As an asst. superintendent of curriculum and instruction, I struggled with the balance between encouraging teachers to engage students with higher-order learning activities and the need to ensure that students simply must know certain facts that are learned by rote memory.
Many educators use phrases like “dill-n-kill” and “rote memorization” with disdain. The fear is that we are wasting students’ time by forcing them to memorize useless bits of information that can be easily found on Wikipedia, like the dates of the Civil War were from 1861-1865 or that the value of pi can be rounded to 3.14.
But is it possible that there are certain facts that we should expect every student to know? Is memorizing things actually underrated in American society? Possibly it is not only useful but vital for people of all ages to memorize things.
A recent HechingerEd blog discussed the value of rote memorization. Daniel Willingham, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, points out that learning things by memory is something children do automatically. It comes naturally to them at an early age, whether it’s being able to recall the words to a nursery rhyme or knowing the plot of a story (if not the story itself word for word) before they are able to read. Willingham says that the key is engagement; “If you’re really engaged, memory comes pretty automatically.”
There are four reasons why it is important for educators to encourage an appropriate amount of learning by memory:
- It is a challenge, and one in which those who succeed can take pride.
- It’s good exercise for your brain.
- New insights are gained in the process of memorization.
- As a society, we simply expect educated citizens to have a core knowledge of certain facts basic to our civilization.
Why is rote memorization getting a bad rap in our nation? Part of the blame lies with the emphasis on standardized testing. It is easier, cheaper, and faster to determine whether students know when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor than whether they can explain the economic, social, and political factors that set the stage for World War II. In the process of narrowing the curriculum so that what gets tested gets taught, there is a lack of critical-thinking skills in our schools.
That sad fact, though, is more the result of overly relying on multiple-choice tests as a method of school accountability than anything necessarily bad about memorization. As Amy Chua, says in her new book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother: “Tenacious practice, practice, practice is crucial for excellence; rote repetition is underrated in America.”