The Knowledge Illusion

The Knowledge Illusion


When I was growing up, my generation knew real learning.


We had 60 questions for math homework almost nightly, wrote book reports often, and were expected to memorize (seemingly) everything.


Quiz on all of the elements in the Periodic Table? Did it.

Recitation of multiplication tables aloud to the class? Often.

Writing out the Preamble of the Constitution- THE most important document to the formation of our country- Oh yeah!


When you got caught talking in class, how many of us had to copy pages from the dictionary or write 100 times “I will not talk in class” on the blackboard? Even our punishments were learning.

It was ALL learning!


Or was it?

Ponder that for a moment…..


60 questions for math……Why 60? 1 per minute? Does it fit nicely on a piece of paper? Why not 30, 20, or even 10? Why not 200? THAT would have demonstrated REAL learning; wouldn’t it? Whoa. Now, that would have been a little over the top; right?  60 isn’t? Why that number? Why did that number seem reasonable to a teacher and our parents when it seemed unreasonable to us?

Okay, book reports. Sure, kids had to practice writing, had to read, had to know how to communicate effectively even back then. Back in the good old days before computers made writing easier, we had typewriters, but we also wrote everything out by hand. That book report served a plethora of purposes. It made us tough…and knowledgeable.

But, what insights did a teacher get from those book reports? I have always loved to read and still do, but I hated book reports; except for designing the book report covers- that was fun!

What about the kid who hated reading? How worthwhile of an assignment was it for her? Of course, worth wasn’t in the minds of students. Or, I should say, it wasn’t considered. School was hard.


Hard=smart; right?



It’s a tough subject for me to remain objective about especially since this really gets to the heart of the matter.


Memorization can be vital.

Did I lock the door before going to bed?

Did I feed the baby?

How long must I stay at work before leaving?

What time must I leave in order to pick up my child on time; and from where?

What was his name again?
What other kinds of things get memorized?
Traffic signs, bathing schedules, routines, procedures for posting a blog and reading your email. Lots of procedures.

But, how many of these are truly memorized and not just habitual routines?


Some people may say memorizing The Periodic Table of Elements is akin to memorizing the states. They’re both important information (deemed by whom) that demonstrates useful knowledge. Useful to whom?


Memorization is an astounding feat and though the content may come in handy-for a test, neither will earn you anything beyond accolades on your memorization skills.


They’re both superficial knowledge and totally arbitrary.


Memorization of the multiplication tables is one of the very few old style memorization feats that I believe does come in handy-though I still don’t think it ought to be mandated. You are only going to want to count by 8s so long until multiplication starts clicking. Make it mandatory, benchmark it, and enforce time limits (through everyday classroom experience and on standardized timed testing) and it becomes a struggle; not a convenience.


My point in all of these examples is that most of what is taught in schools is arbitrary and lots of it will be forgotten soon after. The superficial knowledge of “knowing” the Periodic Table of Elements won’t morph into a lasting and useful knowledge unless you grow up to be a scientist or someone who appears on trivia television shows.


Why not memorize the parts of a faucet or tax laws instead of the circulatory system and definition of an adverb? Why is one more worthy than another? Which of these would be more handy in life?


Which might you really use?


We’ve gotten rid of much of the farmer’s skill set of planting, harvesting, and selling knowledge from the 19th century. Isn’t it time that schooling moved on to more intellectual understanding too?


Like (yet, unlike) the book reports using a blend of skill, why not add a sprinkling of more in-depth analysis, debate, and comparison in our classrooms? It would got a long way in honestly preparing our kids for life.


Some schools (mostly alternative) have caught on, but you’ll have to do your research to find them. You may or may not live within a 100 miles from such a place of learning, but they understand in many of these schools that general knowledge is fleeting and instead build upon the more in-depth kind of learning that traditional curricula bypass. Some homeschoolers are catching on too with the emergence of unschooling approaches, and the never ending frustration with following a boxed curriculum. Constantly purchasing a do-it-yourself kit isn’t the answer either.

What’s important to life and learning? 


Skills like research, debate, examining evidence, and so called “soft skills”  persistence, making choices, and dealing with failure cover every aspect of life and learning.


The best part of the evolution of learning?

Much of it gets done on your own competency time table and relates directly to your own passions and interests.



So, the next time you’re frustrated by your child’s inability to remember the dates of Pearl Harbor, the procedure to divide fractions, or the difference between dependent and independent variables, stand back and let him solve it. He may not find the most efficient solution or memorize the answer; but gradually he’ll catch on. And, if he really needs to know the answer often enough, he’ll memorize it.


Look beyond The Knowledge Illusion.

2 thoughts on “The Knowledge Illusion

  1. I respect your opinion, Howard, but I think the intention is to enable learning in the classroom to ALLOW FOR deep thought. Some people may ingest more knowledge by covering a broad range of topics with less depth though basic understanding, others may prefer to further explore less topics in more depth. Current time lines and benchmarks barely allow for the meeting of either student’s needs.


  2. There are people like me, who do not have a short term memory, and for whom, if it makes sense it goes straight into long term memory, and there are people who have pictorial or photographic memory, and for whom there seems to be less need to understand. I don’t think it possible to turn every kid into a deep thinker. However, I am in full agreement that cramming one’s brain full of “knowledge” up to the time of the test is a stupid and pointless waste of time.


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