Memorization vs. Understanding is really Breadth vs. Depth

Sunday August 5, 2012

It is more difficult to think and communicate about things without names. Almost always, when learning something it is helpful to attach useful language. Importantly, by far the more time-consuming task is the understanding of the concept, not the learning of the term. For any given learning then, there is no real advantage to avoiding the details of terminology.

For example, students could in theory learn about evolution without learning the term "evolution" - but it would not be a better way to learn. Students could learn about a president's decisions without learning the president's name - but again, this would not be an improvement.

It is possible to memorize terms without fully understanding underlying concepts, and even if this allows a student to pass a poorly-designed exam, it is clearly not an admirable learning goal. If there are a very large number of things to learn, however, it may seem that there is only time for learning their names.

Memorizing terms alone is not a complete education. But the apparent alternative, somehow learning without learning terms or details of place and time, is not a strong alternative. We should embrace the language that accompanies learning. It may be that we need to focus on a smaller corpus to allow time for deep understanding, but that understanding will not live long without the words to discuss it.

This post was originally hosted elsewhere.