Holistic learning connects with true understanding

March 9, 2014 — by Nick Chow and JYoung

Enter many high school classes, and you’ll likely see a teacher pacing in the front of the class, lecturing while students frantically try and scribble down notes. This lecture-driven style drives many school systems around the world (most notably China), and these schools are lauded for producing “smart” students en masse.

Enter many high school classes, and you’ll likely see a teacher pacing in the front of the class, lecturing while students frantically try and scribble down notes. This lecture-driven style drives many school systems around the world (most notably China), and these schools are lauded for producing “smart” students en masse.

Through this style of education, the vast majority of the students do indeed remember the material, but for how long? And does this teaching method truly foster understanding?

The two answers — “not long” and a resounding “no” — illustrate the flaws of memorization-based learning, and why it should be banished from classroom teaching.

There are two basic types of learning: holistic and memorization-based. Holistic learning involves creating webs of information and connecting these ideas with other ideas that you have learned. By utilizing holistic learning, you not only gain an enhanced understanding of the topics, but the information is also retained for longer. Of course, holistic learning takes more effort due to its information synthesis period, which is why many students opt for memorization-based learning.

Memorization-based learning is every bit of what it sounds like: memorizing formulas and snippets of information. It’s what most students use to cram for their exams, as it is extremely efficient for short-term memory and consequently for test-taking. However, it does not foster true understanding and long-term memory of the topic.

It’s no wonder why so many students avoid history and biology, because to them, it’s a convoluted conglomeration of various dates, people, places and political ideas, scattered through the dark and infinite depths of time. That’s because many students approach learning these subjects as if they’re memory competitions, feverishly memorizing a plethora of information but failing to create connections and not attaining true understanding.

Of course, memorization based learning is not a plague that we should avoid at all costs; in fact, it’s necessary for certain subjects like biology and chemistry, but it should be used much more sparingly than it is today.

With our smartphones and instant access to the internet, we have access to a wealth of information at our fingertips. Why memorize the chronology of the World War I, when you can have Siri tell you? But what your iPhone can’t do, is make the connections between the July Crisis and the escalation of the war, and summarily craft a coherent thesis paper. That unique ability to make connections is central to holistic learning.

In order to facilitate the holistic learning process, students must decide to commit extra time in their studying to information synthesis and filling in the gaps of their knowledge through tutorials and outside sources, such as textbooks. Teachers also can help encourage this process by scheduling a lighter homework load to give more time for students to digest information.

Holistic learning requires an initial time investment, but the massive return is an enhanced understanding and mastery of topics studied.

It’s idealistic and impractical to suggest that all memorization-based learning must be eradicated from society, but we should take appropriate efforts to limit it in the classroom, and students will make the connection between understanding and true learning.