Naked Architect In The Desert Syndrome

Is Memorization Still A Thing In Learning?
Ilyshev Dmitry/
Summary: The Naked Architect in the Desert Syndrome (NADS) can give you false confidence that once memorized, you "know" things. Do we still need memorization in this Googly world?

Is Memorization Still Needed In Learning?

The Naked Architect in the Desert Syndrome (NADS) originates from my first college experience, where I studied to be an architect. For three whole weeks. Technically, one of the weeks was a freshman summer camp, so two weeks for real. Leaving that college behind was one of the best decisions in my life. And the reason I left is NADS.

What Is NADS?

There was this professor teaching us the basics of architecture: how to design, by that I mean how to draw first. Being “old school”, on day one he told us to be prepared:

“An architect is an architect. You’re going to use your head and your hand only. Nothing else. If you’re naked in the desert, you will still know what to do, because I’m going to make sure it’s all in your head and hand.”

Naked In The Desert?

Now, I’m not sure what picture this “naked architect using his hand and head only” scene conjures in your mind but by week one, I started to wonder: "how often do architects end up naked in the desert where they need to design a house without any tools or resources?". But again, this was my first college experience. So, I figured that’s how the cookie crumbles.

The professor gave us homework at the end of week one: draw squares. Fifteen different squares on a piece of paper. They all have to be perfect lines. And here comes the catch: we must use actual INK to draw the lines and then, PAINT the squares inside with watercolor!

If you’ve ever tried mixing straight lines, ink, and watercolor, you know what I’m talking about. If any of the lines gets blurred (any of the fifteen squares), you have to start the whole page again. I’ve hated Tetris ever since. That’s when I decided to leave this profession behind. However, I learned something from this experience: NADS is an interesting phenomenon.

What’s Wrong With NADS?

People who exhibit NADS believe that you must memorize everything in your head, like “in the old days”. How often does it happen that you need to design or take a course that forces you to memorize things? Do you really need to recall all that information at work? (Even worse, assumes that just because you recognize the longest option as correct in a multiple-choice question you “recalled” this piece of knowledge. Not quite.) Is memorization still needed in today’s Googly world?

The Best Answer Is: It Depends

In an emergency situation, I don’t want people to ask Siri whether they should cut the blue or red wire while diffusing a bomb. But ask this question a lot: how often does this situation happen to your target audience? What tools and resources do they need to deal with in certain situations? What’s the actual risk of not remembering something? And how does the application of this piece of knowledge depend on various external factors?

People tend to think of memorization as “rote” learning. There are lots of different ways (mnemonics, visualization, etc.) you can apply. When I was teaching English as a foreign language, I challenged students to give me 100 words, and I'd remember them in order on the fly. Then we turned into a language game where they had to describe the item without saying the exact word, and I told them not only the word but also where it is the order. I used mnemonics for this exercise. Memorizing facts and list can be used to build upon, to improve your efficiency [1].

"Memorizing facts can build the foundations for higher thinking and problem solving."

What Can Go Wrong With Memorization?

Memorizing things out of context may give you false confidence. By forcing you to memorize things, NADS can give you that false confidence that you can do it, without help, without tools, and nobody can take it away from you. Whatever “it” is. You become Mr. Robot: executing the code flawlessly.

Until something changes! Because, in reality, NADS takes away your agility to think and adapt. You lose one of the most important competitive advantages of today’s WORL&D: adaptability. Without knowing how and why you make decisions, you may shut out the environment and just follow steps. If anything changes in the environment, you still follow the same steps. Mechanical robots used to follow preprogrammed instructions no matter what. They were precise, quick, and never got tired. Perfect! Unless something changed in the environment! And that can be lethal. Google the story about the robot from section 130 that entered section 140.33. Same job, wrong place, very unfortunate outcome.

If Not Memorization, What Else?

In contrast, at another college, that I did finish, one of my professors had all his exams as an open book. He gave out challenges weekly that made us think and apply knowledge. He taught us problem-solving by giving tools and methodologies, rather than templates and step-by-step instructions to memorize.

After twenty-five years in this profession, I can tell you: the chances that you need to problem-solve and adapt your way of thinking are much higher than ending up naked in a desert designing a house with your bare hands. Watch out for the symptoms of NADS!

Let’s Talk About The 'Why'!

“Experts” often skip the why, because, in their mind, decision making is so entrenched that they are not even aware of making some of the decisions anymore. Since in their mind all the gaps are filled by experience, experts can “tap into all this invisible knowledge” without explaining how and why. In an interesting experience with “tappers” (participants asked to tap a famous song) and “listeners” (participants who just listened to the tapping trying to guess the song), experts (tappers) who had the complete tune in their mind were shocked at how listeners didn’t recognize the songs [2].

In the workplace, experts often focus on the 'how' without skipping the 'why'. The 'how' itself can provide efficiency but also false confidence. Focusing on the 'why' is the foundation of adaptability. Like the good foundation of a house designed by architects who may or may not have been naked in the desert. How the experts do things is great to learn from but what’s in their head before doing it, is as important as the visible action. Why did they make that decision? What input did they value? How did they decide the best action? What other actions were considered?

How To Tap Into That Invisible Value?

One way to capture invisible thinking is by asking the experts to explain and comment on what they’re doing while they’re doing it. Record this uninterrupted in the flow of work. (This is like “tapping” a song! You can only hear what’s audible and see what’s visible.) Then bring the expert in the room with new hires (or novice learners) and let them ask any questions any time as they’re watching the recording. (This is the “listening” with the ability to ask questions.) This Q&A can be then recorded to augment the original one. You’ve just created an awesome piece of learning asset to share with others.

As the last word, memorization has its merit and place. But use it only when it’s necessary to build fundamental knowledge to avoid NADS.


[1] Why memorising facts can be a keystone to learning

[2] The Curse of Knowledge

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