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Memorization is Still Important, Even in Deeper Learning

October 31, 2017 by

This is the 2nd article in a periodic series on aligning competency-based schools with the learning sciences.

In an earlier post, I described my effort to understand the cognitive learning sciences and begin to make connections with our work in competency-based education. This post, and part of what may become a series, is another effort to ground our work in the learning sciences. And like the earlier post, I will turn to the Deans for Impact Science of Learning. They’ve organized their summary into six questions:

  • How do students understand new ideas?
  • How do students learn and retain new information?
  • How do students solve problems?
  • How does learning transfer to new situations in or outside of the classroom?
  • What motivates students to learn?
  • What are common misconceptions about how students think and learn?

I realized that I have been making a bit of an error in how I talk about the efforts to engage students in the higher level skills, usually level 3 and higher in the different taxonomies such as Webb or Bloom. I’ve tended to judge those schools that have stayed focused on memorization and comprehension without creating opportunity for more analysis and evaluation or applied or deeper learning. I’ve tended to see them as underserving their students, out of touch with the demands of the skills young adults need in today’s world, and even holding low expectations for students. Perhaps they are all those things, but my mistake has been in undervaluing memorization.

Memorization must not, of course, be the end-all of the school experience. However, it must be appreciated and valued in the role it plays in learning and the application of learning. In fact, as we think about helping students develop the skills to be lifelong learners, perhaps we should lift the knowledge about how to memorize in the long-term into that set of skills every student should know. From Science of Learning:

Cognitive Principle: Each subject area has some set of facts that, if committed to long-term memory, aids problem-solving by freeing working memory resources and illuminating contexts in which existing knowledge and skills can be applied. The size and content of this set varies by subject matter.

Practical Implications for the Classroom: Teachers will need to teach different sets of facts at different ages. For example, the most obvious (and most thoroughly studied) sets of facts are math facts and letter-sound pairings in early elementary grades. For math, memory is much more reliable than calculation. Math facts (e.g., 8 x 6 = ?) are embedded in other topics (e.g., long division). A child who stops to calculate may make an error or lose track of the larger problem. Additionally, the advantages of learning to read by phonics are well established.

Discussion for Competency-Based Education Districts and Schools

Before we jump into implications for competency education, it’s worth taking the time to touch on the information processing model, which uses the metaphor of a computer to help us think about how our brains take sensory data, move it into working or short-term memory, and then store it long-term memory. That working memory can only hold seven facts at a time – it’s really limited. If we are using working memory too much, if it fills up, it simply stops taking in more information. So it’s important – really, really, really important – to move things into long-term memory (referred to as encoding). The Khan Academy has a set of in-depth and helpful videos on the subject. Teachers need to be paying attention to what is happening with students as they get flooded with new facts…and we can help students become cognizant of what’s happening with their short-term memory and help them learn techniques for moving facts to long-term memory.

Where does Fluency Fit into Proficiency: I met a young man in an elementary school last year who explained his strategies for learning. I use the term young man because of his clarity and sense of ownership of his learning. He explained the cycle of learning and then talked to me about how he practices. He enthusiastically reported, “I like to get instruction from my teacher for anything new. And sometimes I watch videos she made so I can watch them again if I don’t understand. But when I’m ready to practice, I like to do it on my iPad. I practice until I become fluent.”

Fluent? In the world of competency-based education, we talk about students demonstrating that they can understand and can apply their learning. But rarely do we talk about what is required for students to move facts into long-term memory so they can build fluency. When we don’t help students build fluency, we leave them to always turn to their working memory to help them. This is a HUGE equity issue! If you have to navigate two gangs on the way home, if your dad lost his job, if you don’t know where you are going to live next week or even if there will be dinner on the table, you are going to be use your working memory for survival. The least we can do is to help move those school-facts into long-term memory so you can use them without thinking. (It also suggests why teaching mindfulness in schools might be powerful.)

Balanced Set of Expectations: We spend a lot of time in the world of competency-based education trying to figure out how to clearly talk about the new definitions of success that will emphasize:

  1. Students need opportunity to practice and effective feedback to build the habits, social-emotional skills, and metacognitive skills to become independent, lifelong learners. In short, they need to learn how to learn and be able to do it well.
  2. Students need to learn academic knowledge (often referred to as content), academic skills, and how to apply them using the transferrable skills such as collaboration, creativity, and communication.

In the draft paper Meeting Students Where They Are, the authors explain, “Competency-based learning is not about learning skills instead of content; it’s about learning critical skills that empower learners to seek out and engage with content more deeply, meaningfully, and productively.” That is just spot on.

Yet, in the blogs, articles, and reports that circulate in our world, there are often references to the fact that we live in a different age and we can just look up facts. We downplay academic content beyond math and literacy skills as something we can just look up. And of course we can just look them up. The problem is if we can’t remember the facts, then it makes it really hard to use them.

We don’t use one fact at a time in complex problem-solving. We are drawing on lots of facts, analyzing them, valuing them, putting them together. We have to juggle a multitude of facts, vocabulary, and concepts – especially in interdisciplinary projects. If students are going to have to look them up each time, if they are going to have to turn to their notes over and over again to remember how history unfolded, the periodic table, or the geographic layout of our fifty states, they are going to be busy storing all those facts into the working memory (an image of a chipmunk it’s cheeks full of acorns just popped into my head). What brain power is going to be left over for all that deep inquiry and analysis we want them to do?

Where does all of this lead us? Back to the cognitive principles and classroom practices for helping students to learn and retain information.

And dear colleagues, as I’ve said, I’m learning my way through the learning sciences and implications for our work. So it’s likely I’m going to get some things wrong. Or let’s think of them as opportunities for learning. Since one of the lessons from the learning sciences is that misconceptions can take hold and have to be intentionally uprooted, please don’t be silent if you see an error or misinterpretation. Please leave a comment, resources, etc. And I’ll revise my articles as I learn more.

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