long-term memory

"Man, I know TWO LINES to every song."


How cool would it be to know the full lyrics to every song?  I was sitting at a café a month ago, one table over from two people playing poker. (Poker-playing is, by the way, unusual for the cafés I frequent, so this was sort of neat.)

Out of nowhere, both players started singing the chorus from Kenny Roger's "The Gambler":

You've got to know when to hold 'em Know when to fold 'em Know when to walk away...

They smiled. They laughed!

And then they paused. 

One of them continued, haltingly:

Know when to... run? You never... Fun?

And then he exclaimed: "Man, I know two lines to every song!"

How cool would it be to know the full lyrics to every song? 

In fact, let's expand on that:

How powerful would it be to know the full lyrics to every song? How fulfilling and enriching? How much better would you be able to engage with the songwriter's intentions and worldview?

To carry around the collected wisdom of a dozen, even a hundred artists — and be able to draw upon them at any time. Anthropologists tell us that this is the norm in many "pre-literate" societies. It may be the historical par for the course.

Storing scores of songs inside us is our human birthright. 

And most of us let it lie fallow.

Our new kind of school can reverse that.

Poetry buffs often wax eloquent on the joys of memorizing poems. I entirely agree with them — I've committed maybe a dozen poems to heart, and would love to do more.

A new kind of school — a school the cultivates love, mastery, and meaning — will do well to induct kids into the joy of memorizing poetry.

Great songs deserve the same.

And that'll require specific effort.

Frequently-hilarious poet Billy Collins pens the following:

One of the disadvantages of poetry over popular music is that if you write a pop song, it naturally gets into people’s heads as they listen in the car. You don’t have to memorize a Paul Simon song; it’s just in your head, and you can sing along.

With a poem, you have to will yourself to memorize it....

This process—going from deep familiarity to complete mastery—is a challenge and a great pleasure. In repeating different lines, your reading becomes more focused than you’ve ever had before. You become more sensitive to every consonant and vowel.

I agree with all of this, wholeheartedly — except the part where Collins says that memorizing pop song happens automatically.

Well, maybe Collins is able to store Simon and Garfunkel just by listening to 'em: I'm sure not! I've had to work hard to put "Sound of Silence" in my long-term memory.

I've written before about our schools' basic practice of experiencing a song a day. And I've written, too, about where we could get those songs from — and how we can channel this into having kids regularly create songs!

I'd like to add something today:

We should find ways to encourage kids to commit lyrics to their memories. 

I suspect we should never force this to be done to any song the students don't already love — we should only encourage they internalize lyrics to songs they already care about.

We should do something else, too — use this as a chance to teach kids how memory works. 

But I have to admit I don't have any strong sense of how we should do this.

Any thoughts?

(The full lines to "The Gambler", if anyone would like to save themselves a Googlin', are below. Thanks to azlyrics.com, and the great Kenny Rogers!)

On a warm summer's eve On a train bound for nowhere I met up with the gambler We were both too tired to sleep So we took turns a-starin' Out the window at the darkness The boredom overtook us, he began to speak

He said, "Son, I've made a life Out of readin' people's faces Knowin' what the cards were By the way they held their eyes So if you don't mind me sayin' I can see you're out of aces For a taste of your whiskey I'll give you some advice"

So I handed him my bottle And he drank down my last swallow Then he bummed a cigarette And asked me for a light And the night got deathly quiet And his faced lost all expression He said, "If you're gonna play the game, boy You gotta learn to play it right

You've got to know when to hold 'em Know when to fold 'em Know when to walk away Know when to run You never count your money When you're sittin' at the table There'll be time enough for countin' When the dealin's done

Every gambler knows That the secret to survivin' Is knowin' what to throw away And knowin' what to keep 'Cause every hand's a winner And every hand's a loser And the best that you can hope for Is to die in your sleep"

And when he finished speakin' He turned back toward the window Crushed out his cigarette And faded off to sleep And somewhere in the darkness The gambler he broke even And in his final words I found an ace that I could keep

You've got to know when to hold 'em Know when to fold 'em Know when to walk away And know when to run You never count your money When you're sittin' at the table There'll be time enough for countin' When the dealin's done

You've got to know when to hold 'em (When to hold 'em) Know when to fold 'em (When to fold 'em) Know when to walk away And know when to run You never count your money When you're sittin' at the table There'll be time enough for countin' When the dealin's done

You've got to know when to hold 'em Know when to fold 'em Know when to walk away And know when to run You never count your money When you're sittin' at the table There'll be time enough for countin' When the dealin's done

Leitner box


A problem:

We leak memories. In school, we stock up knowledge and understanding — but it evaporates. Forgetting is quick and brutal, and impedes future comprehension.

We leak memories even of things that we value. College, for me, was a never-ending series of wows! (It probably helped that I picked my classes mostly on whim, based on which struck my interest.) And yet I can hardly remember anything from my history degree. I learned this the hard way when I tried to teach a European history class, and couldn't remember any of the delightful little stories I had obsessed over in college. Sometimes, now,  I flip through my class books, and can't believe I've ever read them — there's just no memory there.

We're not even asked to value what we learnIn school we learn, and learn, and learn, but we're not given a chance to determine what things, specifically, we love.

Our basic plan:

Students keep, and regularly review, a collection of what they've found most valuable, or interesting, or wonderful, or important.

Each day each student adds to their collection, creating 1–2 flash cards that encapsulates what they've learned that they most love. Flash cards are made elegantly (however the student defines that) and are stored in a Leitner box.

Each day each students reviews their collection, using a spaced repetition system wherein newer cards get reviewed more frequently, and older cards get reviewed less frequently.

Over weeks and months, everything that students enter into their Leitner boxes gets engraved in their memories: they carry around their favorite knowledge wherever they go, and will for the rest of their lives.

The act of reviewing can be a delight: a chance to re-taste some tasty bits of knowledge and to re-visit their past selves ("Why did I ever think this was interesting?!"). It's also a chance to combine knowledge in new arrangements, making connections between information that was previously unrelated.

Eventually, we may transition the cards to a computerized spaced repetition system, like Anki.

Our goals:

Theologian James K. A. Smith writes:

our identity is shaped by what we ultimately love… what, at the end of the day, gives us a sense of meaning, purpose, understanding, and orientation to our being-in-the-world.

Our hope is that the Leitner boxes provide a chance for students to consciously ponder and freely choose those things, and to reflect on them more deeply (and ultimately build them into themselves).

Thus the goals for this really are that students experience more autonomy in school, see what they learn in school as an opportunity to build themselves, and ultimately care more deeply about what they learn.

If you walk into our classrooms, you might see:

Students slowly going through their day's reviews, smiling in reverie.

At the end of the day, the whole class pausing for ten minutes to reflect on what they've learned, and to carefully make two flash cards out of the choicest bits.

Some specific questions:

  • Each kid should get a specific box, but what sort of box that is, and how it looks (or is decorated) should be up to the individual student.
  • "Flashcard" connects soul-crushing tedium, but these flashcards are exactly the opposite! Should we avoid the word "flashcard"?
  • 1–2 cards per day — is that a good number?

Classrooms for brilliant innovation


How can we create a generation of brilliantly innovative kids?    And let's be clear: this is the purpose of our school. We're going to spend a lot of time learning about the past, and recapitulating its greatest accomplishments, but this is all toward the goal of doing new things in the future.

As the Renaissance reader, writer, and thinker Salutati wrote:

I have always believed that I must imitate antiquity not simply to reproduce it, but in order to produce something new.

So how do we create this generation of brilliantly innovative kids?

First, we have to understand the nature of creativity. Then, we need to build it into every piece of our school.


It's a professional nuisance, I suppose, that I end up hearing so much nonsense about creativity. Most educational innovators drivel on about "creativity", rarely defining the word (often it seems to mean anything to do with art) and trusting that creativity is natural.

The assumption seems to be that if you just "let out" the native forces of a child, creativity will result.

Well, sometimes. But not frequently.

At least, new, good ideas don't just spill out all by themselves. (Unless the kid is some kind of creative genius, in which case, why do we have them in a school at all?)


That's not to say that you force creativity. Typically, you don't — forcing doesn't get you innovation. Rather, new, good ideas take cultivation — they pop up in certain contexts, and not others. Get the environment right, and you'll get innovation.

What environment is that? 

Steven Johnson wrote the book on this: Where Good Ideas Come From: A Natural History of Innovation. His major idea:

Don't think of creativity as forging new ideas by yourself. Think of creativity, rather, as piecing together others' ideas to make something new.


We have a natural tendency to romanticize breakthrough innovations, imagining momentous ideas transcending their surroundings, a gifted mind somehow seeing over the detritus of old ideas and ossified tradition. 

But ideas are works of bricolage; they're built out of that detritus. We take the ideas we've inherited or that we've stumbled across, and we jigger them together into some new shape. (pp. 28–28, emphasis mine)

(Ooh — there's an RSA Animates for the book! Enjoy the next four minutes and six seconds of your life.) Johnson continues:

The trick to having good ideas is not to sit around in glorious isolation and try to think big thoughts. The trick is to get more parts on the tableA good idea is a network. (p. 42 & 45)

Creative students are network-builders. They take scads of other data, and combine them together in new ways. A limiting factor, then, is how many ideas they can stumble across! We need our school to be as idea-thick as possible. 

I hope it's apparent that we're planning to do just that — crowd our school with stories and thoughts and questions and images and facts and plenty of other abstract nouns I'm forgetting.

And those from as many disciplines as possible — chemistry and religion and art and math and music and biology and everything. Narrow disciplinary boundaries are the death of innovation (at least in K-12 classrooms).

Immerse our kids with wonderful and diverse content — one of the keys to prompting creativity.

But — if only ensuring creativity were so simple! Because here we run smack into a big problem; in fact, a fundamental cognitive limit.

Creativity is connecting, and the easiest place to connect ideas is inside your own head. We pull information — ideas, stories, facts, questions, images, whatever — out of our long-term memory, and connect it with whatever new thing we're looking at.

The trouble is that it's easy — scandalously easy! — to misplace the memories in your long-term memory.

We all know this, of course. You've learned far, far more about (say) the Civil War than you're aware of right now. Much of that knowledge is still inside your skull, somewhere. If you heard it again, you'd recall that, yes, you'd heard it before. But you couldn't have said what it was. The knowledge was more or less useless to you.

This is the Tragedy of Long-Term Memory. (Well, it's one of the tragedies. The other is that you just plum forget things. More on that, and how to overcome it, in a later post.)

And some people fall prey to this tragedy more than others. Some people are simply worse at making these connections — they can't access their long-term memories as quickly, can't hold as much data in their working memories (more on this later) to juggle the ideas around.

So we're in danger of privileging some of our students over others. To some extent, this is unavoidable — but we should look for tools that will equalize the playing field.

Delightfully, there's a fix! And this fix revolutionized human society: write ideas down. 

Paper is the original creativity-extender. (Well, clay tablets, but nuts to the Sumerians!) Writing things down offloads the memory. We can think just by leafing through a notebook. Of course, there is the occasional glitch:

Professor Henry Jones: Well, he who finds the Grail must face the final challenge. Indiana Jones: What final challenge? Professor Henry Jones: Three devices of such lethal cunning. Indiana Jones: Booby traps? Professor Henry Jones: Oh, yes. But I found the clues that will safely take us through them in the Chronicles of St. Anselm. Indiana Jones: [pleased] Well, what are they? Indiana Jones: [annoyed] Can't you remember? Professor Henry Jones: I wrote them down in my diary so that I wouldn't have to remember.

But that trouble seems more limited to international adventurers than to K-12 students.

Except maybe it's not. 


I want to point out that I'm not just blasting conventional schools, here. I'm rather tickled that schools make use of one of humanity's most time-tested cognitive tools! But why don't school notebooks, as they're popularly used, increase creativity?

Three reasons, I think.

First, creativity isn't part of the curriculum. Many classes don't ask students to think new thoughts — and when they do (English essays, for example), they don't train students in how to cobble together old ideas to make new ones.

Second, the notebooks aren't used for creativity. Notebooks are seen as places to dump data, and maybe review it before a test — not places to access again and again to get new insight.

Third, when was the last time you looked through your school notebooks? You can cheat for this one, and include your college notebook. Did you leaf through them in the last month? Less than a year ago? I didn't think so. (And neither did I — and I kept mine!) We dump data in, and then let it moulder there.


There's a solution to this. Well, actually there are a number of solutions to this — but I want to outline just one today:

Externalize knowledge. Splay it on the walls.

One major purpose of classroom walls is to store information. Interesting information. Beautiful information. Information that students value, and which can help them think new thoughts in the future.

The walls can take on some of the role of long-term memory.

Information on the walls can be casually referenced in class. Students can browse the walls when they're stuck for an idea.

Of course, we can't fit all of the information students learn on the walls — only the most meager sliver of it. But that's all we need: we can fill the walls with triggers for what the class has already learned.

Triggers for what they've already learned: that seems a crucial piece. It's not that we'll put new information on the walls. That'd be stupid. New knowledge is best learned through other people (and experience, and books, and any number of other things). It's not best learned through truncated bits of information hung on a wall.

But the walls can display bits of information that students have already learned — bits that trigger complex recollections.

At the beginning of the year, much of the wall-space of a classroom, therefore, will be empty. As the classes move on, we'll gradually fill the walls until the room becomes an index of what's their heads.

I say "index" — but it can be thought of as a sort of machine, with students the moving parts. They'll walk around, connecting an idea here (next to the wind0w) with a question there (above the sink), comparing it all to a story there (behind the plants).

Students must play a hand in construction of this — they can deliberate as to what to put on the wall. It's an externalization of their knowledge, after all.


But I have to apologize: this probably seems entirely abstract. Next, I'll hope to give an example of one type of information we can put up — a "wall of talking dead people" — and what we can do with it — practice moral creativity.