Memory is the ability to encode, store, and retrieve information in the brain. It is an essential component of learning, as it allows us to retain and use information that we have learned in the past. Memory is a complex process that involves multiple brain regions and neurotransmitters, and it plays a critical role in all aspects of cognition, including attention, perception, language, and reasoning.

How are memories created?

We take in a great deal of information through our senses. This perception includes the sensory, emotional, and factual components of experiences. In order for any of that information to become a memory, our brains have to create and connect all those bits of information into a pattern of neural activity. That pattern persists in a structural change that is created in our neurons. This pattern can later be re-experienced (or remembered) by reactivating the neural circuit.

There are four steps to this process of creating a memory:

  • Encoding
  • Consolidation
  • Storage
  • Retrieval

Encoding is basically just the process of capturing information through sights, sounds, emotions, the meaning of what we perceive, and what we pay attention to in the moment. This information is changed into a neurological language.

Consolidation is the brain’s process of linking activity into a single pattern of connections and associations. Consolidation is a time-dependent process and it can be disrupted or impaired. If a new memory is in the process of consolidation and something interferes, then the memory can be lost or degraded.

Storage is a pattern of activity that is maintained over time through chemical changes in neurons and create physical/structural changes in the brain. Then through retrieval, we reactivate the same connections so we can revisit, recall, or recognize what we learned or experienced previously

All four of these steps must happen to create a long-term memory that can be consciously retrieved.

Why is this significant?

If we want to remember something, we need to notice what is happening. This requires perception and attention. We might perceive something, but if we don’t actively give it attention, the neurons activated during perception won’t be linked and a memory won’t be formed. In other words, memory is not like a video camera. Our memory can only capture and retain what we give our attention to.

When children (and adults, too!) forget things it is because they didn’t give it attention in the first place. It’s worth noting that paying attention isn’t always easy for the brain. We pay attention to things that are interesting, new, emotional, or important to us in some way. Those are the details our brain captures. The rest we ignore and forget. Paying attention requires a conscious effort. We have to wake up the brain and become consciously aware to remember something.

Memory and Montessori

With all this in mind, we can see how learning is going to be most effective when our children have a connection to the content. Basically, it’s easier for children to learn things that they are interested in. In a Montessori classroom, children have the freedom and opportunity to focus on learning information and skills that are personally exciting and inspiring. As a result, the process feels less like school and more like play.

Also, remember how the formation of memories depends upon the process of consolidation (something you read just a few paragraphs before)? Well, because consolidation can be disrupted by any interference, it’s important for children to have uninterrupted time to engage in their learning. They need to be able to focus without having to regularly shift gears. In Montessori, a three-hour work cycle allows children to settle into their learning and fully consolidate the information they are encountering. They have the time and space to allow their brains to link their activities into a pattern of connections and associations.

Moreover, the Montessori approach provides a supportive and engaging environment that helps children develop their memory skills. There are several ways in which Montessori classrooms support this connection between memory and learning:

Hands-on learning: Montessori classrooms emphasize hands-on, experiential learning, which is known to be an effective way of promoting memory retention. When children engage with materials and activities in a meaningful way, they are more likely to remember what they have learned.

Repetition: The Montessori approach incorporates repetition into the learning process, which helps to reinforce memory retention. Children are given opportunities to practice and apply what they have learned, which helps to solidify their understanding of the material.

Multi-sensory learning: Montessori materials and activities are designed to engage multiple senses, which helps to strengthen memory retention. When children can see, touch, hear, and manipulate materials in different ways, they are more likely to remember what they have learned.

Individualized learning: The Montessori approach recognizes that each child learns in their own way and at their own pace. By providing individualized learning experiences that are tailored to each child’s needs and interests, Montessori classrooms help to support memory retention and learning.

Focus on the Positive

If you’ve ever heard the reminder to water the flowers rather than the weeds, you’ll appreciate the power of paying attention to positive experiences. If we invest our attention toward positive things, those are the experiences that we will consolidate into memories. Throughout their day in Montessori, children experience positive feedback loops and as a result enjoy coming to school every day which becomes self-perpetuating as they continue to find engaging activities, interesting information, and meaningful accomplishments. By helping children develop their memory skills—by providing a supportive and engaging environment that promotes hands-on, multi-sensory learning, repetition, and individualized learning experiences—Montessori classrooms prepare them for success not only in school but more importantly, in life.

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