Golden Memories – Why do we remember what?

Why are diamonds measured in carats?

I have just finished reading a wonderful book – The Book of Spice by John O’Connell. This is an encyclopaedia of spices with each entry discussing its history, culinary and medical use. It is packed full of fascinating facts. Almost all of which I have forgotten. I know there was a section on liquorice but I couldn’t tell you a thing about it. Sadly this is not uncommon. I read a lot of non-fiction, on a vast array of topics, but often feel afterwards that as soon as the book has been put down I have lost most of what I had learnt.

One fact did stick with me from The Book of Spice. This is it. The measurement of ‘Carat’, used to measure gold, owes its origin to the carob seed and is a corruption of that word. The carob seed weighs a fairly consistent 0.21g and so was often used as a measure – such as that to standardise the weight of the gold coins used by Rome.

That stuck but much else didn’t. I thought it was worth exploring why that is and what the implications might be in the classroom.

One reason it stuck was because a day after reading it something jogged my memory as I was out with my wife, and I took the opportunity to share my new amazing fact (she is a very lucky lady!). I had to recall the information and verbalise it. I also had a hook waiting for the information. I was familiar with the term ’24 carat’ and had wondered what ‘carat’ referred to. I also wondered how much of it was true and so double checked with a bit of research. It has also stuck because I am writing about it now. I am applying the information to illustrate how I learnt something – even going so far as to give this post its title. I gave it all some thought.

As for the rest? Well maybe all is not lost. Some of it I had already come across: such as the fact that mace is the outer coating of the nutmeg, that Punt was the Egyptian name for the Horn of Africa, that people thought that the coatings of Egyptian mummies were a spice to be used medicinally, along with things like crushed human skull. Other little titbits have been added to this schema – James I refused his crushed human skull medicine (the snob) and when the Egyptians referred to Ethiopia they may have meant “anywhere East” which would explain the records of surprisingly long voyages just to see their neighbours.

So, what does this mean for the classroom. Probably nothing new but it brings us back firstly to my favourite quote – “Memory is the residue of thought” (Daniel T Willingham). I remembered those facts from the book that I took the time to actually consider, to ruminate on and then, importantly, to do something with. It also suggests that overlearning is important. Going back over previous material so that new pieces of information can be added and “hooked on”. It highlights the importance of a well planned curriculum with opportunities built in to revisit topics and to show links between them (that Spiral Curriculum with the spacing and interleaving that David Didau talks about – see this excellent post The Problem of Progress Part 2).

Sometimes I find myself getting frustrated at a class, especially at this time of the year as exams approach. I’ll ask a question. They’ll look blankly at me. “But we did this” I’ll wail. Maybe we did. Maybe they didn’t think about it. Its me and the liquorice all over again.


One thought on “Golden Memories – Why do we remember what?

  1. Pingback: Educational Reader’s Digest | Friday 14th April – Friday 21st April – Douglas Wise

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