Declarative Procedural Memory

The next aspect of memory that is important in formal learning would be the declarative and procedural distinction. Declarative memory is made up of information that you can describe or talk about, whereas, procedural memory is made up of the information that allows you to do things (carry out procedures). Declarative tells you what, when, where, and why, with procedural memory telling you how. Neither of these memory distinctions can be said to be more important than the other.

Traditional formal education prioritizes conceptual (declarative) memory, leaving procedural memory behind in an effort to explain the facts (what, when, where, and – occasionally – why). This is for purely pragmatic reasons. Measuring learning, which has become paramount in today’s educational world, is easier done with easily measurable questions about what, where and when. These are all declarative aspects of memory, and this is what most former students remember about their formal education. Not the actual information that they were tasked to learn, but the tedium of learning it.

The why’s of declarative memory are important, but tend to be glossed over because of the difficulty of measurement. These tend to be the “good” questions that educators talk about, because this is where understanding is assessed. Can be done, but is often not – at any level – because of the challenges involved.

Procedural memory is how things are done. There are some procedural skills taught, and conservative educators would like to have a return to focus on some of these core skills: reading, writing, and arithmetic. Others would have new skills introduced – life skills like balancing finances, computer programming, or other “useful (read money making)” skills. Too often skills are taught within such constrained settings that transference is all but impossible. The desirable flexibility that is needed, and provided by a broad representation of the skill is often missing, and an exact skill, necessary to pass some standardised test, is what is learned.

Procedural skills are difficult to teach and difficult to assess. Skills, by their very nature, never really have an end goal. When do you ever finish learning to manoeuvre a vehicle?, or to write? Skills can use endless improvement, and so it is difficult to explicitly describe skill levels (I’ve seen it tried). As a result, educators are not really comfortable with teaching and assessing anything beyond the most rudimentary skill sets, constrained by rigid situational barriers.

Both declarative and procedural memory is important, however, formal education, with the lofty goals of passing tests, focusses almost exclusively on the shallowest aspects of conceptual memory. Not good, but that’s the way the world works.


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