"when A.P. testing began in 1956, memorization was not yet a dirty word"In theory, the new A.P. courses are going to replace "memorization" with "critical thinking."
Rethinking Advanced Placement
By CHRISTOPHER DREW
Published: January 7, 2011
In reality, critical thinking depends on memorization: you can't think critically without something to think about, and that something has to be stored in long-term memory. If you're going to think critically, you have to know (i.e. remember) what you're thinking about.
What happens when you try to think critically about a subject without memorizing its terms and concepts first?
What happens is that you can think about 4 items at most. That is the number of new, discrete elements you can hold in conscious, "working memory"* at one time. Four. And four may be pushing it.
Of course, when it comes to critical thinking, 4 is a tiny number. Experts think critically about far more elements at one time; being able to think about a vast amount of complex material is pretty much the definition of an expert, as a matter of fact:
The sine qua non of skilled cognitive performance is the ability to access large amounts of domain specific information [i.e. knowledge]. For example, it is estimated that chess masters have access to as many as 100,000 familiar configurations of chess pieces (Chase & Simon, 1973). As another example, in order to make sense of what he or she is reading, a reader must have access to information gained from previously read text. This is particularly true when reading complex technical material filled with jargon.
summary of Ericsson, K. A., & Kintsch, W. (1995). Long-term working memory. Psychological Review, 102, 211-245.
David Zach Hambrick, 1998, firstname.lastname@example.org
basal ganglia lollapalooza
Here's an example from my own life.
As a nonfiction writer, I'm essentially a permanent student: I am constantly trying to write interesting articles and books (mostly books) about material that may be brand-new to me. My current project involves the basal ganglia, which I knew nothing about going in. The vocabulary alone is overwhelming: nucleus accumbens, orbitofrontal circuit, putamen, striatum --- and that's just for starters.
So here's the question. How exactly am I to (a) understand and (b) think critically about a passage that contains these four terms if I haven't memorized what these terms mean and how they are related to each other first?
The answer is: I can't.
If I don't memorize vocabulary, I have to look up the definitions and then try to hold the definitions in mind while also reading and trying to think about what I'm reading.
It can't be done, and the reason I know it can't be done is that I've spent a lot of time trying to do it. I always make the same mistake with each new project I tackle. Somehow I think I can just look things up (Google!) and remember them while I read a complex study or article.
But I can't. No one can. Looking up four new words and remembering four new meanings maxes out working memory. There's no capacity left to read and understand a text using those four new words and four new meanings, let alone think.
I don't know why this is. Logically speaking, shouldn't it take just as much working memory to hold 4 memorized terms in mind as it does to hold 4 non-memorized terms in mind?
The answer is no: knowledge - content stored in long-term memory - extends working memory.
When you know a lot about a subject - when you have a great deal of knowledge stored in long-term memory - you can think about more than just 4 things at once.
blackboards vs PowerPoints
* Working memory is essentially consciousness: it's what you're thinking about and/or remembering right now. When you hold a phone number in memory while dialing it, you're using working memory.