Understanding or Memorising?

Herbert_simon_red_complete

Herbert A Simon (1916-2001)

One of the most damaging myths in education is that there is a conflict between memorisation and understanding, when in fact, they go together, and are both essential. This is one of the ideas demolished by Daisy Christodoulou in Seven Myths, under the heading of ‘facts prevent understanding’. The classic piece of research by Nobel laureate Herbert Simon on chess players shows how memorising and understanding are not in conflict; rather, they are intertwined and interdependent. Chess grand masters can look briefly at a chess board and then remember the positions of the pieces far better than those not skilled in chess. But they could only do this when the pieces were arranged as they would be in a game scenario. When they were randomly arranged, the chess players performed no better than the average.

The chess grand master’s supreme skill is based largely on memorising tens of thousands of game scenarios. Most of the time, most of what a grand master is doing in a chess game is remembering. This is not in conflict with understanding. Obviously the grand master understands the rules of chess, but then so does someone who is only a beginner. What distinguishes the grand master from the beginner is the difference between their long term memories. One is well-stocked with chess moves and scenarios, while the other isn’t. If the beginner wants to advance, she needs to put in the effort and get memorising. She needs to be drilled, or drill herself. She needs to study hard.

This applies to every academic subject. Understanding and memorisation are both essential, but the majority of the effort must go into memorising, because a pupil can grasp a concept readily in a lesson, but quickly forget it, because she has not been drilled in class, nor has she been required to self-quiz for homework to consolidate the knowledge, nor has she been tested at intervals to make sure it does not fade. Drilling, self-quizzing, testing at intervals: these are the foundations of teaching which enable everyone to make progress, because memorisation is absolutely essential, and it strengthens and consolidates understanding. Without the knowledge in your mind, how can you think about it? It is the lack of these foundations which leads to the lament which I have heard so often in so many staff rooms: “I taught them that material. Why can’t they remember it? Why did so many fail the end of term exam?”

It is because of the false distinction between understanding and memorisation that teachers do not focus anywhere near enough time on making sure the foundations are in place. The bulk of class and homework time needs to be dedicated to making sure that core knowledge is thoroughly mastered. If this is not done, then only the most able and motivated will make much progress. The most able and motivated may well then go on to become education professors, and because they were not required to memorise, they’ll think that everyone else can just blithely sail along without the hard work of deliberately committing key facts and procedures to memory.

This is known as expert blindness, and the more gifted a person is, the more likely they are to suffer from it. But all teachers suffer from it to some extent, and to overcome it, we need good programmes of instruction which emphasise drill and repeated practice. We can’t depend upon our gut feeling, or even our ‘professional judgement’, to know when something has been practised enough.

Further reading:

Rote Learning is Ace

Memory and Liberal Education

(Image from Wikimedia).

 

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22 thoughts on “Understanding or Memorising?

  1. Actually, the chess example seems to prove the opposite of your thesis. The fact that chess players intuitively recognize when chess pieces are positioned randomly vs real game scenario, shows that they are not “memorizing” the board. They are connecting the positions of the pieces to a conceptual understanding of how the pieces got there. The emphasis on understanding in contemporary education is not because “facts prevent understanding,” but because the brain holds on to facts better and can make better use of them when they are seen as an interconnected web, rather than discreet random facts.

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    • The point is that memorisation and understanding are intertwined, both in the chess example and generally. They are both essential. Who’s asking anyone to memorise ‘random facts’? Your use of that odd phrase suggests you consider memorisation to somehow be the opposite of understanding. That’s precisely the bizarre position that this blog post aims to refute.

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      • I agree that the post aims to refute the idea. Many attempted to refute the idea of helicentrism with crystal spheres and the earth-centrism. Aiming is not quite achieving, and if you actually consider the example provided, it’s pretty clear that when chess players can intuitively recognize chess vs non-chess positions, even a basic understanding of cognitive psychology will tell you they are using a conceptual rather than memorized understanding.
        I do not claim that there is no value in memorization. Arguing that there IS value in memorization is what’s known as a straw man argument. What education innovators ARE claiming is that schools rely almost exclusively on memorization, largely because it is easy to measure – if a student can produce a definition of a parallelogram from memory, I can easily tell that the student knows it. If a student understands the concept of a parallelogram and how it overlaps or differs from different quadrilaterals, now that’s harder to measure when I have 120 students in all of my geometry sections.
        Arguing “in favor of memorization” is a hollow thesis – we all know that memorization exists. What is needed in education is to balance memorization with conceptual frameworks so students can make use of what they’ve memorized.

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      • The real test of whether memorisation is denigrated is actual methods used in the classroom. If a large amount of class time is devoted to explicit memorisation through drill and practice, then it is being properly valued. If explicit memorisation is rarely emphasised, then the teacher is still acting on the false belief that it is somehow opposed to conceptual understanding.

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      • When you claim that ‘conceptual’ and ‘memorized’ understanding are distinct, you are still opposing understanding and memorising, as if they were in competition with each other.

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      • Also curious about your level of chess experience – as a chess player myself, I find the assertion that grand masters are largely relying on memorization a bit surprising. Though I’m no grandmaster, when I first began playing, I memorized opening routines with little understanding of their purpose. As I’ve developed my skill over the years, I now understand the purpose of each pawn placement, I see the potential lines of attack proceeding from each bishop, rook, and queen. Far from a memorized list of piece positions, I see the board as an interconnected web of opportunity and vulnerability. Everything I’ve read about chess and experienced as a player reinforces the idea that it is conceptual understanding that allows human players to excel. An interesting side note, though, is that humans have long since fallen behind computers in chess. A computer uses brute-force calculation to predict all possible outcomes based on a given move and then gives a preferability weighting to each possible outcome. While not exactly memorization, it is a lower-level thought process, but executed with such volume and intensity that it can defeat a player using the most advanced conceptual process. In some ways, the success of computers in chess could be seen as vindication for those looking to denigrate the importance of higher-order thinking.

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      • You couldn’t think about any of these chess strategies unless you had stored a lot of information about chess in your memory. You still keep talking about the ‘conceptual’ as if it were somehow opposed to memorisation. One depends upon the other. Denigrating knowledge as ‘lower order’ is exactly the kind of thinking which leads to the lack of drill and practice in the classroom, thus preventing pupils from achieving the mastery of knowledge required to proceed from novice towards expert.

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      • “When you claim that ‘conceptual’ and ‘memorized’ understanding are distinct, you are still opposing understanding and memorising, as if they were in competition with each other.”

        Aha, now we’ve gotten to the fundamental misconception at the heart of the entire article. Saying there are mutliple aspects to understanding by no means they are ‘competing.’ A building usually has a foundation, a frame, boards, a roof, etc. These pieces work in concert with one another – they are in fact distinct, but they reinforce, rather than compete, with one another.

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      • “You couldn’t think about any of these chess strategies unless you had stored a lot of information about chess in your memory. You still keep talking about the ‘conceptual’ as if it were somehow opposed to memorisation. One depends upon the other. Denigrating knowledge as ‘lower order’ is exactly the kind of thinking which leads to the lack of drill and practice in the classroom, thus preventing pupils from achieving the mastery of knowledge required to proceed from novice towards expert.”

        Lower-order is not necessarily a judgment of value, but it’s well-established terminology within cognitive psychology that thinking develops in stages and there are certain types of thinking that are more complex and therefore develop later than others. Do I think a human being’s ability to contemplate the nature of the universe is more sophisticated than an alligators ability to instinctively attack prey that enters its pond? Sure. Does that mean that philosophy is more important than knowing what we should or should not eat? Of course not.
        As far as schools focusing too much on conceptual thinking, maybe there is some phenomenal work going on in your world that I’m not seeing in mine. I’ve worked with hundreds of teachers in dozens of schools, and I still have yet to see a school that overemphasizes conceptual thinking at the expense of memorization.

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    • You obviously have never sat in at a ballet class either. What we see on stage, is the result of repetitive exercises at the barre, hours every day. Kids are first taught the steps, and intuitively “understand” what they are to do based on thousands of hours of practice. As they get older, ballet dancers still revert back to the basic exercises at the barre on a regular basis, to ensure their understanding behind their steps, along with their mastery, is never lost.

      I get weary of those consistently trying to dissect meaning between these two aspects of learning. What’s more important…memory doesn’t equal understanding blah blah blah…it’s tiresome. How did the world get to this place if meaningful instruction did not include understanding along the way?

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      • For those outside the fields of psychology and education the distinction may seem trivial. I often struggle to remember or fully grasp the distinction between income and revenue, yet someone in the field of finance would consider it a crucial distinction in understanding a company. Jazz aficionados can tell the difference between the album cut of ‘All Blues’ and the alternate take, while to an outsider it “all just sounds like noise.” If you’re weary of thinking about these finer points, that is totally your prerogative. But for those of us in the business of educating children and helping educators develop, the difference between different thought processes are as wide as the ocean and as crucial as oxygen.

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  3. Having explored the work of Kember (1996), I have come to the conclusion that it is the testing program which schools in England are subjected to which force a memorisation approach to learning. Knowledge based tests don’t promote understanding and reasoning in the classroom as these qualities are not required of the children in passing their tests.

    Reference-
    Kember, D. (1996) ‘The intention to both memorise and understand: Another approach to learning?’ Higher Education 31, pp. 341- 354.

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  4. “One of the most damaging myths in education is that there is a conflict between memorisation and understanding, when in fact, they go together, and are both essential. ”

    I agree and disagree.

    I cannot imagine any teacher these days arguing that memorisation of facts is not required for understanding. I believe Dan Willingham’s justification rather than Daisy C’s does most to explain why but in the end who one is convinced by is perhaps less of an issue. Having said that I guess it could be argued that as a cognitive scientist Dan’s testimony carries a little more weight.

    Where our views tend to diverge a little is with regard to the issue of conflict. Even from your description of the issue, it would seem that memory and understanding “go together” and are therefore not interchangeable. This I agree with.

    My view is that the conflict comes when deciding how much knowledge (declarative? / procedural?) should be imparted and how much time should be spent integrating and extending (Marzano) it and then using it in familiar and unfamiliar situations. To this extent I believe there is a design decision to be made.

    I believe I would be referred to as “non traditional” but I often spend 60% of a lesson getting students to integrate new facts and procedures. I think this is not atypical of secondary teachers generally.

    It should also be said that I use frequent and regular knowledge tests as without a good bank of definitions and examples understanding is unlikely to occur.

    I teach in a way that promotes understanding, analysis, application and evaluation. I don’t teach to the test but assume that if the student understands the underlying concepts then they can answer any question. It seems to work well.

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