Sunday, September 28, 2014

What's the point of learning something now if you're going to forget it later?

"What's the point of learning something if you can look it up on the Internet?"  NOT.

"What's the point of learning something now if you're going to forget it later?" Now that's a reasonable question.

For much of my time in K12, I regularly regurgitated facts that, to mix metaphors, went in one ear and out the other. I don't even remember what topics those facts constituted; just that, from late elementary to early high school, I filled in an enormous number of blanks in workbooks, worksheets and short-answer tests. Presumably, the questions spanned world history, earth science, and basic biology. And, while I got most answers right, I ultimately learned very little.

It might have been different had my teachers been up in front giving dynamic lectures on how everything fit together, asking and soliciting compelling questions. Instead, precursors to today's Guides on the Side, they sat at their desks and supervised as each of us worked quietly out of our dully-written readers and workbooks. Topics came and went, and, except in math, nothing seemed to build on anything else. And nothing seemed terribly significant.

One reason I decided to major in history in college was to fill in what I then realized were some huge voids in my worldly knowledge. But, a few years after graduation, most of the historical facts I learned in college, and even much the larger framework into which they fit, followed those K12 facts into oblivion.

I became convinced that my brain was, as one of my favorite high school teachers described his, "like a sieve." It might hold larger concepts, but not much stuff that was fact-sized. Not that this revelation was terribly disconcerting: presaging today's Constructivism, I had also decided that concepts were much more important than facts. The only problem was that I often had only the vaguest idea how to support all those weighty concepts and ideas of mine. The answer was to stick to more conceptual, less fact-intensive fields like linguistics, computer science, logic, philosophy, and, in my leisure time, science books for lay people.

Later, after five years in grad school and another decade parenting young and highly demanding children, as that leisure time slowly increased, I started rediscovering history. And when I began homeschooling my daughter 3 1/2 years ago, I also rediscovered the classics, earth science, and basic biology. I also discovered a new field: cognitive science. And I learned that, if I followed some recent recent findings about learning and memory, I could stop things from from going out the other ear (both my other ear, and that of my daughter).

My strategy was to begin with broad surveys that construct, systematically, a basic scaffolding, and to periodically cycle back, zooming in on the content in growing detail--with occasional fact-recall activities interspersed throughout the process. Also key: making sure the various texts were actually well-written and interesting.

One result of this process is that the incidental allusions to history and the classics that one encounters in daily life--in the news, in museums, in one's leisure reading, in the more intellectual of shows and conversations--start to become more salient and contextualized, and, where once some of these allusions might have intimidated or baffled you, they now reinforce what you've learned.

For example, in reading a review of Henry Kissinger's latest book, I enjoyed being reminded of how, during the 30 years war, in an early example of realpolitik, Catholic France sided with the protestant countries. An allusion that would earlier have distracted and distressed me--by reminding me of how much I'd forgotten--instead both enriched the review and reinforced my memories of the 30 Years' War.

Even for someone for whom detail- and fact-intensive fields like history, earth science, and the classics are amateur pursuits, there's a good reason to learn large bodies of details. If you do it right, you will retain them long term, and, as a result, they will make all the incidental facts and references that come up in daily life all the more resonant and interesting--and memorable. In other words, they make daily life more fun and engaging. And that, in itself, makes mastering them worthwhile.

But I've also found that the virtuous cycle of reference and recall enriches, in particular, that which I still value the most: those bigger concepts and ideas.

1 comment:

Joy Pullmann said...

Thanks for sharing this, Katharine. As a young mom wondering if I will ever get back to that collegiate feel with concepts like this, it's really helpful to envision a future where I can learn along with my kids (things not on the level of ABC).