Memory, learning, and great-uncle Gillies

This entry is part 1 of 9 in the series The Brain Rules.

This post is part of the Working/Learning blog carnival for April, 2008, hosted this month by Manish Mohan, who blogs at Life, the Universe, and Everything about eLearning and Content Development. It’s the second run of the carnival; the first was in March 2008.

I’ve been reading John Medina’s Brain Rules. I’m also trying to relate them to learning and to things that affect my work. In other words, using his rules as a framework, what can I do with them?

I’ve decided to start with rule six, “remember to repeat.” Why this one? Because last Wednesday was the 262nd anniversary of the Battle of Culloden.

‘Twas love of our prince drove us on to Drumossie
But in scarcely the time that it takes me to tell
The flower of our country lay scorched by an army
As ruthless and red as the embers of hell…

Although I don’t weep over the defeat of Bonnie Prince Charlie, neither do I let April 16 pass unnoticed. Why is that?

Medina writes about how we move information from short-term to long-term memory. Nothing much new: repetition and restatement. One of the principles that we know (but don’t always capitalize on) is spacing out the input. Or as I like to call it, three times 20 is more than 60.

If you’ve got a a given amount of time to learn something, you’ll almost certainly learned better and more thoroughly by spacing out your exposure. Instead of cramming for two hours, try four sessions of 30 minutes each. As the descendant of Scottish Highlanders, I’ve certainly spaced out my exposure to stories of the Jacobite rebellions and songs about “The ’45.”

old_books.jpgMedina also says that when information is retrieved from long-term memory, it’s not fixed as if it were a book pulled from a library shelf. It’s almost a repetition of the initial learning — the information is once again labile, malleable, something we can re-work.

That means when it’s re-stored, it’s been changed. Not always leading to greater accuracy.

Which brings in my great uncle. Actually, Gillies Mhor MacBain is my great-great-great-great-great-great-grand-uncle, if I can trust a genealogical history called The Mabou Pioneers. Gillies fought for Prince Charlie and died at Culloden.

Google his name, and you’ll find dozens of accounts saying that he was 6 foot 4, that he killed at least 13 redcoats, and that an English officer tried in vain to have Gillies spared because of his bravery.

Who knows what really happened? The story of Gillies MacBain has been told and retold. Details were lost on the battlefield and over the years; without a doubt, new details have been supplied. They’ve altered the cultural memory the way recall and reconsolidation can alter your personal memory.

Over time new information in the brain reshapes what’s already there. We can “remember” things that never happened.

That suggests things we can do, in the world of learning at work, to increase the value of that reworking and reconsolidation. Focus the learning on what’s important to the job, for example. Create support and structures to ease recall and increase accuracy.

brainfunnel.jpgThink hard about questions like:

  • What’s our rationale for a three day workshop?
    • Does it make sense to firehose information this way?
  • If we must have one, how do we design for spaced input?
    • Can we break up topics and interweave them?
  • Are we focusing on tasks rather than on content?
    • Even (or especially) for concepts and principles, can we provide opportunities to work with them, apply them in job-relevant contexts?
  • How do we design, create, or organize information externally to make it easy to retrieve and apply as needed?

I spent more time than expected thinking through this post as I was writing it. While I don’t see Medina’s brain rules as the fulcrum of all knowledge, I like the idea of trying to apply them to the blog carnival themes of “work at learning; learning at work.” So I think this post will be a first in a series based on Medina’s rules. Feel free to chime in.

Old book photo by alpoma / Alejandro Polanco.
Brain funnel image by Beth Kanter.

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8 thoughts on “Memory, learning, and great-uncle Gillies

  1. Actually, I can think of many training events in which most participants have seemed spaced out…

  2. The mantra back when I used to teach Russian (which I can now hardly believe I once did) was “Repetition is the mother of learning” (something along the lines of “Poftorenia mat uchenia” in bad transliteration). Mind numbing at times, but very true–and “spaced-out,” whether in Harold’s meaning or your original meaning, certainly helps. Any musician or linguist will agree that small doses at regular intervals is the way to go when learning a new composition or a new language, but we tend to forget the same rule applies to so many other areas of life. -Jeff

  3. ЯзыÌ?к до КиÌ?ева доведёт.

    (“Your tongue can get you to Kiev” — You can learn things by asking.)

  4. Interesting thoughts, Dave. I have seen some rather long courses and a lot of statistics saying people really don’t retain anything much after a few weeks of class. That is why some models that can impart understanding and basic facts followed by a system of guidance / mentoring and performance support can work well in certain areas such as bringing about behavioral changes over a longer term.

  5. Viplav, Harold Jarche talks about the factory method of schooling — line the kids up in a knowledge assembly line, and stuff them full of facts.

    That’s been the model for organizational training/learning for a long time. I recall a online course on JCL, back in the bad old days. This was mainframe CBT — all text, no colors, no graphics, teaching Job Control Language. Estimated completion time: 20 hours.

    Managers wanted people to finish the course in 2.5 working days — in other words, plow straight through.

    This makes about as much sense as trying to learn all the verb tenses in French in 2.5 days, and then being expected to use them on the job.

  6. from : gillies macbain – cranagh castle – templemore – county tipperary – ireland.

    gillies macbain was six feet four and a half inches tall. he was an inn-keeper and made his own whisky.

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