A Day on the Beach, Learning Not to Teach to Remember

Posted on January 22, 2009

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Sitting on L’Ance Aux Epine beach in Grenada, I watched a man try to train a puppy. Despite his obvious affection for the puppy, he employed negative reinforcement as a teaching aid. I recalled two facts, while I watched him teach, and it got me thinking about the relationship between teaching, learning, and remembering.

1) With respect to teaching, every study I’ve encountered indicates that positive reinforcement is the most effective way to teach best practice.

2) With respect to memory, every study I’ve encountered indicates persons are more inclined to remember negative rather than positive experiences.

If the first fact is correct, it is curious there is an almost natural tendency amongst all teachers to employ negative experiences as a teaching aid (e.g. corporeal punishment, shaming, expressions of anger and/or disappointment). One possible explanation is that teachers assume remembering is instrumental to the learning process. If this is true, and negative experiences are more easily remembered, as seems to be the case, it is intuitive to suppose the creation of a negative and easily remembered experience will help a person learn. Certainly, there might be other considerations which motivate a teacher’s tendency to create negative learning experiences, such as a desire to express power or frustration, but, given the historical role memory exercises have played in teaching, the belief that memory is instrumental to learning seems like a plausible and reasonable explanation as to why negative experiences are so often employed as a teaching aid.

After reaching this conclusion, it occurred to me that most persons who have learned something properly rarely if ever engage in anything like “remembering” while doing what they have learned. They simply do it. For example, someone who really knows her multiplication tables doesn’t spend time remembering the answer, she simply replies correctly when questioned. Hockey players don’t consciously recall how to skate and score a goal, they do it as a matter of course. Yes, most successful athletes rightly employ visualization exercises before competition, but in the heat of the moment they are not trying to recall how to jump a hurdle; from their perspective, it simply happens.

This leads me to hypothesize that successful learning does not much involve the act of consciously recalling facts, figures, data, images, movements, etc. Moreover, the act of remembering is most likely a symptom of incomplete learning. Good teaching then, if this is correct, does not involve the creation of lasting memories nor does it involve fostering an expert ability to recall. Instead, it probably involves demonstrating best practice, creating opportunities for best practice to occur, and then positively reinforcing best practice (or its near approximate) when it occurs.

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