The Sweet Spot of Memory and Rigor

Did you know that your short-term memory lasts only 30 seconds to a minute? Unless you intervene and make a conscious effort to move something to long-term memory, poof, it’s gone. This explains a lot about why I have a hard time remembering names when I meet people -- my brain is probably multi-tasking to make sense of things as I also self-consciously monitor how I'm presenting myself.

Students learn about metaphor: practicing understanding through notebook hacking.

Students learn about metaphor: practicing understanding through notebook hacking.

Short-Term Memory vs. Long-Term Memory

I learned about the shortness of short-term memory from an interview by Terry Gross of NPR’s Fresh Air with Dean Burnett, author of Idiot Brain: What Your Brain Is Really Up To. Here’s a clip:

GROSS: In writing about memory, you write about the difference between short-term memory and long-term memory. And short-term memory really doesn't hold very much. I mean, from how you describe it, it holds less than I even thought.
BURNETT: Yeah. That's sort of one of those mainstream ideas of how memory is structured and works, which is not quite correct - in that short-term memory - you see a lot of films and, like, TV shows. They sort of portray short-term memory as something from an hour ago or, like, that same day. Where it's actually - short-term memory is 30 seconds to a minute. Anything longer than that tends to actually now be officially a long-term memory 'cause it takes the brain...
GROSS: Whoa whoa whoa. Anything longer than a minute is officially long-term memory?

BURNETT: Essentially, yes.
GROSS: That means my long-term memory is worse than I thought (laughter).

Now, I remembered this because it was funny and shocking at the same time. I don’t think I’ve ever heard Terry Gross go “Whoa, whoa, whoa….” like that. But I also thought (my brain doing a little analysis dance), what does that critical jump from short-term to long-term memory mean for education and for teaching? My own whoa-whoa-whoa: How important is that moment? Majorly important.

Who Is Responsible for Rigor?

In the serendipitous way new thoughts evolve, I happened upon some reflections a few days later about that sweet spot of transition from short-term to long-term memory (sometimes referred to as working memory).  It was in a blog post by Sarah Doenmez: “Brain Science Reveals the Learner -- Not the Teacher -- as the Source of Rigor,Independent School Magazine Blog, October 19, 2015.

Doenmez emphasizes how students need “repetitive, challenging tasks” in the form of “practice and do-overs” to strengthen key skills such as drawing conclusions from evidence.” Rigor is not piling on scads of material (how it is seen by some teachers, unfortunately), but rather lies in creating opportunities for students to manage the juncture from short-term memory to long-term memory, whether is it through practice, as Doenmez describes, or through other forms of engagement I could add: tinkering, discussion, reflection, play.

Thus, true rigor lies in the learner’s engagement with the activity of learning -- sometimes provided by the teacher. (The teacher is not the only one who designs those moments -- students do this themselves.) If teachers design activities that shut the brain down rather than rev it up, it’s no wonder that the transition from short-term to long-term memory doesn’t happen. Too daunting, right? The learner must locate that wellspring of motivation in him- or herself that can allow him or her to make the leap of learning ahead. The learner must assume an attitude of engagement and follow through with some effort. But depending on how the student encounters learning (what baggage may exist from the past in this regard, how was the learning structured, etc.), that motivation may be too deeply buried and the effort may just not seem worth it. On the other hand, the learning experience, something do-able yet challenging, just may be the spark the student needs.

Doenmez quotes Andrew Watson as saying, “Rigor keeps the focus on students’ responsibility and authorship of their own neural networks. In other words, teachers can provide the opportunity and structure for students to learn, but only students can engage and manage their brains” (Independent School Magazine, Fall 2015).

I like that. The teacher as architect of an engaging learning space, the student as someone who steps up and engages his or her own brain to learn. So the real rigor is a collaboration to find the sweet spot of learning and make that memory jump together.