Musings on Memory work

Recent fascination with brain science and its relevance to learning has led me to think about the importance of good memorisation skills. A bit of context to provide premise:

This video (TED talk) by Lara Boyd describe how the brain changes due to stimuli and learning. It ranges from chemical, structural to functional.

It ties in nicely with Information Processing theory  which posits that learning happens when stimulus processed in working-memory (Boyd’s chemical change) moves to long-term memory (Boyd’s structural change). This learning theory makes sense to me, perhaps because of its strong parallelism with how computers work (full disclosure: I’m a computing teacher so this may be rather biased).

It also ties in nicely with Retrieval Practice which the Learning Scientists explain as a useful study method for what we want to remember later, i.e. really learn.  This corresponds to Boyd’s structural change in the brain.

Good memory is important for long-term learning. Yet, as a “lower-order thinking” skill,  it is not given enough focus and sometimes ridiculed as a process of regurgitating useless facts. On an old post on multiplication, I said that one of the problems kids have is that they don’t know their times table. The lack of automacity creates extra cognitive load and can create/exacerbate maths anxiety.

I’m an ESL-speaker. I work hard at growing my vocabulary and that means memorising new words. When I’m tired, words don’t come as easily and I’m more prone to make grammatical mistakes. It can be like this with students learning subject-specific jargon. We’ve got to give them opportunities to learn and memorise the words.

Anyway, I thought that perhaps the reason memory work has low value currently is due to wide espousal of Blooms Taxonomy, a hierarchy learning objectives with Remembering right at the bottom of the hierarchy.  My musings on this include:

  • ‘Taxonomy’  is a way to classify, not necessarily a hierarchy.
  • ‘Levels’ don’t necessarily equate to value; lower levels provide the foundation on which higher levels build upon.
  • Why is it sequential instead of spiral?
  • It’s more a system. A spiral system that cycles from recall up to synthesis and on through next lot of learning material

I was actually surprised to see that my criticism based on experience have already been noted in Wikipedia’s entry.

Memorisation is not evil. I admit it shouldn’t be the only focus and we should develop higher order thinking skills. Sometimes, when we focus on one thing, we do forget the bigger picture. This post is to re-calibrate the import of  memorisation as a crucial thinking and learning skill.

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