Learn To Remember, Remember To Learn

By Abak Hussain

The changing role of memory in learning

We live in an age where vast amounts of information are available at our fingertips.

This miracle of accessibility of the digital age has changed not only our economy, our politics, and our society, but the very nature of our minds and our brains, possibly to an extent we are yet to fully comprehend.

Putting aside for a second how easy it is to do a Google search or pull up a Wikipedia page to quickly look something up or settle an argument, consider for a minute how technology has collapsed our tasks into little smartphone functions, with our devices remembering things for us – things we once were forced to remember ourselves.

Take for example, the simple question of phone numbers. Not too long ago, before basic mobile phones became ubiquitous, it was quite normal for a person to remember a large number of phone numbers, and quickly dial them by memory every time they picked up a telephone receiver. Now, you will be hard pressed to find a person who knows a single phone number by heart other than their own.

You are much more likely to find people who do not even know their own number – it is simply not as necessary these days, as there are a multitude of ways to get around this requirement. No value judgment need be made in this matter – these changes have not made things better or worse, insofar as what the brain research tells us thus far – but one things is for certain, the basic function of the human brain has changed.

The power of the human memory, and the capacity for the human brain to absorb and retain small bits of information and trivia, no longer occupies the status of glory that it once did. Like typewriters or pagers, there seems something out-of-date about memory feats that once seemed impressive and greatly useful.

After all, why bother remembering the long and complicated name of the capital of Sri Lanka, when it takes less than ten seconds to open a browser of an iPhone and just look it up? The answer, by the way, is Sri Jawardenapura Kotte.

Information alone is not enough

For the most part, our education system has been thus far overly reliant on memorization. This has been to our detriment, because by encouraging students to mindlessly retain pieces of information without context neglects the need to develop their critical skills.

After all, information without context is not very useful. A BCS guide making rounds on the internet, for example, lists a series of “founders” of things – for example, it lists Shakespeare as the father of the English drama, and it claims Socrates to be the founder of modern education.

These facts are oversimplifications at best, downright incorrect at worse. It would be much better for the student to truly gain context and understand the evolution of a field. The paradox of learning is that the more we know, the less we know, and that is a good thing. Because as our perimeter of knowledge expands, we are more likely to understand the nuances and complexities of an issue or a field. For example, anyone with a true knowledge of English drama will know certain forms of medieval theatre certainly predated Shakespeare, and there is no clear founder or originator of this literary form. It is a slow and messy process of evolution, with plenty of debate about who did what, and there is, even among scholars and historians of literature, no consensus on these matters.

Reducing these complex fields down to morsels of facts, to be memorized by young people preparing to pass the BCS and to be forgotten soon after the exam is over, does a disservice not only to our civil service, but to the young men and women who deserve a better standard of education and testing. Learning, then, needs a broader context.

But the art of remembering also has its uses

Having said that, we need to find a balance. Many would argue that it is time to do away with all memory-based tests altogether, but scrap the current format of the BCS, as well as some aspects of the SSC and HSC which test information retention but not comprehension, analysis, or critical thinking.

The fact is, in today’s world it is all too easy to succumb to the temptation of saying we do not need to remember small facts, but the complex truth is, memory and “larger understanding” of issues work in tandem – it is hard to achieve one without the other.

Of course, we should not be putting all of our eggs in the “memory” basket. After all, as said earlier, this is an era of smartphones, and people can look up information if they need to, but to truly achieve expertise in any area, first that information must enter the brain.

This is why, for all of our devices and for all of our tech, the art of remembering still matters. Our education system, from the primary level up to the tertiary level, as well as those designing special tests like the BCS, would to do well to remember this, and work on forms of teaching and testing that take into account both content and process aspects of understanding.

Knowledge at its raw, informational level is crucial as the foundation for further enquiry, but as things stand now, that seems to be all that we are testing. However, go find and talk to an expert in any field – you will see that they know, first and foremost, a tremendous amount of raw information. But then they build on it.

They do not struggle to recall, they just know. It is impossible to imagine, say, an expert geopolitical analyst of the Middle East who struggles to remember what the capital of Saudi Arabia is. But simply knowing that it is Riyadh is just the beginning – what must follow is a wider understanding of the region, its history, and a constant updating of this knowledge. This applies to all fields.

Every so often, talk is heard about reforming our education system. But are our experts asking the right questions, and making the right changes for the times in which we live?

Abak Hussain is a journalist based in Bangladesh. He is a director of Talespeople, a creative start-up, and a winner of the Iceland Writers Retreat Alumni Award

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