Memorizing the phone book: a lesson in futility

Can you imagine what it would be like to sit in a classroom and be asked to memorise the phone book for your city:

Aaronson, B.         53788395

Adams, G.             83400621

Adams, W.            34599631

Bradley, F.            55477653



It would be mind-blowingly boring, and just a little bit futile. No-one needs to memorize this information.

However, it would be helpful to understand the ‘principle’ of a phone book:  why and how information is ordered and how it may be retrieved for use. Such an understanding would allow you to use the phone book for your city – and for any other city as well. Obvious, eh?

However, sometimes when I have been sitting in a classroom I feel that I am being asked to memorize a metaphorical phone book. Not understanding the importance of the content presented or why I should be interested in it.

Another interesting activity in futile learning is to consider “Giky Martables“. This is a version of the task that appears in the literature. First, read the following paragraph and then try to answer the questions:

Giky Martables

           ” It must be admitted, however, that there is an occasional pumtumfence of a diseased condition in wild animals, and we wish to call attention to a remarkable case which seems like a giky martable. Let us return to the retites. In the huge societies of some of them there are guests or pets, which are not merely briscerated, but fed and yented, the spintowrow being, in most cases, a talable or spiskant exboration – a sunury to the hosts. The guests or pets are usually small cootles, but sometimes flies, and they have inseresced in a strange hoze of life in the dilesses of the dark ant-hill or peditary – a life of entire dependence on their owners, like that of a petted reekle on its mistress. Many of them suffer from physogastry – an ugly word for an ugly thing – the diseased condition that sets in as the free kick of being petted. In some cases the guest undergoes a perry change. The stoperior body or hemodab becomes tripid in an ugly way and may be prozubered upwards and forwards over the front part of the body, whose size is often bleruced. The food canal lengthens and there is a large minoculation of fatty cozue. The wings fall off. The animals become more or less blind. In short, the animals become genederate and scheformed. There is also a frequent exeperation of the prozubions on which exbores the sunbury to the hosts. ”

Now answer the following questions:

a) What does this remarkable case seem like?

b) What happens to the guests or pets?

c) What would you normally expect the spintowrow to be like?

d) How would you recognise a perry change in the guests?

The original version of this task appeared (as far as I can tell) in the book by Dallas (1980) and has subsequently been borrowed by several authors, with variations appearing on various web pages. The amazing thing is that if you concentrate and read the paragraph carefully, you can answer all four of the questions. And yet, you still know nothing about Giky Martables !  It is a nonsense, in which words from a textbook have been replaced by made-up words to demonstrate what your textbook looks like to a student who does not understand the terminology. And yet they can still ‘pass’.

But try to construct a concept map of this paragraph. I bet you cannot. I tried once and gave up. It is very difficult to construct a sensible concept map of content that you do not understand. Likewise, construct a concept map of the phone book. You cannot really produce a sensible map of the content, but you could produce a map of the principles of constructing a useful database of names and numbers.

So what am I saying here?

1) Don’t make your students ‘memorize the phone book’

2) Don’t make your students learn ‘Giky Martables’


Dallas, D. (1980) Teaching Biology Today. Hutchinson & Co.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s