Ask Amma

Do your kids forget what they read?

In Books, Yes / No on 23 August 2012 at 3:49 am

I was wondering whether this problem is with my own kids or is it more generic. We keep forgetting what we learned few months back, especially in science. We did periodic table quite thoroughly maybe 8 months back, now we can only remember a few things. Of course if we quickly brush the topic we will probably recollect them. My kids say there is so much to remember in science, how are they supposed to remember?  Is this something to be concerned about or am I being just paranoid?

– mother of two from Bangalore

Just to get it out of the way, let us start with the counter-question, Do you forget what you read? If not, do share your techniques. Who among us would not like to improve our memory?

When you ask whether you are paranoid, I guess you are wondering whether your children’s rate of forgetting is average or above? Perhaps you would be interested in this article: Knowledge Taught in School: What is Remembered?  The author quotes Harry Bahrick, who found that “much of the information acquired in classrooms is lost soon after final examinations are taken.”  I doubt this comes as a surprise to anyone. While school teaching methods have undergone various changes in the decades since Professor Bahrick did his study, to the extent that classtime is devoted to exam-prep, this conclusion would probably still hold.It is much like a grocery list that you memorize. After bringing home the items, you forget the list. But when you need to go to the market again, you still know how to make a list, remember it, and also how to forget it afterwards. In this case, forgetting is not a problem but a feature.

Now I am not a brain scientist, but if cramming for an exam is like memorizing a grocery list, it seems that with regular practice, the brain gets efficient in storing the information temporarily and then clearing the space for the next lot that must be committed to memory. I wonder, though, if there could be something else at work. Could it be that forgetting is a strategy of the mind to defend its space, clean the slate and keep open the potential for discovery and rediscovery?

Coming to the periodic table… Somewhere deep inside stirs the spirit of Mendeleev in us, and we want to tinker and ponder over the elements ourselves. We will push away anyone who attempts to spoil it for us, just as we will beg someone who has already read a mystery or seen a movie not to give it away.

Science should be not about remembering, but about discovering. Let the books and charts wait till they are sought out by the hungry seeker. How, you may ask, would anyone seek out the periodic table of the elements? Be patient, each will come to it along their own path. What child has not asked about the biggest and smallest things in the world? One can start from anywhere. More memorable than anything one memorizes will be various encounters along the way. Just yesterday while playing with a round, flat plastic container filled with sand, which one could spin to make various patterns, my daughter remarked, “the original chaotic and periodic.” She was recalling a moment 5 years ago when she had spun a similar object in a science museum, and learned to observe the chaotic and periodic quality of the patterns. She latched on to that distinction and later when we saw a public fountain she observed the patterns of water falling down and noted that they were “partly chaotic and partly periodic.” We haven’t seen such a sand spinner in years but its role in introducing this concept to her has remained in her memory.

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