Philosophy of Learning – Memorization

לְקַיֵּם – (to uphold, establish, preserve) memorization and recollection.

Parallel to the development of Greek philosophy is the exploration of how human beings learn. The Greek poet Simonides is credited as the inventor of mnemonics, any learning device that aids in the retention of knowledge. Using mnemonics one trains the brain to retain information that a person acquires. For the use of knowledge, memorizing for a test is not enough, retrieving the memories later and in different contexts is the necessary second element. Mnemonic devices help a person recover the information from their memory. The spelling of the word “tomorrow” is a lesson from the primary grades accessed using a simple mnemonic to remember one “m” and two “r’s” in the word:  tom-or-row, which are three simple, common words.

As the body of knowledge grew, more elaborate forms of retention were developed such as “memory palaces” where the person would create an imaginary building with rooms. In each room the person would tag books or objects with individual facts, concepts, or ideas. By perusing the room later, the fact finder would go to the object and retrieve the tagged information. Spelling Bee contestants use a sophisticated form of this palace memory complete with Latin roots, rules for spelling grammar and of course, reams of words.

Not for centuries but for millennia, intelligence and competence have been judged on the amount of knowledge a person could digest and regurgitate. Chinese bureaucrats had to pass incredibly detailed exams of memorized lists to attain a post. As recorded in the Talmud, rabbinic students had to be able to identify any verse in the Hebrew Scriptures by the first three words in a verse, which is the convention used in the Talmudic and Midrashic texts when quoting a biblical verse. These mental athletes had intimate access to vast reams of information.

We are living in a time of exploding information expansion. In the sciences we double our knowledge every two years, which means that by the time a science major reaches his third year of college, half of what he learned the first two years is out of date. Nonetheless, the need for quick recall of data or its storage site is still critical. Students have to memorize more and more while jettisoning what has become invalid or irrelevant.

Search engines are not a substitute for memorization and recollection. “I will just google it” is a vast improvement over reference sections of libraries; however, the task of looking up data is not on par with knowing the material, retrieving it from memory, and manipulating the points of data to address a new issue or problem. Using internet search engines is not a substitute for memory.

Memorizing is tedious. Whether one is using flash cards or flipping the page back and forth or scrolling up and down, memorization takes time and concentration. Memorization and recollection are primary goals of homework. Homework is boring because one is learning to retain the material that will be manipulated in new ways in the next chapter, whether one is studying history or biology or reading good fiction. The previous chapters’ information inform the next chapter and the next chapter reinforces the chapters that came before.

Be forewarned – if we do not practice our memory after all of the effort to retain it, the information will fade and become irretrievable. The condescending retort “I have forgotten more in my lifetime than you will ever learn” is both a jab and a lament.

Philosophy of Learning – Practice Wisdom

לַעֲשׂוֹת – (to do, to make) learn by doing, practice wisdom

The imprecise world of Social Work science places a heavy emphasis on continuous reflection upon past experience. In their terminology this constant review with a supervisor of the past week’s sessions is called “practice wisdom” and it is a necessary component in the Social Work field. Every discipline and almost every job has practice wisdom, learning to do what cannot be taught in the classroom. Even the janitor learns how to wield a broom and mop to reach the tightest corners – this is practice wisdom too.

The peculiar nature of practice wisdom is that it is untestable. In the U.S.A. system of Social Work licensing, a social worker cannot advance to supervisor or higher without a Master’s Degree and a licensing test for the LCSW (Licensed Clinical Social Worker). For many states the LCSW is taken at a computer center and it is multiple choice. Professors warn their students to take the test as close to finishing the Master’s Degree as possible. The warning is because the test only covers what is taught in school and the candidate can be easily tripped up by practice wisdom that tends to deviate from classroom study. Imagine failing a test because you know too much rather than too little.

Practice Wisdom is often described as learning by doing. This is not the haphazard method of experimenting but the application of known knowledge to confirm its soundness and to continue forward. Practice wisdom is act, review, correct, and then act again.

Long time drivers use practice wisdom when they are focused on their driving. They anticipate probable behaviors of other vehicles and even identify potential problems ahead before they approach too close. A new driver is still far too aware of pedals on the floor, three mirrors, on-going and on-coming traffic, and turn signals to be able to see some of the involved traffic patterns. By definition bad drivers do not recognize traffic patterns or usual driver behaviors, learning nothing about their own defensive driving. A good driver is not about the number of hours behind the wheel but the number of hours in the driver’s seat focused on driving.

The difference between repetition and practice wisdom is the use of focus and formal review. In the famous or infamous text “How to Win Friends and Influence People”, one of the outstanding examples is of the wealthy businessman who stayed home on Saturday nights reviewing and identifying every mistake made during the last week as a painful but necessary ritual. Dale Carnegie was describing a man who used practice wisdom to attain success in his business.

No one likes to review their mistakes. None enjoy having another examine their work, looking for weaknesses and offering suggestions of different methods that lead to better outcomes. Criticism, even constructive criticism, is uncomfortable and yet practice wisdom is the commodity we use to gain promotion, attract better clients and write better. College degrees are a great foundation but practice wisdom is the method of advancement.

Philosophy of Learning – Practice

לִשְׁמֹר – (to keep, to guard, to observe) to practice or practice with repetition

Baseball or violin, the mantra a student hears from the first lesson is “practice, practice, practice.” What can be acquired by all of the other methods of learning is temporary unless the student practices the knowledge. Third graders memorize lists of vocabulary and take spelling tests while reciting their multiplication and division tables. Successful students of foreign languages learn from the get-go that the only way to conquer the material is to practice the vocabulary and the grammar every day. When studying for a quiz in a foreign language, students who study one hour the night before will do worse on the test than those who study ten minutes every day for six days before the quiz. The repetition of the material over time trains the mind, making a qualitative difference in the knowledge mastered and retained.

Most of us advance in our careers by expanding and deepening our skill sets. Writers have to write every day just as soldiers need to drill every day. Supervisors learn basic management skills and when they are mastered, these employees advance to the level of director. Practice is a long, laborious process that requires hundreds or thousands of hours. There are no shortcuts to becoming a master chef.

Some people are blessed with a tremendous amount of natural talent. However, all of that talent is only potential knowledge or art. The great talents of this world had to actualize their gifts with same rigor and drive as those with lesser gifts. Some claim that with great natural ability comes greater responsibility to fulfill the potential. The strongest can run faster but only if they rise to practice at that high level and maintain their regimen. The Julliard School is not for artistically talented students; the school is for talented students who match their potential with the drive and commitment to learn the depth of their gifts. The drive to practice or the lack of drive, often levels the playing field of potential success.

Practice is boring. When a student complains that school is boring (baring institutional dysfunction), the student is complaining that he or she does not want to learn by practicing. Fortitude is a necessary component of learning by practicing. Everyone whines about practicing, it is natural and healthy to acknowledge what is not fun. The successful ones still complain but then go back to work.

Knowledge does not come cheap nor do the valuable kernels come easily. Human knowledge is vast and fascinating but all of this understanding is inaccessible to any person who cannot sit down and practice.

Philosophy of Learning – Teaching

לְלַמֵּד – (to teach) teaching

For as large as a role teaching plays in the history, the present, and in the future of humanity, the word itself as few synonyms. One can instruct, educate and coach. Most of the other possibilities bring other ideas and concepts into the definition of teaching such as imbue, infuse, impress upon, implant and instill. Some hope to broaden a student’s horizons or open their minds or even beat some sense into them. With these diffusion of ideas of the nature of teaching, teaching is a method of learning is hard to assay. The regional colloquialism “I’m gonna learn that boy somethin’” conveys more self-righteous indignation and anger than love of learning. (For non-native American English readers, the deliberate misuse of teach/learn is a statement of emphasis.) To understand the method called teaching, one does not need all of these ornaments. Teaching, which in its core definition of transmitting knowledge to those who do not have the knowledge, is one of the most potent and enduring methods of learning.

As every instructor of teachers has warned me: “You may think you know but until you have to teach it, you really don’t know the material.” Preparing a lesson plan is not a simple task of jotting down a quick outline and rushing off to class. The facts and the points of argument have to be verified as correct and in context. Point by point have to be confirmed as flowing in a comprehensible order. Then the plan has to be evaluated for clarity, reasonableness, goals, and after all of this due diligence, the teacher has to ask if the plan has a good chance of succeeding.

To teach one has to learn the material again. This time the student has to focus closely, determine the hierarchy of information points and the strength of connection between the points. The teacher has to be ready to address such questions as “why are igneous rocks important?” and “when am I ever going to use quadratic equations in real life?” Who, what, when, why and how may be points that a journalist ticks off when writing an article but for the teacher, these questions define the totality of the lesson. As a mere student, one gets to ask the question, but as a teacher/student, one has to ask and answer these questions in a thorough and convincing manner.

The best of teachers have lesson plans that fail. A teacher looks into the faces of students and notes the look of profound boredom and the furrowed brow of incomprehension. There are skills of classroom management and behavior modification processes, but teaching is still an art. No one is born a teacher, every teacher has to practice. There is more than one way to teach a concept, a fact or a process and there is no easy way to determine the best method to teach that lesson.

Learning and teaching go hand in hand when one commits to passing down knowledge. The two methods of learning become a dance of informing, deflating, and confirming each other. For some there is no higher calling than teaching and in terrible contrast, teaching is one of the most denigrated and underpaid professions in the United States. Is it a wonder why the nation worries that our education system is failing?

Philosophy of Learning 1

How do we learn?  (or how did the Common Core curriculum, written by some smart people, miss the mark so widely?)

The Jewish world has a particular set of ideas of what is learning that are encapsulated in the morning service a Jew is supposed to recite every day. In our day where the methodologies of learning are changing with technology and global economy, this Jewish approach argues that the act of learning is still the same. Moreover, this particular approach to learning is more comprehensive and (one would hope) more effective than the methods being applied in public school curricula and often in college level curricula. For the non-Hebrew reading person, not knowing Jewish liturgy or Hebrew is not an obstacle for understanding the points this essay but my argument demands I reference the source text in the original:

וְתֵן בְּלִבֵּֽנוּ לְהָבִין וּלְהַשְׂכִּיל, לִשְׁמֹֽעַ, לִלְמֹד וּלְלַמֵּד, לִשְׁמֹר וְלַעֲשׂוֹת וּלְקַיֵּם אֶת כָּל דִּבְרֵי תַלְמוּד תּוֹרָתֶֽךָ בְּאַהֲבָה..

“. . .and You have placed in my heart the ability to understand and discern, to hear, to learn and to teach, to observe and to do, and to uphold all the words of learning of Your Torah with love.”

The Hebrew above is a phrase taken from the morning service. The blessing is Ahavah Rabba (“With Great Love” has God given us. . .) from the Shemah and Its Blessings קריאת שמע section. Buried in this ancient text is a philosophy of how we learn that is very different from the mainstream of Western Thought that begins with Socrates and his foundational ideas (e.g. the Socratic Method). Jewish learning enters into the Western Canon at various points in time and a student will recognize the methods. The uniqueness encapsulated in this blessing is the number and depth of the approaches.

Unusual in Jewish history, all of the earliest versions of this blessing all agree on this text. There are no variants (Ismar Elbogen “Jewish Liturgy”). The blessing is first mentioned in the Babylonian Talmud (Berachot 111b) although not all of its contents. Centuries later among the various written sources that stretch from Babylonia to the north coast of Africa through Spain and Europe continuing on to Russia, all extant prayer books or commentaries use the same wording for this sentence. Recognize that this exact wording remained intact over both thousands of kilometers and a thousand and a half years.

If from our most ancient available sources there is unanimous agreement, then it follows that this philosophy of learning was not only accepted but it was practiced. The opposite of controversial, this philosophy was concrete and confirmed through use. The Talmud has expansive examples of all sorts of methods of learning, including climbing a tree and hiding in the leaves to memorize Bible passages that the students were supposed to have already committed to memory (the art of procrastination). For quick access, the Talmud is unwieldy. The prayer book reduces a great deal of belief and learning that Talmud aggregated into an easily accessible daily repetition. This partial sentence on learning is one of those well done, concise reductions.

According to this blessing, learning and the love of learning is a gift from God. Rabbis are lifelong learners first and foremost; they are scholars. The ideal for them is “Let your house be a meeting place for the Sages, and sit amid the dust of their feet, and drink in their words with thirst.” (Pirke Avot 1.4 though the quote is earlier, 2nd century BCE). In the rabbinic mind, if one receives a gift from God, then one is obligated to make the gift orderly and use it. This line in the blessing is the rabbinic presentation of the elements of learning.

There are eight methods of learning, which I will translate literally in parenthesis and contextually in modern parlance afterward:

  1. לְהָבִין – (to understand) comprehend/analyze concepts or abstraction
  2. לְהַשְׂכִּיל –(to discern) common sense
  3. לִשְׁמֹֽעַ – (to hear) active listening
  4. לִלְמֹד – (to learn) book learning
  5. לְלַמֵּד – (to teach) teaching
  6. לִשְׁמֹר – (to keep, to guard, to observe) to practice or practice with repetition
  7. לַעֲשׂוֹת – (to do, to make) learn by doing, practice wisdom
  8. לְקַיֵּם – (to uphold, establish, preserve) memorization and recollection.

To clarify any misunderstanding, these eight approaches are not types of knowledge. Knowledge (דעה) is an entire philosophy unto itself. These eight methods lead to knowledge.

In the next essay I will explain each of the eight methods as I develop this idea into an article. At first glance does this presentation make sense?

P.S.: I am so impressed that WordPress can publish a foreign alphabet.