Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Memorization need not be rote

One of the most puzzling elements of the progressive/constructivist ed creed is its hostility to knowledge. One would assume that the acquisition of knowledge should be a major component of the educational enterprise. How can one explain such a hostility to knowledge by people who purport to be "educators"?

Part of the answer can be found in these observations by Claudia Winkler in a piece called The Difference Between Thinking and Knowing. It's a confusion that equates committing knowledge to memory with rote memorization. Since mindless memorization is bad, and apparently educationists preclude the possibility of thoughtful memorization, nothing should be committed to memory. The result, in Winkler's felicitous phrase, is that ignorance is dressed up as superior thoughtfulness:

But not all memorization is learning by rote. To commit something to memory isn't necessarily to learn it "without understanding or thought." As anyone knows who's tried it, retaining facts is much easier when you see how they fit into a larger picture that makes sense.

Yet in a subtle bit of linguistic sleight of hand, the pejorative term "rote memorization" is commonly used as synonymous with memorization tout court. It's almost always contrasted with comprehension and critical thinking--as if knowing things and thinking about things were mutually exclusive.

Thus, to cite an altogether commonplace example, an article praising a new schoolbook on local history, in the Queens edition of Newsday, notes, "Activities in the booklet draw on an array of skills, stressing thinking and analysis over rote memorization of facts."

One can't help wondering what it is the children are to analyze--what exactly they are to think about--if their starting point is not to be a command of the specifics recounted in the book.

This conflation of mindless, blab-school, learning-by-rote with the necessary, if sometimes painful, committing of information to memory has a sordid effect: to dress up ignorance as superior thoughtfulness. Implicitly, it disparages the intake of knowledge--once the very essence of classroom learning--as an activity fit only for drones.
Memory is a precious gift. The educationist war against memory seems utterly perverse.

Hat tip: Illinoisloop

Great comment added by Quincy:

Winkler is right, but I wish she had pressed further along her line of thought. What needs to be broken is the concept that for the recall of information to be thoughtful, it must be effortful. When constructivist educators look at kids who have cold mastery of their math facts, they assume the quick, easy response must be some sort of Pavlovian conditioning, not "genuine" learning. In fact, it is learning of the most important kind--that which, through its thoroughness, frees up the mind to think about more advanced things.

I attribute this flaw in constructivist thinking to their continual focus on external process. If the kids LOOK like they're being thoughtful, then they're being thoughtful. More often than not, though, the kids look thoughtful because they're trying hard to understand something they weren't sufficiently taught.

In maintaining this illusion of thoughtfulness, the constructivists are actually denying kids the wonderfully frenetic rush that comes when ideas that have been percolating through the layers of accumulated knowledge come to the surface. In doing so, they deny the fact that each of us, because of our own life experiences, our own personalities, our own desires, will spin the same piece of information different ways in this process.

In sticking to the idea that memorization is bad, the constructivists are denying their students the chance to create, the chance to innovate, and the chance to contribute their thoughts to the wealth of human knowledge. Remember, these are the same people who crow oh so often about diversity. Yet they, with their backwards mentality towards learning, are destroying the most important type of diversity for the human race to achieve--diversity of thought. Whether this is intentional or simple carelessness I do not know, but it is damning for them none the less.

This WSJ item on the blessings and curse of memory caught my eye: http://www.opinionjournal.com/weekend/fivebest/?id=110009912

Unforgettable

A Nobel-winning neurologist's favorite books on memory.

BY ERIC KANDEL Saturday, April 7, 2007 12:01 a.m. EDT

1. "Ficciones" by Jorge Luis Borges (Grove, 1962).
Memory is the scaffold that holds our mental life together. One of its most remarkable characteristics is that it has no restraints on time and place. Memory allows you to sit in your living room while your mind wanders back to childhood, recalling a special event that pleased or pained you. This time-travel ability, often sparked by a sensory experience that opens the floodgates of memory, is central to much great fiction. It is described in the most detail in Marcel Proust's million-word classic, "Remembrance of Things Past," in which a madeleine dipped in tea famously prompts an onrush of images from the protagonist's childhood. But one of the most fascinating descriptions of memory in fiction can be found in Jorge Luis Borges's seminal short-story collection, "Ficciones," first published in 1945 in Spanish. Borges, who knew for much of his life that he was slowly going blind from a hereditary disease, had a deep sense of the central and sometimes paradoxical role of memory in human existence. This sense informs much of "Ficciones" but particularly the story "Funes, the Memorious," which concerns a man who suffers a modest head injury after falling off a horse and, as a result, cannot forget anything he has ever experienced, waking or dreaming. But his brain is filled only with detail, crowding out universal principles. He can't create because his head is filled with garbage! We know that an excessively weak memory is a handicap, but, as Borges shows, having too good a memory can be a handicap as well--the capacity to forget is a blessing.

2 comments:

George said...

"One can't help wondering what it is the children are to analyze--what exactly they are to think about--if their starting point is not to be a command of the specifics recounted in the book".

I have argued this for years with my colleagues . . . to no avail.

Quincy said...

Sorry I'm late getting to this one.

Winkler is right, but I wish she had pressed further along her line of thought. What needs to be broken is the concept that for the recall of information to be thoughtful, it must be effortful. When constructivist educators look at kids who have cold mastery of their math facts, they assume the quick, easy response must be some sort of Pavlovian conditioning, not "genuine" learning. In fact, it is learning of the most important kind--that which, through its thoroughness, frees up the mind to think about more advanced things.

I attribute this flaw in constructivist think to their continual focus on external process. If the kids LOOK like they're being thoughtful, then they're being thoughtful. More often then not, though, the kids look thoughtful because they're trying hard to understand something they weren't sufficiently taught.

In maintaining this illusion of thoughtfulness, the constructivists are actually denying kids the wonderfully frenetic rush that comes when ideas that have been percolating through the layers of accumulated knowledge come to the surface. In doing so, they deny the fact that each of us, because of our own life experiences, our own personalities, our own desires, will spin the same piece of information different ways in this process.

In sticking to the idea that memorization is bad, the constructivists are denying their students the chance to create, the chance to innovate, and the chance to contribute their thoughts to the wealth of human knowledge. Remember, these are the same people who crow oh so often about diversity. Yet they, with their backwards mentality towards learning, are destroying the most important type of diversity for the human race to achieve--diversity of thought. Whether this is intentional or simple carelessness I do not know, but it is damning for them none the less.