Memory Medic

How to improve everyday memory.

An Old New Way To Fix Our Schools

Repeating the same teaching strategies does not yield different results.

Most people may be tired of hearing about ailing schools, because it has been so frustrating trying to get our schools fixed. It's hard to find any good news about U.S. public schools. Public schools in the U.S. should embarrass us. As arguably the most advanced nation in the world, the U.S. ranks near the bottom of first-world nations in the education of its children.

Examples of student ignorance include survey results showing that two thirds of American teens can't begin to identify when the Civil War occurred. A poll I read the other day stated that 40% of young adults didn't know who the U.S. fought in the Revolutionary War! Unbelievably, 20% of students don't know who the enemies of the U.S. were in World War II. A third do not know that the Bill of Rights guarantees the freedom of speech and religion. Just half know that The Federalist Papers were written to encourage ratification of the U.S. Constitution. The percentage of 17-year-olds who report reading for fun daily declined from one in three in 1984 to one in five in 2004. The middle-school teachers I work with say that most of their students are below grade level in reading.

College students are not impressing either. Less than half of college seniors know that Yorktown was the battle that ended the American Revolution or that NATO was formed to resist Soviet expansion. Overall, freshmen averaged 50.4% on a wide-ranging civic literacy test; seniors averaged 54.2%.

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If you are still sanguine about U.S. student competence, you should read Frederick Hess' book, "Still at Risk. What Students Don't Know, Even Now."

So what's the fix? Politicians and teacher unions say we don't spend enough money. They ignore the many formal studies showing there is no correlation between how much money a school district spends and the academic achievement of its students. Nor can money explain this: the Washington, D.C. school district spends more per student than any district in America, yet its students rank at the bottom. Still not convinced that we spend enough of education? Explain this: cost per pupil, adjusted for inflation, doubled between 1975 and 2005, while test scores remained flat.

There is a new way that is actually the old fashioned way of restoring the pre-eminent role that memorization has in academic success. I recently read Josh Foer's provocative new book on memory, "Moonwalking With Einstein." Foer is a journalist, who once had the same fallible memory as the rest of us until he discovered memorization techniques. He got interested in memory improvement while covering the U.S. Memory tournament. He learned the tricks used by "memory athletes," and within one year of training, he became the U.S. Champion.

The techniques he learned were not new. They were actually perfected by the poet Simonides and others back in 5th Century B.C. Greece when everything had to be memorized because there were no written places to look up information. These techniques allow "memory athletes" to do such astonishing feats as memorize the precise order of 1,528 random digits in less than an hour or memorize the sequential order of two decks of cards in less than five minutes. A memory champion from Malaysia memorized the entire 56,000 word, 1,774 page Chinese-English dictionary. Foer himself learned how to memorize the sequence of playing cards in one minute and 40 seconds, setting a U.S. competition record. Foer spent many days visiting with, as well as competing against, these memory athletes. What he learned was that he and the other memory athletes had just average memories when they didn't use their special techniques.

Memory training can have major impact on school systems. Foer cites the example of Raemon Matthews, an award-winning teacher in a minority-enrollment vocational high school in South Bronx. His students come from a neighborhood where nine out of ten are below average in reading and math, four out of five live in poverty, and nearly half don't graduate from high school. Students and visitors entering the building must pass through a metal detector and their bags inspected by a policeman.

Matthews teaches memory techniques. His students stay after school for an extracurricular class in memory. Every class begins with a three-minute memorized recitation. Students memorize every important fact, date and concept in his history class. He requires every essay to contain at least two memorized quotations. A group of his African-American students competes every year in the adult U.S. Memory championships. His corps of elite, all-minority, students have all passed the New York state academic skills test each of the last four years, and 85% of them had a grade of 90 or higher.

Memory techniques obviously increase one's knowledge. Perhaps even more important, memorization promotes mental discipline. Kids could use a lot more of both knowledge and mental discipline.

So why don't we teach memory techniques to school children in every school? Of course, you will say there is no practical reason to remember long strings of numbers or card sequences like they do in memory tournaments. Even in Vegas, they know how to neutralize card counters. But the principles of memory techniques have great practical value for learning history, math equations, geography, science - anything academic. I had pretty good success academically using these techniques when I was in school, finishing as valedictorian and making A in every class every year since the 6th grade, despite having an IQ only slightly above average. One teacher snorted that I had no right to make such good grades: I was just an over-achiever. This was some 60 years ago when teachers didn't give away grades to stroke student self-esteem or to avoid whining over grades. The techniques I used in school, plus others I didn't know about then, are shared in my current e-Book for students, "Better Grades. Less Effort."

At numerous science teacher meetings over the past four years, I have given presentations on memory principles and techniques in the hope that teachers will teach memorization skills to their students. But I don't think I am getting through. Teachers don't seem to show much interest and the number of e-Book sales is miniscule, despite being priced at a very affordable $2.49 in any format.

I scratch my head in astonishment. I jumped all over these ideas when I was a student. Why don't others do it? It could be a combination of things. For one, we have a progressive educational culture that regards memorization as old fashioned and out-dated. After all, we can just Google what we want to know. Nobody seems to believe or understand that a good memory contributes to IQ and thinking productivity. Memory is critical to thinking. You think with what you know and you can't think in an information vacuum. I doubt that many teachers know that a good memory enhances thinking ability (I have an earlier post on that). Teacher Matthews is quoted as reminding us that "You can't have higher-level learning - you can't analyze - without retrieving [memorized] information." He adds, "You can't learn without memorizing, and if done right, you can't memorize without learning."

The educational establishment dismisses Matthews' philosophy, which they regard as a conservative throwback to the days when it was standard practice for students to memorize things like the Gettysburg Address, the Bill of Rights, famous poems, and other classics of our cultural heritage. Today, unfortunately, at all levels of the educational system, the role of memory in learning is under appreciated, and even disparaged.

In science teaching, in particular, it is common for teachers to actively disparage memorization. Part of the reason is the long tradition of old-fashioned science teaching in which pointless memorization was demanded of students. I was subjected to a lot of that in my student days: memorizing all the bumps on bones, classification details of plant species, biochemical pathways, and so on. Too much of this still goes on in the college science courses that pre-service science teachers have to take. No wonder so many college students steer away from science. No wonder so many science teachers hate memorization.

The buzz word in science teaching these days is "inquiry." When I try to tell teachers how important it is to teach kids how to memorize, they look at me as if I don't understand real science. Pardon me, lady/sir, your ignorance is showing, I AM a scientist. Trust me when I say understanding and knowledge are fundamental pre-requisites to meaningful inquiry. And without knowledge, the results of research are just data.

No, today, we must be progressive, not old-fashioned. Modern educational theory gained traction from the dominant educational philosopher, John Dewey, who challenged the value of memory, asserting that what is important in education is not knowledge but experience. Currently, mainstream educational theory embraces such attributes as insight, creativity, inquiry learning, and self expression. But these emphases, laudable as they are, lead to a bias against the role of memory in learning.

The bias against memorization may be even worse at the college level. A faculty colleague chastised me for my emphasis on memorization. This colleague thinks education should be all about understanding and using knowledge to solve problems. We need, he says, to teach students how to think. This colleague is like so many teachers these days who emphasize insight, creativity, inquiry learning, communication skills, and the like without appreciating the role of memory.

I agree wholeheartedly with these higher aims of education. But in the process of educational reform, the progressives discount the importance of memory. Paradoxically, increasing emphasis is being placed on end-of-year high stakes testing, and successful student performance depends heavily on how much they remember from instruction earlier in the year. The teachers I know all complain about having to repeat the same material over and over. They think "one-try" learning is not possible.

My dealings have been with science teachers. They confront another new problem of the fad of "inquiry learning." Science seems to progressive educators as the natural home for the Dewey's experiential philosophy. As a successful scientist for over 50 years I can tell you that Dewey certainly did not fully understand science (nor do many teachers today). Science is all about creativity and discovery, but that does not spring from an untutored mind. Creativity comes from a mind that knows, and remembers, a lot.

Consider how Darwin constructed the theory of evolution. He amassed, and remembered, volumes of factual observations over decades, and using this information he was able to put together a coherent theory that had baffled scholars dating back to St. Augustine and earlier. This point is not realized by many science teachers, many of whom teach Creationism instead of the scientific evidence for the origin of species.
In biological sciences, it is no accident many biologists make their most important contributions when they are older, after they have learned a lot. Do you think I could have written this book when I was performing public memory stunts at 16? I may have known the memory techniques, but did not yet have the knowledge.

Scientific illiterate educators like to point to Einstein who many believe was a poor student. What they apparently don't know is that when Einstein worked on his research, he was a master learner and memorizer. He read and learned virtually everything written by Newton, Galileo, Bohr, Planck, Doppler, Reimann, Boltzman, Faraday, Maxwell, Poincare, Lorentz, dePretto, Bose, and numerous other scientists over the centuries. He learned Minkowski's mathematics and curved geometry. He even knew Ben Franklin's electricity research and cited one of his papers. In short, Einstein's was so creative because he remembered and built upon the knowledge of numerous predecessors and contemporaries. If he were going to school in 21st century America, the 22nd century world would never hear of Albert Einstein.

Mastering the classical memorization techniques requires creativity. Foer's book shows how he used creativity to become a memory champion. My book gives other examples of how I used creativity to succeed in school. The ability to be creative requires a "proper inventory, a bank of existing ideas to draw on," as Foer puts it. The Einstein example above is a classic illustration of the point.

Another possible explanation for neglect of memory skills is that many people, teachers and students alike, think their memory ability is fixed and can't be improved. This view is false. Formal studies reveal that people can even increase their working-memory span and in the process increase IQ. Other studies show that students preparing for exams erroneously believe that their performance on the test will not be improved by further study beyond what they think is the best they can do. Also, students know less than they think they know and therefore stop studying for an exam too soon.

Underperforming students have an understandable lack of faith in their academic ability. They don't try to succeed, because past efforts have failed. They come to believe they are stupid, with mediocrity as their destiny. There is a psychological term for this: learned helplessness.

Teachers need convincing that the more students know, the more they can know. Teacher Matthews makes the point, "Even if facts don't by themselves lead to understanding, you can't have understanding without facts."

Educational fads come and go, yet nothing seems to do much good. Why not try what used to work in education: old fashioned memorization? By the way, the best memorization techniques require learners to think.


William Klemm, D.V.M., Ph.D., is a Professor of Neuroscience at Texas A&M University.


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