We look for signs of recognition in babies and glimpses of a well-developed memory as young children learn to talk and learn rudimentary literacy and numeracy skills. Memory plays a significant role in student success and the development of social skills. We bemoan signs of a weakening memory and grieve the understanding that the people we love, are losing theirs. Yet, considering memory, over all stages of life, helps us to better understand learning.
Part of getting older and living in our day of medical advances, is coming face to face with dementia. People live longer and many people experience memory loss or need to assume responsibility for those loved ones experiencing it. During some of visits with people with dementia, it’s almost like watching a film, where the person you know fades in and out right before your eyes. The workings of the mind is both fascinating and tragic for the person watching themself fading out of the memory of the person they love. Yet not all the memories are lost. Memories are often from long in the past or somehow connected to those experiences of long ago. My husband’s grandmother forgot that she no longer smoked and lived for her next cigarette. She would light up and become that person from long ago who was a smoker. My mother-in-law consistently asks to return to her childhood home to see her mom and best friend, Shirley. She is filled with the stories and the things she is looking forward to doing and eating.
My father has dementia and was placed in a Care Home in the San Gabriel Valley in California this past Spring. I finally stopped waiting for Americans to open the land border to Canadians, and used my American passport for the very first time and drove down to L.A. to visit him. He has been assigned a personal care worker named Martha. She stayed with us during my recent visit with him, which of course changed the dynamic of the visit. Much of the conversation involved my father explaining things back to his care giver. He introduced me to Martha and participated in conversation for a little over an hour. Many of those memories were hinged back to his early memories. He explained to Martha how amazing it was for a baby born in the San Gabriel Valley in California, me, would end up as a principal in Canada. That triggered his memory of attending the MEI, the school he attended on scholarship in Abbotsford, a suburb of Vancouver, British Columbia where his family had a farm. He has happy memories of the fun in school and how easy it had been for him. We had a good chuckle about my experiences as a teacher and principal and how school wasn’t easy for everyone. The conversation segued into his recollection that both of us had attended The University of British Columbia and him living as a border in my mother’s house, close to the university when he was a student. UBC and life in Vancouver holds many happy memories for both of us.
My father has always loved an audience. I grew up listening to his stories when I visited him during summer holidays. He relayed to his caregiver that I had bought him a book on the Voldendam. My father told me the story about celebrating his 13th birthday en route to Canada from Rotterdam on the ship called the Voldendam after World War II. The name of the boat stuck in my mind because my dad also had the postcard that the ship captain gave him on his birthday when he took him to inspect the ship. My father spoke of how proud he was to walk beside the captain and how it filled him with the sense that he was going to be someone important. When my husband and I were doing a biking trip in the Maritimes several years ago, we went to visit The Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21, in Halifax, Nova Scotia, the equivalent of Ellis Island in the United States. I did some homework and bought a postcard of the ship and a book about Pier 21 for my dad. It drew me back into the memory loop of his significant childhood memory. His memory of the more distant past became fused with the more recent past.
When I was in school, a good memory served me well. Taking detailed notes, putting information on index cards, reading information out loud, highlighters, cramming until the very end, singing – Yes, I memorized information for a biology test to Rod Stewart’s song Hot Legs that happened to be running through my head. Once before I walked into a Psychology 100 test, I heard some peers in the class talking about a name I knew nothing about. I sat down outside the lecture hall when we were writing the exam in 15 minutes. I reread the section of whoever it was that was so very important. I walked into the exam to discover that one third of the exam was on this old, white guy who had discovered important things. I regurgitated everything that I had crammed into my short-term memory and aced the exam. Couldn’t tell you who this very important guy was.
Bruce Carabine, my principal at Hillcrest Middle School in Coquitlam, a suburb of Vancouver, was known for his amazing memory. He knew the names of all our students and remembered incredible details of the lives of all of the staff. Students and staff felt a strong sense of belonging because he used their names and asked about the things and people who were important to them. The more he used the names and talked to people, the more entrenched the information became in his memory. We spent a lot of time discussing “his gift” of memory. In those discussions, he shared a multitude of strategies he used to remember. He went on to create a Powerpoint presentation of memory tricks to share with others. Through the years, I have used many of the ideas to commit information to rote memory. My favourite – Our postal code when my husband and I moved back to the beach in Vancouver,
V(ancouver) 6 K(itsilano) 1 H(appy) 7. Yes, I was delighted to move back to Vancouver!
In my work with students of all ages, I have shared many of the techniques and strategies for doing well on tests. However, the problem with tests is that they are never really the best measures of what students have learned. My son was able to write a final exam in high school and sometimes pull his letter grade up, not one, but two letter grades. I would be infuriated that he wasn’t doing the work required throughout the term. He would respond that I should be celebrating his accomplishment on the test. The fireworks would fly. He would engage in the classes where he was interested or he like the teacher because the teacher believed in him. His later entry and success in Instituto Marangoni, then later, Kwantlen Polytechnic University, came from strong family support and his own tenacity and drive to pursue his interests.
The best aspect of the new curriculum in British Columbia has been putting students at the centre of discussions about learning. Having the development of core competencies as part of developing understanding of the learning standards, both the grade level content and curricular competencies, has been right in line with the recommendations of the OECD for educational change in learning throughout the 34 participating nations and throughout the world.
The core competencies work together to engage students in the process of learning and helping them to integrate the learning standards into their personal memory banks.
- Thinking – including both creative and critical thinking
- Personal and Social – including personal awareness and responsibility, positive personal and cultural identity, social awareness and responsibility
Inquiry learning has brought to light the importance of student interest and engagement in the process of learning. It has also brought to light the importance of creating a safe environment to ask questions, make predictions, and fail without dire consequences. The first results of the OECD’s Beyond Academic Learning study of social and emotional skills states:
“Social and emotional skills have been found to be good predictors of education, labour, and social outcomes.” OECD 2021 p. 7
My maternal grand-mother was the matriarch of the family. She was smart, strong-willed and was a leader in our family, in her community work, and in her circles of friends. When she got dementia, my father, who was a neurosurgeon at the time, told me that it was God’s gift to her. Although I understood what he meant, I didn’t truly believe it until recently. As her control of her world slipped away, she got initially got angry and frustrated. As the dementia took hold, she slipped back to a simpler time before pain and anguish. She gravitated back in time when it wasn’t necessary for her to be in control of anything. Her reality became those of her earliest memories. It included singing, dolls, stories of her childhood, and things that she wanted to be true. No stress about understanding what is happening to you. When we consider how we commit learning to memory, it seems to make perfect sense to create a learning environment in which memory is strengthening by involving students in things they are interested in and creating strong links to their prior experiences. We want students to create meaningful learning that matters to them, not just because they will remember it for some arbitrary purpose, but because that will form the foundation for all of their future learning.