Where Is That Fact When You Need It?

Memorization does not work very well. As Howard Gardener discusses in his book, "The Unschooled Mind", we frequently ignore the knowledge we memorize in classes, relying instead on the knowledge we picked up in passing. It's not that the knowledge we picked up in passing is necessarily better (in fact, it's often wrong), it's just that such knowledge comes to mind more readily. When faced with problems that deviate only slightly from the standard form of school problems, we are often unable to access our memorized schoolbook knowledge, and instead use what we have picked up in passing from the real world.

Imagine what this says about the value of what we learned in school! How many times in a day are you faced with problems neatly framed in the terms your old physics textbook used? The world does not often present itself in terms like "You have a rope attached to a pulley which itself is attached to a 50 lb. weight ..."

The reason why schoolbook knowledge fails to come to mind when it's needed is that it is not well indexed in memory. When students learn, they are often not encouraged to try out the new knowledge on problems they face or relate that knowledge to what they already know. So the schoolbook learning forms isolated islands of structures in their memories. They know how to apply these islands to the schoolbook problems they face because that is the context in which they learned it. But the knowledge does not come to mind when they are faced with a problem in a different context.

Memorization has another problem. It's just not fun. Why should we force our children to memorize if it does not work and only ends up making them dislike learning?

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