Saturday, October 18, 2008

Memory--It's A Good Thing

Maryanne Wolf’s Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain provides an amazing discussion of both the history and neuroscience of literacy. Wolf, a professor of neuroscience and child development at Tufts University, tells a compelling and sometimes moving story of how the human mind learned, as part of our social evolution, and learns, as children (usually) to read.

I found myself focusing on her analysis of Socrates’ objections to the use of the written word, and it gave me pause to think about how as self-styled “progressives” in our culture we sometimes devalue the ability to remember, recite, and construct cogent, thorough arguments from the stuff of our memory rather than from data amassed from texts. Sometimes the use of memory really is a good thing, and even New Progressivist educators need to acknowledge those places where memory, and memorization, can serve our students well.

Calculators, for example, are great things, but the automatic recall of basic math facts is better. Anyone who has proctored a PSAT or other standardized test has groaned (silently, of course) at the sight of students using their TI-83 graphing wizard machines to do the simple multiplication steps of a problem; it’s a waste of just about everything from battery power to time.

And technology proponents who glibly announce that students don’t need to memorize simple facts (historical dates are frequently cited as the kinds of “useless” memorization that schools impose on their students) because they can always “look them up” fail to adequately acknowledge the role that deeply embedded facts play in giving structure to the rich contexts that we progressive educators try to help students construct. That the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776, for example, doesn’t mean much by itself, it is true, but it is essential in understanding the flow of the American Revolution toward alliance with France and ultimate victory. And why shouldn’t students have some basic knowledge of momentous dates in their nation’s history?

The 1776 datum is also useful in giving students an understanding that the Revolutionary War preceded the American Civil War, which came before World War I and the World War II. I fear I have discovered students in my own classroom who have struggled with this, and it’s the kind of thing that “Polls Show Americans Know Nothing” news stories delight in exposing. Obviously, it’s no longer necessary for chemistry students to memorize the periodic table or to have students master the monarchs of England in order, but some things are important to have learned by heart.

I’ll risk sounding both pedantic and fussy (maybe even Dickensian, for all I know) by suggesting that educators ought to reconsider the wonders of human memory and how it can be effectively harnessed as a tool not just for superficial learning but as part of matrix of elements that go into teaching for deep understanding.

And check out Proust and the Squid—it’s terrific!

1 comment:

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