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Chunks, Palaces, And Hooks

When I learned to square dance we started off with the simple steps. The teacher showed us what to do when the caller said, “Swing your partner,” “Do-si-do,” or “Promenade.” Eventually we learned tougher calls, such as the “Teacup chain.” Two simple words – “Teacup chain” – would cause each of us to make a series of moves over 32 counts. It wasn't so very difficult because many of those moves were just the simple steps that we'd already learned so well.

Learning square dance calls consisted of learning labels for larger and larger “chunks” of dance moves. It's not all that different from learning other dance choreography, although the movement vocabulary changes. Actually, it is not so different from learning any other skills, concepts or subject matter. We humans learn and memorize all sorts of different things because of our ability to “chunk.”

Psychologists have been talking about “chunking” since 1956, when George A. Miller wrote a paper about “The Magical Number Seven.” He pointed out that one of the tools we humans use to get around our terribly limited short-term memory, which can only hold around seven bits of information at a time, is to associate multiple bits of information into a chunk and slap a label on it. Then, when we are working in our short-term memory, we can use the chunk labels to access many more bits of information from our long-term memory.

Melissa M. Kibbea and Lisa Feigensonb have recently shown that even toddlers as young as two years old use chunking as they learn things. Obviously, we do not need anyone to teach us how to “chunk.” However, it can be useful to explain to kids that learning skills and subject matter is, to some extent, as simple as learning the labels for more and larger chunks of information they already know.

For example, kids learn in their early years that the sun provides us with light, that most plant leaves are green, that plants need sunlight and water to live, and that, while animals need to eat, most plants do not. When they are older, they can learn larger chunks of information that utilize, in part, these simple facts, and label these larger chunks chlorophyll and photosynthesis and food chains and so forth. Like moving almost automatically through 32 counts when I heard “Teacup chain,” a child who has learned about photosynthesis can access all the smaller chunks of information he or she has coded under that label.It can also be useful to kids to learn about other aspects of memory. For example, robust music tends to be easier to remember than verbal information, and so the rhythms and rhymes of music can be used to help kids memorize facts, especially facts that are presented in a particular order, such as the planets in our solar system. Visual images tend to be easier to remember than verbal information, so making diagrams, maps, or “memory cartoons” can help kids recall geological processes and geographical information. Memory systems such as Memory Palace can help kids remember lists of things such as vocabulary words or the names of the elements. 

Overlearning (repetition, repetition, repetition), active recall (rather than passive rereading), and spaced repetition (spacing out your active recall sessions minutes, hours, and days apart) are all useful for memorizing things such as lines in a play.

Much of education does not rely on memorization techniques and what might be termed “study skills.” Instead, it is deep learning achieved by going places, doing things and playing. This sort of experiential learning gets in deep because it often comes at us while we are feeling relaxed and happy, and because it comes at us through our eyes as well as our ears, and through our hands and bodies and sometimes even tongues and noses!

Experiential learning helps us build “hooks” on which later learning can be hung. Often, the later learning can be obtained through reading a book, watching a YouTube video or TV show, or listening to a lecture—the kids with hooks built through experiences, especially travel and play, are able to better absorb and store in long-term memory the concepts and vocabulary seen or heard in the more passive learning situation.

For example, kids with a lot of experience throwing, catching, hitting and chasing balls, are able to grasp physics concepts about flight trajectories, bouncing or falling bodies more easily than kids with little experience playing with balls. Kids who have scrambled up ladders, peeked into kivas, and surveyed the land around the ruins of ancient Puebloan settlements are more likely to absorb names like Anasazi, words like kiva, and the concepts surrounding life in cliff dwellings.

Thinking and learning about memory can help us homeschool our kids, and I would advise that we also pass on what we have discovered about memory to our kids. Kids are born already knowing how to learn, but we can help them learn how to learn whatever they need or want to know more effectively.

Sources: “Developmental origins of recoding and decoding in memory,” by Melissa M. Kibbea and Lisa Feigensonb, Science Direct, 2014.

“Music and Movement – Instrumental in Language Development,” by Maryann Harman, M.A., Early Childhood News.”

“Memory Systems: Image-Based Techniques for Memorizing Almost Anything,”


Cathy Earle is an education writer who homeschooled her three daughters up to college. You can read what one of her daughters now writes about those experiences at The No-School Kids: A Homeschool Retrospec­tive, and you can find Cathy's free resource for kids at Every Day is Special. 

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