Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Episodic memory and effective teaching

In the body of brain research that matters for effective instruction, one of the issues is understanding how human memory works. Episodic memory is one of the most powerful kinds, attached to strong emotions and important events.

From 1963 to 2001, the simplest way to explain episodic memory was to ask a single question: "Where were you when you heard that Kennedy had been shot?" That was the great shared episode. Even people too young to have a personal answer understood how it worked from experiencing the emotions of people a bit older.

In 2001, of course, we got a new question: "Where were you when you heard that the Towers had been hit?" Some middle school and most high school students have first-hand answers, and my guess is that most elementary students can already share their parents' stories. That matters for teaching because new learning is the most effective when students can connect it to something they already know and value. Showing students how a lesson in history or geography or culture is related to 9/11 is an important way to make the lesson meaningful in that class and memorable into the future.

All of which is a roundabout approach to the photo above, now running on the Daily Dish blog. The headline is "Rebuilding," and the caption reads "The Freedom Tower is finally reaching for the sky (at the fourth of 94 floors, to be exact)." I didn't know how deep my own episodic memory went until I looked at the picture and discovered that I was, again, in tears.

(Source note: my understanding of the research discussed above comes indirectly from Jensen's Teaching with the Brain in Mind and more directly from the extraordinarily memorable Brain Research workshop Ronda Harmon developed for the Kentucky Association of School Councils.)

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