Tuesday, July 5, 2011

A Way of Thinking

I often find myself standing at the kitchen sink thinking about a post from one of our Belief Makers authors, days after having read it. A statement or question will stick with me, calling into question a basic belief or tennet, inspiring a new line of thought, or simply offering a puzzle to be worked. The thread I tug is often not part of the post's main fabric. Yet, there I stand, the water running, a plate in one hand, a scrubber in the other, my eyes fixed on a tree in the back yard and my mind nowhere to be found.

This morning, I found myself thinking about Faith's post, Much Ado About Nothing. In describing her experience preparing her home-schooled kids for the standardized tests imposed by the local board of education, Faith wrote:
Plus, we haven't done traditional times tables. I decided on a combination of counting by whatever number, and having to do the repeated addition to figure out multiplication. My thought was that the more she had to do it the long way, the more the idea of a short way would make sense.
Faith's decision to not teach Simonne the multiplication-table is just a small example in her story, and aside, and yet, I've been thinking about it on-and-off for days.

I'm an antagonist of systems that rely on memorization as the primary means of education. Victims off such systems often appear to know what they're talking about without actually understanding anything. They can execute tasks that they've completed before, but get stumped when the task presented doesn't match one of the templates they've memorized. If a perfect match can't be found, they'll try to force-fit the problem at hand into one of the solutions they "know". They can't derive new solutions and don't understand that process is a way of thinking, not a substitute for thinking. (BTW, if you're training for a government or bureaucratic job, read no further.)

Generally speaking I agree with Faith's thought process; it would be better if Simonne were to derive the multiplication-table from experience counting rather than memorizing information that was spoon-fed to her.

So why am I stuck on Faith's not teaching Simonne the multiplication-table?

It came to me this morning as the sound of the juicer grinding away at nothing woke me from my revery: Oh, I get it; it's tools versus data!

"Tools versus data?", you ask.

I realized that there are some things that are worth memorizing, so much so that you want them to be available to you without anything thought whatsoever. The thing that distinguishes these items from others is the degree to which they are essential. The more basic and fundamental, the greater the motivation to memorize them.

For example, when I was a four, my mom noticed that I really liked the association of sounds with letters, i.e., phonetics. I would constantly ask her what sounds were made by letters and letter combinations. I didn't care about words or reading, I just like the idea that letters had sounds. Later my mom would talk about passing a billboard while driving to the store and hearing me sound out words which I'd never heard, let alone understood. She never taught me words, just letters and sounds. I got the reading part on my own.

So I guess there are cases where I'd be a staunch advocate of memorization:
  1. where the items being memorized are key building blocks,
  2. where one is motivated to memorize (either internally or externally),
  3. where the process of memorization involves practice, not recitation (applied memorization), and
  4. where the items being memorized are not severely limited to context (i.e., don't memorize methods that only work in one situation.)

OK, those four resonate with me pretty well.

The more I think about it, it comes down to vocabulary. Any discipline has a vocabulary. Language has a vocabulary. Math has one. So does music. For example, I used to play scales and arpeggios with a metronome for hours on end, not so that I could know all the scales in all the keys, but so that I'd be come so intimate with the relationships among the notes that I never have to think about them. I hear a scale and know what it is. I hear a chord and know what it is. I don't have to go to the musical equivalent of a dictionary to look them up. I just know them.

Being intimate with all the scales, arpeggios and relationships among the notes doesn't qualify me as a musician, but it makes being a musician immensely easier. I don't have to learn songs or memorize them. As long as I can hear them in my head, I can play them. If someone wants to play a song in another key, no problem. Although my mind is processing the information, I don't "think" about it. It's second nature.

So, I finished making the juice and then wrote to y'all.

Happy Tuesday,

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