Thursday, 5 January 2012

Space-Time Learning

 Immanuel Kant spoke of architectonics, but what about the time it takes to build a representation?

To begin the study of episodic memory one needs to appreciate the role that space –time has on anchoring and consolidating content memory not just as material, but material within and beyond the moment.  Remembering the specifics of when and where something happened effects how we think.  There is a growing body of evidence that speaks to multiple pathways or “Traces” for different memories.  This is leading researchers to examine the significance of the effects of placement of learning on learning retrieval and retention.  Memory retention can possess both a recollection (Time) element and a recognition (Space) element.  If both are required, memory consolidation may have to blanket more neuro-anatomy (elicit effort from more neural mechanisms) due to the nature of the ‘richer’ information being consolidated.  This in turn requires a more sophisticated categorization system, which will eventually be drawn upon during memory retrieval.  Sprinkle a little novelty (make the learning places more than the classroom or the lab) into the mix, and you are left with a potent set of circumstances for the brain to ‘build out’ a robust neocortical system for future learning.

Today’s post is going to deal with some of the factors that, should they converge under the right set of learning conditions, appear to have the ability to increase both the volume and the amount of detail that is retained in long term memory, and most importantly from an educators perspective, be retrieved even if the memory is remote.  These factors are:

·      Environmental Novelty
·      Self-awareness learning and autobiographical representation of information
·      Transferring and testing sematic information into genuine applications/contexts (how does your knowledge hold up to environmental scrutiny?)
·      Find and create new associative links by first determining what exists (take inventory), then generate something constructive to be added to the context

Together, these four factors appear to provide the means by which learning refinement becomes capable of moving beyond simply recognizing a pattern sooner.  Because of the neural mechanisms that are engaged when these factors are more or less simultaneously at play, there appears to be a ‘kick starting’ of the mental processes involved in making information categorizations that are easier to draw upon (more available) and which seem to make sense (are more apparent) when trying to think in innovative ways.  As I have mentioned, I believe that Situating Learning is the perfect excuse for all four factors to be included and turned into a learning episode that has the potential to significantly alter how memory is used to expand thinking capacity.

There is a type of learning inertia that is the direct by-product of intentionally situating a learning episode that simply will not take place if the thing being studied/learned is representational rather than experienced verbatim in the social setting in which it naturally occurs.  Virtually all of the most basic efforts to consolidate sematic knowledge in the learner’s memory are supported when new dimensions and contexts (Novelty) requiring physically travelling in space and mentally travelling in time (learning self-awareness and recursive thought) are present. 

Testing and transferring information in multiple contexts reinforces the space-time construct (learners begin to appreciate time as a fourth dimension placeholder and not just a measure.  Film the same person run around a track, scramble up a sport wall, or try and hold their breath under water for exactly 30 seconds…in each case time behaves the same, but we react differently to how time holds our place). 

Requiring that the learner create something that is missing, imposes a discovery element to the learning, which by its nature requires activating thinking that connects information rather than simply being available to receive information.   Suffice it to say, given the choice; learning should be directly connected in as many ways as possible to real life.

The journey down the “Four Factors” road begins with a long look at the some of the work of Dr. Morris Moscovitch (et. al.) out of the University of Toronto whose work on ‘understanding of the processes and brain mechanisms mediating memory’; serve as an empirical foundation for what might be happening on a neuro-cognitive level when the Four Factors are in play.  As a senior scientist and professor, Dr. Moscovitch has carried out a distinguished career in neuropsychology both at U of T and with research partners from around the world.  Our orbits crossed paths due to his work studying the role of the hippocampus in working memory, specifically episodic memory.  A study he published in 2005 in the Journal of Anatomy speaks to what he and the other authors were able to parse in terms of the role the hippocampus plays in “retention and retrieval of recent and remote memories.” (Moscovitch, et al., 2005)  Aside from the thorough examination of working memory processes, the study speaks to a comparison of the Standard Model of memory consolidation versus Multiple Trace Theory which can be summed up as follows:

The hippocampal complex takes attended/apprehended information and binds the neurons that fire as a result of the experience into a Memory Trace.  Once formed (or bound), the HC then confirms that the information has been correctly categorized.  What takes place next is better explained in the author’s own words:

“In this model, there is no prolonged consolidation process, as the standard model asserts, that slowly strengthens the neocortical component of the memory trace, so that with time the trace becomes independent of the HC/Medial Temporal Lobe. Instead, each time an old memory is retrieved, a new hippocampally mediated trace is created so that old memories are represented by more or stronger HC/MTL–neocortical traces than are new ones and, therefore, are less susceptible to disruption from brain damage than are more recent memories.” (Moscovitch, et al., 2005)

If this theory is correct, then the role of the Hippocampus/MTL structure appears to deal with rapid representation that allows for encoding, retention and retrieval of current experiences.  The structure rapidly consolidates information, particularly information that appears to be critical when the vividness and detail of environmental stimuli is added to recognition volume.   Eventually, commonality of experience takes shape (a pattern develops) and the role of the HC/MTL tends to then remain critical to explicit memory (and is no longer needed for implicit, or non-declarative memory). 

From an autobiographical memory perspective (one aspect of episodic memory), the ability to recall information is in addition to the ability to recognize information.  Recognition of transferable information is the result of the ability to semanticize episodic information (or build a mental rule for ‘similar’ repetitions).  The neo-cortex notes the thematic patterns within the experiential spectrum, and the medial temporal lobes consolidate the information so that it can be stored.  The implication here is that long-term memory updating is a product of the recognition of ‘similar’ or related traces which then adds to the ‘volume’ of traces already stored that are believed to share a ‘likeness’.

In opening up a dialogue with Dr. Moscovitch (my thanks again for his graciousness in helping me get a better sense of what is going on brain-wise) my hope was/is to get some sense of why we tend to reach farther into our memories when episodic aspects of the past are as important as the retrieval of ‘known data’ (both studying for a test and remembering a “cool” story that the learner was a part of, cause us to organize information, but the “cool” story creates more robust memory traces).  The implications for the K-12 learner are significant due to the fact that the way we determine if something has been learned is by testing what can be retrieved.  If it can be determined that the memory is more readily accessed using the four factors mentioned above, then we might say that not only is something learned, but the ability to correctly reuse the learned information is expedited.  The way the brain structures information and the context from which the information is received appear to both play a significant role in making remote information available for longer periods of time.  To do this properly, we’ll need to look at each part separately.

Looking first at the neurological structures, Moskovitch writes, “knowledge about the world, about people and events acquired in the context of a specific episode is separated from the episode and ultimately stored independently of it. This process of increased semanticization with experience and retrieval over time may give the impression of prolonged consolidation of the original trace.  Without a well-functioning hippocampal system, acquisition of semantic memory is slow and effortful, at least in adulthood.” (Emphasis added)  He then goes on to point out, “Based on Multiple Trace Theory, vividness and experiential aspects of episodic memory, rather than its age or semantic content, are considered the crucial factors associated with hippocampal activation. This account also is consistent with evidence on anterograde memory showing that recollection, an index of experiential factors, is a determinant of hippocampal involvement in memory.” (Moscovitch, et al., 2005).

Where this becomes important in formal learning situations is when the circumstances are such that the experience that surrounds the learning is recognizable as being differentiated from the experience of learning.  Where most young learners can tell you why they go to school (hopefully to learn) most will not naturally be able to extrapolate how the experience of learning is supposed to transfer to contexts where professionals make a living using their learning.  Based on some of the scientific evidence now being gathered, the mind may eventually separate the episodic and the semantic aspects of memories, but to trigger the use of the hippocampus to retrieve the memory implies that something about the event to be remembered has required the need to incorporate additional neural resources to consolidate vividness.  The HC/MTL structure resource appears to be stimulated when the learning takes on autobiographical themes and when sematic knowledge must be tested under a different set of circumstances/experiences. 

A great example of this was demonstrated in the National Geographic television series Test Your Brain (episode three: Memory) where two basic memory themes were interwoven.  Different types of working memory were shown to be limited without functional Brain exercise, and that not all long-term memories should be considered reliable. What really stood out however was that when people were asked questions that tested the capacity of their working memory, most found that they could recall between 3-6 specific details in a sequence or an order.  When subjects were asked what they could remember from witnessing a robbery on the streets of New York (a one time event which happened in real time and did not allow for repeated study) the number of details each witness brought forward had at least 5-20 specific memories of what happened.  Granted, not all of the memories were accurate, but something of significance (in this case a mugging) caused the mind to bring in more neurological resources to try and figure out exactly what happened.  Don’t get me wrong here, I’m not suggesting that we can stage robberies in the classroom to invoke more vivid memories, quite the opposite.  Besides the fact that this act in a classroom would appear to be contrived, there are plenty of authentic circumstances beyond the walls of the school that could be field studied that should invoke the proper mental resources for precisely the right reasons.

Authentic learning episodes, by their nature, change the dynamic so that recollection assists recognition.  We would never describe a subject-based class as a learning episode because rarely does the “story” of learning enter the narrative.  Rather, the classroom agenda will usually focus either on knowledge and skill elements (via content recognition and retrieval) or topical constructs.  Rarely will there be a sense that a ‘cliffhanger moment’ awaits those who are finishing a biology lab or completing the last of the assigned math problems because routine-ization tends to take a greater priority.  Sadly, any benefits that can be taken from learning via routine can quickly dissolve when the learner drifts from task attention to the class-to-class distractions that are used as a way to break the monotony of repetitive or near-repetitive teaching approaches.
Contrast this with extended learning in authentic contexts where episodic attributes abound.  Moving the learning to the place where professionals live the learning every day ensures that the four core elements of a compelling story; character, causality, conflict, and complications are ever present.   So the story begins with school learners seeing professionals being paid to carry out their unique learning/learned production (this was what I learned in order to do this work).  One of the professional’s production tasks is to do the best they can to keep any ‘drama’ associated with the work in check.  As the professional works through the complications associated with their tasks, the learner in their charge gets first hand experience seeing how space-time issues like budgeting and project timelines/deadlines get met.

The second attribute is spatial in nature as there is usually identifiable separation between the school and the authentic context in a physical sense.  With this division into places of learning, the learner needs to locate him or herself in multiple dimensions.  Granted, the learner isn’t physically in two places at once, but their minds should be able to determine if there is alignment between the representations at school and the realities of a professional context. 

Attribute three is temporal in nature. Depending on how the time extending school is scheduled, you can build in time gaps between each visit while out doing your field study work.  This creates a sense of anticipation for the next learning engagement.  Again, space and time elements working in concert with engaging situations, creates the sense of a learning arc that very much parallels the kinds of story arcs found in serial programming broadcast on radio and television.

The one crucial element of a learning arc episode is that when you measure the distance between the end points of the arc you will see that they are physically closer than a straight-line (conventional) learning approach.  The following image should assist in appreciating what is actually going on.

            If we believe that the conventional expertise development model
follows a sequential pattern (in this case spanning middle school
to seasoned professional) then the time spent developing skills
is represented by the arrows above.  Note that “compacting” a
curriculum aligns with learning as training, where a concentrated
effort to polish or refine skills is the priority.  Situational learning
arcs expose the learner to contexts that are novel and that require
learning adaptations that incorporate prior knowledge, new
knowledge development and application, and most importantly,
collaboration with someone who has acquired the skills and can
therefore accelerate innovative thinking on the part of the young

At this point in the conversation it would be easy to go off on a variety of different tangents that could include a deeper look at the temporal aspects of memory, the amygdala’s role in determining if Novel implies the need for an emotional reaction or not, why day dreaming is essential to contributing and so on.  Maybe it is better to consolidate all that has been written here into the critical question that I hope has begun to be answered.  Does episodic memory need to become more engaged in order to enhance working and long-term memory consolidation processes required in formal learning?  In the coming weeks I hope to be able to engage a few more scholars like Dr. Moscovitch to help in the setting up of a study that will provide the empirical basis for the four-factor theory.  In the meantime, the next few blog installments will continue the focus on the neuro-cognitive substrates at play when trying to provide the learner with the experiences that develop fluid (new knowledge development) intelligence. 

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