Posted tagged ‘memory’

In memoriam

May 11, 2011

If you were to ask me whether I applaud the key learning methodology of many school examinations – learning by rote – I would argue strongly that it is counter-productive and dangerous and doesn’t prepare students for what will happen in higher education. On the other hand, if you ask me whether students should be encouraged to memorise some things, I would immediately say yes. Contradiction? Perhaps, but in the end it is about using the right methods for the appropriate processes.

The key pedagogical requirement for the transition from secondary school to university is understanding. At this stage of the educational journey students need to become familiar with critical analysis and judgement, and this is not something you achieve if you treat all knowledge as being about repeating facts and data that have been presented to you. In this frame of reference even opinion and analysis become data, and no intellectual insight is gained.

On the other hand, education needs to be founded on knowledge, and I have never doubted that this will involve some learning of basic facts. I am horrified, for example, when the task of multiplying 6 by 7 prompts people to take out a calculator; or when someone indicates they have no idea in which century the first world war was fought; or when nobody is able to recite even part of one poem. In fact, when I was recently talking to a group of young people they suggested that learning by rote was discouraged at the start of the educational experience, when in fact it could do a lot of good, but encouraged towards the end of their time at school when its use is much more questionable. So are we doing this the wrong way round?

It is interesting that the subject is now getting some wider attention. In this article on the BBC’s news website the writer suggests that learning by rote is making a comeback, and that it is recognised that in certain jobs and professions – for example, acting or being a London taxi driver – such skills are important. But it is equally important just for the purposes of navigating ourselves through life, where the ability to recall facts and figures is often extremely useful.

There is currently a view held by a number of influential people that many young people don’t have these skills. A year or two ago some senior business leaders in Ireland suggested that students coming out of the educational system were often seriously illiterate and innumerate, and it has recently been reported that similar views are held by British businesspeople. Even if this were wrong, the fact that this is a widely held perception is itself damaging and requires some corrective action.

All in all, this is another example of the need to look more carefully at how we plan the educational experience; and an example of how often we get it wrong.

Clearly remembering Whatsisname

June 21, 2009

I must confess that I have an absolutely terrible memory for people. I can remember really obscure moments in my life and repeat verbatim what someone said to me in 1978, I can retrace any route I drove by car at any time in the past. and I can recite any number of poems by heart; but I can walk past someone I sat next to at dinner two weeks ago without recognising them. Or maybe if I’m lucky, I’ll recall seeing them before without having the slightest idea who they are. It’s an embarrassing failing, because people must often assume I am arrogant or rude.

Generally speaking I am fine with people in whose company I am on a regular basis. I have never failed to recognise or remember the names of my immediate family, thank God. And on the whole I am good with colleagues. Though there was that one meeting in my last job, when I was Head of my Department, and I had to introduce all staff to an important visitor. I was doing fine going round the room, but saw a group of three senior colleagues at the end of the row out of the corner of my eye as I was still introducing others. These were important colleagues. And as my introductions were moving towards them, I knew that I could not remember their names, and this realisation and the slight panic that came with it made it even more certain that I wouldn’t now remember. So, without missing a beat, I just made up names for them as I got as far as them, and winked at them. They were not cross, and we laughed about it afterwards. And it taught me that as long as I go and eat humble pie later, that is a good way to get over such tricky moments.

I suppose it is really incomprehensible to me that someone with a really good memory for all sorts of things, including trivia, can fail to recall names of people. I believe I am an outgoing person who mixes well and networks well, and so this failing is both curious and sometimes annoying. I have become an expert in introducing people to each other without mentioning either of their names. And as far as I know, nobody has ever taken offence. Except my family, who are by now sick and tired of me asking in the middle of a movie, ‘Who the hell is that actor, I’ve seen him before?’

And yet I imagine I am not quite alone. It’s not, after all, a question of remembering the 30 people I spend most of my time with. It’s remembering the 4,000 or so students I once taught, the colleagues I have worked with, the obscure relations three times removed who occasionally cross my path, the 2,000 people who have sought me out in my office at one time or another (don’t worry, I didn’t go back to my calendar and add them all up, it’s a wild guess). I am sure others have the same problem. So when I meet people whom I know but who are clearly having a problem remembering me, I don’t leave them in their distress but find a quick way of confirming who I am.

In one way all of this is not trivial. People matter, and human interaction matters. It is not just a question of basic courtesy to remember someone’s name and identity, it is a demonstration of concern, friendship and empathy. So over the years I have trained myself to focus on names so that I can be supportive in a credible way. And I believe I have got better at it. But not perfect. So if I seem to be struggling to remember your name, do help me along; or use the opportunity to adopt that other name you have always really preferred to the one your parents gave you; maybe that one will stick with me.

Learning by rote

July 31, 2008

I believe I am about to say something heretical, so please do not be alarmed. But I have to confess that whenever someone speaks dismissively about learning by rote – as happens all the time – I feel uneasy. On the one hand, like pretty well everyone else I believe strongly that learning is something much more, and much more important, than just acquiring data and facts. New pedagogical methods offer much richer insights to students than would have been available in the past.

But on the other hand, data and facts also matter. For example, I am always truly amazed when, in some meeting or other, it becomes necessary to determine the answer to 7 x 8, and everyone reaches for their calculators. And how many people these days can recite literary or poetry quotes from memory? And recently I asked a small group who were in discussion with me what the dates were of the First World War – and nobody could answer correctly.

It seems to me that education is about understanding and appreciating, but also about learning. Learning is greatly facilitated by the development of memory, and having at one’s immediate disposal a good selection of key facts is a vital tool in the development of judgement and decision-making.

By the time I was 13 years old I could at will (and I still can) recite the main arithmetic tables, I could recite from memory some 150 or so poems, and I knew a large number of dates in history. And I can say that I still use a good deal of this knowledge in my daily life and work.

Maybe I’m just a traditionalist fuddy-duddy, but I strongly believe that we are failing to educate and train young people today if we are not giving them the opportunity to acquire these skills. Access to the internet and other sources of information is great, but it is not a substitute for knowledge that we hold ourselves and that we can use as needed.


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