Tag Archives: Memory

Nothing Will Come From Nothing


“Education is what survives when what has been learned has been forgotten.” Is a quote often attributed to Einstein which is actually from a piece by BF Skinner called “New methods and new aims in teaching”, in New Scientist, 22(392) (21 May 1964). The quote was retweeted into my timeline today accompanied by a tweet saying: ‘Focus on 21st century skills, character-building, and the big ideas of your curriculum. Memorization of large quantities of information is temporary–skills are forever. ‘.

I have come across the quote quite a few times before and always thought that it was saying something around the habits of mind one gets from school are the most important things but then I looked again at the quote

and again…

Now far be it for me to take on the great BF Skinner or pretend Einstein for that matter…


it’s nonsense.

What do we ‘learn’ at school? We learn many things, facts, skills, nuggets of knowledge, habits of mind, ways of behaving, when to laugh, when not to laugh… to cry… to think… all these things are things we learn.

Kirschner, Sweller and Clark define “Learning [as] a change in long-term memory” and if we are to accept this definition, which we might argue with should we wish (see Willingham here), then should all this learning be forgotten we could suggest the education received has been an expensive and monumental failure.

Perhaps Skinner is thinking about conscious recall of all the ‘facts’ we have learned but even many of those that we think we have forgotten sometimes find their way into our consciousness when we’re watching a quiz programme on TV or doing one of those time wasting click bait quizzes that crop up online. So do we ever ‘forget’ what we have learnt at school? Some of it. But if we are taught a lot and taught it well we will remember a lot more than someone who wasn’t. And, as the philosopher Julian Baggini puts it:

“…it can only be a good thing to know as many matters of fact as possible.”

So I would suggest changing the quote to:

Education is what survives when you have learned and not forgotten all of it…

As I was sourcing the quote I came across another one of BF Skinner’s bon mots:

“We shouldn’t teach great books; we should teach a love of reading”

I could go on…

but I won’t.




As a teacher I wanted students to remember certain things and to be able to recall them when needed.

DT Willingham wrote in his book Why Don’t Kids Like School: “Whatever students think about is what they will remember… Memory is the residue of thought.” To Aeschylus “Memory is the mother of all reason…” Thought and reason, it all sounds so reasonable, plausible and er… something, what was it…. it’s on the tip of my tongue, er finger, er lap top… lap tip, tip lap top finger… Where was I?


Losing your mind. Literally, losing memory… but memory is not clear, this residue of thought, of feeling, of meaning, of nonsense, of moments which appear, disappear and make new lovers with other collections of fleeting moments. Make sense damn you! Am I in control of what I remember? I mean I can make myself remember certain things I am sure, but can I control the way I remember them? Or even the way I don’t want to remember them, deep inside the residues of our minds – thoughts fester away without being uncovered for fear of what they might reveal…

Is it my memory, or a photograph of someone else’s? John Berger wrote: “What reconciles me to my own death more than anything else is the image of a place: a place where your bones and mine are buried, thrown, uncovered, together.” Isn’t this like our memories, thrown together? These bones of memory, shifting, fracturing, turning to dust, others added, to those forgot… Then remembered differently than before and your thoughts are there as well as mine, conjoined in some nightmares…

In Brideshead Revisited Sebastian prepares his memories thus: “I should like to bury something precious in every place where I’ve been happy and then, when I’m old and ugly and miserable, I could come back and dig it up and remember.” Memories as buried artefacts, we want to dig them up just when we need them, undamaged, unencumbered by our misremembering their context, failing to understand why they were precious in the first place. Our first loving kiss, maybe, but what about our second and third?

But, dear teacher, what is all this to you? You just want to play at memory – you want to throw the bones of memories into the desolate wastes of the brains of your tabula rasa’ed boys and girls. Nothing will compete in there and dementia, one hopes, is a long way off. How precious are they, the thoughts you want to instil? How long do you want them to be remembered? When you are long gone, what residues of thought about you and your interminable lessons do you want to remain etched on the grey matter, what matters now and what will matter then? I remember… She says to her grandchildren when I learnt about… and she reaches for that buried precious gift… oh… it’s on the tip of her…

Imagine a teacher who could implant exactly what he wanted a child to remember in exactly the way he wanted it remembered…

Which subject in our curriculum is most reliant on memory?

I would venture a guess: Drama…

For what is a performance of a play but an exercise in memory?

Remembering lines, remembering how to say lines, remembering how to be and not to be, remembering when to breathe in and breathe out and hold your breath and when to laugh and cry and remembering how to laugh and how to cry… and how to invest in your emotion memory, your movement memory, and how to remember what everyone else says and does, how to remember how to act and react in a way that makes it look as though this is the first time this has ever occurred to you…

How to remember the pace – even when the tempo has changed, how to bring it all back on track, that beast of the playing… how to recreate the memory in a way that is responsive to the now in which the co-operative venture between cast, crew and audience is ‘live’ but also rehearsed to the point that you remember to stand exactly in the right spot and in the right pose to allow that light to hit you just right… slightly differently every night…

And then when it’s all over… forget it… or store it away… another character, another day… another set of remembered moves and utterances ready to enchant.

As Eugene Ionesco said: “A work of art really is above all an adventure of the mind.” And theatre encompasses that adventure as much or maybe more than any other art.. and just when it is at its most whole, its most realised, it dies…

Theatre only lives on in memory and this is its greatest gift – it resides in memory and nowhere else.

This memory is not like a book stored on a shelf in the mind, ready to be drawn out from the library when needed (is any memory like this?) It is a lived process, by which the reenactment unlocks a myriad of understandings that are triggered or ignored, interwoven and juxtaposed in exacting, repetitive rehearsals, repeating the ritual, building together the moments that add up to the whole, it is irritating, exhausting, exhilarating, excruciating, exciting… Are all lessons like rehearsals? Could we tolerate learning at this level if they were?

But as a teacher I wanted students to remember certain things and to be able to recall them when needed, what else was I to do?