Thursday, May 19, 2011

Seek and ye shall find

tl;dr: Memorization of facts is out; Know how to find it; Mastery is not going away




Today's Financial Tip diverges from purely financial topics to talk about knowledge. The idea is to spark conversation between readers. As always, I welcome comments to my email address,, but I would really welcome comments to the FTOTW blog:


Memorization of facts is out


Preparing taxes is more than just a mundane task filled with numbers and obscure laws. Tax preparation is actually a window on how government, households, and businesses interact to encourage or discourage certain behaviors, while also raising revenue to finance our government. During the past few years, I have noticed that politicians have been much more willing to make changes to the tax code. For example:


     on your 2009 taxes, you could actually increase your standard deduction by the amount of your real estate taxes;

     also, you could exclude the first $2,400 in unemployment income on your 2009 taxes.

     the Making Work Pay credit involved lowering everyone's income tax withholding for 2009 and 2010, while also giving them a credit of $400 ($800 married filed joint).


With all these changes in the tax law, I have told students who volunteer to prepare taxes not to memorize the law, the complicated rules or specific amounts (annual exemptions). Not only does the law change, important amounts (standard deductions, exemptions, income limits, etc.) are often indexed to inflation and can change annually. By the time they have the rules memorized, someone will tweak them slightly. Congress is even tweaking them after the rules are published.


So if memorization of facts is out, how do we prepare tax returns or undertake most tasks requiring knowledge?


Know how to find it


Instead of memorizing facts, it is becoming increasingly more important to know how to find information. Through our computers - and our phones - we have access to a growing cache of information. However, this treasure trove is also full of junk. So we can't rid ourselves of the information. We need to know how to rifle through the information to find the treasure we want today.


Here are some simple ways to find information:

     Dump your query into the search engine. Someone else has probably asked the same question or answered it somewhere on the web.

     Know what the search engine can do: Google's search box is also a:



                                     weather forecaster

                                     movie listing service

                                     comparison shopping tool

                                     recipe repository

                                     and more

     Know the large repositories of free knowledge on the web:

     MIT OpenCourseware

     Khan Academy

     Academic Earth

     YouTube EDU


     Find the forums community that caters to what you want to learn

     FatWallet Forum

     Bogleheads Forum


These are only a sampling of the ways to find information on the Internet.


Mastery is not going away


With all this available knowledge on the web, will we ditch experts and do everything ourselves? The answer really depends on the subject matter. Although the information is available, there can be a large gap between theory and practice. For example, I recently successfully retiled a section of my bathroom by watching several videos on YouTube. There are also plenty of videos on open heart surgery, but I do not believe that I could successfully perform open heart surgery - nor would any patient want me to - after watching a few videos. Similarly, it would be difficult to prepare a tax return the first time based on Internet searching. Although the web provides plenty of information, the information may not be enough; in order to complete a task effectively, it may require time spent practicing -or it may be best to leave the task to an expert.




This post is not meant to start another form of the "calculator debate." Instead, I hope to start a conversation about information on the web - how we access it and how we use it. With the coming ubiquity of smartphones that offer an always-on connection to the Internet, what is important enough to memorize? Is it important to memorize the capitals of all 50 states? Or the first 36 elements in the periodic table? Or is it more important to know how to find both pieces of information on the web? How will this change testing standards? Will evaluations become harder or easier?


Please share your opinion online at the Financial Tip of the Week Blog.



-          Andrew Zumwalt


1 comment:

Nadege Uwase said...

Thanks for sharing this blog. I think once you are out of school, especially when you are used to learning something new every semester, you still have the yearning. i had found khan academy and it is excellent. as for searching, i think it is difficult knowing the truth for sensitive topics or finding way to avoid gossip, even for scholars, because everyone has a different perspective.