Education And Testing

Education is that ill defined term that everyone knows what it is suppose to be but can’t seem to articulate.  After all, what makes any individual an educated person?  Should he be able to quote Shakespeare at length?  Perhaps he should be able to perform quadratic equations and multivariate statistical analysis.  Being able to discuss Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs might make him appear educated.  The debate on what makes a man or woman educated has raged over ten or twenty centuries with no conclusion in sight.  The Greeks thought the mastery of philosophy was the mark of an individual who could think clearly and thus was an educated man or woman.  The written word had come into being and Socrates thought it an obscene abomination for it replaced the memory with the written word.  Men would too easily forget what they knew and experienced if they could rely on libraries to store that knowledge that he thought rightly belonged in one’s head.  In a way, he was on to something for most of our present education is concentrated on memorizing information in order to pass a test.  We have decided that an educated man is one who possesses a piece of paper attesting that he has attended the correct number of classes the correct number of times and passed the correct number of tests with the minimum correct number of answers.

Long ago when education was supposedly the province of kings and princes, the educated ruler or pretender should be able to write adequate poetry, solve mathematical and geometrical problems, know some history, write well, understand philosophy and by extension politics, and a few other items of learning.  One learned Latin since most books were written in that language and one could carry on a rudimentary  conversation with another individual who did not speak your native tongue.  And until recently we believed that the Catholic Church was the guardian of learning.  It terns out that through the ages most of its priests and monks were illiterate.  Religious training was memorization of the bible and religious precepts.  The peasants required only a bit of show and tell to be content with their lot in life.  Memory has played a key role in the art of education and it still does.  But not for the reasons one would believe.

For instance, I read an article where the assertion by an idiot writer was that simplification was the order of the day.  The man proceeded to tell us that it is being able to strip away all the excess in thinking and present the idea in its simplest form.  His example was Einstein and how his seven years of work at the Swiss Patent Office had prepared him to do just that.  You see, there are hundreds of mathematicians who can do four dimensional geometry far better than Albert could but he was the one who could simplify the ideas to the theory of relativity, both special and general.  But what absurd nonsense.  Discovery in science is about recognizing new patterns, and that takes memory.  From the time you are an infant to the time you may graduate from the university you are engaged in pattern recognition.  From the time your mother pointer to an object with a brown vertical stick and a green blob on top and said, “Look at the tree”, you have been busy telling various trees apart.  Evergreen trees don’t look like deciduous trees.  Fruit trees tend to look different from oak trees as do populars and firs.  We recognize the difference in animals as we can see that there are differences between greyhounds and shepherds and setters.  We spend our lives awash in pattern recognition.  Our brains are full of images of all manner of things which we have categorized.

Einstein’s field of study was physics.  It didn’t take seven years to learn how to sum up the operating principle of an invention in one sentence.  It took a knowledge of basic physics.  He learned the basis for motion and energy.  Think about it, motion implies energy.  A body in motion stays in motion.  It’s a pattern.  And from the simple general principles we can construct combinations of motion and describe the various energies each uses.  True, the universe is not one giant collection of mechanical gears, cables, pulleys, and axles.  But for our purposes here on earth the ability to describe the earthly workings of our world it is a close enough analogy.  Think, for a minute, could you describe the operation of the automobile in one sentence?  I rather doubt it for it is a complex organization of parts.  On the other hand you might be able to explain the operation of a single transistor or even a grouping of two or three of them.  Complex devices are not covered by a single all encompassing patent, each part is patented.  Most of the work was already done for Einstein.  It didn’t take seven years to learn how to describe in one sentence how the thing worked.  Only a scientifically ignorant man believes in the complexity of that which he cannot break apart into basic units or motion and energy.  To him the world is a black box and its inner workings a miracle of god.

Education is really the learning, not just memorizing, patterns and being able to put them together into more complex patters or take them apart into more recognizable general patterns.  For some patterns rote memory is an advantage because one does not waste time reinventing the pattern every time.  All those drills in addition, subtraction, multiplication and division tables is important.  The patterns are establish in memory and enable the individual to further explore relationships quickly.  And we practice memorization through a number of exercises.  We memorize lyrics from songs, short poems, jokes, and trivia.  One must practice memory in order to be able to use it better in conjunction with other exercises.  If I were a young man a quarter of my age I would find it very fascinating to research memory and pattern recognition.  For example, take those matching games where pairs of visual objects are hidden and as one uncovers one object tries to find its match under another square.  No match?  Them cover both items and remove another square cover.  Notice that no long term memory is used, simply a short term temporary memory.  And there are tricks to this short term memory.  Most individuals can’t hold more than seven individual numbers in temporary memory.  Yet we can hold ten digit telephone numbers in short term memory simply by bunching some of the number together.  An area code os three digits and counts as on number unit.  The three digit exchange number is bunched into another number unit.  On the other hand, telephone number in Europe and Mexico are a little more difficult because the numbers are organized into doubles.

But the ability to memorize is not necessarily the ability to synthesize learning or discrete units of memory into broader categories of patterns.  One could memorize an entire paragraph of several sentences written in the French language without knowing its content.  On the other hand one could commit to memory Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and understand most, if not all, of its meaning and ramifications of historical reference.  If we wanted to test the recall of a multiplication table then having an individual do a series of simple multiplication problems will inform us whether the tables have been correctly learned.  But such a test will not tell us the degree to which that individual understands the interactions of the numbers and operations.  If we want to know if a student of history who has memorized Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address knows anything about the historical references then our best measure might be a series of essay questions.  Where is that battlefield and what military units were involved?  Why was a battle fought there and not closer to Harrisburg or Washington DC?  What was Lee’s purpose to travel so far north when most of his military actions had been in defence of northern Virginia?  And what does this testing tell us about education?

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