I have a personal conspiracy theory. It appears that neuro-scientists of the world are unaware, but Indian educationists have secretly discovered that all knowledge resides in memorizing of words. Not far away is the glorious day when they will teach swimming word-to-word without even requiring a swimming pool.
In India, one cannot qualify as a responsible parent without knowing the wonderful phrase “word-to-word answer”. The minute you try making any sense, your child (wiser about the ways of world than you) would remind you that not answering “word-to-word” amounts to bucking the entire educational system.
But, the question is, can brain learn through memorizing words?
There is no doubt that language is a great achievement of human brain. There is a strong possibility that we have evolved a predisposition, a hard-wiring for languages in our brains. Words mean a lot to us. They enjoy such a priority that we look for them in every sensory input. We can “hear” words even in a garbled vocalization of a parrot or “read” them in cloud formations.
But, point to note is that words are recent, describing reality for barely 50,000 years; while neural networks have been processing reality since 500 million years in non-verbal way. So, it is absurd to assume that words can be the main processing medium used by brain. In fact, verbal thinking is only the tip of the iceberg “visible” to consciousness, while, in the back-ground, the brain figures out how to hit the tennis-ball or is he/she lying using completely different and non-verbal process (If you think that brain thinks in words, try to imagine the piston and crack-shaft movement of an engine in words).
The other key word in the drama of education is “memory”, as it is the operative force behind the educationist-beloved word-to-word learning.
There are two distinct memory types: procedural (Know-How) and declarative (Know-What). From swimming to performing a complex brain surgery requires procedural memory, while remembering your anniversary date or year of battle of Panipat requires declarative memory. It is easy to understand that the Know-What may have some verbal component to it, but the hugely critical Know-How is impossible to store using word as a medium.
Though declarative memory gives you a social identity as a “self” living in space and time, it is the procedural memory that helps you survive. Its importance can be seen from the fact that, during the childhood, our brain has no time to form declarative memory of the life-episodes (like first potty on the pot or even first kiss of your mother); but we remember incredibly complex things like how to walk or talk that we learn in the same period.
What we learn as procedural memory is robust and nearly incorruptible. This ensures that the skills and understandings that we form as procedural memory are unforgettable. Declarative memory, on the other hand, is far more malleable and a bit fickle. Brain does not see merit in investing resources in retaining its sanctity. And yet, strangely, Indian education system is focused predominantly on training young brains through formation of verbal and declarative memory.
Unfortunately, it is the young brain that is better equipped to form procedural memory. Interesting, in our education system, the very time coincides with the word-to-word phase. Class teacher Madams and tuition Sirs inculcate this great “virtue” in young minds by using rote system to ensure that meaning is completely (and often, forever) lost. This results into formation of a completely wrong understanding about how to study that lasts across entire education of the student.
Our written examination driven system encourages those with better declarative memory, allowing them to move higher up in the knowledge hierarchy, while much needed procedural memory finds little recognition in this system. The net result is a nation of educated masses that can write a page long note on electrical circuits but can’t fix a broken electrical switch.
If India is in the phase of self-correction, it is this problem that needs immediate attention. Those assigned the most important task of programming young brains must understand that words sans meanings are hollow, as hollow as the “education” they provide.