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May 9, 2019

The difference between conceptual learning and memorization


One of the things that I discovered about myself when I started teaching is that I'm a conceptual learner, not a memorizer. And since my career had been in graphic design, I found that most of the students who did well in my classes were conceptual learners, too. Of course I hadn't given that any thought, it's just how I thought. If you're curious as to whether you're a conceptual learner, or a memorizer, I can tell you. It's a point of view.

Most school classes are created by and for memorizers. I did enough memorization to graduate, but it was never a strength for me. The vast majority of my classes required me to memorize a certain amount of information, recite it back within a short timeframe, and then forget it. Not surprisingly, the things that I memorized many decades ago, then recited back many decades ago for a grade, didn't stay with me. Memorization is a short-term thing, except for people who have photographic memories (and that ain't me!).

I have learned many things, and I do it by understanding the concept. The things that have stayed with me in my lifetime are things that make sense to me in a very deep way. They're the things that I care about, and that I cherish knowing.

I've known people who've tried to memorize. They really limit themselves, because human brains aren't very good at memorization. Computers are wonderful at it, but computers really don't understand things conceptually.

A concept is an idea. It's an abstraction. And that has nothing to do with memorization. I call it "wrapping your head around" something, like how a particular game is played, or what beautiful music sounds like. It's about things like how the color blue combines with red, and the trillions of combinations that make up all of the colors that we see. I've known people who try to memorize the names of colors, and I just shake my head.

Yes, I understand that they made you memorize things in school. It's always been that way, and it always will be. Schools need structure, and grades, and stuff like that. But learning is different, and even if you have a terrible memory, you can be a wonderful learner.

Think of the world as if it were an apple, floating in space.

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