Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

Memorisation, Not Comprehension

Written by johnleemk on 5:13:02 pm May 14, 2007.
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There is a particular famous thought experiment in the field of computer science and artificial intelligence. Let us say that there is a machine which you can feed Chinese characters into, and can produce a string of comprehensible Chinese characters as an answer.

In essence, this machine is capable of carrying out a conversation in Chinese. Does this mean it can understand Chinese? Is it truly intelligent, or is it no better than the automatons we have today?

Of course we know that it is not intelligent at all. It is only capable of manipulating concepts already in its memory. It cannot learn to use new characters which it has never seen before, nor is it capable of, for example, composing an essay in Chinese.

But it is precisely this sort of automatons which Malaysian schools are churning out. Rather than emphasising understanding of the subject material, our schools are content with assuming that if you can remember and regurgitate something, you have understood it sufficiently to apply it.

It is one thing to memorise the steps in the scientific method. It is another to understand how you apply these steps to reach a new innovation in science. My father never understood the scientific method, despite having been able to memorise it. Politicians are sometimes fazed at why we aren't able to produce creative scientists — the answer is staring us straight in the face.

The sole object of our educational approach here is to get people to manipulate symbols. You see the phrase "scientific method", so you write down "The scientific method consists of formulating a hypothesis, bla bla bla..."

In form two, we were learning about how the Dutch colonised Malacca. When a friend of mine asked, "Teacher, who were the Dutch?" he was met with the response: "It isn't important — it's not in the exam." Students are expected to know what button to press when they see the word "Dutch" — they are not expected to have even a rough idea of what the Dutch are.

Even in things like mathematics, where you would expect people to understand the things they learn — because the only way to score marks in an examination is to apply what you have studied — it's not really clear that students understand the things they are taught.

Again, it comes down to manipulating symbols you don't understand. You may know that 2 + 2 = 4, but can you apply this concept? Mathematics in Malaysia is more about being able to look at a question, figure out what formula to use, and to then plug the numbers into that formula — without concern for whether you can use that formula in a novel situation.

This approach appears to dominate wherever you go in Malaysia. Even in college, the situation is almost the same — lecturers tell you how you are supposed to respond to a certain sequence of symbols.

The problem, of course, is that at higher levels of education, the deficiencies with this approach become rather obvious. Students become unable to cope with mathematics because they don't understand the different concepts — they keep having to memorise them, instead of understanding a few key concepts and deriving the rest from them.

And of course, when a new question asked in a novel style comes their way, they are completely lost. Last year for my final law exam, a question was asked along the lines of "Are judges sufficiently independent to interpret statutes so as to make law?"

If you are the type who parses symbols without understanding them, chances are you will take it as a question on the independence of the judiciary. If you actually understand what you were taught, you would correctly know that the question is about statutory interpretation.

(A substantial number of my friends made the mistake of blind memorisation, because that's all they know. Most of them are retaking that paper this year.)

Is the fault for this problem of memorising on the students? No — they are responding to the situation they are faced with, where if you don't memorise, you die.

In primary and secondary school, the only way to succeed is to memorise, is because you are tested with multiple choice questions. By the time you reach the level where you are faced with real structured and essay questions, your mindset is stuck in memorisation.

Is it the fault of the teachers? I don't think so — my college lecturers, for example, clearly know how to think, and they appreciate thinking approaches to the questions they set.

They just seem to have resigned themselves to dealing with unthinking students, because once you are stuck in the rut of memorisation, it's all but impossible to pull yourself out. So, the teachers go with the flow as well.

The fault is purely with our education system, which is aimed solely at creating the appearance of an education without actually educating. Students may look like they understand because they can produce the right answers come exam time, but when the exams themselves are set so that the only way to succeed is to memorise, how do you expect anyone to bother to understand?

The understanding student may know his stuff, but get only 70% on a multiple choice test. The memoriser may know nothing more than how to plug the right numbers into the formula and fill the blanks with the right words, but he can get 90% on that same test.

Who do you think would survive in our education system? Would the understander go the extra mile and memorise as well, or would he just screw it and either conform or give up?

Give both students a more subjective exam, such as a writing-based one, and who is the superior one will normally become very clear. But true subjective exams only make their appearance in Form Four — a bit late to develop the habit of understanding in our students. (And not to mention that this wouldn't solve the issue with mathematics or science.)

We keep wondering why our education system can't produce any brilliant thinkers or innovators, and why our crop of intellectuals is shrinking by the year. The answer lies in the fact that we are not producing students who think or understand — we are producing students who memorise and plug numbers into formulas.


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Infernal Ramblings is a Malaysian website focusing on current events and sociopolitical issues. Its articles run the gamut from economics to society to education.

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