Question Before You Memorise: The Power of First Principles Thinking in Education

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Elon Musk’s philosophy on engineering, simplification, and first principles thinking offers a valuable perspective for a wide range of domains, from technology development to education. Let’s break down some of these points:


In engineering and other technical fields, there’s often a tendency to dive right into optimization—making a process faster, cheaper, more efficient, etc. However, Musk argues that this kind of focus can sometimes be premature. Before optimizing steps in a process, it’s worth asking whether those steps need to be there at all. Eliminating unnecessary steps can often yield far greater gains than merely making those unnecessary steps more efficient.

First Principles Thinking

Musk is a strong advocate of “first principles” thinking, a method that involves breaking down complicated problems into their most basic, fundamental truths. Then, using these truths, you can reconstruct a solution from the ground up. This is different from reasoning by analogy, where you solve problems based on how similar problems have been solved in the past. First principles thinking forces you to question pre-existing assumptions and processes, thereby opening the door to innovative solutions.

Application to Education

The philosophy can also be applied to education, particularly in how subjects like mathematics or physics are taught. Students are often encouraged to memorize formulas for quick problem-solving, but this can be akin to “over-optimizing” their toolkit without understanding why each tool is used. Understanding derivations from first principles not only aids comprehension but also equips students with the ability to tackle novel problems.

The Balance in Memorization

That said, there’s a balance to be struck. Some formulas or principles are so fundamental and frequently used that memorizing them becomes a practical necessity. For example, knowing the quadratic formula by heart can be a time-saver in many situations. The key is to understand when memorization serves a purpose and when it’s a shortcut that bypasses deeper understanding.

Implications for Teachers and Students

For educators, this philosophy suggests the need to focus on teaching methodologies that empower students to think critically, question existing frameworks, and derive solutions from fundamental principles. For students, it’s a reminder that the pursuit of understanding can be more rewarding and efficient than the pursuit of rote memorization.

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