What are we teaching them?

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June 18, 2013 by k. liz

I started a new book last week and was surprised with how quickly I became fascinated. The book is called Moonwalking With Einstein, and it is about memory: why is it important and how can we use it more effectively. And that’s just the first two chapters. The rest of the book is supposed to follow Joshua Foer’s journey to try and become a contestent in a Memory Championship competition. I haven’t gotten very far yet, but already the book has made me stop and think through what we are teaching.

Are we teaching bits and pieces of information that should be retained to be called up when asked for, or are we teaching students skills to know how and where to look for new information? Does this change in the language classroom?

I have been one of those teachers who has wondered and discussed with colleagues why we teach students dates and names when really, in this modern world, they need to be able to find and know how to utilize information rather than memorize it. I’m still thinking through this, and I am sure that when I come to a conclusion, there is still going to be a measure of that ideology present. I have some very strong thoughts about teaching discourse and literacy skills {which will have to wait for another day}, but I must admit that this book has made me stop and think a little about the value of memory. To be honest, even when it comes to vocabulary lists, I tend to find ways to help students ‘figure it out’ rather than memorize. Am I doing them a disservice? That’s all I’ll wonder about here for now, since I haven’t finished the book. I’ll be back later when I do, but I for now I want to share some quotes:

Memory training was considered a form of character building, a way of developing the cardinal virtue of prudence and, by extension, ethics. Only through memorizing, the thinking went, could ideas truly be incorporated into one’s psyche and their values absorbed.

It’s not memorization that’s evil, [Tony Buzan] says; it’s the tradition of boring rote learning that he believes has corrupted Western education. “What we have been doing over the last century is defining memory incorrectly, understanding it incompletely, applying it inappropriately, and condemning it because it doesn’t work and isn’t enjoyable,”

Once upon a time, memory was at the root of all culture, but over the last thirty millennia since humans began painting their memories on cave walls, we’ve gradually supplanted our own natural memory with a vast superstructure of external memory aids—a process that has sped up exponentially in recent years.

The externalization of memory not only changed how people think; it also led to a profound shift in the very notion of what it means to be intelligent. Internal memory became devalued. Erudition evolved from possessing information internally to knowing how and where to find it in the labyrinthine world of external memory.


I’d love to hear your ideas about the matter: is memory a lost art that should be revived and appreciated, or is it outdated and unnecessary? Is there an arguably useful reason for encouraging students to use their memories rather than simply externalizing them?


Sidenote: Thanks to Everyday Reading for putting the book on her reading list, thereby bumping it onto mine! 🙂


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