Monday, July 26, 2010

Is Memorization Important?

brain After reading The "old way", the "new way" and the ethics of bar trivia from Stop Trying to Inspire Me by Tom, he had me thinking about how I felt toward memorization.

He states,

“Katie's comment about moving on from stopping cheating to teaching kids how to access facts, etc. is one that I've heard quite often from people both in and out of education. So much focus nowadays is on memorizing what's necessary for standardized tests that kids actually don't learn any real skills, such as problem solving or critical thinking. And I agree for the most part: the high-stakes testing focus has put so much focus on what the right answer is that examining the question or appreciating the process by which you find the answer isn't as important.

However, to go completely in the other direction and say that memorizing anything isn't necessary is throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Because I don't know about you, but I find that the memorization and retention of particular facts, processes, procedures, functions, etc. are vital in the real world and not just in bar trivia or at the DMV [to which I say, you'd better have that stuff memorized at the DMV. I don't want you looking at your iPhone at a stop sign to figure out what that stop sign means]. When you learn anything, you very often commit the most basic parts of it to memory mainly because what comes next uses those basic parts or assumes you know them.”

I think that schools have put way too much emphasis on memorizing certain facts and information and not enough about others. I feel that memorizing things are as important for exercising the brain as much as physical activity is important for exercising the body. Yet for both exercises, we want to do it in the most efficient and effective way so that we can reap benefits from this. Also, some exercises may be so boring and useless that I will give up before I ever see any benefits.

I think students do need to memorize certain things in order to function successfully on a daily basis. Personal information (name, address, date of birth, phone number) should be memorized at an early age. There are many things that we do on a daily basis that we have memorized over time. I think basic math facts of addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division should be memorized. Sure, you can use a calculator but memorizing these facts is more efficient than the time it takes to take out a calculator and input the numbers to find your answer. I know I memorized a lot of vocabulary words when I was learning a new language but unfortunately when I didn’t get to practice them or use them, I quickly forgot about them.

There are some facts that I found useless knowing and when I hadn’t needed this information, I have forgotten them. That makes me feel that it was a waste of time even learning the information. For instance, I had a teacher who made us memorize the Presidents in order. Now I can honestly tell you that I have never needed to come up with that information in order to function in daily life (I’m not talking trivia contests). It seems like we spent forever learning this information and it makes me wonder how much time was lost when I could have been learning something valuable. I have never needed to know the geological timeline for everyday life but I remember spending a week learning about it and being tested on the order and dates. I’m not saying this information hasn’t come in handy when I’ve needed it but knowing how to find the information was more important than just memorizing the information.

On my own, I felt it benefited me to learn the dates of different events in American history because when I learn something new in history, I can relate it to the dates that I know to give it a place of reference in my mind. No one had me memorize these dates (or if they did, I don’t remember) but I found myself doing this a lot so eventually I remembered them. We travel to a lot of national parks and historic sites so when dates are given for events or when it was established, I can relate it to other events that were going on during the same time. Sharing this with students may help them take the same interest in learning information like this.

I believe that when I have students memorize things, I need to think about the purpose for doing this. I need to be able to explain to them the rationale for memorization and have them understand that it will help them be more successful in life. If I can’t do this or even convince myself of this, I need to stop and rethink about having them memorize this information.

How do you feel about memorization? What do you feel is important that our students memorize?

Posted on the Successful Teaching Blog by loonyhiker (successfulteaching at gmail dot com).

Original image: 'This is my brain' by: Kenny Stoltz


mweisburgh said...

Being able to memorize is also an important skill. Even if the information being memorized are not crucial, students need the practice, and should be encouraged to learn different memorization techniques.

That said, we do probably emphasize the memorization of facts too much, expecially trivial facts meant solely to pass a test.

Clix said...

I think memorization is also important because it stretches the brain. My sixth grade year I went to a different school (long story - I'll blog about it sometime, I'm sure!) and we had to memorize the Preamble to the Constitution. And then the Gettysburg Address. And then the Declaration of Independence.

None of that is useful in a practical sense. It isn't "necessary" information. But I really think it helped my mind develop in ways it otherwise wouldn't have.

Additionally, it was HARD. I mean, even now, looking back, knowing that I did that... I still find it hard to believe that I could DO that! There is immense value in facing challenges, and when we can get students to complete tasks they didn't know they could, it reinforces the value of diligence and gives them faith in themselves.

On a slightly different note, I think it helped that we were given something meaningful to memorize. Years later - gosh, it's actually been decades now! - I can't easily recall the full text of any of them. But sometimes I'll hear a sentence, or even just a line, and it'll give me a jolt of recognition: hey, I know that! And somehow, some of the phrases have stayed with me all this time - snippets of something beautiful.

Bob Esty said...

When I teach my year-long American History course for 6th graders, I ask them to memorize 10-12 years in which things happen. These are things like the Declaration of Independence (1776) or the start of the Civil War (1861). I do it for the same reason you give in your be able to put other historical events in context. On the other hand, when I inherited my course, my predecessor had kids memorize all the capitals of all the states. That was one of the first things I changed. I think some memorization is important, but there needs to be a balance.

Melody said...

Like Clix wrote, I memorized the Preamble in 5th or 6th grade and had to recite it in front of the class. I could see many benefits to that; in addition to what was mentioned already, I had the added benefit of speaking in front of a group with no notes or props to aid me. I love the feeling of power and ownership it gave me over the piece of text as well. I am considering having students memorize a poem to recite in front of the class this year. Poetry Out Loud has a competition each year where students give dramatic recitations of poems. It stretches students and often puts those poems in long term memory, unlike things they memorize for tests. Now there is little inherent value in having a poem memorized, but the performance experience and confidence from accomplishing such a task are valuable.
I am also glad that I memorized the positions of all the states and their capitals. I think it is just as handy to have a reference for physical places as it is for historical events.
Memorization also applies in spelling, grammar, mechanics... perhaps we memorize more than we realize simply from repetitive use and not just from teachers who told us we had to do it :)

Nancy Wirick said...

Like many other people, I had to memorize the preamble in 5th or 6th grade also. But now, I could not recite it to save my life. I do agree that students are asked to memorize things that they will never need to know to be successful in life. I also agree that looking back and saying you did that is a big confidence booster. I am challenged everyday on what I ask my students to memorize. I have to decide if it is important enough to have them memorize it or show them how they can find the answer later if they need it. With my students, I find that if I can show them how to find the answer it will benefit them more in the long run. Multiplication facts are one area we go over quite a bit. I had to memorize my facts in 4th grade, but it is something that is so hard for my students to do. So, I now teach them how to skip count and do multiplication with skip counting. That way if they don't know the answer they have an easy way to figure it out. By the end of the year, I am happy if my students can find the answer if they have not memorized it.

William Gripentrog said...

When it comes to memorization, Barney always comes to mind,