Sunday, March 2, 2014

Cause or Effect

In every discipline, there are some pieces of information that simply need to be memorized.  Each subject has its foundational definitions and fundamental facts: names and dates in history, proper grammar and syntax in language, basic arithmetic in mathematics...all of these need to be fairly automatic to be successful in understanding the content of the subject at hand.  However, I've been giving this some thought lately, especially with final exams this past week, and the question I have is this: should memorization be part of the cause of understanding the content of a subject, or should it instead be the result of understanding the content? 

For example, is it necessary to sit down with flash cards and memorize the important names and dates as part of the process of understanding historical events, or, instead, should the memorization of the names and dates be the natural result of understanding the events?  Does memorizing the formula for the area of a rectangle actually help me understand what it is I'm finding, or instead, does understanding what it is I'm finding result in the memorization of the formula?

The reason this came to mind this week is I noticed that some of the kids who had, up to the point of the exam, earned As on the tests were lightly reviewing for the exam, whereas others with As were studying rather furiously.  Those who were lightly reviewing were participating in the discussion during the in-class review in a very relaxed, almost nonchalant way, and through their contributions it showed that they have a solid understanding of the material.  On the other hand, those who were studying furiously seemed to be attempting to re-memorize the material, and their conributions to the in-class review discussion were more in the form of double-checking their facts rather than demonstrating their knowledge. 

My conclusion after watching this was that both directions (memorize to understand vs. understand to memorize) are viable methods of achieving success on tests.  Both groups of kids had As on the tests, so both, from a purely data-driven perspective, were doing well in the class.  But looking more deeply into that success, it became obvious to me that only some kids were being truly successful when it came to actually learning the material.  And those were the kids whose memorization of the material was the result of understanding it, and not the other way around.

I wonder how prevalent this is in every class, regardless of the subject matter.  I wonder how much I have missed during my teaching career, thinking that if the kids were doing well on the tests (perhaps even the AP tests when I taught those classes) they were understanding the material.  And I'm grateful to have found a means through which I can at least partially discern which kids are truly understanding the material and which ones, despite their grades, are not. 

Just one more reason to use and promote discussion-based learning.

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