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Course: Understanding Learning

Essay: The Pensieve as a metaphor for recall in the 21st


century: understanding the value of technology to
assist learning

Sue Grundy
December 2009

Part-time Msc in E-Learning (by distance). University of Edinburgh, Scotland.

1
Introduction
This essay will explore how the concept of the Pensieve, as penned by JK
Rowling in her Harry Potter1 series of books, can be seen as a metaphor for
some of the technological developments becoming available to assist memory in
an information-rich society. The essay will discuss how human memory works,
and describe technology that learners can utilise, to assist their own memory, to
store and organise the wealth of information available to them, during their
studies.

In 1945, Vannevar Bush noted the amount of information that researchers


needed to sift through, in order to make effective conclusions and move their
research forwards: “The investigator is staggered by the findings and conclusions
of thousands of other workers – conclusions which he cannot find time to grasp,
much less to remember, as they appear” (1945, 1).

In the 21st Century, with the proliferation of information technology into our
everyday lives, it is not just the specialised researcher feeling the burden of
information overload,2 but many of the population. Students, in particular, can
become overwhelmed, by the amount of information available to draw upon as
they write their assignments (Cryer, 2006), and the inclusion of new technology
to assist learning has not been capitalised upon by higher education (Laurillard,
2002).

The Pensieve
The Pensieve is a key narrative device created by the author JK Rowling in her
popular series of books about Harry Potter. In Rowling’s wizarding world,
memories can be removed from one’s mind, stored within phials, and then
viewed from within by being poured into a Pensieve: a magical bowl which allows

1
For more information on the books see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harry_Potter (last accessed 9.12.09)
2
This concept is discussed at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Information_overload (accessed 9.12.09).

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one to fall into the memories as if they were happening at that moment in time.
Depositing memories involves taking one’s wand to one’s forehead or temple and
withdrawing the memory which, on extraction, looks silver and strand like3.

The memories are useful in that they recount all that was witnessed by the
person at the time of the event, even if, at the time, they did not appreciate all
that they saw – thus in revisiting a memory a person can review a scene they
have already been to and notice things anew. It is possible to view other people’s
memories using the pensieve. The person witnessing the memory is invisible to
the people in the memory.

These memories cannot be changed or tampered without damaging the fabric of


the memory itself4. As well as the benefits of being able to review and store
memories, removing memories frees up space for other brain functions. As Albus
Dumbledore, Headmaster of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry5 says
to Harry Potter:

I sometimes find, and I am sure you know the feeling, that I simply have
too many thoughts and memories crammed into my mind... At these
times... I use the Pensieve. One simply siphons the excess thoughts from
one's mind, pours them into the basin, and examines them at one's
leisure.6

3
In the final book “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” (2007) the memory coming from a dying wizard
is described as “Silvery blue, neither gas nor liquid, it gushed from his mouth and his ears and his eyes.”
(Rowling, 2007:528).
4
In Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2005) Professor Slughorn tried to alter a memory he was
unhappy with and it was obvious to Professor Dumbledore when he viewed it because the texture of the
memory had changed.
5
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hogwarts (last accessed 9.12.09).
6
This quotation has not come from the original source: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2000) as I do
not have access to my copy of the book at present. Instead it has been sourced from:
http://quotations.about.com/od/harrypotterquotations/a/HarryPotter4.htm (accessed 9.12.09). It can also be
found at http://harrypotter.wikia.com/wiki/Pensieve (last accessed 9.12.09).

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Memory and Learning7
In the non-magical ‘muggle’8 world, memory is not physically removable. Instead
the memory of the human brain works by storing and remembering information in
the short- and long-term. The short-term memory9 retains information for only for
a very short time and has a limited capacity. Long-term memory10 however can
last a lifetime if it is regularly retrieved. Even if the memory fades, it can be re-
strengthened by being re-learnt.

Whilst the brain has a large capability to store information, accurately retrieving
and organising it is more problematic (Norman, 2002). Schacter has expressed
the weaknesses of memory as seven sins: “transience, absentmindedness,
blocking, misattributation, suggestibility, bias and persistence” (2001:64). What is
retrieved from our memory might be only a partial account of what could be
recalled and even this might diminish as time passes. Emotion may impact on
what is retrieved: if we are feeling happy we may pass over, or reduce the effect
of, a memory that is sad. The memory might be recalled in a confused manner or
become revised in the light of current situations. Clearly how our brains function
means that memories cannot be recalled in the same way that those poured into
the Pensieve can.

When we learn, the actual structure of the brain is altered, as is the configuration
of information within the brain (Bransford et al, 2000). Learning can be seen to
have occurred when the memory is stimulated and the facts can be recalled. The
more times that the recall is made, the stronger the memory is. Entwistle cites
Lindsay and Norman’s (1972) idea that everyday memory utilises “logically
ordered sets of concepts, stored in terms of increasing generality” (2005:9). It is
easier to retain information into the long-term memory if it is understood and if it
connects to existing knowledge (Norman, 2002). As an insight into this
7
This concept is discussed at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Learning (accessed 9.12.09).
8
Muggles are the name given to non-magical people in the Harry Potter series.
9
For further information see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Short-term_memory (accessed 12.12.09).
10
For more information see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Long-term_memory (accessed12.12.09).

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connecting, Papert noted that his interest in learning about flowers intensified the
more “connections were made; and more connections meant that I was drawn in
all the more strongly, that the new connections supported one another more
effectively, and that they were more and more likely to be long-lasting” (1996:
23).

Technological Support for learning


The idea of being able to remove strands of memory from our brain, displays JK
Rowling’s creative flair at imagining her wizarding world. However, technological
developments mean that storing factual and autobiographical information is
becoming more and more possible for mere mortals. The memory that can be
supported at present by technology surrounds the episodic memory and the
semantic memory. Semantic memory11 refers to how our brain stores information
about facts and figures. Episodic memory12 links to our own selves, allowing us to
remember what we have done in our lives.13

In fact there is nothing new in augmenting our memory. We have been using
external memory aides ever since there was parchment and paper.14 Students
would not remember the detail of a lecture if they did not make an effort to write
down notes as the lecturer spoke, or highlight, in pencil, relevant parts of an
article as they read it. But the advent of the computer age has added a new
dimension to supporting our human memory function.

Even prior to the great technological leap afforded by computers, the idea of
being able to use technology to store information about our lives was forecast by

11
For further information see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Semantic_memory Accessed 12.12.2009
12
For further information see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Episodic_memory Accessed 12.12.2009
13
Bell and Gemmell (2009) note that The third strand of memory – procedural memory – supporting how
we remember to move in a certain way at certain times, for instance, the course of action undertaken if one
wants to juggle, has no technical support available at present. For further information see
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Procedural_memory Accessed 12.12.2009
14
Perhaps even rock paintings could be considered memory aides – passing the memories of events from
one generation to the next.

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Vannevar Bush (1945)15 and his idea of a Memex16. Bush hypothesised the ability
in the future to recall aspects of our lives with ease via technology:

“A Memex is a device in which an individual stores all his books, records,


and communications, and which is mechanized so that it may be
consulted with exceeding speed and flexibility. It is an enlarged intimate
supplement to his memory” (1945:7).

‘Trails’ are created forever by linking items together at the touch of a lever so that
when one item is retrieved so will whatever else has been linked.

With astonishing similarity to how Bush described the Memex, the current
technological innovations proffer amongst other advances, digital support for our
memory, and assistance with making connections in our learning. Information
can now, in theory, be stored and then, theoretically, systematically searched,
recalled, indexed, and connected when needed. Indeed as Bell and Gemmel
(2009: Location 1597, 34% into book17) note, using the example of telephone
number storage on mobile phones: “Most of us are well along the path of
outsourcing our brains to some form of e-memory.”

There are many new devices that are being researched that will change the
nature of how we learn and how we deal with learning resources18. The Internet
has already changed the availability of resources. However now there is potential
for the individual learner to view and review podcasts19 and vodcasts20 of
lectures. Their lecture notes can become indexically-linked to their readings.

15
This concept is discussed at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vannevar_Bush (last accessed 9.12.09).
16
This concept is discussed at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Memex (last accessed 9.12.09).
17
I can find no clear guidance as to how to reference a book read on a Kindle. Therefore I am providing all
of the information that the screen is giving me to cite the reference: the Location is the number of the
sentence and the percentage refers to how far through the book the reference is.
18
Bell and Gemmell (2009) note how we no longer use a slide rule for maths, favouring the calculator often
loaded onto our mobile phones.
19
For more information see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Podcast (accessed 13.12.09)
20
For more information see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Video_podcast (accessed 13.12.09)

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They can carry hand-held devices such as e-tablets and GPS into the field to
record their studies. The use of technology can free-up learners’ time which
students can use to delve deeper into their subject. An e-portfolio gathering
together all of their lifelong education can be used, providing a memory overview
of where they have been on their learning journey. Barreau et al (2006) in their
project on technology in biology education, used student portfolios and improved
personal information management systems, to help not only searching for
information but also found that “by adding contextual metadata to automatically-
captured educational information [they were] enabling improved information
organisation, enhanced recall and recognition, and potentially improving learning”
(2006:2).

In current developments, the reduced cost of storing data means that information
can be stored without needing to worry about capacity or choosing what can be
kept and what discarded (O’Hara et al, 2008). One current project that makes
use of limitless storage is mylifebits21. This is the creation of researchers22 at the
Microsoft Research Laboratory, USA. Gordon Bell one of the researchers elected
to make his life a research project by having every aspect of it filmed, recorded,
saved. He wears a special camera to take photos of his day, he records phone
calls, any letters he receives are scanned and saved. When retrieved Bell and
Gemmell suggest that the benefits of memory technologically saved is that they
are “objective, dispassionate, prosaic, and unforgivingly accurate” (2009:
Location 833, 17% into book).

Like the Pensieve, the technology here can remove the need to mentally
remember things. By storing them electronically, they can be recalled by
searching on the basis of simple associations; connections such as approximate
dates when you had last used that piece of information, or who you were with
and so on. Whilst the fictional Pensieve saves whole memories in seemingly real

21
This research surrounding this project is discussed at http://research.microsoft.com/en-
us/projects/mylifebits/default.aspx (last accessed 9.12.09).
22
Gordon Bell, Jim Grey and Jim Gemmell.

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time, the technological equivalent works on smaller chunks of aspects of our
lives: it can connect and index our past in a much more systematic and detailed
manner.

However, even with this technology, the problem faced with human memory is
still apparent: the size of the accrued information means that there are problems
of retrieval23 . As Thompson found when he interviewed Bell: “It’s hellishly difficult
to search. And Bell often finds himself lost in the forest. He hunts for an email but
can’t lay his hands on it. He gropes for a document, but it eludes him.” (2007: 5).

Even if mylifebits research sometimes fails to effectively retrieve a piece of


information from the masses that have been stored, software is being developed
which, given the light of recent technological advancements, must surely emerge
to strengthen the recall aspects of the technology. Barreau et al (2006) note that
the technology requires a better ability to tag and index and this is being
researched. Already there is software available, such as Devonthink24 which can
make better retrieval and linking of documents possible. Mind-mapping software
can assist in our making connections between learning materials. Other useful
technology for learners is the Remembrance Agent25 created by Bradley J.
Rhodes26. This is a device which works on the computer desktop, suggests links
of information within your files the moment that you type on the keyboard. I can
imagine great benefits for learners who have acquired so much information that
they cannot process all of the connections. It is only a matter of time before one
piece of software offers the whole package: connecting, extracting, displaying,
forecasting and so on.

23
I suspect with the fictional pensieve (although wouldn’t wizards be able to conjure up a charm not to
forget or to bring to them what it is they can’t remember?)
24
For more information see: http://www.devon-technologies.com/products/devonthink/
25
Interestingly in the Harry Potter series there are Rememberalls - glass balls filled with smoke that turns
red when something has been forgotten (although in terms of the problems that humans face with memory
it is fitting that the thing that the Rememberall is reminding has been forgotten is not indicated in the ball
so the user must try and remember).. For further information see
http://en.wikibooks.org/wiki/Muggles'_Guide_to_Harry_Potter/Magic/Remembrall (accessed 12.12.09)
26
For more information see http://libra.msra.cn/Author/1481872.aspx (Accessed 11.12.09)

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Ways in which technology can be best deployed
Within the learning environment, the technology discussed above has much to
offer students. It would allow the student to revisit their learning forums and
experiences – watch a lecture again, find connections to old notes; piece
together all related information stored, and so make connections between
information that might have been overlooked.27

The technology would appear to give students more learning assistance and
flexibility which has been lacking in traditional forms of education (Parson, et al,
2009). This is particularly timely given that many students currently have to
engage in paid work to fund their studies. These students need to be able to miss
timetabled lectures, knowing that they can still view the lecture as a podcast or
download the lecture notes. Replacing lecturing in real time with a podcast need
not diminish the quality of the learning that a student obtains from a lecture.
Brittain et al (2006) found that students believed that using a podcast had a
positive effect on their final course grades. However Parson et al (2009) found in
their research that the ‘quality’ of vodcasts was significant in providing benefits to
their inclusion within teaching materials. Having such media support learning
would be most effective when the materials are of good quality, technologically.

With the existence of ‘view on demand’ lectures, course material could now be
multiplied to suit various types of student approaches to learning (Bell and
Gemmell, 2009) or orientated so that lecturers can connect with their students so
that learning is contextualised within the students’ lives and so builds from
genuine interest and understanding (Caine and Caine, 1994; Laurillard, 2002).
Lecturer’s time could become oriented more towards helping students on their
quest for learning rather than focussed on regular lecture sessions. It may be that

27
As I read about this technology I remember the huge size of my bibliographic database once I had
completed my PhD and in relative brevity of the actual references used and wonder how many connections
were missed, how much time spent reading was underutilised by my failure to effectively make
connections between all of the different books and articles that I had read.

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in the future much more time is spent on creating quality lectures – to be
performed live only once and then replayed each time the course is run.

How technological advances might be changing the nature of what


education should be about.
That this life-logging28 and/or memory augmenting technology could be soon to
offer us all, raises important questions about the future of education and what we
should be learning. Already the Internet has changed how we go about studying.
Repeated trips to the library and to the photocopier have been replaced by sitting
at a desk, surfing the internet, downloading articles from the online library (Bell
and Gemmell, 2009). Will the time the student saves by using this technology be
used to focus on the course, at a deeper level, or will it reduce learning to making
quick use of connections, discovered with clever software, and finishing the
assignment in record time?

Mayer-Schönberger (2009) is concerned that perhaps, with this technology, we


will not be able to move forwards in our learning, as we are too focussed on what
has gone before. In storing all of the past, including inconsequential events and
information that the brain might normally naturally forget, we lose the ability to sift
out some of what has gone before.

The individual – learner and teacher – will find themselves potentially in an


endless spotlight with the use of memory augmentation technology. Mayer-
Schönberger (2009) reports how a student teacher was disqualified because she
had left a photograph of herself at a fancy dress party on a social networking site
and titled it “drunken pirate.” Mayer-Schönberger (2009) notes that while one can
avoid such mistakes it is difficult to manage how other people use material they
may have about you. The implications of this for the learning environment are
28
Life-logging is when people fully record their everyday lives. Bell suggests that he is not life logging in
mylifebits because he is not making his record public. Life loggers on the other hand to make available data
of their augmented lives. For more information see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lifelog Accessed 12.12.09

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that if you have critical ideas then these might be captured for posterity and used
against you at some point in the future.29 Although you may vouchsafe your use
of your own data, group work, perhaps a university tutorial or a discussion board
chat, create data that you are not in control of. Will intolerance to socially critical
ideas mean that, for fear of, for instance, never finding work, people will not
challenge the status quo: “constraining our willingness to say what we mean, and
engage in our society” (Mayer-Schönberger, 2009, Location 3060, 65%).

Furthermore, will those lecturers who cannot provide entertaining lectures be


sidelined into other roles or not employed without being able to show their
portfolio of lecture performances? Indeed, more money would have to be
directed towards utilising the technology so that its effectiveness is maximised.
Thus the danger is that lecture performance will oust content. Form will win out
over substance as to what is considered a good lecture.

Conclusion
The Pensieve is a useful metaphor to consider the technological advancements
approaching our learning environments, and indeed, our lives: digital technology
is making it possible to save and review our memories and, in fact, almost every
detail of our lives. Being able to digitally save our memories and record our lives,
is a construct of both terrible and wonderful power: wonderful in what it can do for
an individual, giving them the opportunity to have a full account of their life;
terrible, for what a merciless society could do with it, for eternity.

Given the technology outlined above, it is clear that our lives will change, as will
our ways of learning, and our focus on what we learn will shift. Of the benefits, it
will enable students to reach further in their studies, to build a strong web of

29
Mayer-Schönberger (2009) notes how one man was stopped at the border between the USA and Canada
and, after a lengthy interview, was prevented from ever re-entering the USA because of an article he had
written claiming that he tried LSD in the 1960s which had come to the attention of the border control
through an internet search.

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lifelong learning. It will provide more flexibility for students to learn, where and
when they want. If lecturers want to be successful in the future, they will need to
become “generators of meaningful, connecting, and linking knowledge, who can
not only use the appropriate software but far surpass its performance in
interactive questioning and exploration of information” (Caine and Caine, 1994,
23).

The outcome for the human brain is unclear. When we don’t “need to remember,
but [have] no chance of forgetting” (Sample, 2008:1) what will this do to our
mind? Will our own ability to remember improve through having to remember less
or will it start to adapt and become weakened through underutilisation? Will we
stop trusting our own memories in favour of those digitally captured (Mayer-
Schönberger, 2009)? Will this reliance on technology affect the operations of the
human brain? Will people in the far-off future look back onto the first people to
life-log and wonder at the strangeness of their memories?

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