There are endless valid critiques of the status quo, traditional education system, as there should be given the very damaging outcomes that it produces. The status quo, traditional education system is a highly coercive, punitive and demoralizing institution that treats children more like widgets or dollar signs than complex individuals with unbound potential and very real emotional and social needs. The system more often than not stamps out a love of learning, creativity and motivation in children, as opposed to enabling these children with the ability to seek out and synthesize the information necessary to advance their understanding of their world, their communities, their relationships, and of themselves so they can live a bigger life. One factor in the failing of the system is a focus on memorization instead of learning.
Justin 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 that it is vital for them (and for all of us) to memorize things. His arguments though are dubious and unconvincing. First, he claims that memorization is a challenge that children can take pride in. However, if they are taking pride in something that is of little value to them, then perhaps the adults in the room should be identifying other achievements they can take pride in. Second, he claims memorization is good exercise for the brain. However, memorization is low-level exercise for the brain, and I believe good teachers would be able to encourage deeper learning with the limited time they have with students. Third, he claims that new insights are gained in the process of memorization. However, new insights are also gained in problem solving exercises, creative writing exercises, field trips, etc.; and whether or not the insights gained by forcing a kid to sit down and memorize a poem is more valuable than insights gained in more exciting activities is questionable.
Daniel Willingham takes less of a vapid and shallow position on memorization in his article Inflexible knowledge: The first step to expertise (2002). Willingham goes to great lengths to emphasize that there is a middle ground between rote memorization and deep learning, and that that middle ground has value to students. What he calls “inflexible knowledge” is a basic understanding of a term or concept in a way that rote memorization is unable to achieve. Inflexible knowledge is what he calls the foundation of expertise, or a necessary building block. He clearly differs from Snider in his belief of what education should consist of, as Willingham doesn’t seem to be the type who would cheer forcing a child to learn the first 100 digits of π. Instead, Willingham sees inflexible knowledge as a precursor to flexible knowledge, which is the state in which an individual can access knowledge “out of the context in which it was learned” and apply it in new contexts. Given this more reasonable approach to the benefits of memorization, Willingham provides some suggestions for how teachers can improve their craft, to include using multiple examples during lessons so that students are able to compare between examples.
From the perspective of what education can and should be in lifting students up to be their best selves, Ben Orlin takes the best position on memorization in his article When memorization gets in the way of learning: A teacher’s quest to discourage his students from mindlessly reciting information (2013). Reflecting on his time as a teacher he recalled a situation in which a student tried to sneak in a cheat sheet into an exam. The student was caught and had his grade in the course dropped to a D+, likely altering what college he went to and perhaps what career path he went down. In addition, it may have had an even worse impact on the student’s views on the virtues of the schooling system. Orlin recognized that much of schooling today revolves around memorization of facts and formulas, without any deeper understanding of the material, which led to an experience that was devoid of “logical discovery and thoughtful exploration.”
Orlin provides us with two alternatives to the relatively mindless rote memorization techniques of raw rehearsal and mnemonics by encouraging repeated use and building. Repeated use is similar to raw rehearsal in that a student goes over material time and again until it is memorized; however it has a purpose other than memorization. Repeated use is valuable to the student because it is through the repeated use of a term, formula or concept for a productive purpose that they come to internalize and memorize what other students may learn simply to ace a test. Building is more than just rote memorization, as well, because it involves connections to other information and concepts already understood. In this manner, building holds value to the student because it strengthens the student’s understanding of the new material and their understanding of other material, as well as increasing the likelihood that the student will be able to recall that information in the future.
The goal of education should never be memorization. If we are going to cage children for 7 hours a day, 180 days a year for 13 years we should be able to do much more for the children than force them to memorize facts and figures. We should be helping them to live better lives, and to move society forward. By immersing children in environments that encourage creativity and inquiry, and providing them with activities that allow them to engage with subject matter, we can bypass the desire of too many educators to force them to memorize, and instead allow the children to reach a higher plane where important information will be learned through repeated use and building.