Memorization

Memorizing is for computers.

I think one of humanity’s goals should be to make computers act more like humans, rather than to make humans act like computers.  Computers are obviously inferior entities which are as subordinate to their creators the humans as we are to God.  We made computers so they could do all the boring, time consuming, repetitive work we didn’t want to do ourselves.  And yet, in most educational institutions, the primary way of measuring how much students learned is a test of memorization.  Shouldn’t we be required to think instead?

I have nothing against memorization that occurs naturally.  For example, I memorized the positions of the letters on the keyboard I’m typing on now because I’ve been using the same layout to input text into computers for years.  My memorizing it makes my life easier because now I don’t have to look at the keyboard each time I need to press a key.  However, despite the fact that I don’t need them, the letters are still there.  In fact, there are very few keyboards that don’t have letters printed on the keys.  Why?  Because even though quite a few people have memorized the layout of QWERTY keyboards, it is likely that the majority haven’t to the extent that they would feel comfortable typing without the help of the alphabet laid out in front of them.  The presence of the letters removes the need for people to go to a class or train to learn the keyboard layout.  Instead, they can go straight to work, perhaps being less productive if they had more practice, but with enough ability to make some progress anyway.

I think we should apply this principle to other aspects of our lives in which we currently train ourselves to memorize.  Understandably, it is convenient and sometimes even necessary for people to know mountains of facts (such as if they are in the fields of medicine or law) but I think that the majority of education should focus on thinking instead, with memorization being an incidental.

Generally I find that schools adopt better systems (in my opinion) for teaching as grade levels progress higher, possibly with the exception of history.  Elementary schools have lots of vocabulary tests, mathematics memorization tests, science principles tests, and many other tests that basically require children to regurgitate what they were told in class onto a piece of paper.  While I wouldn’t expect graduate thesis quality interpretation and analysis from children this age, I think they should still be subject to more thought provoking material.  Looking back on my own preliminary education, the most valuable things I learned were probably to read and do basic mathematic operations.  Almost every course involved copious amounts of reviewing what we had already learned, and more memorization that I would ever care for.  I was not satisfied with my elementary education despite my more than satisfactory grades.

On the other extreme, colleges generally do better in this area – there are writing and English classes that actually require students to write, there are math classes where formulas and constants are given on the tests and students simply have to know how to apply them, there are science and engineering classes which require experiments and projects, and most importantly, there are specialized classes which expand the wide variety in the type of education one desires to obtain.  College involves a lot more project work (something that most people will be doing in the field), or at least offers the option for students to study using that method (depending on the major).

In the middle of these two are middle school and high school, each with varying degrees of memorization required to receive passing grades in class.

The reason I’m so concerned with this is because pointless memorization goes completely against my character.  I’d rather have access to a book internet filled with all the information I would ever need to know and reference it every time I need to know something.  If I wanted to learn a skill, I would take a class and practice that skill in a way specific to the subject that would most help me learn, remember, and enjoy myself at least somewhat while doing so.  I have done exactly that many times, and through the application of principles I’ve learned while doing projects, I’ve subconsciously memorized countless facts, tips, and lessons without complaint.  This is how I would like to learn everything – I would like to start out by doing as much as I can, whether it be reading, writing, observing, experimenting, or building, and then glean petty facts I find on the way.

What I don’t want to do is emulate a computer, and then be graded on how well my brain, the product of billions of years of evolution and a key part in the crowning creation of God, compares to a box filled with metal and plastic and which thinks in ones and zeros.

Yes, I’m writing this because I recently had a bad experience with just this phenomenon (and not for the first time either).  Yes, I can be to blame.  If I had studied harder, I probably would have done better on that memorization test.  If I had slept for more than two hours the night before, I probably would have done better as well (which reminds me, I still haven’t slept that off yet).  But would it not have been too much to ask to instead have me write a few paragraphs detailing the connections I made between points in the material I was supposed to have internalized well enough to mentally barf snippets thereof onto a piece of paper?  Some people may flinch at the sound of the word “essay,” but in this case I believe it would have served me better.  By requiring me to write, I would have to study the text more scrupulously, rather than simply try to guess the key words and names that would probably show up on a quiz.  I would have found more value in my pursuit of knowledge by writing than by memorizing.

“But wait!” you say, “Why don’t you just do that yourself?”  Well, I have motivation problems.  The only reason I do most of my assignments and study is because the class requires it.  I rarely ever do any more than is required, unless I really enjoy the assignment (such as in classes that involve computers or creativity) or if extra credit is involved.  I’m sure other people have similar motivation problems too.  These can be solved so easily if our teachers would just realize they should change their methods.

You know what?  Maybe I should actually talk to the guy.  Even if he doesn’t change it for the whole class, perhaps I can convince him to allow just me to complete an open book short answer quiz instead of the usual multiple guess assessment.  Again, some people may hate that idea and prefer the quiz (perhaps they like memorizing and we need to customize the learning experience rather than globally change it) but I’m willing to see if I can do something to improve my perception of self-worth.  If I remember, I’ll let you know in a few days how it goes.

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