If you’ve been following the argument so far, you’ll know that I’m suggesting that we can make children cleverer by increasing their crystallised intelligence – their store of knowledge in long-term memory – and to do that we need to find ways of helping children to remember more stuff. When people speak about memorisation in education it seems to conjure up all sorts of negative associations. In fact, most memorisation takes place without conscious effort; we seem to ‘just remember’ a hell of a lot of stuff. This tells us that remembering can be easy, so why all the fuss?
It’s important to keep in mind that memory is a metaphor; a handy way for to help us understand what happens to information we’re not currently thinking about. But, as with all metaphors, the way we think about memory leads to various mistakes and misconceptions which are explored and unpicked.
The model of memory that I settle upon as offering the most potential utility is the Working Memory Model that assumes a dynamic interaction between fluid and crystallised aspects of intellect: the fluid aspects determine the speed and accuracy with which we process new information and the crystallised aspects are the product of the vast reserves of knowledge stored in long-term memory that allow us to make sense of new ideas and observations. Understanding this interaction provides the key to seeing how intelligence works.
I spend sometime discussing the idea of schema – how tiny items of knowledge connect together to allows us to overcome the limits of our minds to hold on to new information and perform breathtaking feats of mental and physical agility. (I’ve explored this idea in some detail here.)
From here I review the difference between different types of memory; those that we can put into words and those which we cannot. We are usually only aware of those memories we are able to declare and can only catch glimpses of ‘non-declaritive memory’ when we consider how we are able to accomplish the wonderful range of skills performed by an average person on an average day. Even declarative memory is hard to pin down and is usually divvied up into semantic and episodic memory. Episodic memories are those of experiences and specific events, and also how we felt at different moments, and allow us to reconstruct events from our past in vivid detail. Semantic memories are a more structured record of facts, concepts and meanings. While episodic memories tend to be context dependent, semantic memories are stored independently of the specific context in which they were first learned and so can be more generally applied across a range of contexts. The fact that semantic memories come adrift from their episodic roots allows us to believe things like “I never learned anything at school.” Just because we can’t remember how we, for instance, learned to read, doesn’t mean we weren’t taught.
Forgetting – our inability to bring to mind information we once knew – can be a troublesome, even alarming prospect but it is an essentially human phenomenon to which we are all prone. It turns out thought that information doesn’t disappear from our memories, it just becomes increasingly hard to retrieve. It can seem like a good idea to keep things we want to remember fresh in our mind but the secret to better recall is to allow ourselves to forget before reviewing the information we wish to better remember. Sadly, all the short cuts to better memory offered by science fiction films and mail order courses are without foundation or substance; we’re only able to fluently think with what we spend time thinking about.