Sunday, 3 March 2013

Memory Learning :More than Just All She Rote

Memory learning seems to be getting a bad reputation these days. Its become common to condemn rote learning practices as "drill and kill" and the mechanical force feeding of ultimately useless facts to students so that they can regurgitate them for tests and then promptly forget them in order to prepare space for the next set of facts.  In the rush to embrace "personalized learning", encourage student creativity and promote engagement through greater flexibility in where, when and how students learn, the value of good memorization skills is getting shuffled to the sidelines.

Make no mistake - memorization is not always easy. It can take considerable time and consistent effort to commit something to memory. In a modern world with ready access to Google and the internet, one could argue that memorization is no longer a 21st century learning skill. But, while the need to commit things to memory may have indeed diminished, the value of being able to do so has not.

Justin Snider provides a well balanced view of the debate around the value of memorization in his Huffington Post article: Rote Memorization Over-rated or Under-rated?. In it, Snider suggests that while some aspects of rote learning may have deservedly earned a negative reputation, there may still be considerable value in learning things "by heart".  As Snider points out, memorization is a bi-product of true engagement. He goes on to give three key points in support of memorization. 

1. Its not as hard as one thinks but it is a challenge. Meeting and overcoming the challenge is an act in which students can take justifiable pride. 2. Its good exercise for the brain. In an age where technology is omnipresent, keeping the brain sharp and certain key facts handy is increasingly vital. Having a browser on your smart phone won't help you much if you can't remember your password! 3. Repetitive practice and review can allow students to find insights and knowledge that were missed the first time through. As Snider says "It's only with multiple readings, viewings and hearings that we actually begin to understand, see and hear. We're deaf and blind in our first encounters with things."  There's nothing inherently evil or bad with repetitive practice, provided we have a point and interest in learning the presented concept in the first place.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his book Flow makes similar points. He points out that, "All forms of mental flow depend on memory, either directly or indirectly. ... As far back as there are records of human intelligence, the most prized mental gift has been a well-cultivated memory.... Only in the past century, as written records have become less expensive and more easily available, has the importance or remembering dramatically declined. Nowadays a good memory is considered useless except for performing on some game show or for playing Trivila Pursuit.

But for a person who has nothing to remember, life can become severely impoverished. This possibility was completely overlooked by educational reformers early in this century, who, armed with research results, proved that 'rote learning' was not an efficient way to store and acquire information. As a result of their efforts, rote learning was phased out of the schools. The reformers would have had justification, if the point of remembering was simply to solve practical problems. But if control of consciousness is judged to be at least as important as the ability to get things done, then learning complex patterns of information by heart is by no means a waste of effort. A mind with some stable content to it is much richer than one without. It is a mistake to assume that creativity and rote learning are incompatible. (p. 121 - 123)

Pointless memorization of materials without purpose or engagement can be a numbing experience, but committing valuable learning to memory by putting in the time effort and practice required to truly master a vital idea is still an achievement in which students can take pride. In an age where information is truly at our finger tips, feeding the passion to truly learn something by heart is a 21st century skill that still illustrates how education matters!

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