When I'm able to cite a study or an author or a book from memory, folks will sometimes ask, “How do you remember what you read?” And of course I ask the same question when I listen to a superior thinker wander through the library that he or she has built in their brain.
The common assumption is that some people are just good at remembering things and others aren't. My students believe this — and can be shown their error in five minutes or so using this activity — and many adults do, too. And not just any adults — really smart ones, including really smart ones who teach. “Maybe he's just got a photographic memory,” we say.
The good news is that both the science of learning and the wisdom of the ages disagree with this common assumption, and the bulk of the evidence favors the idea that there are certain practical processes by which the human mind remembers things in a way that it is able to later recall.
What I'll describe in this post isn't the comparatively labor-intensive process of intentionally memorizing things, such as in the example activity that I linked to above. While that process of active memorization is, I believe, foundational to one's ability to lead a resiliently flourishing life, today I want to leave it behind in favor of it's far easier cousin. Let's look at how to read professionally in a way that engages the mind so that the mind quite enjoyably begins to build a knowledge base that is retrievable.
And why do we do this? On the one hand, because it is so enjoyable. On the other, so that we might increase our usefulness. Our goal, as always, is to better the degree to which our work promotes the long-term flourishing of young people.
The overarching principle: that which gets thought about gets remembered
With all due respect to him, Dan Willingham's Why Don't Students Like School? (print | audio | Kindle) has a title problem; it gives the sense that the whole book will stick to answering that one question. Typically, books like this follow the same old trajectory: X, Y, and Z are why schooling is terrible, and here's a utopian vision of how we might fix it all. Such books aren't useless by any means, but they are a bit detached from the hordes of pressing questions that we teachers feel piled atop our shoulders.
Blessedly, that's not at all the kind of book that Willingham wrote. His subtitle does a much better job describing what the book actually is: A Cognitive Scientist Answers Question about How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom. Thankfully, the book is so excellent and Willingham's name so well-esteemed that many have read the book, much to the benefit of their aforementioned hordes of pressing questions. Indeed, the hardest of those questions is what Willingham's book is entirely about.
(Disclaimer: I'm only able to pick at Willingham's title choice because I am the king of creating questionable titles. Who else but the pot deserves to call the kettle black?)
For our purposes today, I want to bring us to Willingham's chapter on “Why do students remember everything that's on television and forget everything I say?” (The administrator's version might be, “Why did so few of my teachers do what I said they needed to do at yesterday's staff meeting?”) Willingham's answer is as rooted in cognitive science research as it is confirmable by the breadth of your life experiences: We remember what we think about.
This is an inescapable truth about the human creature, and one that provides all kinds of practical ramifications. But for our purposes today, the takeaway is clear: one of the simplest methods for ensuring we remember our professional reading is cultivating the conditions that make energetic thinking about that reading a matter of course.
Practices that significantly increase the degree to which we'll think about what we're reading
One of the four pillars of engagement in Ellin Oliver Keene's Engaging Children is intellectual urgency. While I've read very little of Keene's book (having only just become aware of it), I am nonetheless a ready admirer of the veracity of her pillars, which she developed through extensive classroom observations and reading. While the other three pillars — emotional resonance, perspective bending, and sense of the aesthetic — play a role in helping me to think on what I'm reading, they are minor next to intellectual urgency.
For our sake, I think it's useful to think of intellectual urgency as a “discipline” rather than a pillar because we want to emphasize to ourselves that these are practices that you and I can undertake that will over time make us the kinds of readers that think extensively on (and thereby remember) what we read as professionals.
Now let's look at some methods for increasing intellectual urgency.
The best way to be sure that you'll think about what you read is by making sure that you've got to know more about X, Y, or Z. What, indeed, are the things that are intellectually urgent to you as an educator? Years ago when I was engaged with the Lake Michigan Writing Project's summer institute, our professor Lindsay Ellis called these “burning questions.”
Before you decide on a book to read, ask yourself,
- What are my burning questions right now as an educator?
- What am I most interested in understanding better?
- What's getting in the way of the best outcomes in my room or my school?
I recommend even writing these down in a notebook, giving yourself space to record notes on what your reading uncovers.
Dedicate a daily time for reading (that is, a time for pursuing burning questions)
At the Lake Michigan Writing Project's summer institute, the reason we were asked about these burning questions is that they were meant to guide the reading we chose to do during the 1-2 hours of daily professional reading that the institute required. Finding time in your daily schedule for this kind of reading is the topic of another post (in fact I've made a whole course on this kind of thing), but I pray that it's obvious that we won't get very far with our burning questions unless we block out the time to then pursue them in our reading.
This is a serious matter, for I think that these questions only burn so long until the problems that they stem from overwhelm the fire and so extinguish it. Even if it's fifteen minutes per day, it is critical to sit in one's reading chair with that pile of books in pursuit of an urgent question.
At the time of this writing with our schedules tossed and tumbled by COVID closures, I'm finding that my most productive days as a teacher are the ones in which I begin with a luxurious hour or two of reading. This is a practice that my pre-COVID teacher's schedule — which rang its first bell at 7:32 in the morning — did not allow.
My point is that whether small or large, determine a time in the working day during which you'll read in pursuit of your questions.
Not all books are good, so select wisely
It is worth stating something here that many will find obvious: not all books offer equally valuable answers to our questions, and plenty of books completely terrible ones. Many books sold at teacher's conferences are nothing more than the thoughts of the authors. While some of these thoughts are good and wise, many others simply seem good and wise while actually being superficial replications of whatever is presently vogue. These latter types of books have led many astray. And please note that an author's good intentions do not equate to an author's helpfulness.
Select books wisely, then — especially starting out. And of course note that the most popular books are rarely the best ones.
This was another genius of LMWP's summer institute. There was a small library of professional books that Lindsay and her colleagues had selected; it was in this little library, actually, that I first discovered Jerry Graff's Clueless in Academe — a book that became a seminal force in my thinking about arguments in the classroom. (I even wrote about Jerry way back here in the first year of the blog.)
You may not have physical access to a little library of curated books, but you do have people whose thinking you respect for its foundedness on evidence. Seek out their recommendations. And the best long-term solution, of course, is to come to a robust understanding of the basic principles of learning agreed upon by both cognitive science and expert practitioners, for then you can read just about anything germane to your questions without being at risk of eating the chaff with the wheat.
There are two books that help with building this kind of a foundation that I'm leading book clubs on, starting soon: Natalie Wexler's The Knowlege Gap (print | audio | Kindle) and David Didau's Making Kids Cleverer (print | Kindle). Another would certainly be Willingham's book, which I linked to earlier. If you'd like to be part of those clubs, be sure to sign up here and go ahead and order whichever of the books you'd like. (And please note that prices on the Didau book especially may be better through his publisher's website, CrowneHouse.co.uk.)
In selecting books, it's often wiser to select based on the author than on the title or topic
I find it to be true that I more frequently make progress on my burning questions by way of reading deeply or widely of a single (and excellent) author than I do by searching on Amazon for a title that best fits my question. Remember the issue with Willingham's title that I mentioned earlier? It surely wasn't a problem for book sales because so many of Willingham's readers have read so much of his work.
For another example, even though none of my burning questions at present have much to do with writing instruction, when I pick up Jim Burke's The Six Academic Writing Assignments or Matt Johnson's new Flash Feedback, I know I'll learn because I know that these authors will get me to think, and I know that they've both done their research and are still in the classroom.
There are several reasons that selecting books on authorship is superior to selecting them based on topic:
- The credibility effect — when a learner finds her teacher credible, she's going to learn more from the teacher.
- Keene's “emotional resonance” pillar — rather than just collecting good clues toward my “intellectually urgent” questions, when I read familiar authors, I'm also building a relationship with human beings. This is one of the great gifts of a book, after all — you experience the fruit of many months and years of another human being's thinking, and are able to engage in a deep, rich conversation with that writer through annotating in the margins and so on.
- As you come to terms with an author, you are able to focus more on the author's ideas. This focus = thinking, and that means greater remembrance of the ideas we've read.
Read the footnotes and citations
Footnotes are one of the best inventions in book publishing, and tragically most publishers now eschew them in favor of less intrusive forms of citation. I've heard more than one person in the industry say something to the tune of, “Well, teachers just don't read footnotes, so we don't use them.” I do not have time or emotional capacity right now to explore the deeply tragic nature of this development. But suffice it to say that you and I, my friend, must not be these alleged footnote eschewers if our aim is to retain more of what we read.
I don't read all footnotes and citations, but if an author claims something that I find arresting, I always look up where it came from. If it's a study and I'm really intrigued, I jump straight on a computer and try to find a PDF of the study so that I can skim it. If my skim senses a good writer behind the study, an insightful set of findings, or an elegant experimental design, then I print it out so that I might read and annotate it thoroughly. It took me forever to read James and Dianne Murphy's concise Thinking Reading because I was constantly bunny trailing off to read the works they cited — and profitably so.
A necessary aside: Forget about getting “finished”
That example of taking a long time to read a short book illustrates a critical principle for all who seek to enjoy and profit from professional reading: to hell with reading books quickly; what you and I are after is reading books indelibly. The goal of professional reading is never the completing of books, but it is rather the acquisition of knowledge that will help us perform as professional teachers.
Making our main goal as readers the completion of a book is like making our main goal as teachers the retirement from teaching. It's a way of wishing one's life away and missing the point. After all — is the act of giving a book a full go from page 1 to the end the same thing as having fully read it? Are there not thoughts the author wrote that I have missed? Depths of meaning I haven't plumbed? Surely. So if you've got a finishing fetish (I once did), I commend to you the delight of abandoning that.
Back to footnotes and citations
When I find that a book or an article is cited that I cannot quickly access or that seems interesting but not urgent, I mark in the margin with a circled ‘R', telling Future Dave that this is something that perhaps I'd like to read. It is delightful over time to become familiar with the cast of characters who write about the things that you and I care about. There are many authors of great things in the world, but still the number is finite, and it's a huge boost to one's reading confidence to start to recognize names.
More to say
There are other practices that I haven't the space to comment on right now — for example, the role that making connections between texts plays in our ability to build retrievable knowledge, or the art of selecting passages for further discussion with your hallway mates or an online community, or the discipline of writing about what one reads (it can be as brief as a line per day!).
If you'd like me to further explore this topic, please let me know.
In the meantime, if you'd like to join that book club, here's the sign up.