During high school, I came to the realization that there are two basic ways of learning. One is simply memorization. The other is actually understanding the subject matter and being able to apply it in a more generalized form, mappable to new situations. Some people are good at both. I’m really only good at the latter. And I suppose some people… neither.

Imagine someone who is awful at math, but memorizes the times-tables all the way to 99. You can ask them 73 x 96, and they know 7,008 instantly. But ask them 2 x 100 and they have no clue. Do they really know the subject matter? I worked with a lady once who told me how she’d missed the day they’d learned the seven-times-tables.

“Really? What’s 7×3?”
“I don’t know.”
“Oh, that’s easy. 21”
“Yeah… but… ok, what about 7×8?” “I don’t know!”
“But 8×7…”
“56”
“You realize that if you just flip the numbers around, it’s the same… like 7 times anything is always the same as that anything times 7.”
“…. oh. OK, sure”.

I’m sure she didn’t quite get it, but kudos to her for finding a way to “learn” something, using the tools at her disposal. But that’s kind of the thing. I’m not sure how useful those sorts of math skills can possible be if you don’t really understand. Many animals can be trained memorize something, but it doesn’t mean they understand it.

Here’s a neat trick for you… quick, what’s 8% of 50? If that has you thinking for more than 2 seconds… flip it. What’s 50% of 8? That works for any percentage. You’re welcome.

One time, in grade 10, we had to memorize some Shakespeare. It was a long passage from Julius Caesar that starts with “I cannot tell what you and other men think of this life, but for my single self…. yadda yadda…” It goes on for a long time, and I struggled for 2 whole days trying to memorize it. I am genuinely in awe of Shakespearean actors… I honestly think it’d take a lifetime to memorize an entire play. The thing is though, once I “know” it, I know it forever. That long passage I just described, I guess you could say I “learned” it, as opposed to photographically memorized it. I still know every word of it, decades later, a parlour trick I’m happy to trot out on occasion… and it’s impressive how long it goes on. Usually till someone finally says, “Yeah, yeah… we get it.”

That passage was assigned on a Monday, for a Wednesday class where the test was simple: walk in and write out the passage. It will be marked out of 50, and every spelling or capitalization or formatting error will cost one point. We had to memorize not just the words, but their presentation. Like I said, I struggled tremendously. Memorizing anything is hard enough, but Shakespearean English? if 't be true thee bethink mem'rizing mod'rn english is sore, what doth thee bethink about this confusing mess?

English was the second class of the day. As we left math class on our way to write this test, I was walking with a friend, and reading through the whole thing again, for probably the 2,000th time. I asked him…

“This Shakespeare thing, did you memorize it ok?”
“Oh, shit! That’s today?”
“Uhhhh… it’s now.”
“Here, give me the book.”

It was a 3-classroom walk from math to english, during which time he scanned the text 3 or 4 times.

“OK, got it.”
“You’re kidding.”
“Yeah, no problem.”

We walked in and we wrote the thing. After school, I asked him how he did.
“Aced it”, he said.
Sure, I thought. And he also told me that 15 minutes after the class, he’d already forgotten the whole thing.

When we got it back a couple of days later, he got 50/50… 100%. It was perfect. I got 30/50 — 60%. I had mis-spelled some words, missed some capital letters, missed some punctuation and put some in where it didn’t belong. It was like every single line had one little thing wrong with it. All of those mistakes I would consider irrelevant, if you’re trying to capture he actual meaning, the actual spirit of the thing. What exactly was learned in that scenario? My friend didn’t learn anything. He just got to flaunt his photographic memory. I don’t call what I retained any sort of useful “learning”.

That high-school experience also provided two very different types of history teachers. One of the classes was all about taking notes, literally transcribing what the teacher said and regurgitating it during tests. Exact dates, times and places. The other one was about understanding what was happening, and what led to what, and how certain events affected future events. The tests were all about expressing opinion on historical events, not asking what date they happened. You can guess in which of those two classes I did better.

At the end of the day, everyone has a different way of learning… of capturing information, analyzing it and storing it. I’m usually not interested in learning anything that doesn’t involve some element of understanding… but, sometimes, you don’t need to actually understand it; just memorize it. Masks, good. Crowds, bad. Social-distancing, good. Enclosed spaces, bad. Outdoors, good. Hydroxychloroquine, bad. Etc, etc.

On it goes. For those who like learning about things, this pandemic has been offering ample opportunity. Endless, evolving research. Feel free to dive in, if you feel so inclined. And if you don’t, that’s ok too — just memorize the important stuff.