About Memorization

Recently, I ran into this article:

This is What Happens When Americans are Asked to Label Europe and Brits are Asked to Label the US“.  I read it thinking those Americans won’t know Europe and the British answers wouldn’t know the states in the US.  I was right and the scanned images of the answers are there as proof.  (warning – there are some responses that not everyone would approve)  I looked down the list and, quite frankly, got tired before I got to the bottom so didn’t get through them all.

When you think about it objectively, the comparison between the tests isn’t really equal.  Since the Americans were asked to label the European countries, an equal test would have been to label the countries in North American, not the American states.  But that wouldn’t be funny not get the desired response.  I would imagine most British people would have got all the countries correct.  (All of them!)

When you think about it, I would suggest that there were two ways to know the answers.

  1. You’ve been to them all and remember;
  2. You had to memorize them in school.

I tried them myself and did well on the American states.  I’ve travelled to quite a few and also have the habit of opening Google Earth and zero in on locations when watching College Football or Basketball to see just where they are.  Similarly, I did fairly well on some European countries from my recollection of history and my habit of zeroing in on Formula 1 race tracks to see where they are.  

Then, my mind wandered back to my youth and a frustrating, related, activity from I think Grade 5.  I grew up in Huron County and one of the things that we had to do was memorize all of the townships in the county for a test.  I still remember most of them Hullett, Goderich, Stephen, Tuckersmith, and a lot more that probably mean nothing to you.  But they were so important to us at the time because we got marks for each one we had memorized.  As I think about it, it would have been more impressive if we had to identify the major industry in each.  (Hint:  agriculture…)

Flash forward to today.  I now live in Essex County and I know every township here – Anderdon, Malden, Colchester South, … and more that mean equally as little to you.  I certainly didn’t have to memorize them for a test.  It was part of my job a few years ago to visit all the schools and that started by finding them. I certainly didn’t turn to a textbook.  I did what every connected person does – I searched for them online.  After a few visits, they were firmly engrained in my mind.

Going back to the maps of the US and Europe, is this a fair test for the year 2014?  Hardly.  Is there anything more meaningful about memorizing where Utah is than being able to look it up when needed?

How many things in education do we claim to “teach” by memorization rather than trying to put some meaning and context to it?  I know that, teaching Grade 10 years ago, one of the activities was to label the parts of an IBM 1130 computer.  Does that translate to anything meaningful in the year 2014?  How many of my students actually ever had a chance to see an 1130 computer to know that such a beast even exists?  That was my first year of teaching and it never happened again.

It’s a question that I asked myself and answered and that’s worth asking every time the urge hits – “Why are we memorizing this?”  Are there better ways to learn the content?

3 thoughts on “About Memorization

  1. And that leads directly to asking “Why are we evaluating based on recall?”
    In my MDM4U class I’m only evaluating with open books, a textbook handy, and sometimes the Internet available (e.g. when students have to analyze statistical data, they can use any resource to do the calculations). I’m trying hard to not test the accuracy of their recall; I want to see what they understand, can do, and can apply.
    I had to look up “interquartile range” when it mattered this semester (before I taught the students about). I think it’s only fair that they can do the same when it “counts” for them.
    But it’s surprisingly difficult. We have an expectation of separating the components of student performance into four categories of knowledge and skills. Sometimes when we separate those skills we *unfairly* isolate them, making the tasks that students perform unrealistic and often simplistic.
    Deep thoughts for a Saturday morning, Doug!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great thoughts, Brandon. As I was writing the post, I started to think of some of the things that traditionally we expect to see in marks. Normal distribution, no perfect marks, the dreaded question “will this be on the test”, and then watching students cram in the cafeteria before going to take a test.

    It really begs the question – teaching and testing for the moment or providing a culture of enduring learning. For too long, we’ve argued for the latter but practiced the former.


  3. Pingback: OTR Links 12/07/2014 | doug — off the record

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