Memorization is a component of critical thinking, not its opposite

Education is in the news a lot these days. With the increasing reliance on standardized testing at all grade levels and the implementation of Common Core standards, there’s suddenly a lot of concern about where American schools are headed; and as someone with a significant interest in educational issues, I pay a lot of attention to what people are saying. Reading through education articles and the accompanying comments, many of which bemoan the lack of I’m struck by the extent to which ideas about education have become polarized: on one side, joyless, dry, rote learning, devoid of imagination or interest, with no other end than the thoughtless regurgitation of facts; on the other side, a sort of kumbaya, free-to-be-you-and-me utopia, where learning is always an imaginative and exciting process with no wrong answers or unpleasantness.

To be fair, a lot of the idealizing that goes on is understandable backlash against the rise of standardized tests to judge, well, just about everything. If education has been reduced to learning how to fill in little bubbles on a scantron sheet, it’s natural to want to run screaming as far as possible in the other direction from that sort of drudgery and to make learning fun. To be clear: although I obviously have a stake in the world of standardized tests and believe that well-constructed exams (like the SAT) are useful when used thoughtfully and sparingly, I’m as disturbed as most other people about their sudden ubiquity.

Real education is most certainly not about learning to fill in little bubbles, and at its best, it can be wonderful and stimulating and engaging. But can be wonderful and stimulating is not the same thing as must never be boring or involve any sort of protracted struggle, and there seems to be a camp that conflates the two. Some things are hard; that’s called life. As someone who spends a lot of time teaching students fundamentals that they haven’t acquired in school, I find just as disturbing — and, frankly, bizarre — the idea that those “boring” fundamentals can simply be bypassed in favor of “higher level critical thinking skills.” Yet that idea seems to be have taken root rather tenaciously.

I’d like to suggest that the problem of rote learning vs. critical thinking is actually a false dichotomy. Or rather, there are two types of rote learning, and it’s necessary to distinguish between them: on one hand, there’s the type of rote learning that exists as an end in itself. The point of this type of education is simply to be able to spit back names and dates and facts without any understanding of how they connect or what their larger significance in the world might be. When Americans rail against rote learning, this is what they tend to be thinking of. 

On the other hand, there is also a type of education that views rote learning as a means to an end — one that recognizes that factual knowledge is actually the basis for higher level thinking. This type of rote knowledge is also known as “inflexible knowledge.” Cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham has written extensively about the problem with treating critical thinking as something that can be taught in the abstract.

As Willingham says:

People who have sought to teach critical thinking have assumed that it is a skill, like riding a bicycle, and that, like other skills, once you learn it, you can apply it in any situation. Research from cognitive science shows that thinking is not that sort of skill. The processes of thinking are intertwined with the content of thought (that is, domain knowledge). Thus, if you remind a student to “look at an issue from multiple perspectives” often enough, he will learn that he ought to do so, but if he doesn’t know much about an issue, he can’t think about it from multiple perspectives. You can teach students maxims about how they ought to think, but without background knowledge and practice, they probably will not be able to implement the advice they memorize. Just as it makes no sense to try to teach factual content without giving students opportunities to practice using it, it also makes no sense to try to teach critical thinking devoid of factual content.

Willingham’s research flies in the face of much of the educational status quo. One belief currently rampant is that students no longer need to memorize factual information because technology has made that information available to them at the click of a button. Because they no longer have to “waste” brainpower memorizing, or so the line of thinking goes, their minds will be freed up for “higher level critical thinking.” The problem with this view is that it overlooks the fact that critical thinking emerges from the scaffolding provided by rote knowledge; it can’t be divorced from it. When you know facts and dates and concepts by heart, it becomes much easier to see the relationships between them. It doesn’t mean that you’ll automatically see the relationships between them (that’s the point of education), but you will have a stronger basis for doing so.

Put otherwise, if you’re writing a history paper about and have to stop every five seconds and look something up on Wikipedia, your mind will be so consumed with simply trying to process the literal information that you’ll have nothing left over to actually analyze it in any meaningful way. If, on the other hand, you already know the key facts and chronologies and players, you’ll find it much easier to actually say something about why they developed the way they did.

It’s easy to spout off about the beauty of knowledge and potential of technology, but anyone who has ever watched a sixteen year-old stare glassy-eyed at a computer screen with ten different tabs up, then pull up yet another page and google a term repeatedly, pausing only to glance at the first couple of hits before typing in a slightly different version and beginning the whole process again, might start to wonder if educators don’t maybe have things a little bit backwards.

Looking up a couple of pieces of minutiae is one thing, and the Internet is an invaluable tool for someone who needs to do only that, but having to google virtually every basic fact leaves no mental room to do anything with those facts.

Perhaps I’m overlooking something, but it always struck me a somewhat obvious that you don’t acquire higher-level skills without mastering lower-level skills first. If you skip over the fundamentals, you might stagger along looking like you know what you’re doing for a while, but sooner or later, you’re going to crash.

I don’t think most Americans would argue with that idea when it comes to, say, sports or music. They would consider it basic common sense that top athletes don’t simply jump into a high level of competition after a little bit of haphazard training. If they’re not ready, they’ll get injured badly. Likewise, a musician who hasn’t mastered basic scales isn’t usually encourage to schedule her solo debut. It’s understood that years of practice and repetition are required, some of which is “fun” and much of which is not, and that fundamental skills must be mastered before more advanced ones are introduced.

Yet that is more or less the equivalent of what an awful lot of people seem to expect high school student to be able to accomplish academically. Not only is it unrealistic to ask high school students to write papers showing evidence of complex, critical, “high-level” thinking without giving them the grammatical, rhetorical, analytical, literary, historical, and cultural knowledge (among other things) to actually perform that kind of analysis, but it’s downright delusional.

As someone who’s watched lots and lots of sixteen year-olds torture themselves trying to complete college-level assignments when they haven’t yet fully mastered things like transitions or topic sentences or how to analyze quotations, I think I’ve earned the right to say that there’s something very wrong with a system that refuses to explicitly teach skills for fear of destroying students’ creativity, then pushes them to the brink of a nervous breakdown by demanding that they complete work far beyond what their skills allow.

Listening to ed-school grads rhapsodize about the joys of learning, you have to wonder whether they’ve actually ever seen students at home, sobbing hysterically and making their parents nuts as they try to eek out a couple of semi-coherent paragraphs. My guess would be that they haven’t. (For the record, I drove myself crazy over pretty much every English paper I wrote in high school. When someone finally sat me down and taught me the conventions of the genre — in college — I was astonished that it had been so easy all along, then furious that no one had bothered to explain things that simply before.)

So if teachers aren’t teaching the basics well or in a manner that engages students’ interest, it simply means that those basics need to be taught better — not that they can or should be discarded as irrelevant. A terrible teacher can massacre even the most fascinating subject, and an exceptional teacher can teach the basics clearly and directly in a highly engaging manner. From what I’ve seen, students are incredibly grateful when the latter occurs. They end up with a real sense of accomplishment rather than the feeling that they’re grasping a straws.

I do, by the way, acknowledge that plenty of high schools offer little in the way of a challenge to very bright and motivated students — but that by itself doesn’t mean that the students are actually ready for college level work, simply that the level of the high school curriculum needs to be raised. If students who are high-achieving by the standards of their local environments but who actually still lack basic knowledge are placed in so-called “early college” classes, those classes will never get beyond a certain level, regardless of how catchy their titles are or how esoteric their subject matter is.

Students who are missing basic cultural reference points such as Auschwitz (never mind Hannah Arendt) are not, to put it bluntly, going to be able to discuss totalitarianism at anything approaching a college level. That’s not to say they won’t learn something from such a discussion, but their ability to engage in advanced “critical thinking” is going to be seriously compromised.

Given expert teachers and a well-constructed curriculum, there is a way to make high school-level work both challenging and age-appropriate; the two are not mutually exclusive. The real problem is a serious lack of teachers who are experts in their fields and a system that fails to give the teacher who are experts the necessary support.

Everyone’s looking for a quick fix, and no one wants to put their money where their mouth is — administrators occasionally pay lip service to the importance of bringing in the high-quality teachers but do nothing to make the profession more attractive; instead, they turn around and blame the teachers for everything their students fail to achieve. Then they insist that teachers facilitate high level critical thinking while simultaneously discouraging them from reinforcing the kind of fundamentals that are necessary for critical thinking to occur. It’s positively schizophrenic. And insisting that high school students be assigned work above their heads and then given wildly inflated grades so the grownups can pat themselves on the back is not a real solution.

One math tutor I know estimates that schools should be teaching somewhere around a third of the material they currently attempt to cover, but focusing on mastery rather than superficial knowledge. That seems pretty accurate to me. I think that in all the hysteria over accelerating classes to make sure that American students are internationally competitive, schools (administrators) have lost sight of how much information students can reasonably be asked to digest and what sort of building blocks must be already in place to ensure that they’re capable of digesting it.

The current system produces classes that appear advanced but that students aren’t actually retaining anything from. They memorize for the test and then forget because it’s the only way they can get through school; but since the information never makes it into their long-term memories, they never get to the point where they can combine it with other knowledge and jump to the next level.

Let me give you an example: over the last few years, I’ve tutored a number of AP French students at a highly selective New York City public school. Pre-AP classes aren’t tracked, so there’s no accelerated option in the lower levels. By the time students show up in AP, they’ve studied four or five tenses and learned them relatively well, but they haven’t done a lot of reading, and there’s still an enormous amount of grammar that they haven’t been exposed to.

When they get to AP, a lot of them find themselves in over their heads. They have to master the rest of the major tenses (among other things) in five or six or months, read a lot of authentic French, and write full essays in French, complete with theses and counterarguments. They have to cram so much knowledge in so fast that there’s simply no way they can retain it past each test.

Then, when they’re confronted with a situation that requires them to integrate all their knowledge, they freeze. The material looks vaguely familiar, but they still sit there for five minutes, trying to remember the endings for the conditional. Their class sometimes needs two full periods to complete tests because they simply can’t pull information together quickly enough. Five years ago, that was unheard of, but it’s happening all the time now. And there’s nothing their teacher can do about it because of the way the curriculum is structured. She knows they need more time the learn the information, but if she wants them to cover everything on the AP exam, she has to keep pushing through.

When I tell my students that I spent three years covering the subjunctive in high school, learning a different part each year, they’re floored — and jealous. No one has ever given them three years to learn anything for an AP exam.

Trying to come up with a conclusion to this post, I find myself stuck. I’m not particularly optimistic about the implementation of the Common Core, and I don’t have any pat advice to offer. (Optimism is not my forte. Sorry if you were looking for something uplifting.) My only hope is that at some point people will come to their senses and notice that an excessive emphasis on either free-form, pie-in-the-sky creativity or stultifying, sloppily written standardized testing does not an educational system make. But I’m guessing that things will have to get worse before before there’s even a chance that they’ll get better. As for me, I’ll just keep calling it like I see it.