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Two basic questions about education

  1. Dec 8, 2011 #1
    1. Human mind is fundamentally bad at remembering meaningless information. Even those who memorize thousands of digits of pi relate sequences of numbers with stories or other meaningful information. Why there's so much memorization in our education system?

    2. Human mind, once again, fundamentally feels pleasure when it understands something. The more you know, the deeper you know, the bigger the pleasure of understanding. Hence, learning gives pleasure. Why our education system is based on forced learning and on punishments?
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  3. Dec 8, 2011 #2

    Simon Bridge

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    1. Because you have to know some stuff before you can learn others. Try teaching reading and writing and basic arithmetic without any memorization. As the student progresses, the teaching concentrates more on inquiry and understanding and less on rote knowledge. You also have to know about stuff before you can understand it. Understanding of the previously rote-learned knowledge gains depth from the newer understanding.

    2. Because that is how humans learn what not to do. I don't think that is a fair characterization of education systems in general - remember: you are in an international forum - the coercive aspects that exist are usually a very small part of the overall system.

    By the same token, we could ask, "Why is so much of our society coercive at all?" After all, humans naturally feel good when they are nice to each other right?
    In fact, Bruce Schneier has just finished a book about how it is that most people are nice, some are bad guys, and how communities have evolved to deal with this.

    Of course - in some societies the structures are there for historical reasons - perhaps they had some holy book tell them that to spare the rod was to spoil the child or that everyone was naturally a sinner and needs extreme threats to act in a moral way?

    It's complicated.
  4. Dec 8, 2011 #3
    also, memorization is important because it allows you to focus on the more important things. after a while it just becomes second nature. it would be hard to do a lot of math if you didn't have certain things memorized, like properties of various operations. you could do it, it would just require way more work and slow you down.

    and people get pleasure out of doing different things. some people hate reading. some people hate math. they don't get pleasure out of it. so people have to force them to learn, and hope when they get older, they'll have found pleasure in it. but often they don't. working in a tutor lab, i see a lot of people struggling with this stuff. i try to get them to think of math problems as fun puzzles to solve.
  5. Dec 8, 2011 #4
    Yes, you do need to know things, "like properties of various operations". The point is how do you know it. Do you just remember it as a meaningless fact, that you simply believe? Or do you understand the motivation, have an intuitive idea why it is true? Looking at the physical brain, in some sense it's the difference between small, disconnected neural networks and neural networks that are connected with a lot of everything else. Disconnected neural networks get destroyed sooner or later, hence we forget it. Our unconscious brain knows it's useless anyways, hence it dumps it, so how don't we ourselves understand it?

    The fact that a lot of people hate reading and math is not the reason of forced learning, it's the consequence. Learning and pleasure is a kind of antonyms in most people's head. Which, I believe is completely wrong, because I believe everyone can enjoy learning, it's just a matter of which subject they would like the most. There's infinite variety of subjects, for anyone's taste.
  6. Dec 8, 2011 #5
    The human mind isn't bad at all at remembering meaningful information though. Even in history, it isn't the dates per se that are important, but the grand flow of human events up until the present. Dates just give us an easy way to put things in context.

    I question that it is based on punishments, but it is forced because children cannot be expected to know what is in their best interest. If you give a child a choice between going outside to play or learning arithmetic, I would actually worry somewhat about any child that chose arithmetic.

    Once grown up, children are given more freedom about their academic choices, including the choice to not learn anything.
  7. Dec 8, 2011 #6
    Some things are just set by definition, though, and there really isn't much you can do to understand except that it is such by definition. Matrix multiplication: why do you multiple the elements of the rows in the first matrix by the elements of the columns in the second matrix and then add the product together for a single entry in the new matrix? You just do.
  8. Dec 8, 2011 #7

    Simon Bridge

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    Now you are branching into epistomology - but you were asking about education and pedagogy. That is about how to teach someone something - different topic.

    And I told you - there exist some things, like the structure of your language, the symbols sounds and meanings of established labels, these things you start out just having to accept on pragmatic grounds: everyone is using them that way. As you use these to learn more and more you gain an appreciation of them and how they came to be.

    You don't gain this all in one go.

    Nope - things are more complicated than that. It used to be that we did not force education on our populations - in those days most children were sent out to work as soon as they could walk and girls did not get an education beyond housework at all. In some countries this is still the case.

    This is a subject of social policy ... why do we insist on a particular set of things that everyone must learn? We do this because they are useful things to know - and we have a better society for having a large number of people knowing them - different societies will include some as useful that others do not.

    What you have brought up is a very big topic - too big to cover comprehensively in a small forum like this. You will always be able to find something to object to in the explanations you get this way unless you can narrow your question down - what is it you are interested in?
  9. Dec 8, 2011 #8
    1: I work in education in the UK. There has been a paradigm shift away from remembering "stuff" into a model where the skills underpinning knowledge and understanding are more important important.

    2: As the education system also has to produce valuable members of society that understand that actions have consequences and that there are boundaries to operate within.
  10. Dec 8, 2011 #9
    Look at some children - their infinite sequence of questions Why? Children are interested, children would be interested in learning, they would like it, they would easily choose learning instead of going outside to play. Why they don't choose it this way right now? Because going outside = playing = pleasure, while learning = duty = suffering in their heads. And it's a consequence of our method of presenting learning, not because of an inherent brain's property.

    Yes, there are a lot of definitions. But they don't occur randomly, they don't just fall from the sky. They've been invented by other human minds, and there's a lot of motivation for them. There are very important reasons for why matrix multiplication is exactly the way it is, I have no doubt. One reason I particularly know it's because this way, the matrix of the linear map that is a composition of two linear maps, is just the product of those two linear maps corresponding matrices. Hence it somehow depends on the properties of linear maps, which somehow depend on many other things. There's sequences of motivation for anything, and it's the most important, useful and interesting part of learning, which is omitted.

    Similarly, the structure of the language did not fall from the sky randomly. It was invented by the human mind, and the question is, why it was invented exactly this way? That there's no obvious and primitive answer does not allow one to say "that's just how it is".

    Education is important. Learning is important. I'm just saying that our approach should be to motivate children, to get them interested. The world is interesting, hence science about it is interesting, it's just presented very badly.

    Yes, it is a very big topic, and a very important one. The society gets a lot of damage for the errors in our education system. My main point of writing here is to simply motivate people to think about our education system, to look at it critically, to stop the "well, that's just the way it is".
  11. Dec 8, 2011 #10

    Vanadium 50

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    If you replace the word "memorization" with the word "remembering" then it doesn't look so bad.
  12. Dec 8, 2011 #11


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    Why do you consider memorization to be such a bad thing?? It is absolutely necessary to our understanding of the world. Try to go shopping without having your times table memorized.

    It is true that teaching today doesn't motivate enough. But the sad things is that children are just no ready for it. Children can only grasp abstract arguments at a certain age (about 14 if I'm not mistaken). So if a child asks why (-1)*(-1)=1 or "how do magnets work?", then it is very hard to explain to them in terms they can understand (impossible even). Children are not ready for these things. But still, they have to be able to manipulate negative numbers. So the solution is to let them memorize it. The understanding will come later.

    The reason that children have such a hard time with math (including me when I was young), is because math is so enormously abstract and nonintuitive. It takes a lot of time and effort to really get something in math. It takes more than a year to get children know the times table!!!! Math is not something for children, but they still got to know it.
  13. Dec 8, 2011 #12

    Andy Resnick

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    My thoughts:
    1) Memorization, like anything else, is neither good nor bad- some professions require large amounts of factual recall, some don't. It's important to memorize the 'rules of the road' if you drive a car. Spelling correctly is also largely memorization.

    2)Unfortunately, there are lots of people (not my students!) who recoil in abject horror when faced with knowledge that contradicts what they presume to be true- most people are content to know as little as possible. The term 'forced learning' is not based in any reality- one cannot force another to learn, just as one cannot force another to undertake a particular action. The educational system, like any other system, has both punishments and rewards to encourage a particular kind of behavior- what that behavior is depends on the particulars of the instructor and classroom environment.
  14. Dec 8, 2011 #13

    Simon Bridge

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    There has been a fashion to be down on memorization and rote learning. But this is also called learning "by heart". A good memory is useful, so training it up is a good idea.

    That said, there are many ways to learn stuff, and there has been a move in the last decade to shift from information-based lessons to meta-skills and inquiry learning. As MrB8rPhysics tells you - this is a global trend in pedagogy. There is also a lot more kinesthetic learning these days.

    There are no perfect education systems - whatever is chosen will be broken in some way. Pedagogy is an area of active research. Constantly questioned and changed. There is no "that's just how it is" in it.

    There are many teachers who will rote-teach where it is possible to use another method. Now - if you have a particular path through learning that requires less coercion and less memorization, that is fun for students, then by all means let us know: I'm sure we are all ears! Meantime, rest assured, there are many many people thinking about this, trying different ideas out, and constantly working to improve the education systems of the World.
  15. Dec 9, 2011 #14
    I have no doubts that many people are thinking about this, many people understand that something is wrong, and many people are trying to change something. But there are also a lot of students who could enjoy learning, studying, if only they had an idea that learning can actually be enjoying. It's not told to them, it's not shown to them in a lot of cases (not in all of them, of course!).

    I was a highly unmotivated, unambitious student myself. I was kept told that learning is my duty, and I must do it. I didn't do it until I found out that learning can actually be enjoying.

    Hence, first of all, it should be shown that learning is actually enjoying, interesting and it can give a lot of pleasure. And ONLY then it can be shown that you need to work hard, etc. Right now, in a lot of cases, the first part is omitted.
  16. Dec 10, 2011 #15
    I don't know where Obis is from but everyone should know the story of "Brazilian Physics" that Feynman tells in "What Do You Care What Other People Think".

    Basically, on a visit to Brazil, he goes to a school where the students stand and recite physics for him. At the end of it he asks them questions about the real world, which they should be able to answer based on what they recited. They can't. They have memorized all kinds of definitions and have no idea how any of it applies to anything. They can't analyze any real life physics situations. The whole thing is rote memorization for them. That is how their school system is set up. The same is probably true in many other countries.

    People don't have trouble remembering things that mean something to them. Teachers resort to reward and punishment for rote memorization because they have no idea how to make things significant to the kids. When significance precedes learning, a rare thing, kids practically teach themselves.
  17. Dec 10, 2011 #16
    As for the first one, the reason for it is ... wait what was the question?
  18. Dec 10, 2011 #17
    Most of education is memorization.

    understanding can be facilitated but not taught. You can lead a horse to water...
  19. Dec 10, 2011 #18
    This is what I'm talking about.

    For twelve years in high school we learn "mathematics". In the end we know a bunch of equations, a bunch of algorithms for particular types of problems, everything is disconnected from each other, there's no motivation behind anything, just meaningless collections of symbols, which you simply remember (with many flaws).

    But we have no idea what IS mathematics, what is it that mathematicians do, what are the questions raised in mathematics, what's the motivation of mathematics?

    This way, mathematics is completely misunderstood. Many people, who could enjoy mathematics, do not get interested in it. I was one of them myself. I had no interest in mathematics in high school, I applied to physics, then reapplied to mathematics two years after, when I finally understood what IS mathematics? Now I see it as an art, the best moments in my life were when I understood some fundamental idea, including those of mathematics.

    On the other hand, some people get very good at blindly manipulating symbols, they are considered good at mathematics, hence, they apply to mathematics. Then, in the university, they see that mathematics is a completely different thing. They are asked to be able to prove theorems. The proofs involve a relatively simple idea, that even a person with no interest in mathematics could understand it. However, they are written in a formal mathematical language, and not many people know how to read that, not many people know that there's something behind all the symbolic mess, hence they simply memorize the proofs, symbol after symbol. Is that interesting to them? Is that useful to them? Will they make a career out of this?

    Current education system ruins people's lives (no, not everyone's). I just can't stand it.
  20. Dec 10, 2011 #19

    Simon Bridge

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    Feynman's Brazil experience was due to pressure on the school system to produce graduates in exams. Memorization and drills are very fast compared with experience, and the exams failed to pick that up. The suggestion that it was teacher ignorance that caused the situation is an over-simplification.

    Whenever you have a state exam system, you will get lessons being taught to those exams, so the exams need to be carefully written. It is very difficult to consistently and impartially exam for skills and understanding rather than knowledge.

    Teaching needs to cover a balance of skills, meta-skills and rote information. But again: the discussion moves to questions of policy. I think the questions in post #1 have been answered.
  21. Dec 10, 2011 #20
    I get the feeling you, and some of the other respondents, are biting a bullet.
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