Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Thinking about Thinking, or "Why Memorization is not the Boogeyman"

I have been going to a lot of conferences recently. I even wrote about those experiences on another blog to which I contribute, CANEns. The short of it is that I think conferences are valuable not only for the "hardware" (i.e. the tangible materials and resources I can take from it) but also the "software" (i.e. the meaningful conversations that occur and challenge my preconceived notions.)

Discussion surrounding the ideas of SAMR, Blooms, and others started me thinking. The first thought was: Wow, we humans sure like to compartmentalize and categorize the perceptible world. The second was: Hmm, why are so many of these charts hierarchical or linear? I started thinking about how students learn now, how I learned when I was "in school," and how people 100, 200, or 2000 years learned before us. I considered the many "great thinkers" of the history books; Pythagoras, Socrates, Cicero, DesCartes, Ben Franklin (as just a fraction of the tip of the iceberg.) We want our students to be great thinkers. How did they do it?

They didn't have the technology we have. Communication was limited in many cases (especially before the printing press.) Where would Ben Franklin be on the Bloom's chart? What about the SAMR? Did these great thinkers create and produce in their equivalent to school? We know they created because we have their books, essays, and inventions; but did this happen early in their learning or later in life? What did they do in school?

I think there was a lot of memorization. There was translation, and reading. There was a great deal of order, and perhaps teaching via models (i.e. read the works of great authors who have come before and memorize how they wrote. Now practice that model and emulate it.) These practices sound like the bottom parts of the SAMR and Blooms models. They sound so "last century." (Ha, well... they are!) But it makes me wonder.

What is the underlying value of that practice? We use the word "rigor" today to try to explain this phenomenon. Perhaps a better term is perseverance, combined with structure and motivation. A key difference between "then" and "now" is that those who went to school had wealth, or power, or means, and it was optional. They were also guaranteed results from this schooling. Today schooling is more or less mandatory, and there are no guaranteed results (read: jobs.)

Did rote learning create a Ben Franklin? I think it did. But why? And why won't that work today? Is it partly sampling bias (after all, we only know of the successes of history - for every Ben Franklin, how many were failures?) We see students' eyes glaze over when we try to do too much rote memorization. We advocate for more synthesis, more analysis, more creation. And yet, even given these freedoms, sometimes students' eyes glaze over. What gives?

I think it comes back to motivation. If Ben Franklin sat up at night and said to himself, "I want to invent awesome stuff," what was he willing to sacrifice for that goal? Was he inventing stuff when he was 10 or did he resign himself to the fact that he needed to practice and do some rote tasks? Is creation the end of a process or is it immediately available?

If this post seems scattered, it is. I can't really formulate my thoughts around an essential question. But I see that the simple tools of yesteryear, that created great thinkers, are scoffed at and almost vilified today. And I see kids today who have tools that are, in a word, magic, take them for granted and pass them off after 2 minutes. The tools have become disconnected from the learning process.

If memorization is a piece of the puzzle that leads to creation, then it is essential. If it stymies creation, it must be discarded. Perhaps the SAMR and Blooms models are not so black and white; the context of the learning matters more than the mode to get there. Creation without perseverance, gumption, drive, spirit, verve, rigor - or whatever you want to call it - is empty and will fall flat, and any "low level" skills will seem like busywork and void of meaning. Yet if you add that drive back to the equation, then the low level skills are building blocks to creation; indeed, without those building blocks, creation (rich, meaningful, and deep) is not possible.

I think we need to be careful when we look at these charts. Learning is not linear, and it is not easily explained through graphic organizers. In our pursuit of new and better ways to teach, we cannot forget that the low level skills are essential pieces of the puzzle. We should not forgo the nails when we dream of our castles in the sky.

I'm curious about your perspective. Leave comments below or Tweet me @brevkin.

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