Experience vs Knowledge
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Experience vs Knowledge

A few weeks ago while upgrading the software on my iPhone I managed to delete most of my Apps, I spent the next few hours trying to remember which ones had been on it based on their position on the screen. It struck me that I was playing a modern, and much more frustrating, version of my favourite childhood family Christmas game where you had to remember a list of random objects on a tray which after 30 seconds of viewing had been covered up with a tea towel.  It was my favourite game largely because it didn’t rely on knowledge and so I had an equal chance of winning when playing against my Dad and brother who knew far more ‘facts’ than me.

I couldn’t tell you one question I answered as a child in a quiz or general knowledge game, but to this day I can still reel off 10 items which regularly appeared on that tray. Why is that that out of the two memory systems, our autobiographical memory, the record of personal life experiences, is often much stronger than our semantic memory, the storage of facts about the world. The challenge, I would suggest, when developing our own children’s memory is to combine the two.

I’m sure we have all helped our child’s learning with various songs, pictures, games and other experiences that trigger certain responses based on memory. If we can find ways to link facts to these experiences, even past experiences, it will increase the chances of retaining that information tenfold. The brain keeps information in short-term memory for less than a minute unless it connects with prior knowledge or experience. If you can reinforce this link, your child’s brain will create new pathways between the experience and the facts, and just like a good woodland path, the more it is walked the longer it will stay there and the easier it is to use. For sustained memory development though, much like a good walk, it is a case of little and often as Dr Judy Willis, a board-certified neurologist and middle school teacher, suggests:

‘neurotransmitters, brain transport proteins, needed for memory construction and attention are depleted after as little as ten minutes of doing the same activity. Syn-naps are brain-breaks where you help your child change the learning activity to let her brain chemicals replenish. The Syn-naps can be stretching, singing, or acting out vocabulary words. After just a few minutes, her refreshed brain will be ready for new memory storage.’

So is there such a thing as ‘useless information’ and is this experience or facts? Our memory is just as good at forgetting information as it is remembering it, far more happens in a day than we ‘need’ to store. We all appreciate that when you ask your child ‘what did you do at school today?’ the answer is often very short and general, and nowhere near representative of a full school day. However this limited response will give you a good insight into whether your child has a stronger autobiographical or semantic memory based on whether their ‘report’ is factual or experiential. The hope is that it will include both and likely that they will be interlinked.

Today’s child (dubbed Generation C for ‘connected’) is operating in an environment which is far more stimulating and full of opportunity than you or I experienced. Understanding of learning techniques, improvements in technology, access to information, speed of processing, a ‘smaller’ world, cross culture experiences, expanding variety of choice, increasing advertising budgets, all create fantastic opportunities for our children but at the same time increase the pressure to keep up and the likelihood of distraction.

It amazes me how children these days are able to talk to their friends on a mobile phone, whilst surfing the internet on an iPad, listening to music on an MP3, at the same time as watching 3 or 4 programs on a massive TV! OK this might be a little exaggerated, but the principle of a child doing 2 or 3 or even 4 things at once is not an uncommon one, and the chances of storing this information in a developing memory decrease. This is why it is more vital that we find ways to combine knowledge and experience in short bursts but on a regular basis.

Creating experiences doesn’t have to be hard work or time consuming, think of some of your fondest moments as a child, chances are they weren’t planned, organized or over a long time period.  Often it is about creating an opportunity like going for a walk, baking a cake, playing a game (I know a good one using a tray and a load of household objects!), painting a picture or going to an event. Often it doesn’t matter what you do but who you are with, and the best part is you may create some new memories for yourself at the same time. This will provide a great base for developing knowledge as well as fun and creating those all important links in the memory.

So if you are looking for pub quiz team members then probably best not to give me a call, but if you are having trouble remembering your shopping list, with the help of a tray and a tea towel, I could be your man! Oh and before I get floods of emails from the technoexperts amongst you, yes I had backed up my iPhone, yes it was a problem with iTunes, and yes I pretty much remembered all the apps I had, but fortunately my memory had chosen to forget those that I didn’t need, for now at least I can live without ‘Angry Birds’.

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