The Importance of Memory

The Importance of Memory
The Importance of Memory

A neuroscientist explains what brain science tells us about how students learn.

What do faculty and staff learn on a day dedicated to professional development?

The answers vary by school and by program, but on Friday, Oct. 6, Sidwell Friends faculty and staff gathered on a student day off to hear from noted neuroscientist and educator Jared Horvath, who sought to make the point that “learning is a choice.” And if that’s true, he asked, how can teachers get students to make the choice to learn?

The answer, Horvath, director of the Science of Learning Group in Melbourne, Australia, told the educators, lies in storytelling that better engages students in the topics at hand and gives them a sense of greater agency over their own education. Teachers should change their stories, boost engagement and debate among classmates, change the rules (ask students to critique concepts and explore their boundaries), and then give explicit feedback. Grades without context, he said, all but ensures that the brain will dump information after a test.

Horvath illustrated his point with an example—and a challenge—from his own field, brain science: The sky is not blue. Societally, we have all decided it’s blue and we tell ourselves the story of its blueness—but that’s all it is: a story. It turns out that in all of ancient literature—from the Greeks to historic Asian cultures—there is no mention of the color blue. Homer describes a “wine-dark sea,” for example, but nowhere in The Iliad will you find the color blue or any variation of it. The only culture found to have blue in ancient times were the Egyptians—who not coincidentally lived in the home of lapis lazuli, the azure-and-cobalt-hued rock so often depicted in royal Egyptian vestments.

Eventually, blue shows up the world over—almost. A small tribe in Namibia, the Himba, have no word for “blue” in their language. When asked what color the sky is on a perfect, cloudless day, the Himba say, “white.” Show them 10 green swatches with one blue and they cannot pick out the blue swatch—a task that the rest of us wouldn’t be able to miss. On the other hand, when shown 10 swatches of green and one swatch of a different shade of green—shades that were utterly indistinct from one another to those gathered in the RLS Meeting Room—the Himba saw it immediately. They couldn’t see blue, but they could see more shades of green than the rest of us.

Before there was a story about blue, Horvath said, the world simply could not see it. In other words, said Horvath, “Stories literally drive your perceptions, not the other way around.” And he posited that this has enormous implications for how students learn—whether they are being presented with rote facts or being told a story about the history of the world. The latter, he said, helps create permanence in the memory. So does giving kids different experiences with the same set of facts. Having multiple touchpoints creates deeper learning.

“The brain sees things as you think they should be, not necessarily the way they are,” said Horvath. “What are the stories you use to make sense of the world?”

Horvath’s themes carried over in breakout sessions with psychologist Rebecca Resnick, who talked about executive-functioning hacks and how to approach different learning styles. In other rooms, psychologist Linda Fleming McGhee explored the impact of stress on well-being and performance, and Andrew Watson broke down the brain science of attention and memory. 

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