To Memorize or Not to Memorize? That Is the Question

memory and the brain

One of the essays in my latest book, What If Everybody Understood Child Development?, is titled “In Defense of Authentic Learning.” As I started to write the piece, it struck me that the title I’d chosen was an interesting one. I mean, why would authentic learning have to be defended? If authentic means “real or genuine,” as it’s defined in the dictionary, how could anybody object? Who wouldn’t want children to have real, genuine learning?

Well, apparently some don’t. Clearly there are a whole lot of policymakers and education reformers out there who are only interested in how well students swallow and regurgitate data. If that were not the case, they wouldn’t require students to take such an obscene number of tests. They wouldn’t tie performance on those tests to teacher evaluations. They wouldn’t force teachers to implement scripted curriculums. They wouldn’t find it reasonable to require all students to know all of the same things all at the same time.

And parents, who don’t understand that rote learning isn’t necessarily synonymous with real learning, are also too often enamored of the recitation of facts. If their children can say their ABCs, recite the state capitals, and count to 100 – in two languages – they’re satisfied that knowledge has been imparted. Most parents don’t realize that until there’s comprehension, there’s no authentic learning taking place. Until a child grasps what the numbers, letters, or words represent – until the information has some relevance to the child’s life – there’ll be no true learning.

Memorization, to me, has never represented authentic learning. And in today’s digital age, there’s far less need for memorization of facts than in the days when one had to own an expensive set of encyclopedias or travel to a library to find answers. Today, if facts are needed, one has only to type a keyword or two into a search box on whatever piece of digital equipment is handy and the answer will “magically” appear.

Still, I realize that some rote learning has its place. It’s how most of us learned the multiplication tables and significant dates in history. Chemists must know the table of elements, language teachers certain grammatical rules, and doctors symptoms. That’s why I wanted to address the topic of memorization on Studentcentricity. Where’s the balance?

I’ll let you decide. Here’s what panelist Ben Johnson had to say after the interview.

Traditional public education consists of a teacher doing most of the talking, presenting, and doing, while students are assumed to be passively listening, taking notes, and remembering everything that was said. Teachers have the unrealistic expectation that telling the students one time what they should know and be able to do is sufficient. Because of this, I follow the rule of three. This is simply that my students deserve three different opportunities to interact with a concept before I can expect them to have “learned” it. One iteration of a concept could be a direct teach with a PowerPoint, the next could be an internet search and exploration, and the final opportunity to learn could be project-based learning.

The final take-away is that too often we are so busy teaching students that we neglect to train and teach them how to learn. This is more than simply study skills, mnemonics, or organization skills. We have two memory systems that function very differently. One handles rote learning through repetition, and the other is instant learning through experiences. A teacher must make sure students know how to use these learning techniques as urgently as they teach the student to read and write. Students need to be able to learn to think in three distinct and different ways: analytically, critically, and creatively (problem solving uses all three).

And from Nancy Blair:

As with so many topics, this one is not an either/or issue. There is a place and value in purposeful memorization, but the key lies in the purposefulness and usefulness of the information. Nobody argues against the value in memorizing multiplication tables or a sight word vocabularly large enough to be literate; however, if one is only memorizing for a test, the value is diluted.

The dissonance increases when people can’t agree on which information is worth memorizing and which information just needs to be accessible. Those decisions are often situationally dependent. For example, a person interested in becoming a doctor will benefit from memorizing quite a bit of scientific information while a person interested in becoming a screenwriter likely will not have the same informational needs.

My watchword remains balance.Provide a variety and balance of various experiences where students have opportunities to create and collaborate and problem solve, and students will thrive even while deeply acquiring information (some of it through memorization) that they need to be successful.

To pursue this topic even further, check out the following resources:

Teaching Students to Dig Deeper – on developing college readiness traits – by Ben Johnson

“When Memorization Gets in the Way of Learning” by Ben Orlin:

“When Rote Learning Makes Sense” by Ben Johnson:

“Why Kids Should Learn Cursive (and Math Facts and Word Roots) by Annie Murphy Paul:


Rae, recently I read in a Washington Post blog that the reason there has been a rise in referrals to Occupational Therapists for young children is because they can’t sit still! Making young children sit and memorize is pathologizing childhood! Good post! Thanks!

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