Please feel free to use this document in its entirety. I would appreciate an e-mail comment for
any reason, Dave.
A good teacher reference for this material is:
RN and G Caine, "Making Connections: Teaching and the Human Brain", 1991,
Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD), Alexandria,
ISBN: 0-87120-179-8(pbk) LB1057.c33 1991
A class hand-out to year 1 and 2(organic) chemistry students in my classes at
Okanagan University College.
C 1995. Dave Woodcock.
Learning Chemistry: the importance of the imagination.
There are a number of theories of learning extant. The one I favour introduces
two different types of learning systems:
locale and taxon.
- The locale memory system is that which we use for memorizing location
and I like to think of it as our picture and
- The taxon memory system is used for learning lists; to me this is the
memory we mainly use to remember isolated
facts or series of facts, and a list of actions, such as those we learn to use in
playing tennis or driving a car.
In considering the nature of these two systems a very dramatic difference is
apparent in their way of operating:
Locale: Consider arriving in a new town and wandering around its streets
to familiarize yourself with it.
You do not consciously learn anything, yet you remember that city's layout
very quickly. This is the locale
memory system in operation, and it works quickly and seemingly without
- Taxon: Now consider arriving in the same town, but this time trying to
learn the names of the shops
and offices, in street number order, in its main streets. Even people who
have lived in that town for many
years and who have walked the streets probably cannot give you a complete
rundown. This is the taxon
memory system, and it takes a considerable effort of repetition to establish
anything in memory.
I have a pet hypothesis for the existence of these two systems based on the
evolution of the brain (I presuppose that
evolution has selected brain function for survival):
- The locale system evolved so that we could quickly update where we
were in our surroundings so that
when danger threatened we would instantly know which way to move to get
away (if our brain signalled
flight). Since it is vital to survival that this memory be constantly updated
as we move around, this
system is easily accessed and revised.
- The taxon system evolved so that we could memorize courses of action
for survival (eg what is the
safest way to approach the water hole). These courses of action had to be
learned from the parent (who
learned from its parent, etc.). But without articulation, how do you pass on
the important actions? The
answer I see to this is: by having the taxon memory system limit its
learning to only those actions that
are often repeated. That is, for maximum survival, the taxon memory
system must be difficult to access
so that only the important (by repetition) actions are memorized.
Now apply these to systems with their limitations to your learning. You have
available both locale and taxon systems for
use. If you wish to learn a list of facts or words (as in a definition or piece of
poetry for example), then you will have to use
your taxon memory system, which as I have mentioned, is difficult to access,
requiring much repetition. On the other hand if
you want to learn scenes (they need not be of a town) then you can use your
locale memory system without effort.
In terms of learning science, these two options are available.
- You may approach any topic by rote learning of definitions and problem
solutions. The problems
encountered here are due to difficulty in memorizing using the taxon
system, and the amount of material
to be memorized. Additionally, although a rote learned route to solve a
problem will always solve that
particular problem, variations are not solvable using taxon memory.
- You may also approach any topic by visualizing and using your
imagination, an approach involving the
locale memory system. This way you can quickly and fairly effortlessly
build up understanding of a
scientific theory. The problems encountered here are due to the build-up
process which must start
somewhere and proceed steadily in the imagination. Difficulties are
encountered here if precise (word-for-
word) definitions are required, but since no single route through a problem
is memorized, alternative
routes and variations in problems are treated without difficulty.
The choice of approach is yours and should only depend on the nature of the
learning that you wish to do. The reality is
likely that you have emphasized the taxon system of memory in your academic
learning and de-emphasized the locale
system. In fact, though both systems are important, it is probably the locale
system that is most important in science
and problem solving. Now that you know of its existence, you can devise ways
in which you can start to develop your locale
system in the learning of science. To me this means learning to use your