It is more than just memorizing

Luis Gustavo Neves da Silva, February 2000, Brazil

Luis Gustavo Neves da Sliva is a 27-year-old Brazilian programmer and self-professed knowledge junkie. He has joined the ranks of users of SuperMemo only in 1999. Perhaps due to his long-lasting interest in neurosciences, he has become an instant convert. Yet he quickly noticed that others are not so easily drawn to spaced repetition. This articles has been submitted in response to our SuperMemo is Useless survey. In the text, Luis Gustavo Neves da Silva suggests that better understanding of differences between data, information, knowledge and wisdom could help promote spaced repetition and a more rational approach to learning

When I learned how to use SuperMemo, one of my first reactions was to show it to everybody around. I was very enthusiastic about the program and its underlying principles. However, I was very disappointed to find out how many people would say: "This is a cramming tool", "This is just memorizing", "This has nothing to do with reasoning or intelligence". It was very difficult to find enthusiasts of the same mind.

This made me think about the reasons behind those strange objections people seem to nurse against memorization. Why "just memorizing" is considered derogatory? I realized that this is related to the fact that we are living in post-industrial age. We focus so much on creativity and individualism that we are strongly against mass-produced knowledge and uniformity. As a result, we developed a kind of prejudice against memory, which is identified - in the computer era - as a machine skill.

I believe that in our culture we have even developed a sort of fear of memory as a human weakness that would allow us to be manipulated, and even dehumanized. Just take a look at our pop culture. How many movie protagonists' memories are being erased, changed or manipulated.

We send our children to school and they have to learn a lot of facts. But there isn't any systematic approach to scheduling the review of the material. At schools, on one hand memory is somehow considered as an inexhaustible human resource. Teachers seems to see no limit in piling up new material in front of the kids and if someone's memory fails ... its all his or her own fault or negligence. On the other hand, there is a uniform stand against cramming or memorizing! Year after year the authors of entrance exams justify their motives: "We developed the tests so that they emphasize "reasoning" and not "memorization". It is interesting to analyze those tests and see how many facts someone should know to solve a single math problem, or to choose the right solution to a History question among so many other interfering options in a multiple choice test.

When asked to explain the reason for believing that memorizing is harmful, the supporters of "reasoning" would come up with a confusing and conflicting mix of words such as  memorizing, data, information, knowledge and even wisdom. Looking up these words in a dictionary, you will find a lot of circular references, each word being related to or defined by the use of the others. 

Instead of providing you with the definition of those very different words, I will use a common sense example that should help me illustrate my point: Imagine you are flying an airplane and suddenly notice that for a strange reason the pilot, copilot, and everyone else have disappeared! You are alone on the plane and don't have any idea about how to control it. Looking around you would find a lot of books and manuals about flying, airplanes and airports, and a lot of maps and charts of meteorological conditions. You find a lot of data, but in this situation, the data is of no use for you. You don't have time enough to read it all! Probably, all the information you need to know to continue the flight and land is there but there is no way to learn it all in this emergency situation full of stress. Neither SuperMemo nor any other magic learning or mnemonic technique will help you in this situation! However, if you find the radio and you are able to make a good use of it ... you're very lucky! One experienced pilot in the control tower may be enough to help you. He will give you the instructions that you should carefully follow in order to land safely. He will give you the relevant information you need. But why can the experienced pilot select only the relevant information from data, and help you? This is because he has the knowledge. How did he acquired this knowledge? He has studied, he has read books, and he has practiced. He has transferred the most important facts and rules to his memory. He memorized the most useful information. He can draw conclusions and make a good use of his knowledge. He has also learned the ways to quickly select and retrieve the less critical information from data. Knowledge is superior to information and data as it was transferred via memorization to the long-term memory. SuperMemo was created exactly for the purpose of committing information to long-term memory! SuperMemo is supposed to help you build up knowledge!

Additionally, the newest version of SuperMemo helps you transfer information from electronic sources to your learning collection material and later to your memory. It helps you easily prepare items from the most important articles and ideas. 

And what about creativity? 

Let's consider an example. A first-time pilot, if he wants to survive, he should follow carefully the instructions. There is no space for creativity at all! The experienced pilot on an airplane, can create new maneuvers, and try new styles or approaches. Only those who have a well-established body of knowledge can be productively creative. Knowledge is power

If you are stuck on an airplane without a pilot, the only thing you got to do is to cool down, keep your hands firmly on the controls, and follow the instructions. You will sure need a lot of wisdom in order to not despair and not fail! Wisdom is also necessary to use SuperMemo. You need to be regular, to select the right material for your collections, to keep doing the repetitions and adjusting the formulation of the most difficult items. The results of your work with SuperMemo will be wonderful -- the best possible indeed! But SuperMemo is not a free lunch! It requires some effort and commitment. 

It is far more than just memorizing.