This year’s Pi Day was a special event, as you may have heard. If you write dates as “3.14.15,” you have the first five digits of pi. You can go even further, and have a pi second: 3.14.15 at 9:26:53 (a.m. or p.m.) gives you the first ten digits of pi.
I’ve never thought much about memorizing pi. 3.14 was generally enough for my needs, and for anything more complicated, I’d pick up a calculator.
But linking it to a date and time means that I’ll now have the first ten digits of pi in my memory for a good long time.
What does this mean for learning?
Memorizing pi this way works because it maps to current knowledge—something that Julie Dirksen, in her book Design for How People Learn, discusses using a metaphor of a closet full of shelves.
As novices gain knowledge, they need to figure out how to structure it. Poor organization—if it’s all on one shelf, for example—makes knowledge very difficult to recall.
Well-organized information, properly grouped by context, makes it much easier to recall. (Experts, on the other hand, have well-constructed and organized closets where new knowledge can be easily and quickly slotted into the right place. They don’t need anywhere near the support that novices need for structuring knowledge.)
For me, the first ten digits of pi are no longer a random list of numbers, but are instead mapped to my existing concepts of date and time. Furthermore, emotion (another way to establish context) cements that particular second in my mind. Lacking any traditional pie that morning, we all had a bite of pizza at 9:26:53 a.m.
This is a somewhat random example of shelving. It’s kind of floating out there. And that’s okay, given that I’m still not likely to use pi to ten digits unless I have a calculator.
If this were designed learning—training created to help people perform a task more effectively—then knowledge would work best if it were linked to the environment in which it would be used. Shelving would be less associated with a random format, and more with the context in which the knowledge would be recalled and actions taken. Organizing knowledge in this way would make it easy for the learner to recall the information where they needed it, when they needed it.