12 August 2008

Remembering Memorization

While attending a very good teacher workshop this summer, I heard a rather dubious, yet quite common, claim on memorization. The teacher leading the workshop, an extremely experienced teacher to be sure, claimed that memorization just didn’t matter as much today as it has in the past. With all of the media and storage techniques readily available today, we need to make sure that kids know where to find information and not necessarily have immediate recall of information themselves.

After all, the internet is only a computer connection away. Why remember what we can “find out”? And employers don’t want people who simply “remember” things, but rather they want people who innovate, who create, who make things more aesthetically pleasing. Memorization is a banal task best left to books and electrons.

I disagree whole-heartedly. Memorization is the foundation of knowledge and learning.

If I go to the doctor for a knee problem, the doctor doesn’t fire up his computer and do a search for “knee problem”. His study of medicine, anatomy, and physiology (among myriad other subjects) tells him where my knee is and, upon examination, what the problem may be. The day my doctor reads on Wikipedia how to diagnose a problem is the day we should all stop going to the doctor.

I’m not saying that memorization is the only, nor even the best, way to learn. Neither is true. But it does have its place, and a central one at that. Memorizing addition and multiplication tables is key to math, in my opinion. Every child should be able to, with very little recall time, to answer what two single digits multiplied together equals. Yet this memorization skill has been undermined by the ubiquitous use of the calculator for even the simplest mathematical tasks.

Memorization has its place. It is not a glamorous one, to be sure. It is a boring, sometimes painful task. But undergirding higher orders of thought – analyzing, synthesizing, etc. – are numerous instances of instantaneous recall of information. Without this ability to recall information on our own, we would be endlessly “finding out” what we need to know. This point was made abundantly clear when, in the same workshop, participating teachers recited favorite bits of poetry from memory. More than a few of them claimed, “I memorized that in 4th grade, and I’ve never forgotten it.” A powerful thing, memorization.

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