Sunday, September 19, 2010

Mindful Memorizing

In "Drill, Baby, Drill," Virginia Heffernan questions the practice of rote memorization--formally known as "distributive practice"--in the learning process.  Referred to disparagingly in academic circles as "drill and kill," the assumption is that the repetition characteristic of rote memorization deadens students' enthusiasm and does more harm than good, if it does any good at all.

The problem, of course, is that every field has some information that has to be "automatic," readily available at your fingertips when you need it.  Searching for the right word once in a while is not a problem, but not knowing what words mean and when and how to use them in a sentence, is.  Counting on a calculator to do simple math assumes there is no real benefit to knowing how to do it yourself--an assumption that simply isn't true.

I'm not a huge fan of rote memorization as it is typically practiced, but I think that one of the advantages of drilling is that, when done thoughtfully, it promotes pattern recognition.  When I was in 3rd grade, my teacher insisted that we all had to memorize our multiplication tables and then recite them in front of her.  By the end of the year, we had to know them, cold.  No complaints, no excuses.  She gave us a chart of our "times tables" from 0-10, and told us to get cracking.

After weeks of procrastinating, thinking, "this is impossible!" "this is going to be boring!" and--of course--"this is stupid!", I still remember the epiphany that I had as I was studying the chart one evening.  All of a sudden it dawned on me: "multiplication is addition, only faster, and that means that division is really multiplication in reverse."  I realized that math was not a series of discrete, unrelated activities, but a system of very useful interconnections between numbers. 

What I've since realized is that, in this moment, I transcended the handicap of rote memorization.  As Ellen Langer has argued in The Power of Mindful Learning (1998), one of the problems of memorization is that it is often "a strategy for taking in material that has no personal meaning."  Divorced from context, packets of facts don't stay with us because they don't possess personal relevance.  We're "learning" them, but not thinking about them.

The result is that they typically don't stay with us unless they become so ingrained that we simply spout them out on cue, but getting to this point of automatic retention is tiresome and, for most people at least, painfully dull.  Chances are, when we do learn things in this way, we don't really know what the facts mean or how they're useful.  If we had to explain them to someone else, we probably couldn't.  We don't know why we know what we know, we just know it, but not in any conscious, constructive or useful way.

So, really, what's the point of "knowing" it at all?  We're right back where we started, caught in a vicious cycle of mindless repetition that, for many, passes as "knowledge" or "learning."

The problem, Langer suggests, is that academics often rewards this kind of thoughtless retention of information.  Although there has been a decided shift in approaches to teaching, we still tend to embrace a model that rewards the students who sit still and "learn" the information that is delivered to them, and we typically test this retention through--you guessed it--tests that reward memorization.  As Langer shows, however, this really isn't the most effective way for anyone to learn anything.

Our brains retain information best when it stimulates our neural pathways in new or interesting ways, either because it matters to our gray matter or because it somehow leaves an impression.  Like when you put your hand on a hot stove.  You realize, in rapid succession, two basic things: 1) what "hot" means and 2) what stoves "do," and as a result, you don't ever deliberately put your hand on one again.

Although it doesn't have to be physically painful, forging new neural pathways can be uncomfortable because we haven't yet made the mental connections that render those neural exchanges automatic.  As a result, we pay attention in these moments of mental activity because something very different is going on inside our heads all of a sudden.

Similarly, we can also retain information better if we memorize facts while performing some kind of kinesthetic activity.  Because we're stimulating our neural pathways at the same time that we're taking in information that is inherently less-than-stimulating, our brains keep the fodder that accompanies the fuel. 

I actually tested this approach.  I was studying Japanese, and after weeks of trying, I decided that the only way I could possibly learn my numbers well enough to be able to shop in Tokyo one day would be to put away the vocabulary lists and figure out a way to apply them.  This accounts for an odd and completely random fact about me: when I swim, I count laps in Japanese.  I set myself a basic rule before I started: if I couldn't remember a number or got stuck, I had to start over from 1.  Since I really, really, REALLY didn't want to end up swimming 3000 laps in increments of 5 instead of my usual mile, I was motivated to retain the information.  And retain it I did: I can now count as well in Japanese as I can in English (and probably better, if you dunk me in water first).

So although Heffernan resorts to "colorful, happy apps" as a way of counteracting the boredom that accompanies memorization, programs that offer "just enough screen magic to surprise and engage the mind and memory" may be no more effective than, say, getting out of the chair and taking a walk with a set of flashcards or mentally reciting a list of words while riding a bike.  If the adage "use it or lose it" applies to the brain--and in many ways, it does--then we need to motivate ourselves to memorize by finding personal uses for the facts we'd rather not lose.

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