My American History textbook asks a question rather along these lines:
Explain why the Separatists and Puritans chose to leave England and settle in North America.
I assigned this over the next three days as a short, 3-5 paragraph writing exercise. I required that they had to squeeze at least five dates into their writing sample from a list of fifteen that I provided, and that they had to use a specific list of words from the textbook. There was the usual moaning and groaning. Later in the day, a student in study hall agonized about how that was a lot of sentences, and couldn’t I just make it 3-5 sentences instead of paragraphs?
In response, I hooked my laptop up to the projector, and called up a fresh new sheet of word processor. Then I wrote the minimum-length assignment, three paragraphs — in 10 minutes flat, in front of the whole study hall. Without looking at the notes on the board or the textbook.
OK, so it’s a parlor trick. I’ve been a professional writer. I’m supposed to be able to bang out a few paragraphs in ten minutes. It will take them a half hour to process the information from the textbook and then try to express it in words. But I wonder, still, if this is one of the basic challenges in American education — that we do not model either the skills of writing or how to draw on our powers of memory to achieve good results rapidly; and we do not expect students to deliver product based on that capability.