I’m trying to learn Spanish. I use the free version of the online language app duolingo, I watch the news in Spanish sometimes, and I write flashcards from an old copy of 500 Spanish Verbs. I can read Spanish fairly well now, and I can understand the spoken word alright if it’s slow enough, but speaking is still hard for me. When I’m trying to speak Spanish I can literally hear myself thinking as I form sentences. Sometimes I even mumble out loud: “So it’s a boy so that’s “el” not “ella,” and the past tense third person of an -ar verb, that’s “-o,” so this verb is “paso.”” I speak slowly, and often make mistakes.
If you know about the psychology of learning, you’ll know that the problem I’m running into is the limited capacity of working memory. Working memory is the brain function that allows us to hold things in mind while we’re concentrating on them, and it has pretty small limits: most of us can hold about seven “chunks” of information in our heads at once. So my spoken Spanish is poor because I need to take up a lot of my limited working memory with actually processing the verb conjugations as I form them. The solution is to encode my verb conjugations in long-term memory, where I can just pull them out without thinking about them, or without thinking about them for long. This frees up working memory for other more sophisticated tasks, like choosing just the right vocabulary, or constructing sentences that can express more subtle meanings.
I was thinking about my spoken Spanish last week as I graded unit tests for my AP World History class. Part of the test was a short answer question from the College Board about the Portuguese arrival in the Indian Ocean, based on a primary source from a Portuguese merchant in South Asia in 1515. Many of my students struggled with a question that seemed very straightforward to me: they had to identify two ways the Portuguese had changed the Indian Ocean trading system. As I thought about why they struggled, I realized that speaking history for them is like speaking Spanish for me. I could answer the history question easily because I can call on a lot of facts that I have encoded deep in my long term memory. I don’t have to think about where “South Asia” is (India), I don’t have to think about the date of the Portuguese arrival in the Indian Ocean (1488), I don’t have to actively process my image and understanding of the silk road trade routes that preceded that arrival (overland routes that terminated in Muslim controlled Eastern Mediterranean lands), I don’t have to actively remind myself what a “cartaz” was (the Portuguese system of enforcing their maritime monopoly), et cetera. But most of my students don’t have these facts encoded in long term memory (especially this year). For them this question was like conjugating an irregular verb is for me.
My students will do better on questions like that if they have more key facts encoded into long term memory. That’s why the Four Question Method starts with Question One, “What Happened?” We can’t think effectively about the other Questions unless we know the basic story that Questions Two, Three, and Four build on.
Now this is not a defense of “drill and kill” teaching focused on “just the facts.” The Four Question Method starts with “What Happened?,” but it certainly doesn’t end there. One of the reasons we answer Question One with a story is because stories help humans to remember important facts. And the less working memory we have to occupy with establishing important facts, the more we have for using them as evidence in support of a claim — an interpretation, explanation, or judgment. Duolingo does the same thing, by the way, and for the same reason. One part of their website consists entirely of stories using the vocabulary I’m working on. The stories help me encode the vocabulary, so that I can then use those words quickly and easily to express more complicated ideas.
The pandemic has sent my urban school into remote teaching mode, and has drastically reduced the time I have with my students. I have fewer opportunities for all Four Questions this year, so I have to be extra thoughtful about what elements of what stories I’m going to require students to memorize. But if students don’t encode at least some key facts in long term memory, their ability to answer more sophisticated questions on an exam will be like my spoken Spanish: laborious, slow, and error-prone.