Not Gonna Happen!

Does it hurt if your brain gets full? We’ll never know, because even if we were able to learn 10 or 100 times what we normally learn each day — even going to school — none of us will live long enough to find out. Not even close.

Briefly, learning capacity, for the average person, is virtually without limit. The challenge is, how to use our brains more efficiently so we can be more effective in our daily lives.

The really big question for modern educators is, “Why don’t we teach students brain-friendly learning techniques?” I’m talking about techniques that were familiar to the ancient Greeks and Romans, the orators and storytellers who had to remember tons of stuff without teleprompters or notes. How come we, as teachers, can’t model the mind power of those classical folks we read about in the history books?

I don’t know the answer to that question, but I do know that my Dad, who was a high school teacher and a scholar until the day he died, taught me about mnemonics — techniques for making use of the associative power of memory — so that I could more easily recall information teachers expected I would learn by rote, that is, repetition, aka banging your head into a brick wall until you make a dent.

The first of what I consider the most important brain-friendly learning techniques is the art and science of mnemonics.

From Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (edited):

Main Entry: mnemonic
Function:adjective
Etymology:Greek, mindful, to remember
Date:1753

1 : assisting or intended to assist memory; also : of or relating to mnemonics
2 : of or relating to memory

Here’s how I used to introduce the topic in my brief few minutes with eighth grade parents at Back-to-School Nights (which are happening around our district this forthcoming week)…

After an announcement about where parents could find our curriculum (in the student handbook!), I went on to discuss how I would teach their children to succeed in my class. I barely had time to introduce them to brain-friendly learning techniques and explain “grading for learning,” but we alway had fun with mnemonics.

Imagine if you are a parent sitting in Mr. Repairman’s eighth grade social studies class (American History through 1877) and he tells you that one of the state’s onerous standards requires you to actually know, that is, memorize (for crying out loud) the names of the thirteen British colonies that became the original states.

Then Mr. Repairman says, “I can teach you to remember them flawlessly in five minutes or less, and what’s more, you will be able to recite them, not only in the order you learn them, but backwards as well.”

Then Mr. Repairman asks, “Now how many of you think I’m full of beans.” Along with a few smiles, a few hands go up. Parents are more cautious than kids. When I do it in class during the colonies unit, the whole class raises hands!

Five minutes later, the braver parents are reciting the names of the thirteen colonies as promised. The ones who brought their children enabled a preview for those precocious rascals, most of whom competed at the Back-to-School class with the adults to show that they, too, could do the magic memory exercise, both forward and backward.

The students, for this first exercise, used my mnemonic, but later, when they had to memorize the goals of the US Constitution, for example, they used their own creations and drew their mnemonics as well.

Tomorrow I’ll go into a little more detail and cite some references for teachers who want to help their students remember everything from mere facts to complex concepts, almost effortlessly.

By the way, when one of the parents asked another teacher during the same evening why they didn’t teach students how to remember stuff more easily, the parent reported back to me that the teacher dismissed Mr. Repairman’s mnemonics as “Mere memory tricks. Of no value, whatsoever.”

I was probably overgeneralizing when I thought to myself, “What a moron.”

The teacher, not the parent. 😉

Cartoon Copyright 1986 by Gary Larson

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7 thoughts on “Not Gonna Happen!

  1. well done. the problem is that high-stakes test we gotta prepare the kids for. ::barfs:: i’ll go more in depth about that later, but this is a good post …

  2. I think that some teachers view “tricks” like mnemonics to not have value because in and of themselves, they don’t necessarily lead to any deep processing of the information. I agree with this in the sense that being able to memorize a list of colonies doesn’t automatically generate why knowing them is important. The big but here (everyone has one, right?) is that without this basic information, kids can’t manipulate it later. You have to get the knowledge in there (the brain) before students can take ownership of it and do things with the pieces.

    Many teachers at the secondary level feel like brain-friendly strategies are childish. My thoughts are along the lines of “So what if they are?” After all, we’re there to help kids learn. We should use whatever might help.

    I also think that most teachers are not “transparent” (I don’t like that word) about their own metacognition. If they don’t want to use strategies that help kids learn, then they should at least talk more about how they as teachers are learning.

  3. Love the cartoon. I have actually felt that my brain was full after studying large amounts of material in graduate school.:) I also taught my students to use mnemonics when studying. I think I first picked up on this when taking piano lessons as a kid. I am looking forward to reading about your techniques.

  4. I use these memory tricks too, whenever I can. As noted by Science Goddess, one can’t jump past the basic info step into the higher level learning tasks.

  5. I have been curiously skeptical re: mnemonics, and your post has piqued my curiosity in a positve way. Learning a second language is mostly memory storage and retrieval, and, kids with LD have a lot of difficulty. I am looking forward to your next post on the topic.

  6. YO! brain-friendly learning techniques is so real and necessary- especially in the realms of special education..

    How you doing man? How’s the start to your year? Hope all is well.. PEace

  7. SG makes an interesting point. The “process” mavens forget they need something to process. Like content.

    For me, it’s find the associations, use the visualizing power of the brain, and lock it into long-term memory. Then we can process till our brain gets tired — but not full! 😉

    BTW, good mnemonic schemes go way beyond alphabetical associations. We’ll have some fun talking about it.

    Jose, Betty, looking forward to your contributions.

    Margaret, and NYCTF, ditto! (Nice to see you back in the saddle, NY!)

    Miss Profe, I’m glad you’ll be following the conversation. It will be a trip.

    Rather than leave anyone in the dark, the other technique that I consider essential, I learned from reading Tony Buzan’s “Use Both Sides of Your Brain.” He calls it mind-mapping. Copycat educators call it “graphic organizers.”

    Last thought. There aren’t but a scant handful of graphic organizers that are useful in addition to a mind map. (Also based on association and visualization.)

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