Rote memorization: Overrated, or underrated?

Among the countless catchphrases that educators generally despise are “drill-’n-kill” and “rote memorization.” In keeping with their meanings, both sound terrifically unpleasant. To learn something “by rote,” according to the Random House dictionary, is to learn it “from memory, without thought of the meaning; in a mechanical way.”

The fear is that we’re turning our children into automatons by force-feeding them useless bits of information — facts that can be found instantly on Wikipedia, like the dates of the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648) or the equation for calculating the area of a circle (πr2).

But is it possible that memorizing things is actually underrated in modern American society? Could one make a convincing case that it’s not just useful but vital for people of all ages to memorize things?

The answer to both of these questions, I believe, is yes. And a recent discussion on the BAM! Radio Network in which I participated focused on this very topic — the value of rote memorization. The conversation, hosted by Rae Pica, featured Daniel Willingham (a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia), Joan Almon (executive director of the Alliance for Childhood) and me.

Because “rote” learning and “memorization” have negative connotations for most people, it might be better to speak of learning things by heart. And, as Willingham points out in our discussion, learning things by heart is something children automatically do. That is, it comes naturally to them — whether it’s being able to recall all the words to a nursery rhyme or knowing the plot of a story (if not the story itself, word for word) before one is actually able to read. Willingham says that the key is engagement: “If you’re really engaged, memory comes pretty automatically.”

Learning things by heart can be useful for any number of reasons, some of which we discuss in the radio show. As an English teacher, I’ve often made my students memorize poetry — and just as often some have pushed back, accusing me of assigning meaningless “busy work.” I love that accusation because it provides me the perfect opportunity to explain why memorizing a poem is, in fact, a worthwhile activity.

In 10th grade, I learned by heart the prologue to the Canterbury Tales (in Middle English, of course), and to this day I can recite it and a lot of other Chaucer that I had to memorize as an undergraduate. I can also do Robert Frost, Heinrich Heine (in German) and Shakespeare (“To be or not to be”) at the drop of a hat. Also, should you wish to know, I could tell you the first 100 digits or so of π. Yeah, it’s kinda geeky — but it’s kinda cool, too.

And here’s a little-known secret: learning things by heart isn’t as hard as many people imagine. Most people, I think, could learn the first 100 digits of π in an hour. (No one believes me until they actually try.) The trick to remembering the digits long-term, however, is constant repetition — especially when you’re early in the process. I’m able not to forget Hamlet’s soliloquy because I learned it really well a decade ago — practicing multiple times a day for weeks on end — and because I now check myself every few weeks or so to see if I still know it.

For inspiration on the memorization front, check out the video below of a three-year-old reciting Billy Collins’ poem “Litany.” This serves as a lovely reminder of what the human brain is capable of. (Notice what the young child’s intonation on certain lines reveals: he hasn’t learned this poem “without thought of the meaning; in a mechanical way” — Random House’s definition of “rote” learning. He’s wiser and more aware of what he’s saying than many of us might initially think.)

Anyway, here are some of the reasons I give skeptical students for why learning things by heart is worthwhile:

First, it’s a challenge, and one in which those who succeed can take pride. (On this front, I’ve always been much more impressed by Broadway actors than their Hollywood counterparts because the former can’t screw up — they have to nail everything the first time — and because they don’t get cue cards off-camera to prompt them. Hollywood actors, by contrast, can get away with memorizing just a handful of lines and often re-shoot a single scene scores of times to get it right.)

Second, it’s good exercise for your brain. Many people these days seem to believe that our digital devices will remember everything for us — and they will, but they’re not much help when we can’t find them, or they’re broken, or they’ve been left at home. How will you call your best friend to reschedule that lunch appointment — you don’t even know her phone number! And she’s your best friend?

Third, and most importantly, new insights are gained in the process of memorization. You see things to which you were previously blind; you uncover a play on words, assonance, alliteration, analogies. It is for this reason, I believe, that the great Russian-American novelist Vladimir Nabokov declared that there’s actually no such thing as reading — there’s only re-reading. (“Curiously enough, one cannot read a book: one can only reread it. A good reader, a major reader, an active and creative reader is a rereader,” Nabokov wrote in his Lectures on Literature.)

The same holds for TV shows and movies: you see so much more on a second, third and fourth viewing. You don’t truly see anything the first time you watch it. And, in my experience, this applies no less to music: hearing something for the first time is more akin to hearing it not at all than to truly hearing it. The work is too new, too unknown, to us; we can’t make heads or tails of it because we suffer from sensory overload. Quite simply, there’s too much going on for us to get anything but a glimpse of the work’s essence.

It’s only with multiple readings, viewings and hearings, then, that we actually begin to understand, see and hear. We’re deaf and blind in our first encounters with things.

And this is why practice matters so much as well. It’s our chief hope for transcending mediocrity.

We say “practice makes perfect” in English but this, I think, is somewhat misleading because perfection is rarely attainable. There’s no such thing as a “perfect” performance of a Beethoven sonata. And while perfection in sports isn’t inconceivable — I suppose a tennis player could win a match in straight sets without dropping a single point, or a quarterback could complete every pass (with no interceptions) in a football game — it’s highly unlikely. Thus, I prefer the German version of the saying: “practice makes the master.” Those who are the best at things typically become so through nonstop practice. It’s not the only factor, of course — natural ability matters hugely, too — but it does seem to be a necessary ingredient. As Amy Chua, of “Tiger Mother” fame, says in her new book: “Tenacious practice, practice, practice is crucial for excellence; rote repetition is underrated in America.”

Why are rote repetition and memorization underrated in America? As I say on the radio show, they’ve gotten a bad rap in part because they lend themselves too well to standardized testing. It’s much easier — faster, cheaper — for me to determine whether you know when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor (December 7, 1941) than whether you can convincingly explain how and why the Treaty of Versailles set the stage for World War II. Yes, the curriculum has narrowed (even Arne Duncan admits it!), the “what-gets-tested-is-what-gets-taught” phenomenon is very much alive, and there’s a lack of critical-thinking skills among today’s young people.

These sad facts, however, are more the result of our over-reliance on multiple-choice tests than anything inherently evil about repetition or memorization.


Comments & Trackbacks (50) | Post a Comment

John Jensen

I’m glad to see the tenor of the discussion above about memorization and agree heartily. I’d also like to suggest some useful distinctions: 1) What eliminates the accusation of “rote” is to master information in context by explaining it. In other words, if what you master contains both the detail and its meaning-context, then it ceases to be rote and instead finds its niche in one’s understanding of the world. 2) Students get this kind of challenge only if the teacher requires them to explain “large” questions that contain the details. We want this kind of mastery not just for pre-set pieces like quotations and poetry.. 3) There isn’t enough time in the day for the teacher to hear everything students need to explain, so they 4) need to be taught to listen well to each other and help to flesh out each other’s explanation. 5) The ideal moment to re-practice a piece for mastery is while still retaining a complete version of the answer but just before you’re about to forget it; retrieving it right then deepens it most. 6) If you’re working with a question that has 4-7 novel bits of information in it, the optimum intervals expand about like this: 1 minute, 3-5 minutes, 15-20 minutes, 45-60 minutes, 3 hours or end of day, etc.–each time remembering the whole thing “without looking.” Return to a prior interval only if you lost a part of it. For a more detailed explanation, contact me at jjensen@gci.net and I can send it to you.

[...] rote memorization in an insightful and almost heartwarming way. And she also points us to the HechingerEd blog by Justin Snider from the day before on the same subject. And he references a related blog about Gladwell’s thinking on “outliers,” the [...]

Patricia Reynolds

It is my opinion that when we got rid of drill and kill we may have thrown the baby out with the bathwater in education..as an ESL teacher I saw many remarkable skill levels in children who came from nations where memorization was part of their education.. as the article points out.. these children did not see this as a boring task, rather they viewed it as mastery lessons so they could know they were ready for the next level..

Lynn

I say bravo to the article. I had to memorize a poem in 9th grade and, having not recited it for many many years,I find I can still spout out a good portion of it.

I think memorizing is essential for math facts. Administrators seem to think this is useless. They only believe that students need to “understand” the concept. Well, if you don’t know your facts you cannot understand the concept and you certainly cannot move on to harder ideas such as division, fractions and certainly not Algebra.

Harry Keller

Rote memorization is a straw man in this article. Of course, we all memorize things; it’s unavoidable. The real question is why. If you’re memorizing because your instructor told you to, then the failings mentioned are true. It really is “drill and kill.”

However, learning stuff as part of a larger, engaging learning activity has real value.

It’s too bad that we really do have to memorize spelling and multiplication tables. Viewed as a challenge, it works well enough even if the ultimate value is not understood well.

Chemists (such as myself) tend not to memorize the Periodic Table of Elements but learn it through frequent association and, eventually, the nuisance of having to look up the atomic mass of, say, sodium. Once you see the value in knowing something, memorizing it becomes less of a chore and you continue to work on having it at your recall fingertips so that it isn’t just useless memorization that fades shortly after you take the test.

As I say, it all hinges on “why.” Memorizing for a test is useless (except for brain cell exercise). Memorizing for life is useful.

craig cook

As 1) the parent of college & high school students who were taught to multiply using ‘fuzzy math’; 2) the supervisor of recent finance and accounting graduates in an accounting firm; and 3) a survivor of rote memorization of times tables – I find that my ability to perform mental math beats the calculator-wielding kids hands-down every time. This advantage isn’t just a matter of a few seconds – it also means a distinct advantage in negotiations or in demonstrating my more rapid comprehension of a problem or situation. That translates to looking smarter in front of clients, peers & bosses. Shallow, perhaps, but that’s the real world.

Scott W Beckett

You can’t play chess without memorizing how the pieces move. You can’t understand mathematical concepts without using concrete examples, i.e., numbers, operating on each other. You can’t write without knowing definitions, etc., etc., etc. Precision Teaching helps students learn those skills in a measurable, graduated way.

Mark Heifner

Mastery learning for some students a few practices but for many students it takes multiple attempts and yes. Rote memorization! Watching the video of the young boy recite a poem that is beyond his years is great as it becomes a storng “anchor point” in his developing neural network and will allow him to learn the mulitple analogoies and deep thoughts that are found in the prose. Hats off to the parents, you do know what you are doing.

Michael Goldenberg

Not a single argument presented above holds water under even slight interrogation. Rereading and re-viewing are not necessarily for the purposes of memorizing, and certainly a serious student of literature, movies, theater, etc., isn’t rereading or re-viewing for the purpose of memorizing. Rather, it’s for the purpose of careful scrutiny and analysis. I’m quite sure that a close analysis of a Hamlet soliloquy doesn’t require memorizing the text, just as one may memorize it without understanding. That’s really the point.

If something has sense to it (isn’t simply arbitrary information), then in general it’s far more important to get the sense than to memorize the words or data. If, on the other hand, it’s primarily arbitrary words (names of things) or data, there are methods for efficiently memorization that are far more effective than rote. It’s intriguing, however, that these methods are rarely mentioned and virtually never taught in school (nor are they usually raised in these tiresome arguments for the allegedly-wonderful benefits of rote memorization). They’re hardly new – many have been around since the early days of the Roman Empire, at least – and are available freely in many books, including the works of mnemonists Bruno H. Furst, Harry Lorayne, and many others.

I have long suspected that the appeal of rote memorization for some folks is precisely what makes the execrable Amy “Tiger Mother” Chua so attractive to some folks: that good old notion of “no pain, no gain” that is deeply rooted in our Protestant work ethic. The notion that learning could be self-motivated, enjoyable, and not associated with suffering under the hands of a harsh taskmaster just upsets some people (see most of the comments above) no end. But that really is a matter of personality and philosophical bent, not solid educational learning theory.

Professor Willingham has become one of the darlings of educational conservatives (of various points on the political spectrum) because he seems to provide scientific justification for practices that appeal to the fraternity hazing mentality: “If it was bad enough for me, it’s bad enough for my kids.” But neither his arguments nor those of the blog author really cut any ice. Take the notion that memorizing something will be a source of pride: perhaps so, but so will understanding something, particularly something one didn’t think one could master, like the concept of the derivative or the primary workings of heredity. Yes, there are specific ‘facts’ that one needs in the process of getting those things, but they are, like the lines from books, movies, poems, etc., that I have ‘memorized,’ they are generally acquired WITHOUT the need for rote memorization at all. They are the concomitants of the process of understanding, and not the reverse. I don’t care how many times one reads PALE FIRE or how much of it one memorizes of its beautiful words: you’re not going to have the first clue about how it works without a great deal of thought that has virtually nothing to do with rote memorization.

As for the other tired saw about ‘exercising’ one’s brain. There are many things that exercise our brain. Rote memorizing, like becoming an expert speller, no doubt appeals to some folks, but by and large isn’t very useful and certainly doesn’t span the gamut of the sorts of things that provide exercise for our brains. Actually trying to do a close reading of, say, “And Death Shall Have No Dominion” by Dylan Thomas is of far more value (in my opinion) than is an empty but ‘perfect’ memorization of it for purposes of recitation (I wonder if Thomas himself memorized his poems in order to read them publicly?)

If the real goal is memorizing effectively, point kids to Harry Lorayne and Jerry Lucas’ THE MEMORY BOOK or Bruno Furst’s STOP FORGETTING. The rest of these calls for rote are just outdated blather.

Conrad P. Pritscher

Many teachers and professors for well over a hundred years have operated on the basis of mastery of content as a major goal of schooling. Many teachers and professors see themselves as dispensers of information. They often do not notice the information is often unasked for. Nor do they often notice the unconscious coercion when students are forced to obey the obedience to authority frame, even if it prevents students from developing their own, possibly more illuminating frame. Controlling students is often a common mindset in schools and universities which continue to promote the dispensing of information. The dispensing of unasked for information makes many teachers and professors the equivalent of, as William Pinar mentions, mail carriers.
Average students in free schools showed they improved on national standardized tests at 2 1/2 times the national rate. (Education Revolution, August, 2010.) Free schools, in an ungraded atmosphere, encourage students to explore what the student finds remarkable, interesting, and important. They are not tuition free.
Einstein thought education is that which helps someone think something that can’t be learned from textbooks. See Reopening Einstein’s Thought: About What Can’t Be Learned from Textbooks. Sense Publishers, 2008. And Einstein in Zen: Learning to Learn. Peter Lang Publishing, 2010.
Conrad P Pritscher, professor emeritus, Bowling Green State University

Caroline

I think the thrust of the argument should be whether students can apply what they have learned. I have met many students who say they know their multiplication tables but cannot solve problems which involve multiplication. Students need to be able to develop a wide range of skills. Regurgitating facts without being able to make links and solve problems are no use to anyone. Look at Finland, Singapore, Japan etc – the focus is on developing students as problem solving learners.

John Bennett

Right on, Michael! You’ve got it correct. Yes, there is “core knowledge” – my definition: knowledge needed to obtain other knowledge AND determine its value or to be able to ask a question I’d an expert and make of the answer – that must be LEARNED. But learning means having broad knowledge associated with a term beyond the definition. You can USE information learned; the only use of information memorized is to “give it back” on a test or on Jeopardy. With regard to exercising the brain, it happens a whole lot more in learning something than in memorizing it.

Yes, eastern culture students know a great deal – but don’t ask most of the to use the material; the latest book is a testament only to how well those parents control their children’s lives with respect to “education” especially.

An engineering colleague, Richard Felder has what he calls his “Rule of Three.”. The first time you see something, it’s brand new. The second time you see it, about all you remember probably is that you’ve seen it before. Only the third time you see it will you begin to make sense and begin use of it. Beyond that, it takes many more times to master anything. Faculty and teachers don’t memorize something in order to facilitate its learning; they’ve encountered it many times and have learned / mastered it. THAT’S the charge to teachers and faculty: work with the learners to facilitate their learning / mastery of the material in the courses! And yes, that means going well beyond memorizing it!

I once gave a presentation at a conference titled “I Don’t Want to Fly in That Airplane If You Designed It From Memory.”. That is a comment frequently made to my students. Learn the core knowledge and the get the latest additional information, being able to determine its worth – to get the best design outcome.

Finally, with regard to students in spelling bees, if you watch / listen to them, they ask for it’s origins, etc., I believe because they don’t just memorize the word’s spelling but rather depend upon the “norms” of the likely spelling because of the broader information or vision.

George Peternel

Consider Bloom’s Taxonomy. First comes knowledge, a prerequisite to the higher level thinking skills that follow. Rote is one of the primary ways that knowledge is acquired. How else did we learn to talk?

[...] that discuss the impact of ‘rote learning’ in the overall learning and growth process.  First, HechingerEd’s piece discusses the value of rote memorization, referring to it as ‘learning by heart’ (less negative [...]

Marshall

Check out Project Follow Through – most people don’t know it was ever conducted, and the results clearly showed that Direct Instruction was most effective (which is along the lines of rote memorization)

Kay Swaney

As a retired teacher/administrator who has helped author several books on critical reading, I applaud your efforts about rote learning having its place in the learning cycle. I find as I work with schools and teachers, that students at the upper elementary level through high school don’t seem to know their multiplication tables and the correct usage of the different parts of speech. This hampers them in all types of math and writing assignments. It is not that hard to learn these and will help them in all aspects of their education.

Vincent Miholic, PhD

The key word is “engaged.” The majority of what I witness is teacher reiteration followed by student regurgitation, followed soon after by rapid decay of information.

While the argument has merit, the reality is that many teachers haven’t broken free from the comfort and ease of useless, short term memorization exercises and testing. When gifted and talented methods is as a common first year methodology class in educational programs, not some elite feather in the cap, then this article takes on real meaning.

Is Rote Memorization Underrated? | MindShift

[...] the hot-button question posed by Justin Snider on the Hechinger Ed blog. Why are rote repetition and memorization underrated in America? As I say on the radio show, [...]

Kim Tison

This little boy is amazing.

Barbara Radisavljevi

I used to believe that memorizing anything but math facts wasn’t useful over the long haul — even before everyone had a computer. We still had paper reference materials for spelling, history, science facts, etc and could look them up if needed. I thought it was ultimately more important to learn the use of those reference tools and to understand concepts and critical thinking skills.

Some facts are really tools, such as math facts, especially outside the academic world. I wouldn’t want to look up how many ounces are in a cup whenever I cook or determine when shipping first class how many ounces are in a pound.

But there is another reason for memorizing material beyond facts that might be important to you or a student later on in life. Our entire society in most of North America, is very dependent upon electricity and computers for banking, commerce, and even a lot of reading. If the power goes out in a store in the daytime, business still comes to a standstill because the computer won’t work.

When I working in a retail store and the power went out, we could write down sales and put the money in a cash box or just take checks or charges until the power was back on. That was dependent upon our staff knowing how to make change and calculate tax without the help of an electronic register. That was in the 1970′s and all our staff were either college graduates or UCLA students. I suspect most, if not all fast food places would have business come to a standstill if the power went out because some staff would not be able to make calculations or change. (The cash draw wouldn’t be able to open, either, I suspect.)

Suppose this country suffered a cyber attack that brought down all computers and our electric grid with it. Only those who still had reference materials in paper available would be able to look up the facts they needed if they were not stored in memory. If you read the biographies of political prisoners, you will find that many of them nourished their spirits with words they had memorized from songs, poems, the Bible, or whatever gave meaning to their lives. If you are lying in a hospital bed unable to move, you can sometimes still think, and it’s what is stored in your mind that sustains and encourages you.

Leaving the most important founding documents of our government in books and computers instead of stored in the minds of citizens from their childhood leaves the average citizen unarmed mentally to discern an overreach of power. It leaves them more susceptible to what they hear in the media if they cannot immediately know the Constitutional limits of each branch of government. If you don’t know where the boundaries are, you don’t know when someone is trespassing.

It is also important to explain the meaning of what is being learned, but it’s easiest to memorize when you are young. Meaning can grow along with the mind’s ability to comprehend more. That leads to some “Aha!” moments later in life as new understanding and applications come for the memorized words.

Memorization should not be an either or choice. Both are necessary at different stages of life and the two can work together to produce a well-educated citizen.

Jerome Smith

Many years ago, before I ever thought of becoming an English teacher, I memorized about 200 verses of the Bible. I was in high school then, and a friend had memorized 600 verses. I never seemed to get beyond 200 verses myself, no matter how hard I tried.

In college I read a research article that asserted that once learned, a piece of information is easier to re-learn at a later date (even many years later), even if it seems to have been forgotten. I believe my own experience reflects and confirms that research finding.

My professor in graduate school, Dr. Donald J. Lloyd, once said in conversation at the end of a seminar class meeting, “The best readers of books are re-readers of books, for you really cannot understand the first sentence until you have read the last.” The comments in the article above reminded me of what Dr. Lloyd had said on a similar theme.

I have written a reading program to help my students catch up to their grade level in reading comprehension. It is written in programmed learning format. It develops linguistic concepts by requiring students to learn the material by heart. I started writing it to help my students write better. I almost accidentally discovered the program actually was far more successful at improving reading comprehension. Dr. Lloyd told me he thought it worked so well because the programmed learning format required students to respond to virtually every sentence in the program, a process that gave my students much practice in developing inference skills.

About those 200 verses–I’ve put that basic core of knowledge to much use in producing two major Bible reference works, collections of cross-references to every verse, clause, phrase, theme, figure of speech, and important word in the Bible. The two works are The New Treasury of Scripture Knowledge and Nelson’s Cross Reference Guide to the Bible.

[...] just read a blog that discussed some of the virtues of rote memorization and it reminded me of the old question about whether children should learn to read by learning [...]

Scott Hayden

I would like to see more development of the idea of memorizing coming naturally to young children.

As in the case of my daughter, who sang the ABCs incessantly before she had any idea of their meaning, rote memory becomes the seed for later understanding.

As a 5th grade teacher, I habitually memorized my class list in alphabetical order before the first day of school. Sure, I had few faces or personalities to attach to those raw facts, but when the faces showed up, I was ahead of the game. Memory preceded understanding.

Why set the question as if learning is EITHER rote memory dependent OR understanding dependent? Could it not be both / and? Sometimes memorizing precedes understanding, sometimes the other way around. And perhaps the learner’s age makes a difference in which order is preferred.

Tahir Javed

Whether memorizing anything- facts, routines, procedures – is useful or not depends very much on what we do with what we have memorized. If things memorized remain in memory as isolated bits and pieces without forming a coherent, meaningful larger system, the result is not likely to something worthwhile

Kimberly

Thank you for your well thought out article. I agree that the word “rote” has negative feelings attached to it.
When I was at university studying how to teach young children, I was surprised at how many fellow students simply learned the math facts “rote” and had absolutely no concept of the math functions themselves. I think the two (concepts and memorization) need to go hand in hand. That’s why I created Arithmetic Village.

Tahir Javed

(Sorry . My earlier text got posted rather ‘prematurely’. Here’s what I actually intended to say on the topic.)

Whether memorizing anything- facts, routines, procedures – is useful or not depends very much on what we do with what we have memorized. If things memorized remain in memory as isolated bits and pieces without forming a coherent, meaningful larger system, the result is not likely to something worthwhile. Memorized bits – small or big – need to be available in a way that they can be processed further, and connected productively to other bits of knowledge and experiences. Otherwise, they are likely to remain (in the words of Alfred North Whitehead) as ‘inert ideas’ . So, I would certainly support the importance of rote learning (in the sense of ‘learning by heart’) but with a couple of conditions: One, would be about the ‘matter’ of what is being memorized; is it worthwhile or trivial. Two, would be about the ‘manner’; how is the matter synthesized and used afterwards.

Debbie Lifschitz

I would like to add to this conversation from a different cultural perspective: Orthodox Jews have always rated rote learning very highly. Today you can find kids reciting chapters from the Bible, from Prayers, Psalms and from the Mishnah (the primary post biblical text of jewish law which is the basis for the Talmud). Because the language of these texts is not modern Hebrew, children whether in Israel, France, England or the US must first understand the texts before they can recite them.The outcome of all this rote learning, which continues through adulthood, is the ability to make connections, synthesize, support arguments, compare and contrast, create new interpretations…all higher order thinking skills. And one more thing: the more that is learned by heart the more the memory seems to be able to retain.

Corie Crouch

The reason that memorization has fallen into disrepute is because it’s a foundational first step. Our school system has often considered it a final step. None-the-less, memorization is essential to acquiring a knowledge base and is especially suited to the abilities of the young child. The current trend is to skip memorization and demand “critically thinking skills” when the child has no knowledge base with which to work.

Knowledge that can be recalled at willed can be acquired through meaningful experiences and memorization. The article points out that young children are highly capable of memorizing beyond their ability to comprehend and find memorization through songs, chants, and rhymes meaningful and fun. Adults, on the other hand, don’t typically find pleasure in memorization, but find meaning in the value that comes through easy access to needed information. In our constructivist quest to create “meaningful and authentic learning experiences” we forget that playing with language is fun, and therefore meaningful and authentic for children. We also forget that young children love to
do the same thing over and over again (repetition). How many times has your own child asked you to read the same book again and again?

In our current love affair with constructivism, we fail to use a tool that is well-suited to the pleasure children find in the rhythm and sound of language. Later, when they struggle to read or write, we are forced to re-mediate with the very methods that would have prevented the problem. This time however, the student is too old to find the same kind of enjoyment, and the process becomes tedious.

Michael Goldenberg

Re: Project Follow-Through and its alleged “proof” that ‘direct instruction” (not to be confused with the Direct Instruction program shilled by folks at University of Oregon) is superior to all else. Aside from being off-point, the fact is that the methods and results of Project Follow-Through have been criticized with sufficient thoroughness to call into serious doubt the extreme claims of “clear superiority” for direct instruction its proponents are wont to make. One need merely read some of the obviously politicized (as well as professionally and financially self-serving) rhetoric of the U of Oregon DI folks to smell a rather huge rat. Or at least one smells that rat if not already of the mindset that anything that isn’t teacher-centered and painful for students is “a bunch of fuzzy crap.”

[...] Rote Memorization: Overrated or Underrated? If nothing else, click over to this article to watch a 3-year-old recite Billy Collins’s “Litany.” [...]

Andrea Seidman

Typically a problem with education is the ‘all or nothing’ mentality of school districts and traditional education. For many years districts were convinced that effective reading instruction should be according to a phonics based program. The aftermath was the complaints that students were not fluent enough readers. The trend changed to solve reading fluency by deciding on a “whole language” approach to reading instruction. The complaint then became that our students cannot accurately spell words. The issue is that there needs to be an integration of instructional approaches and strategies that differentiate to the ability levels of each student. A process of learning that engages students in a meaningful contextual understanding of material and increases motivation to learn may offer benefits to memorization for the purpose of application. The focus is on interpretation and application and not on memorization however the integration of these levels of learning rather than an all or nothing approach would better accommodate every student’s strengths and weaknesses.

jeffrey thompson

I prefer to think of memorizing by heart as the way to build the foundation for a building. Bloom’s taxonomy shows the base as being called knowledge or remembering (for the new Blooms). That level is the widest level and is essentially built by memorizing the core of what one needs to know. I notice the taxonomy is also built like a triangle which says to me that the foundation is essential to the upper/deeper levels of questioning and learning. Furthermore, I find it hard to ask my students to apply or analyze something that they know nothing about because they lack a core of essential knowlege or facts that they don’t remember or care about because they haven’t repeated it enough to put it in their long term memories.
I’ve learned that practice makes permanent. The commercial jingles and the songs our students can recite word for word with or without the music demonstrate the power of memorizing by heart. Musicians must memorize their pieces first and then as they become overly familiar with it are they able to create and demonstrate great feeling. No matter how much the students analyze the notes and breaks the score down into all of its many parts, without the memorized notes the recital concert becomes a disaster.
Eliminating this essential component in our educational system, in my opinion,has led to the dumbing down of our future generations to where students can no longer write a paper with proper grammar or spelling or take a standardized math test without having some electronic gizmo check spelling, grammar, or computation. In my humble opinion, this and other eduational blunders is the perfect storm for a society ripe for socialism and tyranny. As Thomas Paine said, “…what we obtain to cheap, we esteem to lightly.” Memorization requires lots of hard WORK, the four letter word that much of our society and many school inhabitants despise. It is becoming increasingly easier to go the cheap route, and we are losing our minds in the process.

Miriam K. Freedman

Excellent article. I, too, have thought that we downplay memorization and that learning stuff, like number facts, is vital and even fun.

But let me focus on the line, “Practice makes perfect.” To me, that line will always be changed in my mind to “Practice makes myelin,” thanks to Daniel Coyle’s excellent book, The Talent Code.

His book discusses how children learn and how brain research contradicts school practices. Coyle highlights the same focus on practice, practice, practice. Myelin are the connectors in our brains that hold learning. To get them going, we need practice, practice, practice.

I would love to see this discussion focus on students with disabilities who need to practice to learn. It seems that many of our practices contradict brain research. Thus, we often give them ‘accommodations’ and aides and other avenues to sidestep learning. When they need lots of time to do their homework, we feel bad and cut the assignments, instead of encouraging their hard work and practice. Your thoughts?

[...] Bad Thing? – Here’s a couple of interesting articles, one from EdWeek and one from the ASCD Smartbrief(which actually links to another site) that came out last week questioning the commonly held belief [...]

[...] Read more February 7th, 2011 | Category: Uncategorized | Leave a comment [...]

Amy Caulfield

I agree that learning something by heart allows us a special knowledge and connects the reader more deeply to it and, in some cases, one another.

In my senior English class the students memorize and perform Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” soliloquy… Not only did it add to their appreciation and understanding of it by both having to recite and emote appropriately, it also built community in the classroom as each student became a member of a very engaged and responsive audience. The other kids were on the edge of their seats hoping each would make it through, and agonizing if I had to prompt the performer. They also noticed nuances and subtle differences in expression, and each attempted to make the soliloquy his or her own. This kind of connectedness to each other and the text made learning by heart full of heart.

Dan Kelin

Frankly, I don’t understand why we argue one approach or the other. It’s tiresome. What matters, I believe, is insuring that the chosen approach has PURPOSE, and I mean for the students, not for the teachers. I have seen memorization used to great purpose and effect, as well as being an empty exercise that makes parents and teachers get all excited but demonstrates no discernable effect on the student. As a theatre artist and educator, I watch all the time as teachers have students ‘memorize’ and perform poems, stories, etc. and it is clearly obvious that the students have no idea what they are saying. Memorization must have deep seated purpose for the student or it, like any approach, is pointless.

tripp

Education is memorization with understanding (with the emphasis on understanding).

Learning by heart — Joanne Jacobs

[...] — or “learning by heart” — is underrated, writes Justin Snider on HechingerEd. As an English teacher, he makes [...]

carolynn schneider

My 2nd grade grandson is being taught his addition tables using all kinds of techniques EXCEPT memorization. I think the goal is to understand 42 different concepts of why 9 + 4 = 13. He has struggled to the point of tears. My favorite purposeless exercise is to write a story using 9 plus 4 equals 13. Really?

Finally, at home his mom implemented the old fashioned memorization techniques. He learned his addition and subtraction tables in about 9 days, is proud of himself instead of thinking he’s stupid, has a foundation on which to build, and doesn’t dread math in school now. Gosh, whodathunk! Nine days of memorization could replace months of convoluted “let’s understand” math lessons and lead to a kid actually feeling good about math.

Michael G. Ostrovski

I’m not an instructor but I’ve been hooked on memory techniques for about thirty years and have come to believe that unfortunately for math tables and verbatim, non-rhyming memory challenges, rote memorization is probably the most expedient way to tackle them. Fortunately young little minds facing their math tables can memorize using rote memorization much faster than adults can. (I’m convinced it has to do with our ability to learn language early in life but then it tapers off and rote memorization becomes a drudge.) However, a lot of times in school rote memorization doesn’t have to be used if an instructor helps their students remember by using association. Association? Let me use one example or association that doesn’t require any memory techniques.

Let’s say an instructor wants their students to remember -ventr- means “belly” in scientific terminology. If the instructor leaves it there the student must use rote memorization and -ventr- will probably be forgotten a few days after the test. But if the instructor tells the students the word ventri-loqu-ist means “one who speaks from the belly” they have created an association which may be around for a lifetime of recollection (plus another word part that may come in handy for college terms like loquacious, soliloquy, obloquy, and elocution ). But still is that enough association to make it into all the student’s long-term memory?

Maybe not.

An instructor can go further by creating a visual association and using this age old memory technique we seemed to have fogotten which starts this way. “Let me tell you a story.”

You’re a giggling five year old sitting at the dinner table during Thanksgiving and your embarassed family and guests are listening to your mother patiently explain, “It’s improper to vent your (ventr-) belly at the dinner table honey.”

Big deal, a word part, right? What about fractions, long-division, the quadratic equation, geometric formulas, names, dates, the periodic table, anatomy, physiology, biology, etc. I think it can be done with enough instructors and their students creating memory stories. But we won’t know until we try and considering the condition our educational system is in we better trying something different real soon.

[...] Hechinger Report’s Justin Snider argues: yes, you [...]

[...] Hechinger Report’s Justin Snider argues: yes, you [...]

[...] recent HechingerEd blog discussed the value of rote memorization. Daniel Willingham, a professor of psychology at the [...]

The week in blogs « School Board News

[...] hear it for rote memorization! Applause, anyone? Maybe not, but Justin Snider of HechingerEd argues that it’s something kids naturally do –and that it has a place in [...]

Matthew

Rote learning has its place in learning, but teachers should encourage learners to do much of it outside of the classroom as prep for classroom tasks or error corrections following a task. The author of this article had a very good opportunity to explain memorization’s (and other traditional learning styles’) place in the learning process, but failed in grand fashion. Using examples of people who tremendously love what they are doing or learning as an example for the merits of rote memorization is not a convincing argument. The author described their own experiences with rote learning. But it is quite obvious the author had and still possesses an intense passion for literature. That does not translate to a classroom full of learners with different goals and interests.

I opened this link with great anticipation. However, what I find is just more of the same ambiguities in the learning process and lack of concrete reasons/evidence to include rote memorization in classroom tasks on a regular basis.

[...] 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/ [...]

Buehler Education » Memorization

[…] Snider doesn’t necessarily agree. In his article Rote memorization: Overrated, or underrated? (2011), Snider argues that memorization is actually an underrated skill to train children in, and […]

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