We focus almost solely on knowledge and skill learning in schools, and in learning throughout our lives. But the brain actually has three memory types. Semantic memory is memory for knowledge (facts and concepts), Procedural memory is memory for skills (automated, like riding a bike), and then there is Episodic memory which is memory for events (sensations and experiences). Episodic memory is rarely considered within formal education and learning, but it is our most powerful memory — the oldest one in fact, and one that we also share with animals. It has strong adaptive value.
Episodic memory is the reason you can clearly remember the moment when you said “I do,” or precisely what you were doing at the time of the terrorist attacks of 9/11. It is like a flashbulb going off in one’s mind. How many of us can say the same thing about the academic content we learned during our school years? Knowledge and skill learning can fade, but experiences stay with us for our entire lives. And what’s more, they tend to be remembered in a handy chronological format. We know the exact time of our lives when events occurred. Our episodic memories are that powerful.
Then why shouldn’t we harness the awesome power of episodic memories in formal education and throughout our lives. When you learn about European history by visiting Europe, or you learn about the criminal justice system by visiting a courtroom in progress, your learning becomes much more meaningful and long lasting. How many of us remember that vividly what we read in a textbook.
Experiences need to be a greater part of everyone’s learning throughout their lives. Another strong benefit is the close tie that episodic memory has with our emotions. And it is the key reason people need to experience an event in order to develop a positive feeling for it. Internships, apprenticeships, even job shadowing can provide these valuable learning experiences. Once you experience something, you can be really sure how you feel about it. It can even help you choose a career or change a career. If we want to have a strong motivation to learn, we must have experienced the learning in some sensory way.
Virtual environments, simulations, and even games can perform a similar function as real life experiences. They can let us truly experience an event as if we were there. And, in many ways, I think, technology can even help compensate for a limited or deprived upbringing for many individuals. Lets harness the power of technology to show us the many wonderful events and careers in life. Our positive emotions will provide us with the motivation to excel and continue learning.
To see a real example of using technology to improve motivation, check out this article: Merge College and Work.