Evidence based education: memory tasks

One of the things I’ve been puzzling over lately is whether memory tasks are worthwhile in education for their own sake, and if they are, then which ones?

The official answer of some education systems is that memory tasks, most often poem recitation, ‘train the brain’, and are worth carrying out for their own sake.  The French public school system holds this view and the experience of homeschoolers here is that they will try to test our children for memorised poems.  Clearly, poetry learning is dear to their hearts.  The alternative point of view is that memory ability is innate and can’t be trained, so memory tasks shouldn’t be chosen with this aim in mind.

In practice, I had leaned towards the idea that memory ability was innate, but my back was covered because memory tasks cropped up for other reasons often enough.  Antonia was memorising the order of the days and months, her multiplication tables, and irregular spelling words.  I had her recite a few poems to try to help her with speaking in groups, and memorising them was a prerequisite.  The Suzuki piano method we are using depends on children memorising the pieces rather than reading music.

As things stand now, I’ve decided that motivation and strategy are probably important in remembering, and that these can be acquired and improved.  I noticed that Antonia would fail to learn facts no matter how often they were casually mentioned.  She seemed to us and to other people to be a child who was bright but did not have a particularly good memory for certain things.  In fact, she’s even capable of forgetting the name of a child she has spent the last three days playing with.  Then again, she has amazing recall of events in her life.

While we were puzzling this out, I started telling her beforehand that a given fact needed to be remembered and she suddenly morphed into a child with a pretty good memory, though not yet for people’s names.  I also noticed that some time after her sixth birthday she spontaneously developed that little conscious strategy we all use of repeating things we are supposed to remember a few times.  I now think that memory tasks that focus on learning mnemonic strategies probably are useful, though I haven’t researched and tried any in detail yet.

And today, I discovered this interesting article about some research that looks at working memory.  Working memory doesn’t have much to do with memorising multiplication tables, hopefully forever.  I had always heard it called short-term memory before, and it involves holding pieces of information in memory for a short period, so that they can be used.  Issues in working memory include how long an individual can remember the information, protecting it against distractions; and how many items of information they can remember.  The research suggests that training working memory may improve ability in other tasks related to intelligence.

The activity we do at the moment that is most like training working memory is narration.  I read a passage, and Antonia narrates it back to me, hopefully in order, with detail.  I noticed that the key for her is to make a conscious effort to remember the beginning of the story, the contents of the first paragraph.  I am sure she partly remembers and partly reconstructs the story from this.  I started using narration with my own non-fiction reading and noticed that it is much harder than usual with the author I’m currently reading .  He has a tendency to skip about within a single section with no obvious links between his paragraphs, and no sub-section headings.  He’s not completely useless, BTW, he usually draws his points together at the end, but he tests my working memory on the way.  Let that be a lesson to writers! Specially designed working memory tasks are likely to be more abstract, so that people can’t rely on the flow of a story or argument.   I found a few listed here, but I have no idea how good they are.

I guess it will be obvious that I’m coming round to the idea that some kinds of memory exercises might usefully be incorporated into our homeschooling.  Learning effective ways of remembering and improving overall ability are very worthwhile goals of education, … if it can be done!  But the memory tasks that seem to have some evidence behind them are a far cry from learning poems!

I notice from the internet that working memory training has also been used to help kids with ADHD.  In that case, I imagine that it would also help any kid who has low concentration in some situations.  It might even help me remember not to burn the lunch when I get distracted by requests from my family.  But that would be expecting miracles!

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