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 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.


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.)


iOS as an Art Teacher

Dad disclaimer

This blog is entitled nashworld for a reason. You can’t see the subtitle in this stripped-down theme I chose, but it reads: “to teach, to learn, to empower, this is my world.” It was only intended years ago as a place where I would share the reflections of my learning as a dad, as a teacher, as now as an instructional technology specialist. It is a quest to share my learning. In that quest, I have typically blogged about education, technology as used within our schools, and the roots of learning as it plays out in my classroom, the classrooms of my peers, others across the globe, and in the informal spaces of my home.

I have always been cautious of reading too much into the learning of my own children. They are, in some ways, an anomaly. They are growing up in the home of two devoted public educators. Therefore, their learning experiences in many ways are not typical. I try hard to separate this from my daily work. To me, this is an important distinction. If my decisions as a district employee weigh too heavily upon what happens at home, I am not acting as a representative of the 11,000+ learners in our district. Plenty of times I have seen the drawbacks of reading too much into happenings at home… and protracting that into decisions made for the masses. I am probably overcareful of that. I suppose that is my classically-trained scientific mind reflecting on the reality of such data.

The meat

Given these facts, there are still those times where open eyes at home allow insight into the workings of little brains as they make their way about our world. Today, an image my wife posted to Instagram took me back a couple of years to a learning experience by our then three-year-old that I once spilled upon this blog. You really do need to read that piece to understand the rest of this post. Go do that now, the rest of this post can wait…

Erin posted the above image including words from Delaney, our now five year old, that read: “This reminds me of that game… you know… Jackson Pollock.” This was in reference to her backyard creation of a twisted stick plunged into the top of an errant smoke bomb left over from the 4th of July.

In 2010, I wrote of her sitting upon my lap and finger scribbling within an app on my iPhone. At the time, I tied the experience to her early understanding of science concepts via an experience with music. Today I’m stopping by to record the latest in this saga… and it relates full-circle back to art and design. Yes, the above image shows a stick emerging from a smoke bomb. Big deal. And yet, the mere mention of this “creation” as something that reminded her of Jackson Pollock seemed pretty interesting to me. Something in this spontaneous little creation actually reminded her of that two-year-old experience… an experience she pinned to the artist. Do the twisted shapes of this little sculpture really mirror that of the artist’s work? Perhaps not. But in my opinion, this connection is pretty interesting for a five year old. I’m certainly intrigued.

Further, it’s not like that was the only connection to have happened since 2010. Just this past June 8th, I took Delaney and Neve to the Nelson Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City. In the course of that rather eventful day, we happened upon a painting in the “contemporary art” section that made her jump excitedly. Strangely enough, she ran from my hand to the painting above and read most of the display aloud. She remarked: “Wow… that’s Jackson Pollock, the app where I can paint.” Of course, I tweeted it. Actually, that particularly early Pollock painting held few of the familiar abstract paint streaks of the iOS app.  It features a bit more structure than his later works. She connected nothing of the “cells” discussion of two years ago, but she did remember the name. At the time I was impressed that she merely connected the name. Apparently, she conected perhaps a but more than the name alone.

iOS as an assistant

When young kids rummage about the yard you don’t imagine they have the names…. or the particular style of key artists… at the forefront of their brains. And yet, somehow she connected the design of this odd little yard sculpture to that of one of the many artists she has seen in the past few years. If that was an authentic connection, and it seems to have been, then I am definitely impressed by the string of experiences that led to this.

This all started with an iOS app on my phone. Did the app allow her to understand the core design nuances of Jackson Pollock? Perhaps not. I’m not much of a nuts and bolts art teacher. Do iOS apps “teach art” in a way we’ve never been able to before? I’d say no. A big, fat no. Come on, the title of this post was meant to be a little provocative. And yet, something is going on here. Something that certainly didn’t happen for me as a kid. I didn’t know who Jackson Pollock was until Art 101 as a Senior in college. Do iOS (iPhone & iPad) apps “teach” more effectively than conventional methods? Of. Course. Not. Do they quickly and easily allow access to a world the adults in the equation can take advantage of? I’d say they do. If you think this micro case study has value, then you must ask yourself: where was the turning point that led to the added value in this instance?

To me, there is little doubt that the value here lies within the synergy between attuned educator and iOS app. Would this have happened with books alone? No. Would it have happened with books + interested parent-teachers? Perhaps. However, the simple detracting fact here is that I don’t have any books that really feature the work of Jackson Pollock. Nor do we possess any titles that do a good job on abstract expressionism. We’re biology teachers for heaven’s sake. We have a pretty respectable and eclectic library at home, but it’s not the Library of Congress. Our phones, however, are windows to the world. And well, we aren’t the most unattentive parents on the planet. I don’t know, is this something?


Incorporating Words Into Images


Most would agree that “A picture is worth a thousand words.” Perhaps strangely, allow me to make the case that sometimes there is also value in distilling those thousand words into a scant few. This little post is a bit of practical sharing meant to point to two things: a cute little iOS application, and a few quick examples of its practical use. Oh, and really, I wouldn’t be doing it here if it wasn’t worth at least a handful of words as well.

informal academic writing experiences

Once upon a time, I enjoyed doing the occasional “check out this fancy new tool” post, particularly for the local folks with whom I work. Looking back, it seems that most of those posts were logged within my first year of writing here. Though today it has become far easier to point to shiny tools using the quick and dirty practicality of Twitter, this one seemed fun enough to bring back into this space.

We all have our own modes of sharing, and while I’m as proud of an original podcast or video as anyone, it seems I have a preference for words in print. I share a pretty respectable percentage of the things I create in one way or another. And as likely most of us do, we tend to share those things in which we see value, and also those that we anticipate others might find valuable as well. In thinking about it, for whatever reason, I tend to be more confident in sharing carefully-selected words. I guess I enjoy lining up words that altogether either communicate or sell an idea I am grappling with, or believe in a great deal.

THREATENED: Caribbean Corals

If you’ve been here before, you might also know that I dig photography as well. I think this goes hand in hand with being a biology teacher. Both images above were originally snapped on student field studies in the midst of the natural world we were learning about at the time. Adding a fascination with images into a love of words naturally equals an interest in all sorts of creative typography.

So what?

What does this nifty little $2 app get us? The people who might get mileage out of this one will likely see the value instantly. From a purely practical standpoint as an educator, if you only create one graphic that helps to communicate an idea, then the $2 is worth the outlay. WordFoto is not Photoshop. It is not Illustrator. It only does one thing, and it does so rather simply. If you can get your image of choice into an iOS device, you can manipulate it with ease. And though I’d like a little more control over contrast, etc., once you have a .jpg inside of a web-connected device, the sky is the limit in terms of sharing. What idea would you like to convey?

How many dots are on your map?

Inspired by a question Will Richardson asked SJSD administrators this past September: "How many dots are on your 'map'?" (click to embiggen)

Several folks I admire have led sessions where participants were invited to mashup powerful ideas and images. Both Punya Mishra and Dean Shareski often try to push educators to begin to think in multiple media simultaneously. In my opinion, these exercises are always valuable. Because this type of thinking is so different for many, it pushes us almost instantly into a more playful mindset. That sort of mindset can squeeze creativity out of those who think they haven’t had a creative thought in some time. That reality equals valuable time spent for all educators.


When playing around with WordFoto for the first time today over morning coffee, I was instantly reminded of these exercises. In trolling through a few images on my phone, I created the images displayed in this post, as well as those within this Flickr set. Technically, WordFoto reminds me a bit of another nifty $2 iOS app called Percolator. This app helps to create abstracted versions of images much like this one of a reef shark on our honeymoon. Here is the same image from WordFoto using only the work “SHARK.” The important difference in this app is that it actually uses words to accomplish the abstraction. And that, to me, is a potentially significant leap. From here, we can quickly and easily incorporate words and ideas into the very fabric of images. Sure, posting contrasting text over a powerful image will always be a cool thing. And yet, this app allows something novel and interesting. Like several other techniques, if done well, it can even be used to synthesize something beyond the mere images or words themselves.

In memorial

Appropriately for the day, the first image that stuck out to me while trolling through images on my phone was this one, taken at Arlington Cemetery while at ISTE 2009. The version below (particularly when seen at full resolution) helps to convey the sentiment on my mind this morning while comfortably sipping coffee and playing with fancy toys…

Unknown Soldier

To sum things up, pictures are worth thousands of words. Sometimes, however, it might be valuable to distill a few of those words to the surface to make a point. We aren’t all graphic artists who can make Adobe’s Creative Suite sing. However, I also see value in quickly providing a scaffold for the rest of us to engage in the kind of visual thinking provided by simple, inexpensive apps. Perhaps this is one that could be a valuable gateway drug that gets more of us into the game. Care to play along?