The Talented Tenth

The Talented Tenth is the title of a chapter in Joshua Foer‘s Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything1 . The Talented Tenth refers to a class in Raemon Matthews’ class in the Samuel Gompers Vocational High School. This school in located in the South Bronx in New York City. In this neighborhood nine out of ten students are below average in reading and math. Four out of five are living in poverty, and almost half don’t graduate from high school. Matthews named his class the Talented Tenth after W.E.B. DuBois‘ notion that an elite corps of African Americans would lift the race out of poverty. He teaches his students mnemonic techniques and how they can be used to learn the names, dates, and places in the content he presents. He does not only use mnemonic techniques. He does not even use the word “memory” in his class. Matthews says that education is the ability to retrieve information at will and analyze it. But you can’t have higher-level learning, you cannot analyze, without retrieving information. Mnemonic techniques are useful in enabling the students to quickly assimilate names, dates, and places so they can more readily think about the historical events, their context, how these events developed, and why they developed as they did. He also places demands on his students in his tests. Every in-class essay his students write must contain at least two memorized quotations.

He also uses mind maps. Mind maps are drawings where information written in boxes is linked to other information. Each of his students creates an intricately detailed Mind Map of the entire history book.

His methods are successful. Every single member of the talented tenth has passed the New York State Regents exam in the last four years, and 85% of his students have scored ninety or better. It is not surprising that his students do well on advanced placement tests. And they come across as quite impressive individuals. Matthews has a little over forty students in his class. He brings the best twelve students along with him when he attends the U.S. Memory Championships where they compete.

At this point a reasonable question is why are mnemonic techniques not commonly employed in classrooms. One reason might be that teachers don’t know them (and if they had known them, they probably would have done better in college). You might want to read, or reread the Healthymemory Blog Post “Pseudo-Limitations of Mnemonics.” There are pronounced biases against using mnemonics in instruction that are ill-founded. Mnemonics are not to be used for all materials, but rather to provide a means of making initially meaningless material meaningful. It expedites the efficient coding of material so that it can be used for more meaningful higher level cognitive processing.

1Foer, J. (2011). New York: The Penguin Press

© Douglas Griffith and, 2011. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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2 Responses to “The Talented Tenth”

  1. bob gomoll Says:

    I would like additional information on MR. Raemon Matthews techniquics. Does he have a book, cd or possibly even a web site, in which I can view?
    Thanks You
    Bob Gomoll

    • healthymemory Says:

      Unfortunately, I don’t believe that there is a website or CD. If you do google Raemon Matthews, and perhaps you already have, you’ll find some articles and videos. The most detailed account of which I am aware can be found in the Chapter “The Talented Tenth” in Foer’s “Moonwalking with Einstein.”

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