Keys to Learning? Rationale and Creativity, Not Memorization

03/17/2011 03:15 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Helene Pavlov, M.D. Fellow, American College of Radiology; Radiologist in Chief, Hospital for Special Surgery

I remember learning how to learn. How to study. How to memorize. It was clear to me, very early on that facts were important. The more facts you could regurgitate at the right time/place, e.g., SAT, standardized tests for medical school, law school, graduate school, etc., the better. If you know facts, you were "smart." Knowing how to study and how to take and excel at test-taking was what school was all about, especially if you were planning on going to pursue higher education, e.g., college, graduate/medical school, etc., and definitely if you expected to have a choice as to where you elected to attend or be in the running for a scholarship.

Having been in academic medicine for decades, several things now are more apparent than ever. First, it takes years to influence change. Medical research findings take about 10 to 20 years to be validated and accepted by the medical community. Similarly, teaching new technologies requires research and time to be adopted and then perfected. So what is my point? The way students are learning to learn in elementary school and/or in medical school has to change. Facts, memorization of facts, are the least important things to learn. In today's environment, memorization of facts is a skill that has lost its merit.

Today's students know that facts are instantly available. You can use a smart phone, Internet, Google, etc., to find and check facts in an instant. You can take a picture of something and it can be identified and validated in an instant. How to process facts is key. Our youngsters need executive decision-making skills. What to do with information, that is what is truly important.

Do not misinterpret what I mean. We need to know historical facts, e.g., the reason for wars, the reason behind laws and policies. The specific facts, however, the dates, times, do not need to be committed to memory. The rationale behind the end result is what matters. Our children need to learn how to think, how to process information. In essence, they have to be taught to ask the right questions and challenge the answers. They also need to learn how to challenge, appropriately.

The art of teaching has to change. The art of learning has to change. Our children and young trainees need to learn to think; how to use and process facts; how to group and associate facts; and most importantly, how to question computer-generated information. Wrong question, wrong answers and remember, some computer-generated facts are wrong or incomplete. More than ever, we need to feel confident that information, facts are challenged. We need to rethink how we teach, learn and think.

That fact is fact.