The Intelligence Heuristic – Memory

In Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman has a short and unextraordinary sentence that – for some reason – clicked together two major sections of a big puzzle that I had been working on in my mind subconsciously for some time now. “Intelligence is not only the ability to reason; it is also the ability to find relevant material in memory and to deploy attention when needed.”

This sentence hits upon some of the most deeply rooted, yet also ‘controversial’ ideas about education in our culture! For example, the idea of intelligence itself is one on which prominent contemporary educational theorists have tried to get our society to shift our thinking recently, and while educators all over the world now know that they should be thinking in terms of ‘growth mindsets,’ they continue saying things like ‘that was a smart idea,’ rather than ‘that idea must have taken a lot of attempts and practice to come up with!’ Given that our culture’s views on some of these keywords (intelligence, reasoning, memorization, attention) are both deeply rooted and shifting, let’s explore some of them in a bit more depth today in service of creating a more complete view of one of the main things education is trying to develop: intelligence.


To begin, let’s start off with what I am considering an ‘old-school’ technique for teachers; those of us working in education today seem to have some amount of a stigma against the idea of memorization of content. It seems to almost be akin to the stigma against ‘testing’ – we all recognized that, at some point in time, our efforts to have students learn went too far in one direction, stifling true learning.

In the case of ‘standardized testing,’ we went too far in the direction of testing only one, very constrained definition of ability/aptitude. The push back, however, may have gone too far (in my opinion, which I feel counts since I am a very alternative sort of educator); we began to see tests as completely unnecessary in many cases, and many alternative schools and even some public schools began to aim to minimize the number of tests students took. The fact of the matter is that tests are a great way to learn! They have the ability to create just the right amount of ‘pressure’ (stress) to force students to deal with fear or anxiousness, and to really learn the concept in order to do well in the class. Now, I don’t think I go overboard with tests (in fact, I started doing weekly quizzes a few years ago by student request rather than my own policy… they felt that it truly helped them more to get nervous about the content and really study it). Instead, I try to make project-based learning a predominant portion of the grade in my class, but balance it out with tests coming in just slightly less weighted than projects.

In the case of memorization, it seems to me that we did something akin to standardized testing – realized that memorization was certainly not the only factor involved in intelligence, so we decided to villainize it and throw it out all together. I think what we meant to do with our pedagogy was to recognize that memorization solely for memorization’s sake may have some elementary benefits early in one’s education, but its scope is limited in applicability. For example, it can be a worthwhile task for one to memorize a poem or a sonnet or the countries of the world early in one’s career as a training exercise, but that does not ‘make us smart;’ rather, what it does for us is allow us to expand our working memory, meaning that we can hold more items in our mind at once than we were previously able. In this way, we can start to see ‘memorization of content’ as less about producing an exact copy of the information that was input, and more about remembering to include pertinent information from our past when analyzing new information coming at us. When engaged in a debate requiring rapid reasoning, or even when writing an argumentative essay, this skill will allow us to juggle competing concepts in our minds more easily, ultimately producing work of greater quality. Surely you have had a debate with a colleague where you came up with a great idea, but they brought up a counter-point that not only made sense, but that you felt like you should have thought about. That’s what we are talking about! Similarly, but in a different way, this ability to juggle competing concepts also helps us to deal with dualities (which I won’t say more about here other than to say I feel they are an essential component of life that we should analyze and teach). Overall, if all of our attention is put toward memorization and not reasoning, then our debate or essay is going to suffer; but we must also not forget that if we put all of our resources toward developing the ability to reason, we have given a soldier combat training and a rifle, but no ammunition. They have the ability to reason, but cannot recall pertinent information and place it into context, making the debate suffer as well.

There is another important benefit to ‘memorization’ – it allows us to perform tasks without thinking. “It is a profoundly erroneous truism, repeated by all copy-books and by eminent people when they are making speeches, that we should cultivate the habit of thinking of what we are doing,” wrote the mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead in An Introduction to Mathematics, “the precise opposite is the case. Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them. Operations of thought are like cavalry charges in a battle — they are strictly limited in number, they require fresh horses, and must only be made at decisive moments.” For example, if I simply memorize my times tables (which I did not do when I was learning them in second grade), then I can open up worlds of possibilities for completing higher-order operations using mental math, like multiplying 2 by 2 or 3 by 3 digit numbers, or squaring fractions when completing the square on a quadratic problem. Because the basic multiplication tables are automatic – I no longer have to think about them – I can focus my thoughts on holding numbers in my mind to sum my final result, or on the steps of completing the square rather than on the multiplication problem itself. When we have the ability to quickly, subconsciously measure our current experiences against our prior, ‘memorized’ (remembered) knowledge, it opens up doors for us to judge the likelihood that a new invention will work or be applicable, or the validity of a politician’s statements. This allows us to decide whether or not they merit the effort required for further review.

My suggestion for educators, then, is to recognize that memorization can be a way to develop our ‘ability to find relevant material in memory,’ and consider it before we throw the baby out with the bathwater. With that said, let’s go into a recent example of making memorization tasks fit with your classroom.

As with all educational endeavors, it is important that you make memorization tasks uniquely yours. Students get more into content when we (educators) are actually into it also. As an example, our schools science teacher is an avid birder. This year, he made a significant portion of his biology and ecology class turn into a study of birds. Along with taking students on outings to go birding, he also front-loaded the unit with memorization quizzes on the species of bird, identified visually at first, and then later on identified through their songs. The results were striking! First of all, students actually really enjoyed the memorization of bird species as a task, seemingly because they found it relieving to just need to do some memorization in a system that has made reasoning king (I certainly hold a significant portion of the blame for that). However, the results went deeper. Because students knew how to name the things they were able to see in the world, they became innately interesting. Students began to point out birds anytime we were outside, whether during our school’s Olympics (Field Day) or while outside at lunch. Previously, they ignored such ‘insignificant’ features of our natural environment. All of a sudden I started seeing students with bird drawings on the front of their work binders, or students who were wearing sweatshirts that said “Bird Nerd” on them. At graduation, our seniors get to choose the song to which they get to walk in – the vote was unanimous to play the song of the Red-Breasted Nuthatch. Ha!

Part of the reason that this unit was so successful is certainly because students began to feel a sense of pride around learning something that most students in the world do not – they felt unique. A high school math teacher may choose to do something similar by doing an atypical unit on mental operations using the ‘Mathemagic’ work of Arthur Benjamin, getting students comfortable with (and then proud of) their ability to square two-digit numbers quickly in their head. A literature teacher could have students memorize ‘an ethic’ that students wrote themselves and deliver it as a speech akin to Brendan Leonard’s 35, which was later made into this video.

The point is that opportunities for memorization tasks exist in places we don’t always dare to look as teachers, and by making our curriculum align with personal passions or unique content, we can do exactly what we are hoping to do as teachers: educate to produce wholly nourished people possessing ‘intelligence.’

Welp, that’s all I have time for this week – in the next post we’ll dive a little further into the other two components mentioned – the ability to reason, and the ability to deploy attention when needed. See you then.


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