Memory’s Radial Path to Learning
Memory is a vast immeasurable sanctuary. Who can plumb its depths?
— St. Augustine
A painting resides in my childhood living room. It contains two figures—a parent and a child sitting together, bound by familial love. The painting’s colors are in monochromatic brown hues, with only the outlines of the human bodies. The heads of the bodies are empty, faceless voids. Its mystery and vacant nature have always intrigued me. Positioned at the entrance of our home, the painting greeted me daily as I put on my shoes before going to school. Growing up, it became a silent witness to my comings and goings, an inanimate presence in my life. It is an artifact symbolizing love, remembrance, and memory.
Recently, I asked my mother about the origin of the painting to uncover its deeper meaning. I learned she bought it when she was pregnant with my sister in the early 1970s. She was drawn to its essence, which reflected the nurturing relationship between a parent and child. I wondered if my mother had thought of her mother, my maternal grandmother, when she acquired the painting; my grandmother died shortly after my mother’s birth. Memories have no boundaries. They connect us across time and into the realm of personal and shared imagination.
In storytelling, memory is a narrative device that intertwines a character’s remembering and forgetting, contributing to a broader story. The nature of memory is mysterious, as it divulges secrets from distant times and places, constellating inquiries and insights. In Greek mythology, Mnemosyne, the goddess of Memory, is accompanied by her nine daughters—the Muses, the goddesses of the arts and sciences. Mnemosyne, also known as the mother or source of artistic inspiration, is often portrayed holding a lamp of knowledge. Through art and literature, we can tap into a wealth of knowledge that encompasses our personal memories, which often hold captivating stories.
These qualities of memory remind me of the work of Kazuo Ishiguro and his novel The Buried Giant. Ishiguro, a British novelist born in Japan, skillfully weaves memory as a narrative device into his stories. The Buried Giant poses this question: What is the connection between a person’s identity and memories? Set in pre-medieval Britain, the story follows an elderly couple, Axl and Beatrice, and their village, where collective amnesia has erased their memories. Ishiguro writes in the story, “In this community, the past was rarely discussed. I do not mean that it was taboo. I mean that it had somehow faded into a mist as dense as that which hung over the marshes. It simply did not occur to these villagers to think about the past—even the recent one.” Axl and Beatrice vaguely remember that they have a son. Their enduring quest to find him becomes a perilous journey through the fog of forgetfulness.
When I first encountered The Buried Giant shortly after it was published in 2015, I read half of it before setting it aside due to a busy life with two children. Eight years later, I found myself having a similar response upon revisiting the story. The theme of “historical amnesia” intrigued me. While reading the novel, I felt as if I was transported to an unfamiliar territory, searching for a foundation—a sensation that mirrors the nature of memory itself.
Memory plays a dynamic role in our lives. Its inherent mystery and subjectivity often lead to surprising revelations and a deeper understanding of ourselves, our past, and the world around us. Memory also serves as a valuable tool for learning and growth. Perhaps memory, writes author Sandra Cisneros, “is a chance at storytelling and every story brings us closer to revealing ourselves to ourselves.”
Through my work with educators and students over the past decade, I have witnessed the powerful combination of memory and storytelling in the classroom. A well-crafted story can activate students’ inner lives, enabling them to connect with their own identities and explore the various aspects of their being. Stories can also offer a glimpse into a more expansive and inclusive way of life, fostering interconnectedness.
Unfortunately, our education systems do not reflect this holistic approach. Instead, they often prioritize standardized goals and adhere to rigid models of learning. Educators are forced to implement standardized goals with little time in the curriculum for curiosity, creativity, and inquiry. This has resulted in growing discontent among teachers, many of whom are leaving the field due to increasing constraints, such as stricter evaluations and curriculum guidelines. The challenges posed by the pandemic have further exacerbated these stresses.
Renowned author and educationalist Sir Ken Robinson argued that our educational systems are based on an “industrial paradigm” that places standardization and conformity at the core. You are most likely familiar with his influential 2006 TED Talk, Do Schools Kill Creativity? which has garnered over 75 million views, making it the most-watched TED talk of all time. Robinson inspired parents and educators worldwide to advocate for education systems that nurture, rather than stifle, students’ abilities. He was a keen proponent of supporting students’ passions and fostering their creativity.
I love one story he shared in his talk. Robinson described a young learner who was struggling to engage in the classroom. One day, during a drawing lesson, the student become fully attentive and inspired. The teacher asked the student what she was drawing. “God,” she replied. “Well, we don’t know what God looks like,” said the teacher. “We will in a minute,” the student affirmed as she completed her drawing.
According to Robinson, creativity goes beyond mere brain activity. It draws from the reserves of memory within our hearts and bodies, waiting to be brought into consciousness. Education reformers such as Robert Coles, John Dewey, Maria Montessori, and Rudolf Steiner believed in this holistic approach to learning and recognized the importance of using art and creativity to educate the whole child. They acknowledged that the child should be at the center of learning. Their teaching methods and lessons mirrored the developmental stages of the individual child.
For example, in the fifth-grade Waldorf classroom, the botany curriculum plays a significant role. Plants in Steiner’s lessons were not just objects of study, they were living beings that deserved admiration and respect. At the age of 10 or 11, when children’s imaginations are particularly receptive, the curriculum explores magic and wonder during the first half of the school year. Students engage with stories that evoke their senses while studying plants and fungi. In the second half of the year, students delve into the scientific components of trees and flowers, learning about their structures and characteristics. This approach mirrors the child’s development, transitioning from imagination to independence and the understanding of their bodies functioning in the world.
I love this question Steiner posed: “Where is the book in which the teacher can read about what teaching is?” He answers, “The children themselves are this book. We should not learn to teach out of any book other than the one lying before us and consisting of the children themselves.”
I like to think that activating memory and remembering is a creative skill and a force that arises from the depth of a student’s being. Memory does not just exist within the mind but within the whole body. We can’t quantify this aspect of learning, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a critical piece of education and learning. We must point students towards their inner selves and experiences, as this is the place where they can discover their own stories.
During the early months of the pandemic and the global lockdown, I considered the multiple facets of memory. How could students engage with memory to explore and document their experiences? While students entered their online classrooms with their teachers and classmates, their view was limited to their screens and the surrounding walls of their homes. This was limiting and disorienting, yet it also provided an opportunity to tell their stories from new perspectives. “Home” became a key entry point for deep learning.
“Our house,” writes Gaston Bachelard, “is our corner of the world.” We build and hold memories in our homes, specifically our childhood homes, with each tangible object remaining in our imagination. For example, the painting in my childhood living room is larger in my imagination. Objects remain within our senses. Or, as Bachelard states, “The feel of the tiniest latch has remained in our hands.”
I revisited an unfinished project-based learning (PBL) project I wrote a few years before the pandemic. The “time capsule” project included essential questions such as: What stories do artifacts tell? What memories of your cultural and family heritage exist within the objects of your lives? I explored ways for students to document their lives at this unprecedented time in history and tell their stories. I created a student photography contest, “The Artifacts of Our Lives,” and students were invited to photograph an artifact and tell its story.
We received close to 700 submissions from students living around the world. Students documented their objects’ stories and how they hold significance to their past, present, future, as well as their identity. One student, Naomi Delkamiller, challenged the traditional definition of an artifact by creating her own. She took an image of herself sitting behind a Zoom screen and wrote, “Sitting behind a Zoom screen is my artifact, my frozen moment, an external expression of my internal confession: I miss connection.” After learning that she was a contest winner, she wrote to me and said, “Thank you for sharing my work when the world has gone quiet.”
One student photographed a music box that belonged to her great-grandmother. The music, she said, stirred her memory, “her laugh, smell, and smile.” “I aspire to be like her,” she wrote, “to work hard and be kind wherever I go.”
Students provided us with their worldviews, compelling us to see the world differently. Their photographs evoked unique memories and captured stories of love, resilience, perseverance, remembrance, and grief. Iñaki Ramos, a sixteen-year-old student from Mexico, captured a photograph of an altar for the Day of the Dead.
“Due to the pandemic,” he wrote, “the thought of death has become more present in our lives. Humanity has faced several challenges throughout 2020, and most of us have lost someone we care about. I asked myself: how can an artifact connect us as a society?”
Like Iñaki, fifteen-year-old Aidan Holdain-Bui also captured a living memory of his family. Aidan, a visual arts high school student at Newbury High School in Massachusetts, initially struggled to find an artifact to capture, which became part of his story. He contemplated the following definition of an artifact from the Smithsonian: “Imagine the artifact not in a spotlight by itself, but rather against a variegated backdrop of people, places, and events.” His family did not own heirlooms or objects from their past. His family’s story was a powerful account of their migration to California. In his artist’s statement, he wrote:
In April 1975, just as the Vietnam War was nearing its end, my one-year-old mother, her two older brothers, and my grandparents fled Vietnam on one of the last planes to America just before the airport was bombed by the North. We were fortunate that my mom’s uncle was the general of the South Vietnamese police and head of South Vietnam’s CIA. His high rank is the only reason they were allowed to flee by air rather than by sea in wooden boats.
His grandparents left behind all their possessions. Aidan wrote, “What they did bring was themselves, the clothes on their bodies, and several cherished photographs of my great-great-grandparents.” At first, Aidan had a narrow idea of what an artifact is, but he soon realized that the fragile photographs of his great-grandparents were the artifacts he wanted to capture. He took about a hundred photographs on his school’s Sony DSLR camera. His artifact became a passageway into his family’s history, with deep connections to his identity and values. He detailed the story of his great-grandparents and their narrow escape from the Vietnam War.
My grandparents’ primary goal was survival, and they brought only the necessities: their children who were alive and photographs of their elders who had passed. Respect for one’s ancestral history is embedded in the DNA of Vietnamese people. At the heart of every Vietnamese household sits an altar framed by ancestors and elders who have passed away. Bowls of fruit and rice are placed in front of the loved ones as offerings of respect and remembrance. The altar table is an essential part of our lives as it connects us to our roots, ensures we never forget where we came from, and honors those who came before us who made our lives possible. This customary arrangement symbolizes and ties together these essential values of Vietnamese culture. I hope to one day preserve this tradition and pass on these artifacts so that future generations will never forget where they came from and who came before them…I chose to focus on the incense because no matter where I am, when I inhale that strong scent, I think of my great-grandparents on that altar, and I am reminded of a country that has deeply shaped who I am today.
Aidan located himself at the heart of his experience, finding visibility and a closer connection to himself, his loved ones, and the world through sharing his personal story. His story, along with his photograph and artist’s statement, gained recognition and was published by the Global Oneness Project and his local newspaper. When Aidan shared his contest win with his family, he told me that his grandparents were moved to tears, knowing that their family’s story was being told and remembered.
Learning can often take on an invisible and personalized form, known only to the student who is going through the process. Art critic John Berger’s analogy of memory as a radial process, where numerous associations converge on a central event, captures the dynamic nature of memory. It resembles a diagram with spokes, leaving the center empty. I imagine this empty center when thinking of the young girl drawing her image of God and Aidan's search for a meaningful artifact.
Memory encompasses a vast realm, which the theologian and philosopher St. Augustine described as a “special palace.” This unique place houses students’ thoughts, emotions, and identities. When we engage students with this special palace of memory, we set them on a distinct journey shaped by their associations and relationships, often including the ones they hold dear and love. Memory and storytelling can, as Cisneros suggests, “reveal ourselves to ourselves.”
So many of us are interested in education because it propels us toward an unknown future, as Sir Ken Robinson observed. Creativity, he argued, deserves equal recognition as literacy. Ultimately, our task, according to Robinson, is to educate the whole being of students, preparing them to face and navigate a future that is yet to be known.