Throughout college and seminary I had to write “reflection papers” – reflecting on a particular topic, reading or discussion. Some of my peers and colleagues consider this the equivalent of “dumbing down” but I assure you Wellesley College was not a place that advocated the dumbing down of anything and I didn’t turn down a scholarship to Harvard Divinity School because I wanted to slack off. Reflection papers are hard work if you take them seriously.
The ability to memorize facts or remember formulas may be considered a sign of intelligence but it doesn’t necessarily lead to wisdom. When I studied statistics our final exam was an open-book test, you didn’t need to memorize any formulas. And still, it took six years before a single student aced that exam. Memorizing a formula will do no good unless you know when and how to apply it. Perhaps this is why so many people hate simple word problems – they haven’t really been used in a way that teaches us to think. You have 3 apples and I give you 1 — you don’t need to memorize that 3+1=4 but you do need to understand that when I give you an additional one, you need to add, and you need to know how to add. It’s not a question of memorizing the formula but of knowing which formula to use (e.g. addition instead of subtraction) and how to apply the formula.
We see the same problem in everyday writing and it has been repetitively joked about on social media for some time. There are so many people who don’t recognize their grammatical mistakes because they’re not able to understand the difference. (Do you recognize the there, their, they’re paradigm?) My friend, Becky, an English professor, might tell me that “there” is an adverb, pronoun, adjective or noun, that “their” is possessive, and that “they’re” is a contraction of they are. (She didn’t actually tell me this, I looked it up on the internet because I was never taught grammar and don’t know the rules. This is also obvious with my use of commas, but that’s another story!) Although I don’t know the grammatical rules, I do have some understanding of how to apply them. I understand that “there” is a general place, that “their” refers to something owned by more than one person, and that “they’re” means they are. I can’t tell you what the rules are and I don’t know the technical terminology but I know how to think about what I mean, analyze the usage, and apply the correct word (usually 😉 ).
As a teacher myself, I know that I have failed if I have done nothing more than to provide technical information. To paraphrase from one of my favorite quotes about education – I know that my students will forget much of what I tell them, they will remember more if I show it to them, but they will truly learn if I involve them in it by means of an activity.
A couple of my FB friends have recently posted an image of a box of crayons with the following quote:
Everyone is born creative. Everyone is given a box of crayons in kindergarten. Then when you hit puberty they take the crayons away and replace them with dry, uninspiring books on algebra, history, etc. Being suddenly hit years later with the “creative bug” is just a wee voice telling you, “I’d like my crayons back, please.” — Hugh McLeod
Instead of trying to fill empty minds with empty facts, we might do well to force those minds to become involved, let them keep their crayons, inspire them to learn, analyze, create, reflect on the information, rather than just memorize and repeat it.
Reflection papers were a way to do this. Here are your crayons and here is the topic. I’m not going to tell you what you need to know or show you where the important parts are. Instead, I want you to go and engage with it, wrestle with it, figure out what it means (in its own context, in your context, and in a larger context).
Does any of this matter for our future? Yes, because history is doomed to repeat itself, not necessarily because we don’t remember but because we don’t understand, we don’t know how to analyze, interpret and apply the lessons to our current situation. Until we learn that, we will continue to repeat the mistakes of history over and over and over again. And what’s worse, we will continue to raise generations who will become mere automatons rather than thinking individuals – the dumbing down of our entire world.