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What We're Taught, What We Retain

Thinking about content for #Rhizo15.

May 5, 2015

I love music. Specifically, pop music. I grew up with morning radio, but not talk radio, but Top-40 radio. Music videos were new and exciting. The radio was always on in the car, with more Top-40. And when I came of age, as a tween and then teen, we all got our own Walkman, so I carried my music everywhere, carefully curating mixed tapes for any and all occasions, waiting for the right song during the weekly Top-40 countdown.

Did I mention that I loved (ok, still love) pop music?

I am terribly at memorizing things, but song lyrics stay embedded in my memory forever. And through a confluence of cues online, I found myself today listening to some old albums (Jagged Little Pill is old exactly the way Led Zepplin was old when Jagged Little Pill came out – just let that sit with you if you’re around my age). I still remembered every lyric of the entire album. I even remembered the places where my CD skipped (I had a Diskman by this point) and was startled when they weren’t there in the pristine streaming format I was listening to. This knowledge is easily accessible, and along with them, the layers of memories attached.

This semester, I had a Math graduate student in the class I taught. We were talking about teaching concepts of Calculus. Now, I had taken Calculus, albeit 20 years ago, just as I was discovering Alanis. I did really, really well in Calculus. Like, almost perfectly (98 in Cal II!). And I can’t remember anything. Or about Trig. Or Quadratic equations. Or how to sew (home economics!). Or just about anything else I learned in my five years of high school.

(I grew up in Quebec, which doesn’t have junior high, and high school is five years, grades 7-11, and then you do the equivalent to senior year of high school and Freshman year of college at the loose equivalent to a community college called a CEGEP. And THEN you go on to university. One day, I will, in fact, blog about this system.)

This past week, #Rhizo15 has asked us to think about content. I remember virtually nothing about the content of my high school classes. Which, as someone pointed out on Twitter, makes some degree of sense, seeing as how I have a PhD in comparative literature, and don’t use the majority of the content I learned in high school. Or CEGEP for that matter. But, I also don’t actively apply Alanis song lyrics in my day-to-day life, but there they are, at the top of my brain, as soon as I hear the opening chords of the album.

And it isn’t to say that it’s because I don’t remember high school. I remember everything about high school. I remember things that none of my other friends remember about specific classes, teachers, events, and the like. I remember arguments from my debates in Grade 8. I remember the hellish gym tests we had to do (Boucher-Leger still gives me nightmares). I remember where we hung out before class every year I was there. I remember where my locker was. Heck, I remember that I did Trig, and there are things called Sine and Cosine and…there was a third one…And that Quadratic equations have something to do with parabolas, but the actual content? I know I learned there were different kinds of clouds, and geography, and I remember learning about the parts of a cell in biology. But while I know I learned the content, and in fact achieved what could be considered content mastery (I was a high-achieving honors student), the majority of the content I supposedly learned?


Some of it is still there, rattling around, waiting for a reason to re-associate itself with something that is going on in my life and work, and some of it I know is gone, meaning I’ll have to learn it all over again when it comes time to help my kids with their homework. But the stuff I really remember, it always had context. We want to throw more and more content at our students, but often, we forget the context in which they are learning and applying the content.

Take my brain’s obsession with learning song lyrics. It’s not just the lyrics, but the melody, the rhythm, the rhymes. But it is also the experiences that go along with those songs. The content, so to speak, was rich and varied and applied and went along with layer upon layer of experiences that went along with the songs themselves.

We are leaky containers when it comes to learning. Networks are important in learning because they provide a context for what we would call content. Communities are another. Experiences are another, but not just experiments, but experiences. We can’t plug all the leaks, but if we slow down on just trying to pour more and more content in, then maybe we can help our students make those connections and have those experiences.


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