Chew and pour; Pass and forget

The title of this blog is a very popular phrase among students in Ghana. From infancy, students are ranked as either good or bad, based on their ability to regurgitate exactly what the teacher wrote on the board, in an exam room with no board. The questions are mostly straight forward like ‘what is osmosis’ and the teacher in turn has a rigid marking scheme where points are taken off if some words are omitted, with no attention paid to how the student understands the term.

As such, students blessed with retentive memories were deemed very smart while students that might not have this ability but are creative enough to truly understand the term and define it in their own way, are at a disadvantage. For a long time as a student, I thanked God and sang all the Hallelujah songs to Him for making me smart. I started to sing a different tune when I got to America. Immediately I stepped foot in an American classroom, my level of smartness reduced significantly and then I started praying fervently for my numerous recent sins to be forgiven, so that I can be smart again.

Being a merciful God, He eventually gave me a renewed mind after I had had the rudest shock of my life in my first semester exams. I had had my basic education through to my first degree in Ghana and only came here for graduate studies. Prior to this exams, I had a 100% success rate of predicting every question that might possibly be asked in an exam. I was the local champion throughout my schooling in Ghana with the special talent for correctly anticipating the questions that a teacher was most likely to ask. I was the special girl with the neat handwriting who wrote out possible questions for a future exam, which got photocopied by everyone and was used as a study guide among my friends. Those were the glorious days when it was cool to be my friend and I got special presents nearing exams time, just so I could bless you with my special sheet of paper with my anticipated questions! Wheew!

So, you can just imagine my shock in my first semester here when I got into examination rooms and instead of ‘what is osmosis?’, I encountered ‘in your own words, help your little brother to understand what osmosis is by designing an experimental illustration that tells him a story that pertains to his life history, which will make his friends laugh, but make his aunt and uncle proud of him, while getting him on the teacher’s favorite pet list’ or something like that! I was horrified!!

I digress. But as I said, God was more merciful to me than I deserved and so after that epic failure in that first semester, I got that special tick to unlearn my old ways of learning, forego my local hometown hero status :( and really understand the context of lectures, if I were ever going to be successful here. It would suffice to say that I made it through my master’s degree and got into a doctoral degree program (thanks to fervent prayers!). I don’t think I got any smarter or I  matured (whatever that means) in graduate school, but because I unlearned to stop ‘chewing and pouring, and passing and forgetting’ and learned how to ‘understand and think, and conceptualize and never forget’. This is what mindful learning is to me.

Brett Netto

It is interesting to understand what “being smart” entails in different cultures. Thank you for that! I am glad that, while being difficult, you were able to get past the mindlessness learning and learn mindful learning. If you had done your schooling from elementary to undergraduate in the United States, you would have had the same experience here as in Ghana. For decades, the United States education system has shifted to the model of “teaching the test” and a focus on STEM. I believe that the humanities, social sciences, and the arts inherently teach mindful learning and the lack of emphasis on and the removal of these subjects has led to an increase of mindlessness learning.

Alex Noble

I found your blog post to be very interesting. I always like hearing about the education practices in other countries. I realize I would be in a lot of trouble if I tried to attend school in Ghana. What kind of instructor do you think you will be like when you have a classroom? Do you think that you will maintain the system of conceptualization or revert back to memorization?


I think the memorization system still has a role to play, albeit small, compared to the benefits of conceptualization. I will strive for a balance of the two systems in my classroom.


I loved reading your post, Iris! I think that in Ghana you were an excellent student and in the US you are an excellent learner. Good students are good at school. They do whatever their teacher tells them and do it well even when their teacher tells them to complete tasks that are not useful. Good learners are curious and self motivated ask their own questions and to take the time to find their own answers. You are good at both. Do you think there is a relationship between these skills?


Thank you! I don’t think those skills are mutually exclusive. Now that you mention it, I am beginning to think that good students can more easily transition to become good learners given the right teachers and the motivation. Good learners may probably find it difficult to be good students.

Jess Hotter

Thank you for sharing your post. I enjoyed learning the differences in educational systems. Something I wanted to point out is that in elementary schools, a lot of what is taught is the same sort of memorization. It’s not until middle school, I believe that critical thinking begins to take place. Having a firm structure of the basic principles is important in order to take that further step into critical thinking.

Khang Pham

I agree with you that my graduate studies have forced me to truly understand the concepts and critically think about the information that I am given. As many other commenters mentioned, in our basic studies we are taught on how to exam. In order to be the best in our field, we have to be able to use the tools that we have acquired and create new tools with them.


As an international student, I also struggled to change my learning habit in order to adapt to a new education system.
I completely agreed with you that the memorization system has its own role in the learning process, especially at early stages or at a new field.

Rachel Kinzer Corell

“…‘in your own words, help your little brother to understand what osmosis is by designing an experimental illustration that tells him a story that pertains to his life history, which will make his friends laugh, but make his aunt and uncle proud of him, while getting him on the teacher’s favorite pet list’”

This is the best example of sideways learning I have seen so far. Thanks for sharing it!


I am a person who reads your post every time you read it. You have a different writing style, that’s what I like.
I hope you write more useful articles soon


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