Recently, someone I know asked a question about memory work for kids. She received several responses that espoused the popular view that rote learning is a thing of the past. “The best kind of learning is meaningful learning.” “There are certain things everyone has to know, whether interesting or not, but some stuff is a waste of time.” “It’s best to learn rules through discovery.”
I don’t disagree with these answers. I’ve been teaching kids (my own and others) for a while now, and I’ve done a lot of discovery-based work and meaningful learning exercises. But I’m going to go out in defense of memory work, because I (and many educators) feel it has a place in a good education.
My kids memorize quite a bit. Systems of the body, Bible verses, grammar rules, spelling rules, times tables, historical dates, poems and passages of literature are all in their repertoire. But why? Wouldn’t they understand the human body better through hands on activities? Won’t they be better writers through practice and error than endless drill of comma splices and fragments? (Anybody know what a comma splice is?)
The answer is yes.. and no. We do both. We do both because they work together to create the tapestry of education that I desire for my children. Hands-on, meaningful work is the warp; memorization is the weft. They build on one another. Susan Wise Bauer, educator and author of The Well-Trained, et al. says, “Dates, personalities, and wars serve as pegs on which to hang incoming information.” (Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone in 1876. Quick: Was this before or after the Civil War?)
Here is what another educator has to say, “The first few years I taught history, I dismissed the importance of dates. I knew that rote learning was bad, that memorization represented a very low level on Bloom’s Taxonomy, and that students should be unconstrained by a teacher’s impositions and free to determine for themselves what was important. I was also stung by the horror stories of adults who claimed that all they remembered of school history was being forced to memorize dates. So I told my students that I wasn’t interested in dates; I was more interested in big ideas and in their ability to think critically and weigh evidence. Of course, they might find it useful to remember some dates, but it was entirely up to them to decide which dates, if any, they would memorize. The result was not very surprising, in retrospect. Left to their own devices, students remembered few dates, and could not recall whether Texas became independent from before or after the Mexican-American War or what Lincoln meant by “four score and seven years ago,” because they didn’t know when the Declaration of Independence was written. This lapse in memory also made higher level historical thinking more difficult. Students struggled to recognize the causal link between Texas independence and the outbreak of the Mexican-American War, or the significance of Lincoln’s redefinition of the Declaration of Independence. I suspect that my experiences are not all that unusual among those who like to view themselves as teachers who care about historical thinking and see memorization as antithetical to that role. It turns out, however, that while history is more than memorizing dates, it certainly isn’t less. Dave Neumann, “In Defense of Memorization: The Role of Periodization in Historical Inquiry,” italics mine.
Memorization helps us fit information into the bigger picture, to connect people, events and movements into the scope of humanity. It also makes incoming information familiar to us, therefore making it easier to connect with and retain. My children perk up when, for example, they hear of a President, whose name they’d memorized, in a historical narrative. They feel like they’re in on something. This happened just the other day when my daughter was doing a literature assignment on a passage from a book written just after the Civil War. It mentioned the 16th president, whom she knew to be Abraham Lincoln, and the fact that she knew of him made her more interested to read the passage. We haven’t studied Lincoln yet, but we did memorize the first half or so of our country’s leaders last year.
“Ok,” you say, “that’s fine for history.” What about the rest?
Let’s look at grammar, spelling, Bible and math facts. I lump these together because the purpose of memorizing them is the same. Having these facts committed to memory gives us the ability to create, to build, and to do so with ease.
My daughters are in gymnastics. They want to be Olympians, but in order to do the complex routines they see the older girls doing, they must first learn, and commit to memory, the movements and muscle patterns they will need to do them. Muscle memory is a powerful thing. They have probably done thousands of cartwheels, but now they can do them without thinking about it. Similarly, I wouldn’t be able to write this piece if I had not first learned to type. Okay, that’s not true. I could write it, hunt and peck style. But knowing how to type allows me to write with ease, letting my thoughts flow. There are hundreds of like examples, from baseball to knitting to prescribing medication. The memorization of facts and processes allows for higher level thinking.
When we have memorized, and made a part of our thought process, the rules of spelling and grammar, we can construct sentences that convey the sentiment, or information, or argument we intend to convey – without pausing to remember where to use a comma. Our thoughts are made clear to readers when they are not fighting through our poor grammar. Complex algebra is much easier when basic math facts are part of our brain’s makeup. In times of crisis or need, Bible passages that have been committed to mind are there when we need them.
Finally, we have poetry and literature. Students as long ago as Augustine put long passages of poetry and literature to memory (although that is not the reason we do so). Susan Wise Bauer states, “Memorization and recitation of poetry is an important part of the reading process; it exercises the child’s memory, stores beautiful language in his mind, and gives him practice in speaking aloud.” Italics mine.
Here is an excerpt from an article by Michael Knox Beran in The City Journal, “What the child discovers, in other words, is not only aesthetically pleasing, but important to cognitive development. Classic verse teaches children an enormous amount about order, measure, proportion, correspondence, balance, symmetry, agreement, temporal relation (tense), and contingent possibility (mood). Mastering these concepts involves the most fundamental kind of learning, for these are the basic categories of thought and the framework in which we organize sensory experience.”
Memorizing poetry and literature allows a child (or adult) to retain the verses in his mind. He rolls them over and over again and soaks in their meaning as he does. I can still recite a piece of Shakespeare I learned in high school (The Merchant of Venice, Act III, scene 1) and as I get older I understand the nuances of it more and more.
We don’t need to fear or dread memorization. Young children actually enjoy it. They thrill at the sounds tripping out of their mouths and they love to impress the grown-ups. Memory work doesn’t have to be dull; learning the ABC’s is memory work, after all, and we enjoy singing it with our children. Can it be made into a chore? Of course. Can it be overused? Absolutely? Does it stand in the stead of critical thinking and discussion? No. But it is an excellent tool in the belt of the educator.
P.S. Leave your answers to the two questions above in the comments and I’ll pick a random winner for a $10 Starbucks gift card. No Googling! 🙂
I highly recommend this article, especially for the video of the little boy reciting Litany; he’s adorable: http://hechingered.org/content/rote-memorization-overrated-or-underrated_3351/
For the complete article from The City Journal, go to http://www.city-journal.org/html/14_3_defense_memorization.html. It’s long, but a very good read.
Quotes attributed to Susan Wise Bauer are from The Well-Trained Mind, second edition.