The thing about memory

This week I have been doing some work with my Year 8 students about memory.  I usually introduce each class by explaining that I often describe myself as having “a bad memory” but then point out that actually that is not true because I have some really vivid and old memories of my childhood, my first day of school, summer holidays, Grannys and Grandas that are no longer with us and things I did with my friends.  The reality is that I have a very good memory but that sometimes I am not deliberate about what I actually put into my memory.    This leads into a discussion about how we can make deliberate memories and how we need to make sure that we are filling our brains with knowledge so that we can remember them.   You might be surprised that young people seem to think that knowledge is something that will seep into their brains through some form of osmosis.   They seem to think that they will be able to remember things that they have looked at in class a month ago without any form of recall or retrieval – without any deliberate feeding of this information into their brain.  We need to realise that building up our explicit memories is the secret to retention.

Human Brain - Psychology

Many recent commentators on memory tell us that memory is actually about forgetting.  I look at it as having some type of ‘half-life’ where we will gradually lose what we are wanting to remember over time.  The longer we go without ‘triggering’ that memory – the more will be lost to us.   I do sometimes wonder if my memories are actually real or are they just a scrapbook of stories handed down by family members or through photographs that help us to recall certain things.   When we look back at old photos of family holidays that happened 30 years ago – will we only be able to to recall the things that have been captured by the camera?

The book, ‘Understanding How we Learn’ by Yana Weinstein, Megan Sumeracki and Oliver Caviglioli (2019) notes that, “Memory is used in almost any everyday activity.  But as soon as we learn something, we immediately start to forget it.”


I suppose one the main things I realised after reading about their work on memory was that, ‘memory is not like a library (or a computer) but memory is reconstructive’.  I always have thought of my head a bit like a library – though maybe in a more haphazard way – as I don’t think my memories are as well catalogued and organised as the books in a library.  Weinsten et al (2019) note that, “Many studies have shown that this is not at all the way memory functions.  We don’t lay down objective, definitive traces that are later retrieved verbatim. Instead, memory is reconstructive.”

I used to think that my memory was a finite resource – when I learned something new it would force something else out of my brain (to make space).   But, the weird thing is that when I read or learn something new – usually I find that this gets catalogued in such a way that I can recall this at a later time.   For example, sometimes when teaching A level Geography, I have a certain schema that I will use year-on-year but each year I will adapt and amend parts of this to suit current events and changes that I know that have happened since the last time I addressed this topic.   My memory and my brain work in harmony to try and ensure that any examples are the most up-to-date that they can possibly be.   Weinstein et al (2019) comment on this as they note,

“This is a key concept in long-term memory:  the idea that every time you retrieve a memory, you are actually changing it.  Every time you tell the same story it comes out a little more polished, with a few embellishing details added, or a few boring ones removed.  The memory itself – not just the story – is changing, so that the next time you retrieve the memory of that event, it will be more like the story you last told, rather than the way it really was. Memory is reconstructive in nature, and every time a memory is activated, it is altered.”

In fact, we need to make sure that we are deliberate about our memory-making.   It needs to be something that is done consciously and through a repetition of the details.   Usually, I need to say things out loud to remember them properly.  Yet, I sometimes am frustrated as my memories are often imprecise (and I cannot for the life of me remember exact quotes).

Again, Weinsten et al (2019) note the process of getting things into our long-term memory  . . .

“In order for memory to be recallable later, it needs to go from short-term to long-term memory.  Whether something makes it from short- to long-term memory depends on a number of factors, some of which may not yet have been pinned down.  However, a very important factor is whether information is encoded in a deep and meaningful way (Craik & Lockhart, 1972), so that connections can be made and understanding can be achieved.”

Nader & Hardt (2009) note that long-term memory often refers to a four-stage model:  encoding, consolidation, storage and retrieval.   One of the most important things in relation to memory is the transference of information between the short and long-term memory.   This is where the learning happens.  To put this in a more scientific way  (according to the work of Efrat Furst in Weinstein et al (2019):

  • Memories are represented by groups of neurons that are connected to each other by synapses.
  • When neurons are active – we can recall an idea.  Neuroscientists call the pattern of neurons an engram.
  • Engrams are connected to each other (by synapses) to create associations.  One specific memory is made up of a series of multiple engrams that are connected to each other by neuronal pathways . 
  • When we learn something new, groups of neurons fire in our brain as a response to the new incoming information and these create a pattern.  In order to remember, we need to reactivate a similar pattern to the one that was active during the learning.

Weinstein et al (2019) note that, “Arguably, one of the most important features of memory is actually the opposite of remembering: forgetting.”  Forgetting is the inability to retrieve information after it was learned.  Usually we can get over this failure of retrieval by providing hints or ‘retrieval cues’.  Therefore, as we try to learn, we need to also make sure that we create a series of ‘triggers’ that will help us to be able to recall the key parts of what we trying to learn.

Doug Lemov (2021) in Teach like a Champion 3.0, mentions the Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve and notes the importance of this in that:

  1. As soon as you learn something , you begin forgetting it almost immediately
  2. The rate of forgetting is often shockingly high;  a few hours after learning something, people routinely only remember a small fraction of it
  3. Each time that you practice recalling what you know, the rate and amount of forgetting is reduced somewhat
  4. Retrieving something back into working memory slows the rate of forgetting, but how and when the retrieval happens is important.

`Therefore, just as learners need to be more deliberate about the approach that they take to build the ‘hooks’ that will enable their brain to attach to specific learning  – so too, teachers, need to be making sure that their learning structure, lesson plans and activities all contribute to the learning agenda and help build up a true schema.   We need to understand the process fully and embed this into our practice.


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