When reading Why Don’t Students Like School by Daniel Willingham, I saw a recommendation for reading Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer. Willingham recommended the book to learn about the elaborate “memory palace” memory technique. Both authors share the same belief that in order for memories to stick they need to be meaningful and that facts need to be learned in order to give context to new learning.
Moonwalking is a remarkable story of a journalist covering the national and world memory championships and then deciding to study for the contest. He details his rigorous regimen and the story of winning the national championship. But the book serves as an examination of our education system which abhors rote repetition and memorization.
The curiosity of the book, however, is peeling back the curtain to reveal how these memory champions are able to memorize random digits, names, or poems. Who hasn’t wondered how people with exceptional ability to recall names do it? I ran into Cardinal Cupich in 2002 after not seeing him for 25 years. He asked “How are Dave and Lynn?” Amazing that he could remember my parents’ names.
The most engaging chapter for me was Chapter 9 “The Talented Tenth.” The name is taken from a W.E.B. DuBois notion that a talented tenth of the African-American population could lift the race out of poverty. Raemon Matthews, a proponent of memorization techniques (most famously popularized by Tony Buzan) and a U.S. History teacher at Samuel Gompers Vocational HS in the South Bronx, trains a group of students in these techniques to great results. As progressive education moved teaching away from repetition and memorization, students have lost the ability to grasp certain facts such as the date of the Civil War, according to Foer. “If one of the goals of education is to create inquisitive, knowledgeable people, then you need to give students the most basic signposts that can guide them through a life of learning” (194). Foer argues that teaching memory techniques would allow students to learn these signposts.
In fact, one of the techniques—mind-mapping—was a technique that many of my former history students would remember. When I assigned reading, I would give the students the option to complete a traditional outline or a concept map. Students were challenged to draw a picture to make a concept stickier. Students might draw a picture of soldiers marching on top of the Space Needle to illustrate the March on Washington or a mashup of the Justice League and the League of Nations.
Foer effectively details the learning process in Chapter 8. He argues that all learning is comprised of three distinct stages: cognitive, associative, and autonomous. As we learn the parameters of a task (cognitive), we begin to experiment with different methods through trial and error (associative). Then we proceed to the autonomous phase. Just as Willingham used driving as his example to indict teachers who don’t improve their craft through deliberative practice, Foer makes the same argument. The human brain is predisposed to shift to the autonomous phase where we don’t have to think about what we’re doing. But if we hope to get better (or smarter) we need to shift back into the associative phase where we are deliberately challenging ourselves to improve through practice and feedback.
In today’s education jargon, we are challenged to promote grit, perseverance, and persistence among our students. We are asked to challenge students (and teachers) to practice deliberately to improve, not relying on our successes and never advancing to more difficult tasks which might cause failure. Foer’s easy narrative structure illustrates the value of this process while making an argument for the place of memorization in education.