pedagogy

On episodic and semantic memory: a caution against a prosaic curriculum

CHILDREN LEARNING

I thought it might be it might be useful to share the following four research papers on episodic and semantic memory: 1. Interaction between episodic and semantic memory networks in the
acquisition and consolidation of novel spoken words, 2. How do episodic and semantic memory contribute to episodic foresight in young children? 3. Hippocampal Activation during Episodic and Semantic Memory Retrieval: Comparing Category Production and Category Cued Recall. and 4. The Interaction between Semantic Representation and Episodic Memory.

The inter-dependence or otherwise of episodic and semantic memory was central to an interesting discussion on Twitter relating to a blog, entitled in praise of a prosaic curriculum, by Claire Sealey.

The first paper, Interaction between Episodic and Semantic Memory Networks in the Acquisition and Consolidation of Novel Spoken Words, underlines the complex relationship between the two types of memory. The paper, by A Takashima, I Bakker, J.G. van Hell, G. Janzen, and J.M. McQueen, argues that when a child learns a novel word its representation in memory undergoes a process of consolidation and integration. In order to test their hypothesis, the researchers tested neural representations of novel words by observing brain activation patterns just after learning and again a week later.

They found that children remembered novel words with associated meanings better than novel words learned without associated meaning. Both episodic (hippocampus) and semantic (neocortical areas) memory systems were utilised during recognition of the novel words. The extent to which the two systems were involved changed over time; however, the researchers reasoned that retrieval benefited from the involvement of both episodic and semantic memory.

The second paper, written by G. Martin-Ordas, C. M. Atance, and J. S. Caza, addresses the issue of episodic foresight in young children but also offers some useful information on the relationship between episodic and semantic memory for learners of all ages.

The paper argues that humans are able to transcend their current context and mentally travel to other times, places, or perspectives. The authors define mentally projecting backwards in time as episodic memory, whilst mentally projecting forwards is described as episodic foresight.

The paper draws on Tulving’s definition of episodic and semantic memory. Thus, researchers describe episodic foresight, or “episodic future thinking”, as the capacity to mentally project oneself into the future to “pre-experience” a spatio-temporally specific event. For example, imagine a trip to Blackpool pleasure beach. In contrast, the researcher’s conceive semantic future thinking as the capacity to think about facts and context-free general conceptual knowledge. An example of this type of thinking would be the prediction that there will be an election next year.

Over the past few years, researchers have argued that episodic memory is involved both in retrieving personal past experiences and in the ability to imagine and foresee future scenarios. More recent theory and findings suggest that semantic memory also plays a significant role in imagining future scenarios.

The researchers gave an example of the use of the two types of memory  to work on the same problem:

 Imagine the following scenario: You know that tools are always kept in the toolbox; however, in one past instance you placed the screwdriver in a different location (e.g., inside a drawer). If you now needed to find the screwdriver, where would you search for it? If relying solely on your semantic knowledge, you would go and search inside the toolbox because that is where the screwdriver usually is. But what would you do if you did not find it there? In this case, only the memory of the specific event in which you put the screwdriver inside the drawer would allow you to successfully search for it in the drawer (and not in the cupboard).

The findings of the research suggest that the capacity for episodic foresight develops substantially between the ages of three and five. Early years professional can probably draw three conclusions from the two papers, firstly, there is much to learn about semantic and episodic memory, secondly, how interlinked the types of memory are, and finally, how much things can change in early years learning.

The third paper, Hippocampal Activation during Episodic and Semantic Memory Retrieval: Comparing Category Production and Category Cued Recall by  L. Ryan, C. Cox, S. Hayes, and L. Nadel,  would suggest that it could be useful to activate hippocampal memory in the initial phases of learning in order to improve retrieval from semantic memory; however, the initial learning has to be complemented by more detailed and theoretical considerations in subsequent sessions. As Bruner pointed out, in his 1961 paper an act of discovery, a well-structured memory will be more “accessible for retrieval”. Teachers can utilise pre-existent socio-cultural schemas, such as dressing up as Romans, to introduce learning concepts. An advantage of leveraging pre-existant socio-cultural schemas is that the learning is likely to be re-enforced as the learner encounters the concepts in the everyday environment; for example, brain imaging studies support the view that some memories are transferred from the episodic to the semantic memory system over time and with experience (Winocur and Moscovitch, 2011). The ability to include parents and guardians in themed events, using the family environment as an additional learning resource, is also useful to embed knowledge over time.

In reality, it is probably too early to draw too many conclusions about teaching and learning based upon current knowledge of episodic and semantic memory As J. Fang, N. Ruther, C. Bellebaum, L. Wiskott and S. Cheng point out, in The Interaction between Semantic Representation and Episodic Memory, the evidence is inconclusive and on that basis, I would caution against a prosaic curriculum.

  1. Interaction between episodic and semantic memory networks in the acquisition and consolidation of novel spoken words Full text;
  2. How do episodic and semantic memory contribute to episodic foresight in young children?   Full text;
  3. Hippocampal Activation during Episodic and Semantic Memory Retrieval: Comparing Category Production and Category Cued Recall Full text;
  4. The Interaction between Semantic Representation and Episodic Memory Full text.

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