Understanding or Memorization
Why do we remember some lessons and forget others? Is it that some are perceived as more important, exciting, or possibly just easier to comprehend? Perhaps the answer has elements of all of those in its makeup; however I would suggest it is through true understanding. That is understanding rather than memorization. This is the message I tried to convey to my college U.S history classes this semester. A concept that I feel transcends any specific or particular academic discipline, lending itself to all educators who hope to make a true and lasting impact on their students. So the question is how is this excellent goal of teaching lasting lessons, which can be at certain times without a doubt difficult, accomplished?
The answer, as many educators can attest to, is through practicality. Nothing is worse in a student’s eyes than learning something that is judged to be useless to them or at least useless through their own perspective. During my first day in class I gave my students an example of what I mean by saying, “we don’t learn through memorization, we learn through understanding”. To begin, we go to the local cell phone store to buy new “smart phone”. Needless to say the use of some of the applications on these new phones seems to merit a course in itself. However, I proceeded to ask my students if they sit there in the store to study the instructions and ensure that they have properly memorized the correct way to use their new phone before leaving? As you can imagine, considering I have yet to hear of anyone doing this, the answers were an astounding no! So what do we all do? We have the store associate show us the basics, we go home, and we use it. Sounds simple does it not? Yet, the last phrase, “we use it”, is anything but simple from a pedagogical point of view. Through “playing” with our phone we learn how to use it and ultimately understand the phone’s applications through its practicality. We essentially learn through understanding what we have to do to achieve our desired result. These simplified teaching methodologies are exactly what classrooms need to promote engaged students. Yet, not just engaged, but long term lessons that are retained after the course has concluded. Otherwise, why bother teaching the course in the first place?
Obviously, this argument is relevant within two contexts; the first is the legislation directed towards secondary schools, which requires memorization throughout the school year with the end result being able to answer multiple choice questions on a mandatory test. Unfortunately, even if the questions are answered correctly, it is common knowledge that the student’s long term understanding and retention of the material is limited. The second context is my focus for this piece however. That is the classroom. To the extent that teachers are allowed freedom within their daily lesson plans, this aspect of pragmatic and practical teaching/learning should be given an opportunity. I certainly do not claim to be the originator of these fundamental ideas, as they have been both developed and improved upon by many scholars of education throughout history. Several of my past professors, some of whom were my mentors, approached teaching through these concepts. Yet, I feel privileged to be able to enhance other educator’s understanding, through describing my own classroom success using and adapting these methodologies.
As my classes are required for college freshmen, the challenge of engaging students who have no desire to learn the material is a continuous element in my lectures. The question that I consistently put to myself as well as to my students is how is the material relevant to you? Essentially, historical dates or events by themselves are meaningless, unless we give them meaning. 1776, is just simply the date of the U.S. declaring our independence. What gives it significance, within the context of a 1301 U.S History class, is what does this mean for you and I? What lessons can we learn from the conflict that are applicable today? Discovering the spirit of such “radical” individuals such as Jefferson, Franklin, or Thomas Paine offers a great example of the benefits of rebelling against the status quo. Perhaps this status quo is the continued discrimination of certain cultures or socio economic classes seen in our 21st century. Another may be lessons of how to deal with politics of today. My classes have discussed the uplifting examples of great individuals who are flawed in so many ways, yet still making great achievements/contributions to society. The specific conclusion of one of my history lessons is not as important as the larger idea that making our classes practically relevant to our student’s lives in 2012, is what will make our lectures stand the test of time.
Arguably, this is easier said than done, as with most aspects of our daily lives, yet very much achievable. Through sitting my 28-30 students in a large circle, I have promoted collaborative discussions. My lectures have morphed into a unique balance between informal and structured discussions, rather than the conservative lectures we all know so well. The results have been excellent. As it seems to be an innate characteristic that we all want to add our “two cents” in, I tell my students the old saying that 2 heads are better than one, holds true. They make observations and inferences that I have no reservations in admitting that I truly would not have thought of, essentially teaching me as much as they are being taught. Except in this instance, it turns out that 30 heads are even better than two.
Dale Schlundt holds a Master’s Degree in Adult Education with a concentration in American History from the University of Texas at San Antonio and is currently an Adjunct Professor for Palo Alto College. His book is available here.