Memory in education, or “I can always look it up”

I did one of those things teachers should never do.  I asked students just starting out in my Social Issues and Social Change class a specific question about material they might have learned in previous classes.   I have to take the results with a lot of salt: I asked on the first day of class, they did not all have the same courses before, and the term “social theory” was not clear to all of them.

I asked them to name one social theory they could recall from a previous class (sociology, economics, political science, or psychology), whether they “liked” it or not, and why.  When they told me they weren’t certain, I named some psychological theories.  When they were still uncertain, I named some sociological theories.

Their written responses showed, at best, fuzzy memories: terms they recalled but couldn’t define, or the outline of some research without solid recall of the terminology, and several folks who honestly reported that they could not remember any theories from their courses.

In dozens of teacher workshops, we hear about Bloom’s taxonomy of learning domains, a hierarchy in which recall and memory form the lowest level of knowledge.  When Bloom developed this pyramid in 1956, I think he intended to show how knowledge has been built up – but it’s been used quite differently since then.  There is a lot of disdain for rote memorization in many of the liberal arts – perhaps less so in classes such as anatomy, where the body parts simply have to be learned, or beginning languages, where one has to learn the vocabulary.  In general, though, we are encouraged to emphasize critical thinking, analysis, synthesis, creativity: all at the higher end of Bloom’s taxonomy.

Bloom’s pyramid presents a reality we’re overlooking.  If we cannot readily recall facts, names, the basic principles of a field, the dates of major historical events, and hundreds of other bits of information, we don’t have much to think critically or analytically about.   Without factual information, we don’t have anything to comprehend – the next level in Bloom’s pyramid – either.  Comprehension requires knowing the relationships among the facts, so that they gain meaning from their context.  No memorized facts, no comprehension that lasts.  (When I read Caritas in Veritate last summer, it was certainly a work-out for my memory and comprehension of dozens of social theories and positions!)

And so on up the scale: Application of the knowledge certainly requires that we retain it.  I can’t analyze the factors leading up to the economic meltdown of 2008 if I don’t remember the housing crash and its details, or don’t remember exactly what distinguished an investment bank from the other banks.   Evaluation is impossible without those details; synthesis or creative solutions that build on other ideas requires an in-depth knowledge of those earlier ideas.

As faculty, we moan and groan privately over coffee about the declining quality of student work, how little they know, that their thinking is fuzzy and unfocused.  Yet we are the ones who teach as though it is possible to fly to the top of the pyramid of Bloom’s taxonomy, rather than building it brick-by-brick out of facts read, learned, studied, re-learned and rehearsed until they are second nature.  I remember the refrain of some students in my graduate program: “Why learn it by heart? I can always look it up.”  We had the book in hand; it seemed so true.  But it was not.

I cannot look up the theory whose name I can’t remember, or find the fact that would strengthen (or demolish) an argument I’m building, if I do not have that lowest, most foundational level of knowledge.  We do our students a disservice when we imply that we can teach them to think critically without emphasizing the content of that thought, or when we pass along a dismissive attitude towards rote memorization.

Hugh of St. Victor, in the late 11th and early 12th century, wrote about the method of education at the famous  school at the Abbey of  St. Victor, outside of Paris.  Books were rare – manuscripts copied by hand – and the amount of knowledge needed to succeed as a statesman, member of the court, scholar, theologian, or bishop was great.  Methods of memory training were an important part of education, and were taught  in the schools along with the content.  In the process, scholars made an important discovery:  when people learn vast amounts of organized information, their minds naturally begin to make connections, to contrast and compare, to expect similar outcomes from similar historical events and to ask “why?” when they differ.  The mind, trained not only to retain information, but to organize and re-organize it as new information was obtained, moved up Bloom’s hierarchy of learning: applying, analyzing, evaluating, synthesizing.

In this modern age, we no longer pass along methods for organizing the barrage of factual information launched at our students.  They accumulate hundreds or thousands of flash cards as they move through our courses, but without a structure, a skeleton, they are like the fallen leaves of autumn: detached from any framework, they dry up and blow away.   Although the student has a grade and credit on a transcript (and probably student loans to be repaid), she or he does not access to the knowledge from that class.

Is the knowledge entirely gone? Probably not – if something from outside sparks it, most students can recall at least the trace or some part of it.  They don’t have independent access – but repeated sparks may cement it more readily in place.  Perhaps the reason a college education takes four years is, in part, that it takes time for topics to come up over and over again.

On the other hand, there are probably things we can do as teachers to emphasize the importance of factual knowledge – of knowing crisply, with specific detail – in order to think clearly.  I will probably be asking questions like this more often, and trying to help students find the handles to the knowledge so that they can pull it out again whenever they need it.

And I plan to object anytime I hear someone say, “I can always look it up.”

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