"From the mouths of babes..."
This just shows the value of listening to students... especially those who are craving challenge to better prepare them for their future, rather than for our past.
Pop quiz. What's the capital of Bolivia?
While waiting for tardy clubs to show up to an orientation for Spring Fling last week, my roommate wondered aloud the same question.
He was sure I would know the answer. I spent a semester in Bolivia's neighbor, Chile, and my concentration in my international studies major is Latin America.
I didn't know it off the top of my head. Thirty years ago, I would have seemed unprepared and unknowledgeable. A fraud for saying I know about South America.
Instead, I took out my Blackberry, went on Google, and came back with the answer 20 seconds later. (It's a trick question. Bolivia has two capitals, La Paz and Sucre.)
It's a different world now. Memorization is a thing of the past. We have companies like Google, whose self-proclaimed mission is to "organize all of the world's information."
Our heads can't compete. Even the best geographer in the world is no match for the CIA World Factbook online. Wikipedia now has more than 1 million articles. Bloglines indexes over 1 billion blog entries.
No longer is it useful to be able to rattle off all 50 states in 30 seconds, except for maybe at parties. An 8-year-old who spends a week memorizing the Gettysburg address is probably less than 25 feet from the nearest computer when he recites it, if he doesn't already have a Sony PSP in his pocket. And I'd like to see ESPN's The Schwab, their trivia expert, compete against my mother - who knows little about sports - with the Elias Sports Bureau in front of her.
What does this mean for the professors who still think rote memorization is useful? The ones who make their tests so that students have to camp out in the library with flash cards?
It means they're wasting students' time. What they should be doing is focusing on what is going to be really important this century: Synthesizing and analyzing information. We're in an open-book world, and what's important now is how ideas and facts connect to each other.
This shouldn't be seen as letting students get away with not learning what they used to have to memorize. Instead, it means professors should list it, teach students how to find it and then move on.
Classes would actually get more advanced. "What's the capital of Bolivia?" would become "How has having two capitals influenced Bolivia's political development?"
This doesn't mean the end of all tests. Absolutely not. Tests will always be a staple of college life and an essential one at that. Tests let professors hold students accountable and serve the valuable purpose of distinguishing which students are best at the subject.
Instead, it means more open-book tests and take-home tests. Why not let students take tests with the Internet in front of them? When we get into the job market, how often will we have assignments when we can't use all available resources? When we produce reports, clients aren't going to care if they came from memory or from an online procedures manual.
Granted, this doesn't mean that everything should be done at home or with open books. One of my professors had everyone take a quiz before each class about the chapters we were supposed to read. Most of the questions were simply facts from the chapter, just to make sure that we read it. He would then use our knowledge about the chapter to have a more advanced class discussion.
Similarly, courses in subjects such as math and engineering may have some use for memorization. But why shouldn't an English class allow you to use writer's handbooks during in-class essays?
In 20 years, there will be much more on the Internet - including every book ever written, every speech that was written down and every newspaper article. We will also have advanced handheld computers more powerful than supercomputers today.
Shouldn't our education reflect that whenever we need information on anything, it's right there?
Professors, please try to make your tests reflect our reality.