Oh, the joy of high school. Wake up early, see the same people every morning and afternoon, eat less-than-tasty lunch, and memorize all sorts of information teachers deem important. On the day before a major test, most, if not all, students push themselves through the process of memorizing key names, dates, formulas, you name it, to do well.
Then, when these students proceed to college a couple of years later and do poorly on research tests like this, educators are surprised that students have forgotten all the disconnected information that school drilled in their heads.
Who will remember the name of the Cuban leader that Fidel Castro overthrew? Either someone whose teacher made a particularly big deal out of the Cuban Revolution – which is safe to say that not many do – or someone who is passionate about history, specifically Latin American history, and thus spent more time studying it. If someone tested me today on main historical facts, names and dates that I should have learned in high school, odds are I would correctly answer most literature-related questions but probably not Chinese-history-related questions.
Students remember information that they’re interested in and passionate about. They also remember information better if it is put into context. Students may remember that Castro overthrew Batista if they learn the many connections both leaders had with the US, and if they take the extra step to relate that revolution to ones in the present and compare the US’s actions then and today. Knowing one related historical event will help to remember the other.
Even if they forget Batista’s name but have a good understanding of the revolution’s effects on global economic systems (capitalism vs. communism) and international relations (America vs. Cuba and Latin America), I believe they have learned what’s most important. Names do not help a student think critically as much as well-connected historical events do.
When called out for not knowing the speed of sound, Albert Einstein said he did not “carry such information in [his] mind since it is readily available in books… The value of a college education is not the learning of many facts but the training of the mind to think.” This is especially relevant nowadays since all one has to do is search for the information on Google and it will immediately pop up.
Students may learn facts and figures in high school and eventually forget some of it, but it does not mean they will fail to learn critical thinking in college. There was a time when a student’s knowledge was weighed on the amount of memorized information absorbed, but this should no longer be the case.
Granted, pure memorization is sometimes needed, especially when learning mathematical formulas, countries and their capitals. However, this sort of information also needs to be contextualized to help students connect the dots between concepts learned.
The bottom line is, humans forget information that isn’t frequently used. The emphasis on the importance of memorization leads students down a cyclical path of learning and forgetting. Instead, classes should focus on critical thinking and real-world applications of subjects taught in school so a student feels comfortable in answering this common question: “How does this relate to my life?”