Memorization Is For The Birds, Or Rather, For The Fish

Google: Meet Pocket

Much has been said in the past five years or so of the diminished importance of raw memorization. The rise of mobile Internet devices has put “Google” in virtually everyone’s pocket. The practice of having kids slave over the memorization of certain sets of information has long seemed inappropriate to many. A few of our most superfluous classroom tasks from an afternoon Twitter conversation today were: U.S. states matched to their capitals, U.S. presidents in order, a litany of decontextualized historical dates, or the correct spelling of the first 36 elements of the Periodic Table. Do these things matter? Is memorization ever appropriate in a wireless, connected, 24/7 world? And if so, how are you tackling it using modern tools?

Allow me to attempt to do a few things here:

  • Draw a line in the sand between rote memorization as an end goal and contextualized memorization as a key step in transfer.
  • Characterize an important element of my Marine Biology course that requires really rigorous memorization.
  • Demonstrate a novel application of iOS Shared Photo Streams that has amplified our work in a really fun and effective way.

The Rub

I cannot count the times during my own schooling when I was asked to commit a list of facts to memory. Similarly, it would be impossible to recall every time I was required to log hours and hours of practice reinforcing my ability to complete what seemed like a task or skill that I might never revisit in either higher education, nor in real life. Of course, I now recognize this as decontextualized learning; the focus on an element of content or process that lacks an obvious connection to a larger body of context or importance. Thus, I know today to do everything I can to avoid such disconnections between classroom processes and tasks and the wider body of knowledge, inquiry and purpose my course is designed to address.

Sometimes I think this country has lost its potential for nuance in general. We’re just so divided anymore. We’re divided between “ban guns!” & “guns for all teachers!” We’re divided between “no taxes ever” & “spend until we’re broke.” There is no room for a “purple” state in the current national dialogue. It seems at times we’ve lost our capacity to even register shades of gray at all. Pick a side. Stake your claim. Then be sure to get those earplugs buried in nice and tight. We just can’t imagine a scenario where the other side might be right. We make such poor arguments so full of holes because we cannot even bring ourselves to grasp an opposing viewpoint.

As polarizing as this “memorization” debate has been for much of my career, I found it very encouraging that, after tossing out the following tweet with somewhat-loaded language:

Tweet from Nashworld

…what followed was a balanced, sensible, and informed back and forth on the role of memorization in the wider scope of learning and schools. If you spend enough time honing your follower list, you can have smart people of all walks on the other end of the line at a moment’s notice. Subtopics touched upon today were: relevance, authenticity, transfer, decontextualized learning, alignment, fact fluency, Understanding by Design, etc. I suppose, rather than a microcosm of reality, my Twitter feed is still skewed toward a set of rather wise and seasoned educators. I try to seek diversity in following, but then again I like the signal to noise ratio to be tolerable as well.

Yes: Still Teaching

My main professional focus today is at the district level of a school system making measured and sensible moves toward 1:1 computing for all children. Some might call our 13+ one-to-one schools a “pilot.” And yet, the reality is that they are only a “pilot” in terms of being smart about strategy and implementation. There are a rapidly decreasing number of citizens left that cannot see the landscape of the classroom changing toward the embrace of modern, relevant tools and access. It is no longer about whether we need the access and connectivity of computers in the hands of the learner, it is about implementation, fidelity, and crafting the best ecosystem for learning that is possible. It is easy to forget that textbooks for all kids was also a transformation of the system at one point in the past.

As the point person of a hardworking team of four, I am in charge of making the big picture vision and mission connect to the ground level in our classrooms. This is implementation, and implementation’s linchpin in professional development. If PD has its own linchpin, it might just be classroom relevance – relevance that comes from tested strategies. I still cling to the one course I teach. I think that matters. With all of my other tasks and responsibilities this presents a significant logistical challenge. However, my Marine Biology class is a Monday night course, and has been since 1999. That simple fact allows me to continue to moonlight as a classroom teacher… a teacher of a class that has by design existed to soften the walls of the traditional classroom. And yes, to answer a friend’s question: I really do have a much broader reach today than I ever did before.

My students are representatives of each of our three district high schools. At 6:30pm on 23 Monday nights throughout the year they roll into class… sometimes with a bag of Subway, sometimes still sweating from an athletic practice. We have followed this same schedule since 1999. This schedule goes a long way toward explaining why we were early to develop social technology strategies that were rooted in curriculum & instruction. We’re digitally connected 24/7/365 until the last week of March…  when we’re disconnected from the rest of the world and living without outlets on sailing yachts in the remotest reaches of the Bahamas… snorkeling and exploring the coral reefs.

The “What For”

This course seeks a brain-friendly engagement trifecta of novelty, relevance, and authenticity of purpose. Every element of the program was designed with those goals in mind. An authentic science course seeks not only to learn about science, it seeks to conduct science. A big focus for this class for so many reasons is the characterization of reef fish populations. This requires direct sight identification of coral reef fish species in the field. Since our focus ecosystem for the course is the coral reef, and since we spend a week immersed in the reef, why on Earth wouldn’t we do some real data collection on the reef.

A decade ago, my students would learn to identify a few of the main coral reef species if for no other reason than to have a way to connect to such a foreign ecosystem. Today I require my students to be able to sight-identify approximately 125 species of reef fish before even setting sail. To make this even crazier in some respects, reef fish often look radically different from the juvenile, to the intermediate, and finally the adult phase. That kicks the number of visual patterns needing recognition almost by a factor of three. Why would we do such a thing in a high school science course? Why would I push students this hard at what seems so…  ”knowledge level?

The answer is simple: This has never been an ordinary high school course. I have used it as a testbed for what a classroom could be since day one. When the carrots of relevance, authenticity, and fringe exploration are this large, you can ask students do more. When you get beyond the grade -and the entire team realizes that you are working on something bigger than a letter- you aren’t held down by a score. And instead of getting less performance, we get more. These students want to deeply understand what they are experiencing. They must operate at this level, or else the data we submit to REEF.org will be less than accurate and precise. That’s not good science, and all of a sudden, “good science” isn’t something to read about, it is something for all to actively protect.

Don’t get me wrong: identification, classification, and memorization at this level is not an easy task. This is not the 50 U.S. States & Capitals. This is 125+ vibrant, living animals darting in and out of crevices in a living coral reef. This is breathing underwater through a fat straw. This is recording data with pen & pencil while submerged beneath the ocean waves. This is not wanting to send bogus statistics to a national dataset that is worth protecting. This is science, and real science in the field often requires really specific skills. This is not your father’s 9th Grade Biology class.

Enter: Shared Photo Streams

As you can imagine, a classification, identification, and memorization task of this magnitude  is not easy. Even with big student buy-in, this is a monster endeavor. Students soon learn the relative ineffectiveness of the hours-long “cramming” sessions they are accustomed to. This is deep knowledge-level learning. This is pattern-recognition in a very chaotic world. This is bacon-wrapped learning at its finest.

We have searched far and wide to find best-practices for a memorization scheme of this magnitude. One thing we learned early on is that no matter what strategy we employed, working often and in small chunks is a key. So, I’ve poked and prodded. I’ve been a nag using all available tools to intervene as a coach throughout the day. We use a shared GroupMe space for communication. I tap on shoulders using this, but still, nothing I tried felt like more than digital nagging. That is, until iOS 6 debuted with Shared Photo Streams.

Now, to be clear, Shared Photo Streams (SPS) were not crafted with such a purpose in mind. The Photostream itself was created as a way to sync photos across iOS & OSX devices. Shared Streams were merely an extension whereby you could instantaneously share a subset of your Photosteam with others. It is a great tool for families, but so is Instagram, right? We started off by kicking the tires on SPS just to see what it could do. Each of my students have a 32GB 3rd Generation iPad. We were quickly taken aback by the speed and elegance of the notification system. As soon as I would add an image to the SPS in class, 20 novel ringtones were set off. This was immediately amusing, and caused everyone to want to add in a comment to that image to set off another 20 ringtones. It was a huge spontaneous revelation for all of us. The immediacy of it all soaked in quickly.

Since that time, I’ve been adding images to the SPS one or a few at a time and managing the feedback for learning along the way. From about 6:30am until bedtime I gently poke and prod the fish ID nerve of my students at random times. We quickly moved to a rule where the first responder with the correct species would earn an “extra point.” Nothing like making a bit of a game out of it to entice the competitive nature in a few of the students. And what’s even better… when you look through the few screenshots posted here, you’ll see that I am able to subtly coach within this setting. You’ll notice a few friendly redirects here and there for all students to see. Can’t do that with flashcards now, can you?

In The End

For me, here’s the all-important metric: authenticity. Memorization of this scale “just because” would be ludicrous. It would amount to “rigor” in all of the worst possible connotations of that word. The fact that this work directly translates to being able to record a species of a reef fish that momentarily pops out of a reef crevice… and slides safely back in… makes it all worth the effort. A statistically significant database of species, and abundance overlaid with geographical data, etc., is the scientific “real deal.” When you promise real experiences, you can ask for real work. Even if that real work includes an almost insane amount of “memorization.” It sure is nice when potential tools emerge that can be repurposed for such needs. This is a fun time to be in the business of education. Check out the time & date stamps on the responses here.

No, your students might no longer respond to “homework” outside of class if it smells anything like a worksheet. Stop doing that. You’re kidding yourself. The one real consequence of having “Google in our pockets” might just be that anything lacking relevance & authenticity is a tougher sell today.

PS-

1) You don’t have to be a biology teacher to take advantage of the affordances of this tool. True, you need all to have access to an iOS device outside of school…  but a large and growing number of students and schools are there. How might you use iOS Shared Photo Streams to support a frequent and informal discussion around the content of your course? If you don’t have this system, are you doing something similar? Compare and contrast that with what you see here. Let’s talk…

2) If you’d like to follow along with this Photostream, send me a private email with your Apple ID and I’ll certainly add you in. I do believe it helps to experience these things from the ground level. (My email is on the “About” page.)

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