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Gaming the educational system

This would be a followup to gaming the comp. sci. exams, but now in more general terms. More specifically, I just came across a 1994 Calvin and Hobbes strip (ch940127) on this exact subject.

Calvin and Hobbes: as you can see, I’ve memorized this utterly useless fact long enough to pass a test question

As you can see, I’ve memorized this utterly useless fact long enough to pass a test question. I now intend to forget it forever. You’ve taught me nothing except how to cynically manipulate the system. Congratulations.

It seems we have not made much progress in the last 12 years. Students are still taught to mostly memorize, not think. Perhaps md makes a good point:

Not teaching people to think is unfortunately a key requirement for maintaining the social structure that is currently in place. As such it’s not likely to change.

I guess it’s down to an individual teacher, and even students themselves, to take initiative and be responsible for the quality of their education. In my experience, curriculum has always left more to be desired.

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Uhh... nothing else appears to be relevant enough.


  1. Posted by Gianni Chiappetta | March 4, 2008, 1:24 am

    Couldn’t agree with you more Tony! Well put and a great supporting comic too. Perhaps we should start our own educational institute?

    Reply to comment

  2. Posted by McKenzie | March 4, 2008, 10:42 pm

    Please tell me you don’t actually believe what MD had to say. First, the context of MD’s comment was with respect to students with poor coding practices. Some of the worst code I see comes from students who think the most. It’s in thinking that they wander off the yellow-brick road of good style that I’ve laid down for the class. Often it’s not a lack of thinking but simply drawing the wrong conclusions as they are thinking.

    My real problem is that MD goes so far as to suggest that “the man” engineers the system to discourage thinking for the purpose of preventing social change. There are a number of reasons thinking is not as common as most thinkers would like it to be. Rather than assuming a social conspiracy I think you need to look the difficulty in measuring thinking. Many students refusal to do anything that is not evaluated. The difficulty in teaching teachers to foster thinking. No matter what a curriculum document says about teaching them to teach many teachers will just ensure that their students can answer the questions on the final exam.

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  3. Posted by Tony | March 4, 2008, 10:50 pm

    I doubt that the context of poor coding practices is responsible for the maintenance of the social structure. That is not to say that I completely agree with md’s point, though it is something to consider. “The man” conspiracy would indeed be taking it too far, though at the moment I still think that sufficient change on a system wide scale is unlikely.

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  4. Posted by Guy | March 6, 2008, 11:00 am

    This is exactly how I felt while receiving my education. Critical thinking and problem solving skills are far more important than remembering useless facts.

    Thanks for sharing,

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  5. Posted by Pro Gamer | March 7, 2008, 11:13 pm

    I agree with you. In college I tried explaining things in unique ways for psychology classes, rather than giving text book answers. I started getting bad grades. My teacher told me “now is not the time to be creative, David.” However, if the currently methods of psychological treatment were perfect, why do the problems exist in the first place? I tried to take a step back further to show I understood the concept and where it came from, rather than just repeating something in a book… I eventually came to the realization that I needed to pass the class so I started memorization.

    It’s like math class… Give me a problem no one’s ever solved before, what the heck is the point of solving a problem a billion others have solved already? Is the point specifically to waste time? LOL I like to think I’m smart, but apparently not smart enough to completely understand that method of thinking… To some degree, I compare understanding the prize of aimless memorization to the point of understanding a rock. It’s there, but why is it there? The more you see the more you get (memorization games) for children I think work well, maybe it’s assumed it’s all that’s necessary for later life too… Creativity should be in every class. Applied science? Make a volcano. Applied mathematics? Make an algorithm. Applied history? Start a diary, see how you can learn from even your own past, even if it’s not far off in history, make the diary a co-op with English.

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  6. Posted by Tony | March 7, 2008, 11:15 pm

    Repetitive solving of the same problems is good up to a point where the student understands, at least the process of, solving that particular problem type. Any more becomes too much homework. Though since class sizes are usually large, it’d difficult to deal with the diversity of student abilities, so everybody gets assigned to a single “best fit” approach.

    programming your way out of homework

    I really like the idea of having application and creativity in all of the classes. I think Computer Science was my favourite class because it was the only one with an applied and creative project at the end.

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  7. Posted by Camz | March 9, 2008, 1:57 pm

    This is an old issue, and it reminds me of high school. I had an remarkable teacher in high school that was very frustrated by this very issue. He hated the fact that so much of what was taught required nothing more than a “regurgitation of memorized facts”. Unlike most teachers though, he did something about it. He constantly stressed the importance of learning things over memorizing them and structured his tests and quizzes so that it wasn’t possible to just give a regurgitate/memorized answer. His attitude changed the way that I approached learning.

    The most remarkable thing of all, is the subject that he taught: HISTORY.

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  8. Posted by JSnark | March 10, 2008, 1:10 pm

    I’ve been thinking that forever, even when I was Calvin’s age. What am I learning beyond how to spit back information? Granted, some of that information did stick, like a majority of the state capitals.. but as far as thins like American history, I know willingly read or at least look them up in Wikipedia, and a lot of times I have no recollection at all. I’m not sure if these new alternative schooling methods can improve on the old model, but were I a parent, I’d look into it a bit more before choosing a school.

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  9. Posted by Ramona | March 11, 2008, 10:17 am

    I am not a programmer so I cannot comment this from the point of view of the coding. But I have also noticed that it’s too much “learning by heart” in the school. Some things were OK since I then developed from them (the Geometry theory for instance has to be “recited” as poetry) and the exercise was well planned so that we can develop the thinking too. Still, there are many classes where thinking should be more encouraged.

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  10. Posted by michaelp | March 11, 2008, 4:45 pm

    @Camz: It’s pretty hard to do that when you’re teaching History, since most of what history is is dates, when things happened, why they happened, what happened, etc etc. Tests that I get, now that I think about it, have lots of “spitting up” information that was memorized. Multiple choice questions and true and false tend to be those kinds of questions IMO.

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  11. Posted by wtd | March 12, 2008, 2:04 pm

    Both approaches are at varying times necessary, and in some cases must be combined creatively. The ability to correctly apply these techniques is what separates good teachers from those slavishly following “procedure.”

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  12. Posted by Pro Gamer | March 12, 2008, 2:24 pm

    at the same time that “procedure” can take away motivation and cause frustration to teachers who don’t completely agree with specific procedure

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  13. Posted by wtd | March 12, 2008, 4:54 pm

    Absolutely. You work hard to discover a technique that works, and then some pissant bureaucrat comes in and tells you to ignore all of that for no other reason than “because we say so.”

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  14. Posted by Web Proxy | March 16, 2008, 1:14 am

    I believe teaching students on memorizing since young helps stimulate the brain in remembering facts. When I was young I thought to myself why should I study stuff that doesnt seem to apply to me for example Geography, its all memory work. However if I had not studied about Geography and memorized the text I believe right now I would not know what really on in the world in terms of geographical terms much less knowing how to read a map properly when in an unknown place.

    This is the gd side of education, there are bad points as well as stated above. I would say even gaming stimulates thinking. Sometimes schools are so rigid by blocking all kinds of social sites that students feel so restricted and have to access them by using a web proxy which doest help the school in any way.

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  15. Posted by Freddy | March 16, 2008, 8:04 pm

    I am a firm believer that the STUDENT bears 51% of the responsibility here. I also believe I learned 51% of what I need for my career and life OUTSIDE of the classroom, placing further onus(?) on the student for his/her own education.

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  16. Posted by Tony | March 17, 2008, 9:31 am

    The thing is, remembering facts on their own is useless. Some trivia knowledge is useful, and you do gain some related skills (such as map reading) through the raw practice of memorizing facts, but that comes as a side-effect.

    The problem with raw memorization is that we have a very limited capacity for memory. Technology has also changed the play-field quite a bit, making facts trivially available. I’d much rather know how to look up, understand, and use the entirety of Wikipedia, on demand, that to settle for an ability to recall a tiny fraction of that resource.

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  17. Posted by iluvchairs112 | March 17, 2008, 7:39 pm

    Although I too dislike the memorization and regurgitation of facts in high school, it is simply a basis for future creativity. You need to learn basics. How would you even be able to find a new math theorem if you never learned how to do simple addition. And to do simple addition, one needs practice. So a certain amount of memorization is required. High school is all about learning the basis. I’m not in university yet so personally I don’t know how that is in comparison, but I am guessing there will be more of a chance to be creative.

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  18. Posted by Pro Gamer | March 18, 2008, 12:59 pm

    i understand there is a basis to be established through memorization… but why do we not practice control of memory, rather than using memory and not giving memory the recognition it deserves in comparison to its amount of use? if the truth be known, we could probably harness our power of memory to the point where we can decide to memorize something just by seeing it once… in fact many of us can. if we are taught about memory earlier though (or at all formally before college), then we could discontinue time wasting repetition for memory. i’m sure that for many if not most people, no matter how many times they’re “forced” to repeat something, it’s really a matter of choosing to take the effort to memorize something or not. you tell someone all day long the same thing as a broken record, but if they choose not to listen to you, it is like talking to a brick wall. however, if they chose to listen the first time you said something, you will likely not have to repeat it again. obvious things seem to be repeated naturally anyway… the sky is blue.

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  19. Posted by Ask Tony: “special methods” to study comp sci courses to ensure success | April 28, 2008, 10:35 pm

    [...] Reasons to not get a Video Gaming DegreeMIT highlights for high school studentsGaming the educational systemMore on the future of Computer Science Careers – outlook still promisingComputer Science at Brock [...]

  20. Posted by Gaming the educational system, again. | June 11, 2008, 8:00 am

    [...] Gaming the educational systemAsk Tony: “special methods” to study comp sci courses to ensure successTeaching creativity: Do schools today kill creativity?How to study for Computer Science examsEducational flaws: Programming with the Waterfall Model [...]

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