Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Memory and the curriculum

Homer: He knew things by heart
As usual, there has been a lot of hoohah about Michael Gove's new curriculum. He wants to get rid of coursework and return to single exams, marking a return to apparently "oldfashioned" practices.

And why not? There was a predictable reaction on Twitter, including a remark from one writer who sputtered angrily that there was no such thing as a profession that required remembering and "regurgitating" facts. I think that use of the word "regurgitating" is key, because it suggests a misunderstanding of what remembering is.

Memory is the key to knowledge, which in turn leads to wisdom. You cannot know a subject unless you have memorised certain facts about it. I remember being at law school - you cannot absorb case law and statutes by accident. The only way to do it is to sit down and learn them, by rote. And why shouldn't pupils be taught how to do this? It only puts more unfair advantages onto the products of schools where rote learning is encouraged - ie, the public schools. There is a reason why private school children are over-represented in the legal profession - and it's not just because of parental background and encouragement. It's also because from the very beginning pupils are encouraged to memorise, to learn, to absorb, to be tested.

You can only truly know something if you have memorised it. I remember the heady days of my final exams, when I knew Virgil, Shakespeare, Homer, inside out. The Aeneid came alive inside my head: a vast, echoing chamber of beautiful imagery and striking scenes, linking together with all the other things that I'd had to con by heart. Things collide: you see shapes and patterns, you become aware of greater structures. You know things. A poem, learned by heart, is a poem understood.

We've forgotten what it is to be learned - learned in the law, learned in a subject. That means memorising things. It means being able to know, without looking it up, where to find something. If I didn't know Latin grammar off by heart, I wouldn't be a very good Latin teacher.

It's true if you're a doctor or a teacher or a taxi driver. All jobs contain a certain amount of memorising, whether it's a technique or a protocol or whatever. To suggest that memorising leads to "regurgitation" is simply wrong. It leads to broader, deeper understanding; to insight; and within your chosen field, to success. That's why I think Michael Gove is right. We should return to unlocking the potential of things that are greater than any computer, any search engine: that is, our own human minds.

***UPDATE: A rejigged version of this piece is now on the Telegraph website, here.****

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