Thursday, August 09, 2007

The secret to academic success depends as much on our ability to forget as it does on our ability to remember. In our department, we do everything we can to help our kids remember: we provide lecture notes the kids can follow along while we lecture, like a monotone karaoke session; we insist they copy points we flash off our so-carefully prepared PowerPoint slides; we lace our lectures with facts galore because we worry that the kids don't know anything so it's up to us to fill their empty jars, ignite their unlighted candles or whatever turns us on. I wonder if all that effort we put in is actually counter-productive to what we want the kids to do at their exams?

The way we put so much importance on our lectures and the supporting materials therein presupposes that there is only one way to view an issue -- our way. So the kids get the impression that if they can recall what they have heard in lecture, or study their notes, essay outlines and compre answers we so conveniently upload for them online, that's all they'll need to get by in GP (or any other subject they take, actually).

Wrong. If that's their study strategy, all the kids are doing is taking in particular answers for particular questions, and heaven help them if during the exam the questions they prepared for don't appear; or worse, if they identify a question as similar to what they have prepared for but isn't actually asking for the same thing.

That's why the kids need to learn how to forget. Forgetting doesn't mean the information gets irretrievably lost. It's more of a coping mechanism to deal with information overload. It's a skill that allows us to distill the relevant through filtering out the irrelevant. It's an ability to take in what is taught, but break it all down to differently-shaped, differently-sized, multi-coloured Lego bricks. Of course, the more pieces, the more options, the more flexible their design structures can be, the more questions they can answer, hence the need to read beyond the lecture as well. So instead of memorizing a single monolithic structure per topic, they're amassing a pile of random playing pieces that they can put together in different combinations, forming different structures as necessitated by the different questions they have to solve.

For me, an ideal lecture would entail full engagement between lecturer and kids. No notes, nothing to copy, but everyone listening and asking questions as the need arises. Give the kids lecture notes, they don't have to listen to the lecturer since they already have the notes. Make them copy and they will neither be listening nor engaging 'cos they'll be too busy scribbling. We just need to expose the kids to information (structure is more important for the lecturer than for the audience), allow them to interact with or otherwise use the information to generate new knowledge, but as soon as the lecture is over, forget everything. That is, break up the impressive Lego structure that the lecture has constructed, rendering the information back into its component pieces, then throwing all the pieces onto the pile ready for use in the near future. Recalling that one has seen a Lego elephant someone else has built doesn't mean being able to build it for oneself as the need arises.

When it comes to the exam, the kids need to pull various pieces from the pile as appropriate to the question, and construct their answers accordingly. Doing it this way means the kid has to consider which Lego pieces go best together in what combination in order to present the best answer.That's exercising thinking and creativity, and taking personal responsibility for the choices they make as they construct an answer to their question -- and that's the point of the exam. And that's the kind of thinking individuals we want our kids to be when they graduate.

Ultimately, we want to hear the kids' own voices come through the answers they construct. We would like to see some passion for the topic and that they are writing about an issue they personally care about. Last thing we want is to hear our voices echoed (more often than not, badly) back at ourselves. So don't. Forget what we lecturers tell you because that's just one very limited perspective from just one angle of just one issue relevant to just one question. Lectures are only the packaging that we use to dress up the information we're giving to you.

Any kid can tell you, nobody plays with an unwrapped Christmas pressie. That's dumb 'cos what's inside is a whole lot more fun to play with. As beautiful as the wrap may be, the joy of Christmas is ripping into the package, discarding the tattered remains and extracting the toy inside for yourself. Congratulations! You are now the proud owner of yet another bunch of Lego fragments to add to your collection. Have fun at the exams!

There's a Psych paper on this idea of selective remembering and forgetting (which I've bastardized and oversimplified above). Just skip to the conclusions on page 7 if the reading gets too heavy! Or read Psychology Today's Camille Chatterjee for her comments on the same paper.

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