Welcome to The Undercurrent

The Missing Link in Education

Kevin was a high school student returning to one of his middle school teachers for tutoring in biology. His assignment required that he memorize the process by which protein is synthesized: “‘Messenger RNA is synthesized by complementary base pairing with deoxyribonucleotides to match a portion of one strand of DNA called a gene. Subsequently, ribosomal subunits attach to the messenger RNA and amino acids are joined to form a polypeptide or a protein through a process called translation . . . ,’” and this went on.  Once they got through it, his former teacher shrewdly asked him “‘Kevin, what is a protein?’” As the owner of the middle school, Lisa VanDamme, put it: “Kevin had no idea.”

You’ve probably had this same experience. A teacher demands that you memorize the quadratic formula or the meaning of “covalent bond,” or “drovier,” and you comply without a clue as to the idea’s significance or a notion of when it could be useful. Kevin’s story illustrates a systemic problem in education today. At all levels, there are people—many of them educators—who regard parroting back crammed recitations as education, and the ability to do so as indicative of knowledge.

Since at least the 1950’s, the progressive education movement has sought to banish such parroting by drastically de-emphasizing subject-matter in education, disposing of both the problem and the purpose of education with one swing of the axe. Instead of teaching, progressive educators focus on socializing the child and on lessons “which make him an effective competent member of the group in which he is associated with others.”

Though some educators resist progressivism’s dominance and laudably go on teaching subject matter, most fail to avoid the problem that causes students to rely on rote memorization. Ben Orlin—a high school math teacher who was dismayed that his incoming class held math to be a mere game of call and response—characterized true comprehension as “building on already-known facts,” whereby, “connections emerge naturally from the material. The fact is no longer an isolated thread, held in place by a clever trick. It’s part of a tapestry. . . . when you learn a fact, it’s bound to others by a web of logic. It could be no other way.”

This “web of logic” account gets several important things right, but it fails to help students ground lessons and thereby truly comprehend them. It recognizes that you must build knowledge on top of earlier knowledge, and that therefore, lessons must follow a particular sequence. You can’t learn grammar before learning any words, algebra before arithmetic, or bio-chemistry before chemistry. You can’t study Greek tragedies before being able to understand Charlotte’s Web. Nor can you understand the causes of the French Revolution before grasping the concept of “government.”

But what’s missing in the “web of logic” model is a definitive connection back to reality. Thus, a teacher could utilize the “web of logic” approach to teach quidditch (the magical, competitive sport, from Harry Potter). The teacher might start by announcing something easily graspable, or at least memorable: “Matches are played between two teams of seven players riding flying broomsticks.” He would then weave a tapestry of ideas, steadily building from the basics of player positions and types of broomsticks to techniques for catching the golden snitch. The course would culminate with a supposed explanation of the physics of riding a broomstick. But no matter how obediently you memorize such lessons, any attempt at launching yourself into the air on a broom would land you with a mouth full of dirt. Though logically connected, the ideas don’t connect back to any evidence you can directly perceive.

Yet, many courses taught in today’s classrooms might as well be about quidditch. More often than not, such classes lack the same thing a supposed explanation of quidditch does—the starting point from which all knowledge arises: evidence.

You can memorize a claim without evidence, but you cannot understand it. And constantly memorizing in lieu of understanding can truly harm your thinking. After the typical twelve-plus years of memorization-heavy schooling, you could be worn down to regarding your teachers as authorities and the ideas they present—from pi to global warming—as true on the basis of that authority. Instead of learning how to test a hypothesis yourself, you may just ask Google, or The New York Times, or whichever arbiter seems most credible or convenient. You’d have learned to reach for and put total trust in someone else’s mind. Instead of being enlightened and empowered to understand and control the world around you, you’d be filled with the workings of dogma.

If this is you, then what you take to be the meaning of knowing could be mangled.

And if you let them, memorization and regurgitation will destroy your motivation and retention. How long do you think students like Kevin continue reciting their protein synthesis incantations after test day? If an idea makes no sense to you, if you can’t test it or use it, you probably will not consider it worth remembering.

The solution is to recognize that all knowledge must be connected to and built up from directly perceptible evidence. For instance, when you were a child, no one had to convince you of the existence of dogs. You saw a dog and perceived that it, whatever it was, was different from your parents and different from the ball that it chased. Upon seeing a second dog, despite its being different in every particular from the first, you grasped that the two were more alike than either was with your parents or the ball. You integrated the similarity into a single concept. You used memorization appropriately, thereafter recalling the sound and the word to refer to all such things as “dogs.”

At some point you grasped concepts of other things that you perceived, such as “person,” “bunny,” “bowl,” and “spoon.” This positioned you to see similarities between “dog,” “bunny,” and “person,” that make them more alike than any of them are to “bowl,” or “spoon.” Abstracting from a host of differences between dogs, people, and bunnies, you formed a concept that is further removed from direct perception: “animal.” Later, you followed this process onward and upward, grasping concepts even further removed from perception, such as “mammal” or “reptile.” Maybe you even went on to observe broader similarities and more minute differences, amounting to an in-depth knowledge of biology or zoology.

Building in this way, conceptual knowledge forms, not a sprawling, floating web, but a logical hierarchy that grows from a base of directly perceptible evidence to the highest levels of abstraction.

However, if there are missing links in your mind between abstract concepts (whether quidditch or messenger RNA) on one end and evidence on the other, then those concepts remain effectively disconnected from reality. And they’ll be essentially useless to you. Unaware of this hierarchical structure of knowledge, educators at all levels routinely introduce concepts without evidence and fail to connect new evidence back to concepts from earlier lessons.

If you seek the true power of an education, never accept ideas on authority or by default. Don’t allow the droll duty of memorization to erode your mind. Treat unfounded claims as the hypotheses they are. Demand evidence and follow where it leads.


Add Your Comments