The “old way”, the “new way” and the ethics of bar trivia

A quick note: This is a post that first appeared on my old (now defunct) blog, Stop Trying to Inspire Me, back in 2010. Earlier this evening, Brian Barry tweeted the following Seth Godin quote: “There is zero value in memorizing anything ever again. Anything that is worth memorizing is worth looking up.” I made a crack along the lines of “This is what leads people to cheat at bar trivia,” but in all honesty, I think that what Godin is saying is crap and went back into my archives and pulled this (it’s got a few edits–mostly mechanical).

The other day, John Spencer tackled the topic of cheating, offering several preventative measures that he takes to head off academic dishonesty. All of them were excellent, and I chimed in somewhere in the comments with my usual blah blah blah grumpus about how students refuse to do any work if they don’t have a grade blah blah blah grumpus. But the one that caught my eye, mainly because of a comment made after mine, was his last measure:

Authentic Assessment: Life usually allows notes. It usually allows calculators, too. Sometimes (gasp!) it allow interaction with other people. So, why not go project-based and let the learning assessment reflect the way that people learn naturally? Yes, students might still cheat (especially if the project is out-of-class and they have perfectionist parents) but if a project is well-monitored there will be no reason to cheat.

The comment, made by Katie Hellerman (whom I’m not picking on, honestly, it’s just a comment that made me think), was this:

Number seven, Authentic Assessment, reminds me of my pub quiz experience the other week. A fight started because one of the teams was “cheating” and using their iphone to look up answers. Pub quizzes and the DMV might be the only places in the real world where you can’t use outside information to inform your decisions.

Information is stored on the Internet so that we don’t have to store it in our brain. Given this, it might make sense to stop fighting an up hill battle against “cheating.” Let’s move on from teaching kids facts and start teaching them how to quickly find material, look for patterns, assess value and develop their own ideas from what they find.

Now, first, as someone who is a Trivial Pursuit master, took and got destroyed on the Jeopardy! online test, competed in a local trivia competition to raise money for literacy awareness, and had one and only one night of competition in bar trivia, I have to say that if you bring an iPhone to a bar trivia night and use it to look up the answers you need, you’re a douche. A dooouuuuche. Case closed. I’m sorry but it’s more impressive that I can name all nine of Mr. Burns’s Springfield NPP ringers off the top of my head than it is that you can look it up on a portable electronic device (for the record: Darryl Strawberry, Roger Clemens, Ozzie Smith, Steve Sax, Ken Griffey Jr., Don Mattingly, Mike Scoscia, Jose Canseco, and Wade Boggs … accompanied by one Homer Simpson).

Second, and more to the point of all this because I didn’t really want to spend an entire blog post about bar trivia (which you know I probably could), I wanted to address the issue of memorization and its value in our current education system.

Katie’s comment about moving on from stopping cheating to teaching kids how to access facts, etc. is one that I’ve heard quite often from people both in and out of education. So much focus nowadays is on memorizing what’s necessary for standardized tests that kids actually don’t learn any real skills, such as problem solving or critical thinking. And I agree for the most part: the high-stakes testing focus has put so much focus on what the right answer is that examining the question or appreciating the process by which you find the answer isn’t as important. However, to go completely in the other direction and say that memorizing anything isn’t necessary is throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

Because I don’t know about you, but I find that the memorization and retention of particular facts, processes, procedures, functions, etc. are vital in the real world and not just in bar trivia or at the DMV [to which I say, you’d better have that stuff memorized at the DMV. I don’t want you looking at your iPhone at a stop sign to figure out what that stop sign means]. When you learn anything, you very often commit the most basic parts of it to memory mainly because what comes next uses those basic parts or assumes you know them. This goes from everything to repairing a car, operating on a heart, or simply discussing literature or history. If my car won’t start or keeps stalling out, my mechanic might check the battery and the alternator.

Why? Because he knows–without looking it up–what the battery and alternator do. If I get stuck with a flat tire, I know exactly what to do (and no, it’s not call AAA). Why? I memorized it during driver’s ed. When a person has open-heart surgery, does the surgeon start scanning Wikipedia in the OR? No, a bypass is something that he’s been taught and practiced to the point that he knows it … by heart (pun intended?). When a university’s history professor starts talking about the American Revolution, he shouldn’t have to ask his students what Lexington and Concord were because it’s assumed retained knowledge.

And if an English literature student hears someone say, “It’s all Greek to me,” they should know it’s an allusion to The Tragedy of Julius Caesar without having to look it up (similarly, they should know what an allusion is). Not to sound like some old grumpus here, but I had to memorize stuff when I was in school and I still commit things to memory now. Some of the facts I retain might be useless, like the roster of the SNPP softball team, but there’s a ton of useful information in there, too. And I know, I know: “give a man a fish blah blah blah.” But the thing is (and maybe you don’t have students like this), students are not entirely motivated to learn on their own or look something up or discern what information is good and what is bad, even though you try as hard as you can to discuss where and how to find solid facts. I’ve come across this problem working on research papers.

Very often, students have no context for what they are going to research so they just blindly walk into whatever information rest stop they find and park it there, no matter how I have structured the assignment and no matter how I have tried to discuss the importance of varied sources and being thorough and … well, you name it. They are lazy, and we’ve become so gung-ho with informational technology at such an early age that these “tools” that are so great have become an entire generation’s crutches. I mean, look at grammar–you remove drilling on parts of speech and punctuation in elementary school and I wind up with high school students who don’t seem to realize that “could’ve” isn’t short for “could of.” I’m not saying that we have to keep the old ways of obsolete textbooks and group recitation but before we decry the idea of rote memorization of facts and declare it obsolete, look at the value of actually knowing things. After all, knowing is half the battle, n’est-ce pas?