Nalini Joseph: Application, not just memorization, most important for children

Published 12:00 am Sunday, December 6, 2020

By Nalini Joseph

For decades, our school systems have done a great job of educating our children: drilling the minutia of how math and science procedures work, teaching them the “minute details” of history and geography. These methods are enforced by two basic, brute force methods – practice, practice and more practice until the material becomes second nature (especially in the case of math and science) or by rote memorization (as in the case of history and geography).

The validity and success of these methods for some children is unquestionable. However, as evidenced by test results for most schools in the U.S.A., these methods do not actually seem to work for the bulk of our children — even for some very gifted children. 

I have often thought that, while our teachers have worked tirelessly and evolved in their teaching methods significantly over the past few decades, what has not kept pace with this evolution is the curriculum and the methods children use at home to absorb the material. What we do not seem to be tapping into is learning that is applied to real world situations and how to use these situations to make decisions. We need to give our children learning that leads them at an early age to be executives rather than experts at counting out “change due on pump No. 5” at the local gas station.  For example, why do we expect a 10-year-old to be an expert at long division of 45613.2478 divided by 1132.45?  Which industry would benefit from a child who is a human calculator as an adult? Instead, wouldn’t it be better to apply the 10-year-old’s brain to learn basic long division as a tool applied to margin calculations in retail sales or calculating interest earned on money invested? Or, to make it even more interesting, teach the child to paper trade the stock market? 

In other words, the goal should not be the mechanics of long division, but the application of long division to real world applications.

Consider the subject of history. Children are expected to commit facts and dates to memory.  There is absolute value in learning facts and dates; however, as noted historian Stephen Kotkin puts it, “It’s the stories that people remember.”  How about if we gave the child a mental visualization of the landscape, a sense of the lifestyle, the human condition of the timeframe that is being studied?  Isn’t it more important for the child to picture the founding fathers arguing in a sweaty hall in Philadelphia? Tall and stately George Washington crossing the frozen Delaware, short little James Madison furiously working on the Constitution by candlelight? Paint the picture in the child’s mind, and the child will work out the details. 

We now live in an age of “big data”: volumes upon volumes about every topic imaginable. Smartphones, PCs and online shopping have transformed our world into a data-centric world. The competition is about how to make sense of all this information — how to analyze it and use it to our advantage.  This is true whether we happen to be the owner of a small business or the CEO of a huge corporation. The future of business in large part is leaning towards business leaders being able to make business decisions based on visual reports (amongst other reports) and being able to act on these reports. Software like Tableau and Microsoft PowerBI are the newest entrants to this market – quick visual representations of huge datasets.

The saying “the devil is in the details” is absolutely true. We must teach our children to be detail oriented. Attention to detail is supremely important. However, are we teaching our children to properly discern which details are pertinent to the situation at hand and which details are simply “background noise”? The skill they will need as adults is the skill of being able to aerial view a situation, zoom in on the details and then separate the “noise” from the pertinent information. Whether a child grows up to be a CEO or a surgeon in an operating room, she must have the ability to survey the scene while capturing all the relevant details, and then act — sometimes very quickly.  

Joseph is a resident of Salisbury.  She is the proud mother of a 10-year-old honor society student, Rohan Joseph, who serves his community as president of COVID Busters.  Email her at