The debate on memorisation versus understanding with the pedagogical mode and implications for school level students is a significant matter of discourse in the academia. It would not bode well for teachers to understand the two as mutually exclusive; and the view that memorisation has become a redundant practice in this day and age is put forth quite a lot
There was a student, a seventh grader in the early 2000s. Now let us try and focus on this space time, and try to visualise the computer class back then. 'What is a computer?' his teacher asks, as he expectantly and searchingly scours the classroom.
He gets up and confidently offers or rather rattles off: 'A computer is an electronic device that does so many jobs with the help of a set of instructions previously given in the form of electronic signal and pulses.
Electronic signals and pulses are nothing more than the flow of electrons in different voltage levels..."
This definition filled up the whole page of the computer notebook he had, and he rendered them all sans any breaks or hiccups.
Eighteen years down the line, he still recalls and can deliver the aforementioned earlier part of the defintion with just as much speed and accuracy.
He memorised it, but he is highly sceptical if that memorisation led to any meaningful learning. There was no such insight or realisation back then.
He did as, he recalls, everybody else in his class did, at the time with varying results. Hememorised everything that the teacher tagged 'important from examination point of view'with great caution.
Observations and criticisms done with the aid of hindsight run the risk of being skewed.
The anecdote above is not an attack against the school he went to or the teacher who he was extremely fond of and still looks back at with fond memories, but a mere reflection of the way he learned things at school in those days.
He cannot, having adopted the pedagogical vocation himelf, override the thought if memorisation really got into the way of his learning.
It might be unfair to present only his computer class as a point of this discourse, so let's visit another of his classthe following year.
He is attending amaths class in 8th grade. He follows his teacher with intent interest and in awe of the concepts being introduced.
It's geometry, and he's come to understand that vertically opposite angles are equal and so are the alternate angles.
Figures are drawn across the board, the teacher points at the window, uses his two hands as makeshift parallel lines, presses them to look over at the roof of a buildingunderconstuction and what not.
The geometrical shapes become more and more complex, but he takes up the challenge to find this unknown angle x.
Has he memorised the concepts of a linear pair, angles and the likes, or is it his understanding? Or is it both? Whatever the case, he pursues and pursues with success.
How can maths be so intersting, and how is everything coming so naturally? But soon enough the bubble starts to burst.
He soon comes across these intimidating looking quadratic and trigonometric equations and transformation.
He understands very well now, and very well did he understand back then as well, that not everything in the course is supposed to be easy.
Is it that some concepts are so abstract that they cannot be readily related and/or visualised? The maths teacher could have tried his best, but could it also have been that he simply was not aware of the potential ways to make students relate to the subject matter? Or did the student here in question simply did not have the 'mathematical brain' in line with the 'nature versus nurture' argument? Whatever it was, the student did not fully comprehend these latter concepts and resorted to memorising the formulas and practised questions from the past examination papers repeatedly.
He adopted the same strategy in his science class and mugged up all the steps of proving the F=MA question. If success is to be measured by how he did later in his exams, he was quite succesful.
But the question still remains: How much did this memorisation help in his learning and spark further interest in the field? The debate on memorisation versus understanding with the pedagogical mode and implications for school level students stemming from that is a significant matter of discourse in the academia.
It would not bode well for teachers to understand the two as mutually exclusive; and the view that memorisation is a regressive practice and has become redundant in this day and age is put forth quite a lot.
Whilst studying in university, this writer himself has had an experience of taking memorisation and understanding together, for instance, when he had to learn the theories of education.
What is doubtless is that one needed to build one's own understanding of the theories under consideration, but any such understanding needed to have at least the fundamental backing of the very theories.
Even to criticise and reject something, one needs to recall the essence of what is being criticised.
Memorisation, thus, can aid in understanding the subject matter and theories associate with it.
Whilst at school as his role as a teacher, this writer has again seen some fruits of memorisation in the subject that he teaches.
Let's say a framework is developed for an essay writing task, which the students use to write numerous essays based on it.
If a year later a similar essay needed to be written, the memory of the framework consolidated by the numerous practices the students have had would prove very useful.
The same is the case of students who develop sound writing skills, who nonetheless see no harm in understanding the underlying rules and structures of grammar, which memory helped to take a foothold in the first place.
Adopting this approach of a bit of a memorisation for understanding and conceptualisation to take off could be in the interest of both students and teachers.
Neupane is middle school coordinator, Kathmandu World School
A version of this article appears in the print on July 9 2021, of The Himalayan Times.