Remember me!

“Remember thee! Ay, poor ghost, whiles memory holds a seat in this distracted globe …”

Hamlet couldn’t do what he had to do unless he could remember what it was he was avenging. In fact, later on in the play, he needed a reminder from his father’s ghost to prod him on to action. In the end, remembering wasn’t enough – but it was nevertheless essential. Necessary is not the same as sufficient.

To take a more prosaic example. I’m deciding whether to buy a car, but the fuel figures are in kilometres per litre and I need to convert them to miles per gallon. What was the formula again? Or there’s a great finance deal (apparently) but I have a nagging feeling there was a phrase to look out for in the small print. If only I could remember . . .

If the legacy of your education consists of a spirit of enquiry, a curiosity about the world, and a creative outlook on life, in such a situation your first response is probably to look up Google. There is another option, of course: you can believe the man with the fake smile on the other side of the desk, tapping his fingers gently and raising his eyebrows just a little to let you know that you are really not up to this stuff and should just follow his advice. This is what the phrase “knowledge is power” looks like in real life.

When I started out on my post-graduate studies after a number of years teaching, I had several clear questions in mind. Foremost was: “Why do my students forget things I’ve taught them (when I’ve done it so well)?” This question arose when I taught the same class two years in a row. Not only could they not remember me teaching them about paragraphs, they couldn’t even remember the topic being taught at all. Suddenly, all those times I had asked myself “what did their teacher do with them last year?” became clearer. It wasn’t that we weren’t teaching the right stuff. We just weren’t teaching it so that the students remembered it.

Why does this matter? Surely you just re-teach it. That’s why it matters. Time. The  accumulation of knowledge assumed by the curriculum wasn’t happening, certainly not for a large number of students. They were well-behaved, they were willing; they complied with my lessons, which were sometimes good and sometimes not; but I wasn’t teaching it so that they remembered it. So their valuable learning time was being wasted through re-teaching, year after year. And I couldn’t figure out why.

It turned out that the work had all been done. The research was in long ago. It was just that, when I trained, either our lecturers didn’t know or didn’t care. They certainly never prioritised teaching students to remember. All that research, effort, expenditure, publishing –  simply ignored because it wasn’t that interesting – or perhaps not “higher order” enough.

But teacher educators, as parents, will happily drill their own children, using repetition, repeated reading, oral recitation, turn-taking, modelling, corrective feedback and fluency building to ensure long-term success. It’s just that somehow these things don’t belong in the classroom. They are seen as “behavioural”, “prescriptive”, “didactic”, “lower order” . . . the list can be as long as the piece of string you want to “construct”.

But memory is glorious. It is core to who we are. It links experiences, enables us to reason, compare, and ultimately to imagine. It is therefore central to personality. Ask anyone who has lost a loved one to some form of dementia, and they will tell you that they lost that person long before they died. Of all the dazzling array of human faculties, I hold memory to be core.

So when we gloss over forgetting, when we minimise failure, when we allow students to clutter their heads with garbage, when we fail to teach work rate, self-discipline, or ways of memorising, we build into students’ minds a view of themselves that diminishes the importance of memory and infantilises their expectations of themselves. We produce students who are astounded at the idea of memorising four lines of poetry, who do not believe they can learn multiplication tables, who cannot conceive of remembering quotations, who gape when their teacher recites a poem without a book. If we are not teaching students to remember, we are teaching students to fail.

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