Day 174

And so we bring to a close the pleasant interlude known as Reading Week–a time of quiet contemplation, re-dedication to longterm goals, refocussing and strengthening of purpose, and working on crosswords.

It was also an opportunity to think about education. Having been out of school for many years, I have found the reintroducton to a learning environment to be very interesting. Just finishing those mid-terms last week brought to mind the the whole idea of memorization, for instance.

In Peggy Sue Got Married, Kathleen Turner says “I happen to know I will NEVER need to use algebra in the future and I speak from experience!”

Likewise the ability to memorize everything. When I was a student, I assumed that the ability to memorize vast amounts of information and then regurgitate it without access to notes or books was a life skill I would need every day of my life. Many years in the workplace have proven the opposite. Once you have a job, the only things you have to commit to memory are:

  • “Here’s where the emergency cut-off switch is.”
  • “In case of a fire, that’s the exit.”
  • “Cut-off shorts are not acceptable on casual Fridays.”

In all other cases, it’s perfectly acceptable in the workplace to take notes during meetings and then refer to the notes when needed. Or to ask someone else. Or to look up the answer in a book or on-line.

My father was a high school chemistry and physics teacher whose final exams were always “open book”–you could go into the exam with your notes, your friend’s notes, multiple text books, the entire Encyclopedia Britannica, and anything else that you could lug into the exam room. Despite this, some people still failed the exam. All the available resources in the world wouldn’t help if you had cut too many classes and blown off too much homework. There was just no way to teach yourself ten months of course material during the exam. You either knew how to approach each problem, or you didn’t have a clue. You either knew where to look in your notes to recheck a formula, or you spent precious minutes aimlessly flipping through the textbook. In the end, my father’s open book exams didn’t test us on our ability to memorize, but whether we had truly digested the concepts and problem-solving skills that had been presented in class.

It has been very interesting to see how many teachers still rely on testing our ability to memorize a mass of facts as a means of evaluating our progress.

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