Learning Chemistry: the importance of the imagination.

Dr. Dave Woodcock.
Department of Chemistry at Okanagan University College

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, VA.
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 imagination memory.

  • 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 effort.

  • 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 imagination.


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