I just returned home from North Carolina where I presented at the NCaect conference, I took my wife and her mother along so they could revisit Fayetteville, the place they had spent some a precious years while my wife's father was stationed at Ft. Brag. My son and I were in tow as the two women came face to face with two similar but different re-aquaintences with the past. I have revisited powerful places and felt the strange realignment of past and present as my mind rummaged through closets not opened for decades. There is something euphoric about this experience and watching it unfold from the outside, without a single landmark of personal reference was amazing. I could observe the power of reminiscence with total objectivity and it was amazing to me. What becomes clear is how imprtant our our stories are even many years later and how beautifully the mind holds the sights, smells and feelings lovingly archived for us to unpack. Added to this was the grace of mother and daughter unpacking personal history together and it left me transfixed, and deeply reverent as an observer of something sacred.

Moments like these remind me of the magnificent power of personal story and of the amazing talent of the human brain to document, catalog and retain the whole of human experience. We remember all which is memorable from the smell of fresh cut North Carolina grass to the sound of grinding gears on a big, dingy, yellow bus. Why then do I find it nearly impossible to recall all but a handful of day spent in classrooms? The smell of chalk dust, playground dirt, teachers' overbearing perfume, school lunch and gym class are branded onto my neocortex in a way that ensures they'll never escape the neuro-ponderosa, while vast herds of seemingly important cattle in the form of facts, dates, equations and lectures have long since escaped my neocortical ranch. We record life with a temporal bias
and write to the brain's hard drive with a penchant for novelty. The brain looks for the exceptions in life and uses them as mile markers to differenciate our amazingly complex journeys. That rust and sharp bolt on the swing set still lives perfectly preserved in my mind because I experienced it directly and personally. It never scratched me as it did my friend but it was recorded as a cautionary tale, full of context and meaning.

When I try to recall individual days in classrooms I remember squeaky desk hinges, kids who picked their noses but precious little else of the the 2300 days I spent "learning". How can this be true? As I think back on both my tenure as a student in American public schooling and my nearly identical stint as a teacher in the same system, I can see them both with a kind of balance. On both sides of the exerience I find thatthe days and associated detail and facts I remember are tied strongly to experiences that are personal and meaningful. The other days are lost to me now like blank pages in a big, long book, occassionally graced with a colored illustration of a crazy teacher, bloody nose or a fight at recess. To assume that everyone else who graduated from public school had a similar experience would be assuming a lot but in my thirteen years in the classroom I believe I saw evidence that others remember experiences filled with novelty and exception like I did. It could be that this tendency was hard-wired into humans to help us survive new and possibly dangerous experiences. I do remember with perfect fidelity the day in 1978 when Mr. Austin introduced my math-addled mind tithe digitor. This "kind-of" computer, solved math equations and. Challenged kids to do the same and held me after school, not by extrinsic means but by intrinsic compulsion. I fell in love with this patient and cool tutor that never judged me and my math grades showed it. Thirty years later as I write this on my iPhone in a world where my own son learns to play guitar on youtube, I am convinced of the power of technology to provide the kinds of personal experiences that young minds need to remember one day, one hour and one fact or concept.. Teachers who allow learning to be personal, portable and powerful might come to school in thirty years to find a former student standing in their classroom, remembering their learning experiences their with perfect and powerful clarity.

Views: 36

Tags: learning, memory, novelty

Comment by Paul Bogush on March 16, 2008 at 10:45am
Your post made me think of this...
Some years I do this unit that starts out with what we remember from our past and why...
long story short -- try this -- quick, write down ten of the most prominent memories from your life. Now circle the ones that were at the time they were happening happy events.
Now you may have different results than my classes usually do, but I sometimes wonder when dealing with memories if tears and fears trump smiles. I often wonder if I really hated school as much I think I did, or if the tearful memories have washed away the smiles.
Comment by Kevin on March 16, 2008 at 11:10am
I believe you are right and that emotions, especially negative ones do trump positive ones and I struggle to imagine how the brain seems to lend importance to fear or negative memories. I believe that "survival" memories or easily hard coded into memory while more nuanced ones are archived in more complex and complicated ways. I do believe that happy or engaged students are FAR more apt to remember events, details and circumstances surrounding their positive experiences.
Comment by Paul Bogush on March 16, 2008 at 11:44am
Let me just push for a second. Would the perfect lesson/unit be one that goes from happy, to painful, back to happy? Can you happily struggle through pain leading to the ultimate learning experience? I think we have to find that perfect zone in which overcoming the struggle/challenge pain leads to happiness without making them shut down. When I get my kids they seem to be programmed to see struggle/challenges as a sign of failure. They don't see any fun in overcoming a challenge. They have been taught that if they can't do it the first time they suck at it. Not that the should revel in the battle of creating new skills/stuff/knowledge. As Yoda once said,"“Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.” I have so many low performing kids who have not had "happy and engaged" experiences in school. They seem to have become fearful of learning, they are angry in class and dealing with others, and I worry that they will suffer for many years to come.
Stop being interesting -- I am suppose to be helping my wife get ready for guests and am going to get yelled at for being on the computer!
Comment by Kevin on March 16, 2008 at 1:59pm
Wow, great thinking! I am thinking of video games. Kids seem to know every detail within the game ecosystem and their process is fun but filled with frustrating failures. The mix of frustration and reward seems to be right in the popular games. There is much I think we could learn from game design. My buddy Glenn Wiebe studies this a lot and does workshops on it. It's an oversiplification to suggest that video games have it all right but I think they have some things going for them when my kid spends allowance money to buy cheat code books.

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