Oldie But a Goodie: Why Memorizing Is an Important Tool for Learning

Allow me to conduct a quick and not-so-scientific survey. When you read the term “critical thinking skills” what images come to mind? Perhaps it’s a classroom of well-mannered students engaged in the thrust and parry of lively debate; maybe you’re picturing attentive and eager children absorbing material like a sponge and asking for more; or possibly you envision students wrestling with complex problems with the determination of passionate scholars.

Now, think about the term “rote memorization”.  I’m guessing that the images you’re conjuring are not as idyllic.

If you cringe at the thought of memorizing I can understand. Years ago, rote learning (which involved a ton of memorizing) was not just a learning tool; it was the preferred method for teaching.

So, in our quest to make learning come alive, we have vilified memory work and placed critical thinking on the pedagogical pedestal. However, in our all out effort to wash away the bad taste left by a memorize-or-fail approach to teaching, we have completely thrown out the proverbial baby with the bathwater.

If you’ve been keeping tabs on my blog posts, or you’ve taken the time to thumb through my book, or have even had a conversation with me about education issues, you’d know where I generally stand on faddish teaching methods. Not a fan. Yet, even I have to admit that the idea of memorizing facts, procedures, and so forth can seem like a rather tedious prospect. But, as an educator, my goal is to understand what actually works, and not allow myself to get too distracted by how good or bad something makes me feel. This is one of the scenarios.

I’ll be honest: I find the task of memorizing to be wearisome work. It doesn’t produce warm and fuzzy feelings for me. However, the truth is that, as a learning tool, memorizing works. Let me highlight the key idea in what I just said: memorizing as a tool for learning. It’s critical to point this out because the education of our kids depends on the timely and appropriate use of a variety of learning tools. Memorization is one of them.

The problem is that, within our system of education, the mere suggestion that students should memorize facts, figures, and procedures is usually met with, at best, quiet derision. It’s generally viewed as the antithesis of “authentic” learning.   Those who frown upon memory work often explain that it only leads to students who can parrot back information but gain little, if anything, in the way of understanding. Yet these champions for authentic learning don’t seem to consider, or choose to ignore, the fact that understanding is not always immediate and, often, can only come after all of the facts and procedures have been established and remembered.

I like the way Mathematician Kevin Devlin explains it:

When we learn a new skill, initially we simply follow the rules in a mechanical fashion. Then, with practice we gradually become better and as our performance improves, our understanding grows” (“How Do We Learn Math”, March 2006).

Admittedly, memorizing, in and of itself, is an incomplete method for learning. However, in order to obtain the necessary skills and knowledge that a student would need in order to eventually solve a problem – in any subject area – then he or she should know the essential facts and procedures. The National Research Council, in its book, How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience and School, makes the following observation:

In depth understanding requires detailed knowledge of the facts within a domain. The key attribute of expertise is a detailed and organized understanding of the important facts within a specific domain. Education needs to provide children with sufficient mastery of the details of particular subject matters so that they have a foundation for further exploration within those domains.

Memorization serves as the beginning of knowledge acquisition. While it is not, nor should it be, the sole approach by which a student should acquire skills and knowledge it is, as I’ve already mentioned, a very important tool. Memorization for it’s own sake, in the realm of education anyway, is a pretty fruitless endeavor. However, our ability to solve complex problems depends upon our recall of relevant and essential information. The more precise our recall, the quicker we can access the relevant information we need, and the more success we have in finding the correct solution or in articulating an intelligent and reasonable response.

Take math as an example. Most elementary math curriculums have stepped away from having students memorize procedures. In fact, in many cases, the memorization of the multiplication table is largely ignored and the teaching of long division is becoming a thing of the past.   Why? Simply because it doesn’t seem engaging enough for students and, in our all out push to ensure we raise students who are critical thinkers, multiplication tables and other, basic math procedures get pushed aside.

So instead of students who are more proficient in math, we’re left with kids who are struggling even more. In a study published in the journal “Mathematical Cognition”, it was found that the leading cause of mistakes made by students working on complex math problems was due to a lack of automaticity in basic math facts.

Wait a minute.

I thought that the point of a more critical-thinking based approach to elementary math was to help students successfully tackle more complex math problems. Yet the problem – which is ever increasing – is that kids can’t come up with the correct solution not because they don’t have conceptual understanding, but due to the fact that they don’t know their basic math facts well enough.

We can see how memory work, or a lack of, can affect students in other areas of study as well. To think critically about something means that an individual should have the ability to analyze and reflect on a topic – like an event in history – and then formulate a sound and well-considered response. Would it make sense, therefore, for us to expect a well-reasoned analysis or argument, say, of the American Revolution if a student doesn’t know (or remember) the simple facts surrounding this historical event?

You see, educators can get so caught up in the “lingo” that they seldom ever consider the practical implications. As teachers and parents, we’re often told that the best way to understand new information is to build upon a student’s prior knowledge. I wholeheartedly agree. Yet our education system, with its focus on discovery and collaboration, seems to have forgotten about the “prior knowledge” part. In other words, students need to access what they have already learned in order to have the relevant information to grapple with new lessons and information. That means tapping into facts, procedures, and essential skills. Let’s face it, if we don’t teach and require students to remember – or memorize – those facts, then what prior knowledge will they have to access?

It’s helpful to remember that memorizing does not simply involve the “cram and repeat” approach. All too often we seem to think that this is the only way to get something permanently stuck in our brains. But remembering facts, procedures, and strategies often involves repetition through extensive practice. In fact, the difference between those who have mastered a certain skill and those who haven’t is usually in the amount of time and practice they have invested. Practice, of course, not only helps an individual to hone his or her craft, but it is a method for improving recall.

Of course, while I believe that a student can master any subject, that’s not the main point of this discussion; it’s our all-or-nothing approach to rote memorization. Why must so-called education experts latch on to an idea at the expense of abandoning all other proven and helpful methods for learning? Can’t they simply acknowledge that, in fact, memorization has a place? It is an interesting paradox since, in order to believe the claims of so many “progressive” teaching philosophies, we must, in turn, suspend our own ability to think critically.

 

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