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Friday, May 05, 2006

A Lesson for the Teacher: Knowing v Memorization

I was about to go to bed but I feel compelled to write this post. Earlier this week, I wrote an article about the sad state of geography knowledge among young adults in America. One of my frequent (and favorite I might add) visitors responded with his own post about why geography doesn't matter.

Expat Teacher first states that memorizing facts isn't important in the age of Google.
"knowing where Ohio and New York are on a map isn't important."
Ugh! I don't even know where to begin. It is important! But the key is the KNOWING. Anyone can memorize information. Even monkeys can. But the goal of education is KNOWLEDGE. Knowing where Ohio is involves more than just understanding what word fits with what shape on a map. It involes the issue of adjacency and involves understanding compass direction.

I didn't just memorize "2+2=4". I KNOW that 2+2=4. I understand all that that concept entails. I didn't just memorize where all the states are. Memorization is just about trivia. I KNOW where all the states are, why they are where they are, what makes them unique, and any number of other things about them.

Expat Teacher also said:
"Analysis, synthesis and evaluation are much more important skills."
I agree that they are important but they are empty without knowledge.

My wife and I are fortunate in that we have found an exceptional school for our daughters. We were very pleased to discover last year that the school places a high importance on teaching the children to color within the lines. Of course, most current educational philosophies would be aghast as such an idea. But there is great wisdom in this. In order for a child or adult to foster good art, one must first learn good technique. Even the most abstract of artists like a Mark Rothko is a virtuoso of technique. That is what separates the art that hangs on the wall at the MOMA in NY from my two-year daughter blindly moving her crayons around.

Well, technique is a lot like knowledge; it is a basic building block.

Can Google Maps show me where a state or country is? Sure. I suppose we don't need to bother teaching kids math either since they can use a calculator or Excel. Might as well not bother with teaching kids how to spell words since they can just use the spell checker.

Expat, you ask
"Can you recite more than 2 lines from Romeo and Juliet?"
No. But I KNOW what Romeo and Juliet is about and understand it as a wonderful piece of literature. That is the difference between knowing and memorizing.

Knowing where states are or where important countries are IS very important. Take Israel for instance. Without knowing that Israel is surrounded by Arab countries and knowing how tiny it is, much of the geo-political discussion of the Middle East loses understanding.

Expat also said:
"The victor in today's business world isn't the one that figures out who the customers are and where they live, it is the one that figures out what they want and where they want it."
You can't imagine how wrong this statement is. I have built a successful career in doing just what you say isn't important: helping companies understand who their customers are and where they live. If you disagree, go ask Starbucks, McDonalds, The Gap, etc if these don't matter. The "what they want" is the easy part my friend.

I have also been in the position many times in my professional career to interview and hire people. You better believe that I will always give priority to those with KNOWLEDGE and wisdom than those with a stack of expensive papers documenting their time spent at institutions of higher learning doing anything but learning.

I'm not sure where we went wrong with our educational system; maybe it is this very idea of not worrying about knowing things.

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