Thursday, February 24, 2011

Accuracy of memory and memorizing

Sometime ago, I interacted with some language teaching experts on the principles of language teaching.  When they said that, in the education system, at any given level in India, the examination tests only memory of reproducible content and that, given the importance the examination enjoys in the system, the entire teaching-learning enterprise is content-based and memory-oriented, I was in complete agreement with them.  But not with the antidote they proposed, which was: "Don't test memory at all."

I'll explain what they meant with a very simple example.  Let's suppose that one of the tests prescribed is Shakespeare's Macbeth.  If one of the questions in the examination is, "Why did Macbeth decide to kill Banquo and his son?"  it is invalid because it places a severe demand on the student's memory.  Instead, if at all you want to ask that question, give the relevant passage from the text in the question paper itself and then ask the question.  Or, make it a multiple choice question.

This seems to be an extremism to me.  If what the experts advocated is representative of how experts in testing think, the pendulum seems to be swinging too far away -- from a preponderance of memory to no memory at all! 

We must distinguish between accuracy of memory and memorizing.  The former is not just desirable but necessary and ought to be promoted.  Otherwise, we will have to suffer, in our everyday life, the embarrassment that Wiener, a famous mathematician, suffered.  Forgetting that he had changed his residence, he went back to his old house on an evening and didn't find his family there.  The neighbours gave him his new address.  He reached the area but couldn't locate the house.  Then he saw a girl in the street and asked her, "Excuse me, do you know where the Wieners live?"  "Oh, come on, Daddy," said the girl, "I'll take you home."

Wiener was an exception; his mind was preoccupied with mathematics.  But in the life of an ordinary person, negligence of memory will lead to decay of accuracy.  Bertrand Russell pointed to a greater danger: adults developing slipshod habits of mind and failing to notice distortions of facts which will have a sinister motive.  What needs to be discouraged, therefore, is not accuracy of memory but rote-learning – memorizing  something without thinking about it or trying to understand it.

It makes sense to say that, in language teaching, what is important is not the ability to remember the content of the set texts but the ability to communicate competently.  But communicative competence does call for accuracy of memory.

1 comment:

  1. This is valid not just for language teaching, but for all most every subject in schools and colleges as far as my bitter experiences as a student are concerned...