Critical Thinking vs. Memorization

This is the first in a series of blog posts in which I will tell you about my experience taking an educational assessment techniques course completely dictated and dominated by a Pearson textbook curriculum.  Throughout the course, I engaged in a series of email correspondences with my professor, in a passionately desperate (or desperately passionate…whichever way you prefer to see it) attempt to escape the confines of classroom discussion which centered around inane technical questions of “How to administer a test” or “Why a True/False exam should have a balanced number of True/False answers” or “Why multiple choice test answer choices should avoid unintentional clues so that students will not be able to answer correctly without actually knowing the knowledge or skill being tested”……as if that’s the only reason a multiple choice test could be an inaccurate assessment tool….give me a break.

I wrote this e-mail in response to one of our rare intellectually stimulating discussions in which the class discussed the value of teaching and assessing for memorization vs. teaching and assessing for critical thinking.  Admittedly, the only reason it turned out to be intellectually stimulating was because we finally managed to get off the Pearson curriculum for a while, but nonetheless the direction this conversation took still troubled me because, in my opinion, it demonstrated the shortcomings of the teacher education program at Felician College in regards to challenging its students to question American educational orthodoxy.

Now I will let the e-mail speak for itself, and I would love your opinions on what I wrote to my professor,

Dear Dr. Anonymous:

I apologize for the long e-mail.  I feel very passionately about our discussion in class today, and I wanted to continue it outside its confines.  Inevitably in a class that is pressed for time , in the process of trying to defend my positions, I was unable to say everthing I wanted to say.  Its just that certain aspects of the curriculum of this class really make me worried for the direction in which our educational system is headed, and I need to express those concerns as well as further elaborate on some of the positions I took in class today.  I very much appreciate this discussion.

Memorization is not a skill comparable with critical thinking.  Critical thinking is a learned skill, and currently our educational system is not doing enough to teach and assess it.  Contrary to what John (my fellow classmate) said today, I do not see how memorization is a learned skill.  School does not develop the capacity for memorization.  It’s already built into our brains.  We are all capable of memorization once our brains become mature enough.  What’s the difference between memorizing a shopping list and memorizing the causes and effects of the American Civil War in a history class or the four basic principles of social learning theory in a social psychology class?  Our educational system can test memorization as much as it wants, but that doesn’t mean its learned and that certainly does not mean its worth testing.  In addition, you can also fashion a more complex multiple choice question to test whether a student is able to remember the causes and effects of the Civil War.  That is still memorization.  Your teacher can connect a series of concepts together in his lecture and then ask you to regurgitate it in a short answer question on a test.  That is still pure memorization.  There’s no critical thinking involved in that.  It may not be “Columbus sailed the ocean blue in what year”, but it is still simple recall.  Whether you go to school or not, you are capable of memorizing information, whatever kind of learner you are, just by the virtue of having a mature, functioning brain.  Someones reads a book or watches a t.v. show and then tells someone the plot, that’s memorization.    Why is it so important to test that by itself?  Memorization is not a worthwhile end in itself.  Neither is critical thinking an end, but it is certainly a worthwhile component for educating our youth to participate in a democracy, to analyze assumptions and problematize theories, to challenging existing balances of power, and work for social justice and the common good, to exercise power and agency.  Memorization serves none of those purposes, but unfortunately traditional, instrumentalized, lecture style pedagogies indoctrinate our students to become superfical learners and nothing more, always caring more about the grade than about real, authentic learning.  This is about more than just changing a matching question into a multiple-choice question.

Of course, my disagreement with testing for memorization and ability to regurgitate given bodies of knowledge does not in any way presuppose the devaluation of content.  Of course content is very important, or else you have nothing to problematize and critically think about.  But we have made memorizing content an end in itself and for what justifiable purpose?  This is exactly why I disagree with the notion of separating a methods class, which our class is, from the theory that inevitably informs those methods.  Yes we do have discussions about the methods presented in the Pearson textbook, but we never problematize them based on the theory that informs them.  We only discuss these methods within the confines that Pearson has set forth for discussing them…whether a test has validity or not…whether a test has reliability…why a test should have a balanced number of answers to true/false questions etc.  Unbelievably, we never problematize the fact that this is exactly the trap that a standardized testing company like Pearson wants us to fall into.  The testing regime is blindly accepted, just so they can continue to make more and more money and maintain undue influence upon our educational system.  They operate on the basic language of profit.  There’s no concern with student learning or ability to critically think and become constructors of knowledge and active interveners in society.  If students were actually able to realize how absurd these standardized testing regimes are and consequently refuse to take them, that would spell the death of these companies.  So in a way, the notion of critical thinking and the ability for students to exercise agency and power actually works against the interests of a company like Pearson.  Of course, there are separate movements across the country consisting of students, parents, and teachers who refuse to kowtow to a company like Pearson, but so far the resistance is very scattered.   Pearson sees America’s obsession with testing and responds by creating a massive market of testing materials, test prep centers, and textbooks that promote the supposedly virtuous ideology of curriculum instrumentalization.  Its the corporatization of American public education at its finest.  How can we justify instrumentalizing and dumbing down curriculums all over this nation just to benefit companies like Pearson when we see the positive results from curriculums which emphasize creativity and critical thinking such as at the University of Chicago Laboratory School and Bronx High School of Science?

Consider this passage from Students as Researchers: Creating Classrooms that Matter, by the architect of post-formal educational psychology, Joe Kincheloe,
The Role of Student Research in Mainstream Schooling

“There is no doubt that the easiest way to teach is for teachers to give students answers to questions contrived by experts far away from the classroom. Still, at the turn of the twenty-first century this easy form of teaching still dominates schools —public and private. Such teaching fits seamlessly into the dominant epistemology of western science that has fragmented the world to the point that many people are blinded to particular forms of human experience. This fragmentation is the antithesis of our critical notion of student research, as it weakens our ability to see the relationships between our actions and the world. Contemporary schools still emphasize quantities, distance, and locations, not qualities, relationships, or context. These epistemologically guided assumptions about the fragmented nature of knowledge are deeply embedded in various aspects of school life. The exams typically given in North American schools, for example, prepare students to think in terms of linear causality and quantification—the foundation of a scientific modernist epistemology. Such ways of thinking squash efforts to develop a research-oriented curriculum, hidden assumptions in school conventions and everyday life. Though it takes place in the name of scientific neutrality, such teaching promotes a specific ideology, a specific way of looking at knowledge and the world. The epistemology, the way of knowing that underlies mainstream practice is an arrogant point of view. Condescending toward other ways of knowing, mainstream educational apologists contend that students come to school to learn the true nature of reality, a body of knowledge that has been neutrally gathered by objective scientists. Such a perspective is antithetical to our notion of students as researchers.”

Even though this entire passage is relevant, I want to focus particularly on this sentence in the context of our discussion today, “The exams typically given in North American schools, for example, prepare students to think in terms of linear causality and quantification—the foundation of a scientific modernist epistemology.”  This is what I meant when I said that designing a more lengthy and seemingly more difficult multiple choice question still does not constitute an assessment of critical thinking ability.  Just because a student is able to remember the supposedly linear causality of the American Civil War that a teacher taught to him as a fixed body of knowledge and reproduce it on a multiple choice question, does not mean that student can critically think and problematize knowledge.   Again it’s the same problem of treating the student like he or she is a passive trash can, as opposed to an active producer of knowledge    Since history is constantly written and re-written by people with different perspectives on the same event, it is important that students are taught to problematize popular accounts of history and analyze them for their purposeful inaccuracies, biases towards and against certain groups of people, and hidden agendas.  You can not possibly assess this kind of higher-order thinking with a multiple choice question because it involves the student being able and willing to construct his or her own knowledge.  That is what we do.  No matter what, we construct knowledge based on our experiences.  Human beings do not passively absorb bodies of knowledge, and yet our educational system treats us like that’s all we are good for.  Consider your class.  I have constructed my own view of the material you put forth based on my own oppressive and repressive school experiences as well as the educational psychology and philosophy in which I have been immersing myself for the past two years.  In theory, I have not passively absorbed what you wanted me to passively absorb.  I can still do relatively well on your tests, but does that really tell you what I am really learning from your class?  I have taken it upon myself to problematize the material you put forth in class, but that is because I have learned how to be a critical thinker and I am always learning how to be a better one.  That’s far more valuable than memorization.

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One thought on “Critical Thinking vs. Memorization

  1. Pingback: Critical Thinking vs. Memorization | Reflective...

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