kitchen table math, the sequel: Darn Pesky Content and Skills

Monday, December 28, 2009

Darn Pesky Content and Skills

Yesterday, we had some relatives over for a late Christmas gathering. During the meal, my niece complained about how she didn't like having to memorize stuff in high school just to forget it all after the test. My nephew complained about having to memorize math formulas with no explanation. Their conclusion? Memorizing stuff is bad. I asked them whether remembering things is bad.

Since my son was in Kindergarten, teachers have been trying to convince me that remembering knowledge and mastery of skills are not that important. My niece and nephew see real problems, but come to the wrong conclusion. My nephew wants an explanation (and he many have gotten none), but assumes that the skills would all be easy if he first had understanding.

Then the topic switched to class participation. I was surprised to find that they were all for it. My niece, in particular, liked being able to discuss topics with others in the classroom. She said that she learned better that way. I asked about shy kids and the concensus was that this would be good for them too. Unfortunately, our conversation followed a common route - it went all over the place and was used mainly as a vehicle for expressing their own opinion. All teachers and no students. They had the confidence to express their views, but little to back it up.

It could be that many kids are not shy. They just don't want to waste their time. After a short time, I changed the subject.


Anonymous said...

I often think of memorization as a muscle that gets very flabby when you don't use it. Since grade school is no longer a place that uses memorization (weekly poems, math facts, spelling rules), kids seem almost worse dealing with it than the kids of our day. There's no foundation for it, no memory of it actually being a fun thing.

My entire career as an adult has been about memorizing massive amounts of dialogue and lyrics very fast that I later had to perform for weeks on end. If you asked me to quote something back to you from all of that it would take me a minute to remember.

But if you put on some obscure Monkee song I haven't heard in 40 years that I listened to over and over again when I was six, I could recite every lyric and tell you when the various instruments were about to come in. I know this because a friend of mine and I were reduced to tears laughing out loud from how precise our memory was.

But this talent seems to be completely missed by grade school teachers these days who are enamored only by "thinking."


farmwifetwo said...

You can't think or form an opinion if you don't know what the facts are to the argument. To learn the facts you have to memorize them first.

Our Xmas holiday - The first day of doing equivalent fractions was a battle. Day 2 a squirmish, but that afternoon his friend came over and they talked about school. First thing he did was get out that work and show her and ask "did you want my Mom to show you how??" The answer was "no", but by the end of the 3rd day of redoing the steps... he found it easy. When he comes home from Grandma's NYrs eve... I'll have changed the numbers for him to redo it a few more times....

Without memorizing the basic skills, you can't understand the "why", if you can't understand the "why" to an argument, math fact... how do you know if someone's argument about global warming or someone's bridge they built... is correct??

I still remember being in the Math help lab at College (returned to take accounting, 2yrs after my Univ Eng. Degree, 90's recession), and an Engr Tech student brought me the very book on Statics and Dynamics they'd used for 20yrs (Including me).... He wanted help doing vectors. 6 short years before, we couldn't have programmable calculators... his was all programmable and of course I couldn't help him. When I asked how he would know if he was right or not (since he couldn't plot the vectors) he shrugged, wasn't his problem.

From 1989 to 1996, that's how fast attitudes changed about education. They've gone downhill since IMO.

ChemProf said...

I've learned with today's college students to avoid the word "memorize." To them, it means something specific -- cramming a fact the night before the test that you will immediately forget. Instead, I talk a lot about needing to "know" things like the symbol for common elements and basic nomenclature. I also found it useful to talk about working memory, and how hard it would be to do math if you had to think through every math fact (which a few of them do, but most of them don't yet, thank the lord!) It seems to get the idea, but yes, they do come in with an attitude of "why should I memorize anything, it is a waste of time."

Parentalcation said...

If kids opinions were considered reliable, then we wouldn't call them kid's.

I would like to see a curriculum that tested students on important information multiple times over a period of say a month.

When teaching multiplication facts, it's not like teachers stop testing after the kids master a fact family the first time. No, they constantly drill it to get it cemented into long term memory.

lgm said...

Perhaps the children need a late Christmas gift of "What Smart Students Know" by Adam Robinson so they can learn to distinguish between knowing and memorizing.

I can sympathize with your nephew. My 9th grader has yet another math teacher who does "monkey listen, monkey see me manipulate some expressions and equations, monkey go home & memorize today's algorithm procedure." Learning algebra by this method is time consuming and does not lend to knowing. It lends to thinking of Int. Alg. I as 100+ algorithms.

We think of ds's very nice teacher as the intro to today's topic, pull out Dolciani and continue on with the topic to include the symbolic and pictorial, the properties, and logically relate the topic to what has already been learned. Much faster, child knows his math, and is the only male in the section to be passing the course. The gals, who are all great verbal memorizers, are all above a 95 average. The other boys in this section will be unable to continue on to Regent's Geometry since an 80 grade in Regent's Int. Alg. I is needed as a pre-req. Unless, of course, they suddenly develop fantastic memories or hire excellent tutors and get 100s on everything from here on out (60 average first semester plus 100 average second does equal an 80 overall).

le radical galoisien said...

I hated HS chemistry but now love organic chemistry in college. Last year I hated memorisation. This year, I'm like meh -- I have to do it might as well come up with neat tricks.

Would have really appreciated if I had some idea of what I was going to use the memorised knowledge for.

In HS chemistry I had no idea what the ammonium cation was, except it was a nitrogen with four ligands. Why did it have four ligands? Not addressed. I don't get why they introduce resonance so late either -- it would have been way more fun if I knew about electronic resonance when I was 14 rather than learning electronic orbitals all over again for the umpteenth time.

Memorising the structure of each of the DNA bases -- heck, memorising the steps of protein translation -- becomes really fun once you have the functional groups involved under your belt. Why do teachers get high schoolers to memorise the structure of histidine before they even know what an imidazole ring is?

SteveH said...

"...learn to distinguish between knowing and memorizing."

Many feel, however, that the approach to knowing must then have nothing to do with remembering any sort of facts, or that there are thematic or top-down approaches that will get the job done. This just makes the problem worse. The problem is bad teaching, not facts.

Instead of memorizing the presidents in order, one could start with a simple framework of key dates. each key date could be associated with one or more presidents. I know that I now love history because I have a much bigger factual framework. Everytime I come across something new, I have a place to put it.

Even my son notices this. Two things happen. He starts seeing the fact all over the place, and he starts connecting it with other pieces of information. It really surprises him that once he learns an unusual word or fact, he starts seeing it all the time. I tell him that he was blind to that information before.

When my son's social studies teacher had the kids read articles about the presidential election at the beginning of the school year, my son was lost. One article talked about McCain's role in the Vietnam war and the Keating Five scandal. Lots of facts and nothing to connect them to, but golly, it wasn't a list to memorize.

SteveH said...

The Monkees - I could join you in song.

Then there was the Firesign Theatre.

"at the last possible moment, he stopped on a dime! ...Unfortunately, the dime was in Mr. Rococo's pocket."

It's amazing how others can join right in. It's now time to play symptom six of Beat the Reaper.

ChemProf said...

SteveH -- I absolutely agree with you about facts and about the emphasis on thematic instruction in K-12. I actually don't think there is some significant difference between "knowing" and "memorizing", I just find that college students come with a disdain of memorization, which is problematic when I need them to master facts.

One thing I like about classical homeschooling is the emphasis on building a framework in the first four years that you can build on in the future.

SteveH said...

I view facts as vertices and understanding as edges of a personal network structure of knowledge and understanding. The better this structure, the more places you will be able to put new facts and the more connections you will make. Sometimes, you will be attaching new facts and sometimes you will be making new connections. My son doesn't even see new information unless there is a place to connect it to. If you add a vertex with one edge to your structure, you might be able to attach other edges of understanding.

I don't see how you could have something called understanding without a lot of connected facts. Treating facts as a "mere" afterthought to the process of learning diminishes the importance of facts. You can't keep looking up facts. If you don't have them in your head already, you will miss so many chances for building the structure.

Ben Calvin said...

Unfortunately, our conversation followed a common route - it went all over the place and was used mainly as a vehicle for expressing their own opinion. All teachers and no students.

This is why I avoid many conversations about general topics.

If someone has an argument I haven't heard before, I'm interested. But if it's an opinion I'm very familiar with, coupled with an unwillingness to entertain a contrary view, I find the exchange worse than pointless.

le radical galoisien said...

Yeah but did they outright reject opposing arguments or did they consider them?

John said...

Has anyone know about or experienced schools called "Early college High Schools?" Apparently there are 240 across the country. There is a new one opening up in our city for 9th and 10th graders with plans to expand through 13th grade. The idea is that students spend 5 years at the school and graduate with a high school diploma and an associate's degree or 2 years of a bachelors program. They are typically associated with a local college or community college. I been able to find some info on the web, but wanted to know if anyone else has some direct experience with this type of school?

SteveH said...

"This is why I avoid many conversations about general topics."

When my niece exclaimed how she thought class discussions were best, I asked her about shy students and how the topics can easily go off track. Her mother, a high school English teacher started talking about how it's the job of the teacher to keep the discussion on track. She then proceeded to take the discussion elsewhere. She started talking about special elective classes for communications, not the issues of class participation in general. She also sent the conversation into having to deal with kids who are pregnant, on medication, or have terrible home life. She got upset when I tried to get the conversation back on track. OK. Never mind.