the more I become convinced that learning is an active process. We cannot learn by being taught. When we learn, we must be the subjects (not the objects) of the learning process.  We can only learn by actively engaging with an idea or a problem, and then constructing and creating meaning for ourselves. Memorizing information is not learning; it may be useful, but I don’t really think it is the same as learning. To learn, we must understand and/or create.  If learning is in fact something that the student must do on his or her own, then what is the role of the teacher? And what is teaching? What is the connection between what I do in the classroom and what my students learn?
The first step towards effective teaching is gaining an understanding of what it means to learn. Once a teacher fully acknowledges that learning has to be active, that it cannot be passive, then the teacher has to cede much of the power in the classroom to students and create a classroom environment that provides students with opportunities to engage actively with texts, problems, ideas, words, technology, art etc. Popular educational jargon advocates that teachers should be the “guides on the side” instead of the “sages on the stage.”
When I think back to my most memorable learning experiences, I realize that many (most) of them occurred outside the classroom. I have vivid memories of warm summer days in Kodaikanal, when I was seven years old. Every afternoon, I would take my book and sit quietly under the shade of the big wide tree in front of our summer house. I’d open up to a dog-eared page and enter a magical world of enchanted forests and adventurous lands. I would slowly work my way through a couple of chapters each afternoon, and finally, a few days before our Kodai vacation ended, I finished that last chapter. Even today, I remember the exhilaration I felt as I read an entire chapter book independently for the very first time. I learnt many important things that summer: that I could read on my own, that reading was magical, that ideas and imagination are wondrous. I learnt new words and new ways of structuring sentences and narratives. No one taught me anything, but I learnt so much. Since that first book, I have had many, many intense learning experiences through my engagement with books, stories, and ideas. And, most often, I have not had a teacher guiding me through these learning experiences.
Much of my learning has come from my experiences. When I watched my father suffer and die, I learned powerful lessons about the human experience, and similarly, when I experienced the miracle of pregnancy and birth, I learned equally powerful lessons about life and humanity. One cannot be taught these things, but they are incredibly powerful, moving, frightening, and humbling learning experiences.
Through my travels and my various teaching experiences, I have learned much about people, culture, history, politics, language, and life. As a child, I understood the brutal inequities that characterize Indian society because I saw them all around me; I could see the stark contrast between the privileged life I led as a child and the tough lives that our domestic helpers lived. As an adult, I began to fully understand the ways in which privileged people like me cause and perpetuate these inequities. I began to see the mechanisms that cause and sustain these brutal disparities.
Similarly, I began to fully understand the politics of race and class in America when I worked as a teacher in a failing middle school in Baltimore city. I began to understand the rage that simmers and explodes in disenfranchised Black communities across America. And I began to see how institutionalized racism works to create a two-tiered world in the richest country on our planet.
And of course, as I supplemented these real world experiences with books and conversations, I began to understand these experiences more fully. I learn when I see, when I interact with people, when I read, when I think. That is how I learn. I know that for many people, learning occurs when they engage with the natural world, with a machine, or with objects. That is how visually-spatially oriented people learn.  Regardless of what or who one engages with to learn, the key to learning is the process of active engagement. Of reading, of thinking, of painting, of programming, of talking, of looking. We learn when we use our brains and our bodies to do something active. We don’t learn when a teacher talks unless we are really listening carefully and thinking critically about what the teacher is saying. If learning is, in fact, a process that occurs independently of a teacher, then what are teachers for? What’s our real role? What do we teachers need to do to facilitate the learning process?
Once a teacher begins to understand the nature of learning, she must alter what she does in a classroom. She must begin to focus not on her own teaching but on the learning process of her students. How does one do this? Is the key in the choice of topics and texts to give students? Is it in the design of activities and tasks for students to work on? Is it in the conversations (discussions and debates, for example) that one has with students, or, better yet, that one facilitates between students in the classroom? Is it in the feedback we give students as they work through sustained projects over time? Is teaching really about motivating or inspiring a child to begin that process of active engagement? And if so, how should a teacher motivate or inspire? By modelling a love of learning? By designing tasks that motivate and inspire? By rewarding effort and initiative? How should a classroom be structured to truly facilitate deep and thoughtful learning?