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Blogging On History, Science, and Education

How We Learn--and Remember--Best

University of Washington microbiologist and brain theorist John J. Medina spoke to a group of educators in Denver recently.

He described the way the brain stores information, which got me thinking about the way schools work. According to Medina, most information that we learn needs to be revisited within a two-hour window, or it is lost. If the goal is to take knowledge from our fluid memory banks and put it into long-term memory storage, that isn’t likely to happen unless the information gets repeated-usually more than once.

Medina suggested school schedules that allow for immediate repetition: for instance, homework done after a lesson, not hours later when it often needs to be relearned. He spoke of repeating some subjects, like algebra, several times in a school career and not assuming that one teaching is enough.

I thought of the way we used to teach American history, and the way we do it now.

Until the mid-20th century, American schools taught U.S. history-all of it–three times: in 5th grade, in 8th grade, and in 11th. But with each passing year there was more to teach, hardly anyone made it to current times, so curricula changed. U.S. history was sliced in thirds: with the first third, usually up to the Civil War, often taught in 5th grade, the Civil War to World War I in 8th grade, and the 20th century to now in 11th grade.

So today many of our students get just one take-in three parts-of American history. If Medina is right, without repetition, few will remember that history.

What do I think we should do? Consider history as a reading discipline. History-idea centered well-written history-is the best subject I know for teaching critical thinking and analytical reading. Nonfiction reading is in the doldrums. Mostly it means paragraph analysis, not thoughtful reading. Given a three times history curriculum we could make our national story central to school learning and at the same time let our students read real books about real issues. Politics gets most of us riled up and ready to argue, with good history we have the politics of the past with its conflicting ideas and dilemmas to talk and write about.

In the elementary grades the focus can be on biographies and true adventures. In middle school, U.S. history works as a two-year chronological story, giving students an overall picture of our development from a virgin land to one filled with people from all over the rest of the world. (Even the Native Americans came from somewhere else; we are all immigrants.) It’s an approach that naturally combines environmental and people issues. In high school, multidisciplinary history, partnering civics, geography, economics, and the arts-offers a broad perspective. Three times and, according to Medina, we might just be informed and remember our national story.

As I tell my readers, everything that happens today-from baseball to jazz-will be history tomorrow. It’s the mother discipline. It helps make sense of all the others. History as a litany of facts to be memorized for a test is quickly forgotten, but that’s the way it’s presented in most curricula.

History dull? The very idea is absurd. History is a story, it’s our story, it’s not dull; it’s just been made so by a chopped up narrow approach.
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