There is an art of memory that can have profound implications for learning and thought.
In the Middle Ages memory skills were sometimes viewed as a serious and heretical threat to the religious orders of the day. In the Campo Di Fiori in Rome there is a statue to Father Giordano Bruno, who was martyred for his interest in science and zodiac inspired memory devices.
The basic principles of memory are universal; the visual, the ordered, the associated and the repeated. We are told that Simonides of Ceos, recited a poem to a nobleman of Thessaly which contained reference to the Gods Castor and Pollux. There upon, the haughty lord instructed Simonides to collect half of his performance fee from the Twin Gods. Simonides was called outside where two strangers wished to speak with him. Whilst outside, the building where he had performed collapsed, killing all inside. The bodies unrecognisable, Simonides was able to recall the identity of each one by remembering their position at table.
We can recall many things by using signs and symbols, by divination of words and images and by other mnemonic devices. Some believe that it is possible to share in the mystic experiences of our ancestors by a process of orthopraxis .
(The link also refers to a seminal text by Mary Carruthers : The Craft of Thought)
We might walk in the footsteps of monks in a cloister or retrace the steps of an explorer and connect with their experiences. Architecture is also a useful metaphor for memory and Cicero apparently used this device to memorise his long speeches in the Forum by walking through imagined rooms and using the contents to prompt his flow.
We have the opportunity to develop our own machina memorialis, a device for successfully and profitably reading the book of one’s own memory. Perhaps this comes more naturally with age but sometimes is accelerated by circumstances as with solitary confinements.In an ‘Evil Cradling’, Brian Keenan underlines the importance of memory – particularly as he tried to entertain his fellow hostage John McCarthy during their years in a Lebanese cell together.
So, the latest headline gimmick to support the teaching of maths in the UK – send for the Chinese!
I am not convinced that the problem with maths is as serious as some like to make out. We don’t measure up well educationally when compared to places like China and Singapore and this is perhaps as much to do with culture as it is with teaching. Also, the data can be unreliable and skewed by a sizeable under achieving tail. The oft quoted group of critics, the employers, will probably always find fault with job seeker’s basic skills – standards are never what they were!
One cultural problem we do have is that many of us regard maths with trepidation and do not have good classroom memories – we probably transmit some of this to our offspring and round we go. I suspect that we do need a serious change in the way the subject is taught and by whom. If we are to change the culture we need to focus on younger children and their parents and perhaps we need to recast maths as a language – we make sense of the world in words and in estimations – both things our brilliant brains do well. ‘What is it called?’ and then ‘How big is it?” How far away is it?” – both questions having both a word and a numerical answer, from the very earliest age. Specialist maths teachers are not necessarily the only or the best qualified to address a subject that can be defined as ‘philosophical’. As ever, it is parents who hold the key.
I suggest that this is where we need to have a debate. I also suggest that, along with everything else in education, the constant political interference is part of the problem. I can remember vividly being taught the binary system in the 1960’s – this was to equip us for the computer age! I think it was soon dropped. I rarely remember any one explaining to us clearly why we were doing this. Even in today’s pressured classrooms, time to explore the relevance of a topic can often be squeezed out.
How to make words and number equal partners in how children begin to make sense of the world – now there’s a research project.
One of my favourite classroom ‘simulations’was called Moonshot. The class were given a list of 15 things that they had with them on the moon and asked to rank these in order of value. So Oxygen was handy, a compass may be not etc. Their responses were collected in and then they had to repeat the same task in groups. We then compared the scores individual v group and as you might expect, the group scores were always better than the individual.
The web offers us a unique opportunity to collaborate with problem solving. We can turn the planet into a giant brain if the people with the ideas are prepared to do so. And do we need to. Some of the challenges that we face need all the brains we can muster. Stephen Hawking has just suggested that he thinks it unlikely that we can survive on the planet for much longer.
The implications for education? Begin with the premise that everyone can make a contribution. The process of design, from ideas to manufacture, involves a host of skills that many of us possess to some extent. Some schools teach Philosophy for Children (P4C) which can give children of any age the opportunity to get to the core of an issue. Facilitate co-operative learning through web based problem solving from an early age. Embrace the full range of problems and challenges from energy, recycling, health, house building, agriculture, transport, care etc. Encourage a local community based micro model to begin with and then expand. It is the process of education that we can change most rapidly and most easily (and where teacher autonomy can be protected).
The next generation will have to deal with all the challenges, perhaps we should have the good grace to step aside and let them make a start.