At The Atlantic today, I have an essay weighing in on the decades-long debate over memorization, trying to cut a middle path between two extremes:
1. “Memorization is the enemy. It’s the antithesis of critical thinking and conceptual learning. Memorization’s defenders are wilfully blind soldiers marching for an outdated tradition.”
2. “Memorization is an essential tool for students. It’s the surest path to retaining important facts. People who denounce it are letting liberal orthodoxy get in the way of our children’s achievement.”
I’d summarize my view along these lines:
3. “Memorization is a generally-not-great shortcut. It’s better than not knowing at all, but it’s not nearly as enduring, effective, and powerful as meaningful learning.”
In math, the classic example of a thing that “must” be memorized is the times tables. Amidst the din of debates about education, the one agreed-upon truth seems to be that all kids ought learn their times tables. It’s comparable to the moral rightness of Brown v. Board of Education–a universally accepted belief.
That makes the times tables a good test case for whether memorization is really necessary. So here’s my times-table story, in which a colleague succinctly captures the entire point of my Atlantic piece:
A friend who teaches Physics once told me that, growing up in Moscow, he’d never learned the times tables. “I don’t really get the American system, with the flashcards and the multiplication facts,” he told me.
“Really?” I said. “You don’t know 9 times 7?”
“63,” he said without hesitation. “I just picture ten 7s, which is 70, and then I take away one 7, which leaves 63.”
“You can’t be thinking it through like that,” I said. “You answered too fast.”
“Well, that’s how I learned it at first. But if something makes sense to you, and you use it enough, you don’t need to memorize it.” He shrugged. “You just know it.”
Anyway, go check out the piece!
EDIT 9/11/2013: Just wanted to address two criticisms of the piece, each quite valid, I think. First:
@benorlin May not have been intent, but opening of piece read a bit like you were proud to catch & fail student, which I found unfortunate.
— Patrick Honner (@MrHonner) September 11, 2013
I regret writing so flippantly about that case of cheating. It’s a complex, sad story (mine was far from the only test he cheated on), and I’m relieved to say it has a happy ending. The student learned his lessons, got into a good college, and I know he’ll do great things in the future. He won back my respect, and then some, to the point where I’m very proud to have known and taught him.
Second, the more common complaint:
Sometimes, memorization is really useful. Even necessary.
It depends on how you define memorization. If you accept my (admittedly debateable) definition, then “memorization” refers to the combination of rote learning and memory tricks (like mnemonics). These are almost never ideal. Memorization treats facts as arbitrary and interchangeable, which is silly. You’ll remember facts better, and use them more effectively, if you treat them as the interconnected web they are.
The exception–which nobody, from what I’ve seen, has really prosecuted–is vocabulary. By nature, words in a language bear only an arbitrary, symbolic relationship to the concepts they signify. For learning vocabulary (especially in a foreign language), memorization is a useful tool, even under my limited definition.