Memorization and roller skates

The quote is taken from Dave Barry who said, "If the good Lord had intended us to walk, He wouldn't have invented rollerskates."

The quote is taken from Dave Barry who said, "If the good Lord had intended us to walk, He wouldn't have invented roller skates."

“If your questions are Google-able, then you are not asking the right questions.”

This past weekend at the Educon 2.2 conference, I heard this sentiment repeated far and wide.  At first blush, I agree with it.  In a classroom, inquiry is important, and fostering the ability to ask the right questions, in both myself as a teacher and for my students, is imperative.  Being able to ask the right questions is no easy task, and I encourage and support that endeavor.

9006615_4996b89ca4 / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

However, I really want to make the case for Google-able questions.  I want to make the case for rote memorization.

The skill of memorizing is not inherently bad, even in the age of information abundance.  For instance, I am much better at math if I have my multiplication tables and key formulas committed to memory.  When I used to work the cash register at various jobs I’ve held, even memorizing common combinations of change came in handy (I’ve found that no matter the place, because of sales tax and prices and human behavior, one finds that certain combinations of change arise more often than others.).   When our registers went down, I always could do the sales tax in my head.

Beyond math, I believe that in an age where our communication moves increasingly online, we will come to value the oral storyteller more and more.  As it becomes rarer, we will value the skill.  The Moth and This American Life, both featuring well-honed storytelling skills, rely in live performance on the ability to memorize key facts.  Without the memorization, we cannot ad lib.  Every jazz musician knows this.

I remember once being an audience of one for a boy’s moonlight recitation of a certain e.e. cummings poem. It was beyond a powerful moment.  I was completely willing to go out for a second date because of it.  If that isn’t a real world application, I don’t know what is.

For me, I love memorizing things.  Scrabble words that begin with Z.  An Educon encienda presentation.  A set of statistics.  Quotes from The Simpsons.  A poem. A phone number.  While there is a whole cognitive science argument to be made, that we should memorize information in order to keep our brains sharp (our brain is like a muscle!), I maintain that there is something remarkable about a person who delivers a well-memorized piece of information.

The View from Sunday: Educon

On Sunday, I think we might be on to something.

Sunday afternoon @Educon

Sunday afternoon @Educon

Educon has been an interesting experience.  It has affirmed my ideas about education, and exposed the many ways where we are in serious need of improvement.

Let me begin by noting, as always, the spontaneous conversations in the hallways and in sessions when I was off-task proved to be almost as fruitful as the more structured “conversations” scheduled into the day.  I wonder how conferences can find ways to encourage those informal moments, or if the spontaneity is essential to the quality.  Either way, you can’t go wrong when you are in a room with passionate educators all thinking and working and questioning and just trying to figure out how to serve our kids.  Even if we disagree about the specifics, we all agree about that.

I sat in on a conversation facilitated by Rodd Lucier (@thecleversheep), “Teaching the At-Risk Brain.”  First let me just say that this was the first session where I felt like both the presenter and the participants were changing the world.  The teachers I met in this session were kind, passionate, smart, and teaching kids in the most dire of circumstances.  It was so uplifting to meet and interact with these individuals that I can honestly say that it was by far the most powerful session I attended at this particular conference.

Mr. Lucier invited us to ask questions of two guest presenters that were joining us via Adobe Connect (forgive me: I did not quite get their names).  These two women were psychologists working who outlined for us the impact of trauma on a child and the way that manifests in a child’s brain and behavior.  Understanding the genesis of what is driving the at-risk brain is crucial to designing a learning environment to serve that child.   I captured some of the conversation below:

“We have to convince students that they are safe.”

“A child in crisis cannot conceive of a future, it is just the moment.  And the moment is terrifying.”

“It is as if that child is living in the jungle and tigers are around every corner.”

“When kids who are living in a high stress situation act out in school, it is important when responding to inappropriate behavior to make them feel safe. This will help them shift away from the survival reptile brain.”

“We must calm the survival brain: music, drumming, repetitive actions.”

“Trauma has no language.  In order to access language, we access the emotional brain: expression, art, journal writing to connect with the language of emotion.”

“Children in crisis have an inability to self-soothe because they are saturated in fear.”

The idea of tolerance for these kids, to allow them the space to move through complex emotions in order to move into a space that encourages learning, is somehow difficult for a great many educators and administrators.  I immediately connected to the idea that so much of schooling is about obedience.  And a child in survival mode often can’t get to obedience.

Sunday with Paul Allison

YouthVoices session

After that powerful session, the NWP crew gathered to support Paul Allison’s (@paulallison) conversation about his amazing YouthVoices project.  Paul did an amazing job capturing the complexity and richness of this project and at the end, none of us wanted to leave.  Paul invited the participants to go onto the site and comment on a student post.  Then we each shared about our experience interacting with the site.  It was remarkable (but not surprising to anyone familiar with Paul and  YouthVoices) to hear the abundance of interesting content that can be found in a few short minutes on the site.  Paul shared the passion he has for encouraging student voice and, at the end, there was not a single person who was not a convert.

As Educon ends and I watch trickles of participants wheel their suitcases out the door to head to all corners of the country and globe, I feel a sense of gratitude (a frequent emotion for this attendee this weekend); gratitude towards SLA for sharing their space, towards the presenters for creating conversations about these important issues,  towards the National Writing Project for providing me access to yet another wonderful experience with amazing colleagues.  Being here, among these people, at this time, I know we are onto something.