Learning to remember

Students should learn to memorize, writes Ben Johnson, a teacher turned technology consultant, on Edutopia’s blog.

The total emphasis on critical thinking has it all wrong: Before students can think critically, they need to have something to think about in their brains. It is true that knowledge without comprehension is of little use, but comprehension requires knowledge and it takes time and effort to acquire.

The stress on high-order thinking skills and the execration of memorization is hurting students, Johnson argues.

* The brain is a learning tool. This might seem obvious, but the brain is not a passive sponge. It requires active effort to retain information in short-term memory and even more effort to get it into long-term memory.

* Learners need to know that the longer an idea can be kept in short-term memory, the more chance it can be pushed into long-term memory. This is where practice makes perfect makes sense.

* The body is another learning tool — another often-ignored concept. The body is connected to the brain and if you engage the body, you are engaging the brain too.

* Learner feel an addictive sense of accomplishment when something has been memorized completely.

Johnson suggests some memory games.

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  1. When I start each new semester (I teach community college biology)I tell students that biology tells a story and that eventually (by the time of the final) they’ll be able to relate all of the subjects that we cover. However, to get started, there are things that they’re just going to have to memorize, and full explanations will come soon. I can tell them what to learn but I can’t put it in their heads.

    Once it’s there, though, we can build on it and tell a really cool story about how cells work and respond to their environment. Those who learn the first set of material usually do really well. Those who try to ‘fake it’ almost always find that it comes back to bite them.

  2. Richard Aubrey says:

    This is an old question. Some of the anti-memorization types go pretty far, asserting that memorizing actually reduces the ability to think widely.
    Heard this on a teacher’s blog fifteen years ago, seen it in articles occasionally. Sometimes it’s implicit, sometimes a planted axiom.
    As some skeptics say, “follow the money”. I would paraphrase that in education, “follow the curricula which produce the least number of papers to correct”. Clumsy, I know, but probably applicable.
    When in eleventh-grade history, we were made to memorize the Declaration and the Preamble. The negative effects were not immediately obvious.
    And now on earth would you expect to learn a foreign language without memorizing?

  3. Johnson makes an excellent point. The notion that you don’t need to commit anything to memory because it’s all on-line doesn’t really work well. You need knowledge to motivate and condition your search for new knowledge.

  4. Homeschooling Granny says:

    When I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Afghanistan a lifetime ago most of the volunteers and AID contract Americans offered to teach their household help to read if they didn’t already. One excellent cook refused, saying that learning to read rotted the brain. He had memorized and remembered everything while others were scrambling to find the paper they’d written a recipe on.

  5. Wow! I just dealt with this in my 9th grade science class. I’m making them memorize the symbols of the periodic table. They honestly complained about it. “I had to memorize them, you will to.”

  6. Tell it to all the administrators and state level policticans, who have wrongly applied Bloom’s taxonomy to learning.

  7. Why must we always run memorization against critical thinking as if they are polar opposites that cannot coexist in the same brain? Of course, there are some things you have to memorize in order to master or even get by in a given subject (or life, in some cases), but that doesn’t mean you can’t do some critical thinking as well and even, dare I say it? Mix them together.

  8. Exactly Rachel. Every time this subject comes up on this blog it becomes a memorization vs. critical thinking debate as if there could only be one. What nonsense.

  9. I try to put it in to terms kids relate to. When learning something hit the save button, not the delete button. Also I ask them what is it they are saving all the space for? If you don’t need math facts, geography, history, literature, science, etc.. than what is your “hard drive” filling up with?? Oh Yeah, song lyrics.