Memory, Imagination and Learning:

Connected by the Story


Kieran Egan

There is some ambivalence about the place of memorization in education. A prominent theme of the progressive movement -- one that has become a commonplace of modern educational discourse -- is that simply insuring memorization of knowledge is likely to be educationally useless. Indeed, an insistent refrain heard today is that knowledge is doubling every x number of years and that consequently it is increasingly urgent to teach students how to find the knowledge they want when they want it and to encourage them to learn how to learn. If we enable students to master such generic skills as critical thinking, problem solving, and other procedural abilities, we will be doing something that is more educationally valuable than merely drilling them in sequences of facts that will be mostly forgotten anyway.


Such notions are encouraged by analogies drawn with computers. If we see the mind as something like a program and the memory as something like the stored data that the program can access, our educational task is to hone the procedural skills to provide smooth access to the broad range of data.


The ambivalence about the place of memorization in education stems from a number of sources; mentioning two prominent ones will indicate what I mean. The enormous and influential enterprise of educational psychology has focused on "learning" as one of its prime areas of concern. In the many studies and experiments that have explored aspects of learning, the concept has gradually gathered a kind of operational definition. This definition has been derived largely from what researchers have counted in numerous studies and experiments as instances of learning. Most commonly, these have been instances of reproducing at a later time what was learned at some earlier time or doing something that requires remembering a rule learned earlier. Thus this working definition of learning is very heavily freighted with memorization. And because of the great influence of educational psychology on education, especially in North America, this sense of learning has been very influential .


A second source of ambivalence is the pressure that schools and teachers feel when some test indicates that students leaving grade 12 or entering college have much less knowledge about history, geography, science, or whatever than the population at large has ( or at least less knowledge than those who say that they speak for the population at large think students should have). Such results are always good for a prominent story in, say, the New York Times, and they stimulate further pressure to teach in such a way that students will be able to display knowledge of whatever subject is being tested. Teachers who may wish to develop procedural skills find themselves facing pressure to insure the memorization of facts.


The ambivalence, then, follows from the recognition that, while mere memorization may be educationally trivial, it is nonetheless used as the major index of educational success because the instruments used to measure learning rely so heavily on it. This ambivalence has also led many people to view memorization as somehow in conflict with the stimulation of imagination or the development of procedural skills. Amassing a large store of memorized knowledge seems to be considered, at least in general education discourse, as somehow inimical to stimulating the imagination.


I want to reflect in this article on memory and its role in education. I want, perhaps paradoxically, to note a profound connection -- one that has a long history in human cultures -- between the memory and the imagination. In part as a result of this discussion I want to suggest the inadequacy of educational ideas that see any incompatibility between memorization and procedural skills. Indeed, I will suggest that the distinction, though perhaps useful in some areas of inquiry, is harmful when imported into education.


As part of this discussion I will argue for the importance of maintaining a clear distinction between the metaphorical sense in which computers are said to have "memories" and what we mean by human memory. Allowing analogies with computer memory to slide over into our thinking about human memory can have seriously misleading consequences. Finally, I will (perhaps again paradoxically) argue for a connection between the importance of memorization in imaginative learning and the story form as an appropriate part of a teacher's professional equipment.


memory and the birth of imagination


Our tendency in educational discourse to see memorization and imagination as somewhat at odds with one another is a product of forgetting how closely tied the two processes are in our cultural history. Indeed, one might almost say that the imagination was born of the need to remember.


In oral culture throughout the world, the survival of social groups and the perpetuation of their identities over generations has relied on the human memory. If one cannot write what is in one's mind, one must remember it. If the lore of a social group is to survive a single lifetime, it must be transmitted in a stable form from generation to generation. All oral cultures place a very high value on techniques that aid faithful memorization. They rely on such techniques for their very survival; therefore, those features that can help make messages memorable have social importance. Inventions such as the use of rhyme, rhythm, metre, neat formulas, and so on were highly prized.1 They were used prominently in those ceremonies in which important lore was passed on, particularly in initiation ceremonies.


Of all the techniques invented or discovered for making the complex lore of a social group securely memorable, by far the most important was the story. If one could code the knowledge to be passed on and embed it in a story form, then it could be made more faithfully memorable than by any other means. It is not absurd to say that the story is one of the most important human inventions. It is a technical tool that provided a measure of order and stability to human societies for uncounted millennia. All the oral cultures that we know about used this technique prominently and even considered it sacred. The myth stories of oral cultures carry vitally important knowledge, and through these stories the identity and lore of the group survives.


Stories work by embedding their contents into vivid events and images that carry strong emotional colouring. These events and images are organized between a beginning, which typically sets up a binary conflict that is then elaborated though vivid characters and events, and an end, which resolves the conflict. The memory technique we know as the story has survived to play somewhat different psychological roles for us. But in its original forms in oral cultures it has played and continues to play a vital social function.


Information with high emotional

colouring within a story is much more

easily remembered by humans than is

a random list.


Incidental to its function as a memorization device, story also, almost incidentally, evokes, stimulates, and develops the imagination. That is, the condition of mind that was found most favourable for storing the messages of the myth stories was one in which the mind was engaged by vivid images of frequently impossible creatures -- half animal, half human -- performing frequently absurd and improbable actions. But precisely such images and actions, it was discovered, made memorizing the content of the stories easy and effective.


All effective memorization techniques have drawn on these principles. Throughout the medieval period of western history and into the Renaissance, in literate but book-poor segments of society, memory techniques were prized and practiced. Frances Yates provides one of the best general descriptions of these techniques,2 and one of the more detailed and vivid accounts of a memory system is given by Jonathan Spence in The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci.3


From his intensive studies of forms of thought in oral cultures, Lucien Lévi-Brühl was puzzled by the anomaly that people who found any kind of abstract thought immensely difficult were able to perform prodigious feats of memory with ease. The key, he discovered, was that memory in oral cultures engaged rather different psychological processes and drew on resources that were much less common among literate westerners. In particular, Lévi-Brühl noted, memory in oral cultures "is both very accurate and very emotional."4 The emotional colouring of events -- or rather, the infusion of emotion into events -- makes them more memorable. The technique that had developed in oral cultures for orienting the emotions with events was, once again, the story. In stories, narrators can direct the affective response of listeners to whichever elements they wish. Thus, in transmitting the lore of the culture through myth stories, this remarkable narrative device could be used to engage the emotional commitment of the listeners to the social group and to its customs and mores.


human memories and computer memories


Drawing analogies between human thinking and the performance of computers has become increasingly common. When we find it difficult to grasp a phenomenon, such as our own thinking, it is a sensible strategy to use whatever analogy we have readily at hand to try to make sense of the phenomenon. Trouble arises only when we forget (or underestimate) the degree to which we are depending on the analogy. It is worth pointing out the significant differences between human memory and computer memory because the analogy between human memory and computer memory can lead educators to make educational decisions based on overestimation of the similarities suggested by the analogy.


One general and obvious difference is that virtually nothing in human memory is stored in a stable condition over time. Rarely is what comes out exactly the same as what went in. Once something enters the human memory it becomes coloured by our hopes, fears, intentions, and so on. We are aware that our memory is neither like a static storehouse where data can be kept nor like a library where knowledge is stored in some coded form. Our memories are tied in with our emotions. Indeed, a better analogy for human memory might be the stomach: whatever goes in is transformed by its normal functioning.


Computers do not find memorizing easier if data are organized in a story form. Long lists, random or ordered, are equally easy for computers. Such is not the case for humans. Information that is organized with high emotional colouring within a story is much more easily remembered by humans than is a random list.


The human memory is ever active. It is not activated to deal with specific data according to particular commands and then turned off until it is needed again. Rather, the activity is constant and involves not merely complex organizing processes, but also those affective processes mentioned above. Among its many functions, human memory engages in the still poorly understood process of forgetting, and it seems to forget things in more or less systematic ways. Computers may lose data, but they do not forget in the ways humans do.


One similarity between computer memory and human memory might be given some emphasis, however, because it does seem to have some educational implications. Just as a computer can do nothing with data that are not in its memory, so humans can do nothing with knowledge that is not in their memories. Knowledge outside the memory is educationally useless. While we are uncertain about the ways in which particular knowledge leads to structural changes in human understanding, we do know that the absence of knowledge can contribute nothing to understanding. The ever-active human memory requires knowledge to generate understanding. Thus the danger of emphasizing such procedural activities as problem solving, critical thinking, and learning how to learn is that one will underestimate how educationally vacuous these procedures are if the memory does not have available considerable amounts of knowledge to draw on. Although we forget much of the detailed knowledge that we learn, the effects of that knowledge on our understanding should not be underestimated.


memory, imagination, and story


The fact that the need to remember in oral cultures seems connected to the stimulation and development of imagination obviously does not mean that insuring that children memorize a great deal in today's schools will stimulate their imaginations. But the historical (or prehistorical) connection of memorization and imagination has, I think, some implications that we might still learn from.


Historically, the connection between memory and imagination was the story. The point about the story's contribution to memorizing is that it achieves this aim by making whatever is to be learned into something meaningful. The story insures memorization by investing the material to be learned with the qualities that engage the imagination in the process of learning. We have tended to think of memorization in a rather desiccated way and have tended to think of everyday learning as something distinct from imaginative activity. The missing link that can bring learning and imagination together to insure more meaningful learning could well be the story. The problem is adapting elements of fictional stories to a technique that teachers can apply in everyday teaching.


The influence of what is commonly called the technocratic approach to education has tended to depreciate the role of the imagination in learning and has instead encouraged us to think of learning as, to a great extent, a search for technical solutions to technical problems. The dominant frameworks for planning teaching are derived fairly straightforwardly from industrial models. 5


For example, we seem to take for granted that teaching can best be organized to produce learning in much the same way as an assembly line can be organized to produce cars. Thus we are told to decide on the methods we will use in conveying the content, just as an industrial planner arranges the various subskills needed along the assembly line. And at the end, we need to evaluate how well our objectives were achieved, just as a quality-control officer climbs into a car at the end of an assembly line to see whether the car works.


Once again, there is nothing wrong with drawing on analogies to help us make sense of such complex human phenomena as teaching. However, the present models for planning instruction seem to accept on faith that one must start with objectives and follow more or less the model that Ralph Tyler outline in 1949.6 The problem is that we appear to have forgotten that such models are based on an analogy with an industrial process and that human learning is an imaginative activity, not merely a storage function that a computer might perform. If I may quote from a recent collection that I co-edited:


[I]magination is not some desirable but dispensable frill, butÉis the heart of any truly educational experience; it is not something split off from "the basics" or disciplined thought or rational inquiry, but is the quality that can give them life and meaning; it is not something belonging properly to the arts, but is central to all areas of the curriculum; it is not something to ornament our recreational hours, but is the hard pragmatic centre of all effective human thinkingÉStimulating the imagination is not an alternative educational activity to be argued for in competition with other claims; it is a prerequisite to making any activity educational.7


Before sketching an alternative to the models derived from Tyler's work, I should perhaps emphasize that my approach does not at all imply the use of fictional stories in teaching. I do not intend to suggests ways of building the content to be taught into fictional stories. Rather, my aim is to abstract from the basic form of the story a framework that can then be used in teaching the content of any curricular area -- math or science no less than language arts or social studies. One result of using such an approach is that teachers come to see lessons and units as good stories to be told rather than as sets of objectives to be attained.


Let us consider, then, the basic story form and abstract a few of its most prominent features. To begin, we might take the most general feature of stories -- their power to engage us affectively. The mechanisms whereby stories do this have been touched on above. The story sets up a conflict (usually binary) at the beginning, elaborates this conflict in the middle (allowing no extraneous material that does not further the elaboration of the original conflict), and concludes with either a resolution or mediation of the conflict set up at the beginning. The first task, then, is to identify what has the potential to be affectively engaging about what we wish to teach. Then we may express this in terms of binary opposites, to begin the unit in a manner that is vivid and highlights the reason that the content matters. Then we need to elaborate the developing theme with further material, and, finally, we conclude with a resolution or mediation. Let me briefly try to put these principles into a schematic framework, and then very briefly sketch an example of how that framework might be used to plan a unit.8


story form framework: elementary


1. Identifying importance. What is important about this topic? Why does it matter? What is affectively engaging about it?


2. Finding binary opposites. What binary opposites best express and articulate the importance of the topic?


3. Organizing content in story form. What content most dramatically articulates the binary opposites, in order to provide access to the topic? And what content best articulates the topic into a developing story form?


4. Conclusion. What is the best way to resolve the dramatic conflict inherent in these binary opposites? What degree of mediation of the opposites is it appropriate to seek?


5. Evaluation. How can one know whether the topic has been understood, whether its importance has been grasped, and whether the content was learned?


Let me briefly sketch how one might use this framework in planning a unit on heat at the elementary level. Items 1 and 2 are clearly intertwined. We have to identify for ourselves what is important about heat in a way that we find affectively engaging, and we need to express this in binary terms. One solution is to think of heat in terms of helper and destroyer. These terms will then form the binary structural basis for our unit.


The first part of item 3 asks us to identify the initial content that will expose the topic to children in a way that will be engaging. What we are able to do first, then, is to set out in an accessible way the foundation on which the rest of the unit will be built.


Thinking of teaching as storytelling

also encourages us to think of

the curriculum as a

collection of the great stories

of our culture.


We might sensibly turn to the way the Greeks approached the topic at the beginning of our tradition of inquiry about the physical world. (Those are, after all, the historical bases from which subsequent scientific understanding grew.) So our initial teaching might begin with the myth stories that explain, in an affectively engaging way, the vital importance of heat to human life, along with its attendant dangers. Thus we can tell the stories of Prometheus and Zeus and of Sol and Phaëthon, and we can tell of Hephaestus limping around his smithy. The daring of Prometheus in giving fire to humans and the terrible punishment meted our by Zeus show the importance that control of heat has played in human civilization. It is a power that has made us like the gods. Phaëthon's escapades show what destruction can follow when this terrible servant gets out of control.


The middle of our unit, responding to the second part of item 3, needs to elaborate the dual theme of heat as destroyer and heat as helper. The middle of the unit needs to be seen as similar to the middle of a story. Development does not mean simply putting relevant content into some logical sequence. Rather, the teacher must think more as a storyteller developing a theme. So the content selected will be influenced by the theme.


For example, we might choose as experiments not so much those that demonstrate keys facts as those that expose key facts in light of our theme. It is what they expose about the constructive and destructive roles of heat that matters now. (Had we chosen different binary pairs, we would have developed different themes.) Experiments with heating water and generating steam can tie in with the stories of the steam engine of Hero of Alexandria, which was used for religious ceremonies, and then the steam engine of James Watt. These stories need to capture the human purposes, hopes, fears, and struggles of the individuals and embed the discoveries and inventions of these individuals into the narratives as they relate to our theme. Experiments using silver or matte black reflectors over glasses of water and measuring the temperatures of the water after the glasses have stood in the sun for some time can be connected with the theme through wondering how space ships and astronauts can best be protected from Sol's burning rays in space. And so on. The difference between this approach and the typical content of a unit on heat is largely a matter of context and of affective quality.


Responding to item 4, as a conclusion to such a unit, we might consider the constructive and destructive potentials of heat in the form of nuclear power. This urgent contemporary issue would still be broached in the terms given vivid form in the ancient Greek myth of Prometheus. Nuclear energy promises a Promethean gift to human beings, but Zeus may yet wreak his vengeance for our attempts to harness the power of the gods. The myth captures a way in which we still affectively orient ourselves to the constructive and destructive potentials of heat.


To evaluate such a unit, we might make some use of traditional kinds of evaluation instruments -- from informal questions that require children to demonstrate that they have learned the basic facts and understood their relationship to the main theme to more formal assessments at the conclusion of the unit. However, this kind of framework also allows for something written, dramatized, or drawn that gives evidence of the affective impact of the unit while simultaneously drawing on supporting knowledge, skills, and understanding.


The illustration I have given is just one way in which we might give the story form greater prominence in our teaching. My framework might be somewhat clumsy, and the example may be neither well enough worked out nor imaginative enough. My primary aim, however, is to suggest that teachers might wisely invest some of their planning energy into considering how features of the story form might shape their lessons and units. This will involve thinking about the content to be taught as they might think of a story. It will involve bringing to the forefront of consciousness the emotional importance of the content.


This is not an approach that in any way discounts the facts of a lesson or unit. Rather, it focuses on their shaping, on how to make them engaging, on how children can not only learn from them, but also make sense of them. It is an approach that seeks to tie together memorization and imagination in learning by means of the story form. 9


Thinking of teaching as storytelling also encourages us to think of the curriculum as a collection of the great stories of our culture. If we begin to think in these terms, instead of seeing the curriculum as a huge mass of material to be conveyed to students, we can begin to think of teachers in our society as connected with an ancient and honoured role. Teachers are the tellers of our culture's tales. In our complex culture that task is more complex than in typical oral cultures; thus it should be accorded even higher honour. The addition to the teacher's professional equipment of a planning framework that draws on the power of the story might contribute to successful learning in the classroom.


1. See Jack Goody, The Domestication of the Savage Mind (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1977); idem, The Logic of Writing and the Organization of Society (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986); Eric A. Havelock, Preface to Plato (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1963); idem, The Muse Learns to Write (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1986); Claude Lévi-Strauss, The Savage Mind (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966); idem, Myth and Meaning (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1978); Albert B. Lord, The Singer of Tales (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1964); and Walter J. Ong, Literacy and Orality (New York: Methuen, 1982).


2. Frances Yates, The Art of Memory (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966).


3. Jonathan Spence, The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci (New York: Viking Penguin, 1984).


4. Lucien Lévi-Brühl, How Natives Think, trans. L. A. Clare (1910; reprint ed., Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1985), p. 110.


5. Raymond E. Callahan, Education and the Cult of Efficiency (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962).


6. Ralph Tyler, Basic Principles of Curriculum and Instruction (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1949).


7. Kieran Egan and Dan Nadaner, eds., Imagination and Education (New York: Teachers College Press, 1988).


8. For a more extensive discussion of the story framework, along with numerous examples, see Kieran Egan, Teaching as Story Telling: An Alternative Approach to Teaching and Curriculum in the Elementary School (London, Ont.: Althouse Press, 1986).


9. For more on this idea, see Kieran Egan, Educational Development (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979); and idem, Primary Understanding (New York: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1988).


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