Saturday, October 11, 2014

Google This! (Dear Katie V3 #4)

Dear Katie,

I was at an education conference over the summer in a class on paperless classrooms, when I asked a question about multiple choice assessments.  The young teacher who was running the class flashed a "Oh, my poor dear" smile across her face and explained to me, "the dinosaur teacher who knew little about modern-techno education" that it was the philosophy of her's and her school not to assess information that could be memorized or accessed by a simple Google search.

Twenty years ago, your uncle was a bit more fiery and would have used the opportunity to blast the smugness of her response, but as a man nearing 50, I am proud to say I have learned some decorum.  I just sat there with the "You don't really believe the BS you just spread" smile on my face.

What I wanted to say was, "That's funny, my wife is busy studying to take a multiple choice test on her medical knowledge in order to be re-certified as a Physician Assistant (a position that allows her to perform many of the duties of a doctor except begin her own practice)."

So, multiple choice tests are good enough 
to certify knowledge in our medical professionals 
but not in our students.

Rote learning or memorization of facts has received a bad rap in the past several years.  An attitude has been created that basic math facts aren't even that important to "drill and kill".  Students just need to understand what to do because a calculator can handle the calculation.

Facts learned through memorization is foundational in all areas of life.

Point 1: The Validity of Memorization is Taught in Your Undergrad Ed Courses

Younger learners are more concrete learners and become abstract as they develop.  I see that each year since my role as a middle school teacher is to assist my students in that transition. 

So why is there such an emphasis on understanding at the younger grade levels when students are designed to memorize.  As their minds develop, they can take those facts and analyze, synthesize, and evaluate (Bloom's taxonomy in action).  It seems we are missing out at building a knowledge base in our students when they are more capable of absorbing facts and just hoping for the best as they grow older.

I'm sure that my History & Philosophy of Education professor at The King's College, Dr. Joyce Anderson, would be pleasantly surprised that the young man who used to stumble into her 8AM class in his sweatshirt, shorts, and baseball hat (and usually late), learned, retained, and uses any of that when designing lessons.

Point 2: A multiple choice question isn't designed for recall, but for recognition. 

I have shared this point for years with parents.  I am not preparing students for an appearance on Jeopardy, but I do want to see if they recognize terms, ideas, and people when presented with it.  For example, if a news report discusses decisions coming out of Montpelier, a student who knows his/her states and capitals should know it is talking about Vermont, that it is in the northeast, or hopefully, at the very least, know it is a state capital in the United States.  

Memorization is vital to understanding. 

We use multiple choice tests as a quick way to see if students have retained important foundational knowledge. (There are other ways to design a multiple choice question to assess understanding, but that is for another post).

Think about how difficult it would be to read a historical fiction book based during the American Civil War without foundational knowledge.  It would impede your comprehension of the material.  It would slow down your reading rate as you decided to either determine meaning from context or reach for your computer to Google Search the name or event you didn't know.

Point 3: It is vital in Google Searches.

In order to do any Google Search, you need foundational terms, not only to begin the search, but to evaluate each search result.

Final Thoughts

No one really believes it is "mere rote memorization", memorizing facts are an important foundational piece in learning and explaining what you are learning.  

Think about learning to play an instrument.  The foundational part is memorizing the notes and fingering on the instrument, music theory comes after you have mastered that part.

Musicians begin by memorizing notes and fingering
Music Theory (Understanding) Come Later

Two suggested readings to supplement this idea:

ED Hirsch (book): Cultural Literacy, What Every American Needs to Know

Dorothy Sayers (essay): The Lost Tools of Learning

And finally, 
memorization is very important when you're married.  
Better remember birthdays and anniversaries.

Uncle Kevin

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