The significance of memory and other skills in education

Following on from my previous post, How To Develop Memory For Musical Structures.

Memory is crucial in almost all areas of expertise

If you want to master any subject, Maths, Economics, Bowel Surgery, Gardening, Piloting a Plane,you can’t be spending your time looking stuff up. The patient may die before you’ve found the reference. An expert is completely familiar with vast tracts of a subject and can remember all of it without thinking.

Here’s an example. When I was at school, we learned times tables 1 – 12. I can still recite them now. I am expert in the multiplication of positive integers less than 12. As is almost anyone my age. Try that on your average 25 year old.

Any expert jazz player can rattle off 100 (1000 in New York) tunes in any key that you may care to call.

Other Key Skills

Along with memory, there is observation/recognition, the ability to see or hear what is going on, without having to stop and consider. For example, pick up the chords from a tune that you hear, identify a medical condition, recognize the form of an equation, know when dough has risen enough.

Then there are production skills, like carving stone, playing a solo, writing a book, designing a page, without having to stop and consider.

My father was an astrophysicist, and he would rattle off algebra fluently. He didn’t need to consider what the next line was going to say, it was obvious. He spoke algebra like a language. For mastery, production needs to be as fluent as walking or talking.

Then there are creative skills like writing a new piece of music, discovering some new physics, creating a recipe, discovering a new species.

And experts need to be able to think critically about what they have been taught, what they have heard and seen, and to arrive at their own opinions based on experience and the application of knowledge. This probably cannot be taught.

Education no longer aspires to Mastery

I believe that many schools and universities no longer aspire to educate people to attain mastery in any area of any subject. A vague familiarity, a faint flavor will do. I think you can complete your education now without having achieved any of the list of skills I mention above.

And when you leave, unless you continue to work or study in the field, the memory will fade of the subject in which you thought you had a qualification. Leaving you with not much to show for 16 or so years of education.

This is why much of the world has been taken over by geeks and nerds. They’re the ones who have taught themselves and each other all that they need to know. Despite their education rather than because of it. Steve Jobs may be the best example. There are millions more.

We expect little of our students and they gain little as a result. Education has become a process to keep kids off the street and out of the employment market for as long as possible.