The Mental Machinery of the Chess Master

As a Psych major in college, I learned about some cool experiments. Fatal shocks. Coldhearted preachers. The staggering forces of peer pressure. I saw slobbering dogs, wailing babies, and semi-literate pigeons.

But one of my favorite experiments requires nothing more than a chess set. It begins to answer the question: What, exactly, is going on in the minds of great chess players?

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Is Memorization Necessary, Evil, or Both?

At The Atlantic today, I have an essay weighing in on the decades-long debate over memorization, trying to cut a middle path between two extremes:

1. “Memorization is the enemy. It’s the antithesis of critical thinking and conceptual learning. Memorization’s defenders are wilfully blind soldiers marching for an outdated tradition.”

2. “Memorization is an essential tool for students. It’s the surest path to retaining important facts. People who denounce it are letting liberal orthodoxy get in the way of our children’s achievement.”

I’d summarize my view along these lines:

3. “Memorization is a generally-not-great shortcut. It’s better than not knowing at all, but it’s not nearly as enduring, effective, and powerful as meaningful learning.”

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Learning is a Fluorescent Light

Me: I know this new concept feels hard. But you know what it’s like turning on a fluorescent light? It flickers on, then goes dark, then goes bright for an instant, then goes dark again…

Student #1: Then bright?

Me: Yes, because…

Student #2: And then dark again?

Me: Right. And what I…

Student #1: And then bright!

Me: Yes, yes. And eventually the light comes on, but it’s slow, and there are these alternating moments of illumination and darkness. And that’s how it is understanding tough math. You feel like you get it, then you don’t. There’s a moment where it’s perfectly clear, then a moment where it all seems hopeless. Your understanding flickers at first, but eventually it becomes steady and bright.

Student #3: Oh! I get the analogy!

Me: See? It’ll come to…

Student #3: Wait! I lost the analogy.

Me: Oh… well, I can…

Student #4: Ohhh! Now I get it!

Me: Hmm. Are you just mocking my…?

Student #4: No! It’s gone!

One student starts flicking the light switch off and on, as others cry and shout:

All students: It’s all so clear! No – I’ll never get it! Wait – I see! No – I’ve lost it! Hold on – yes!

Me: I love you guys. Also hate.