Revisiting Memorization

I am not a advocate of rote memorization, but a few recent experiences with my 12th graders has me re-thinking its purpose and how it can be used effectively in conjunction with Project Based Learning.

I was talking with my IT guy one afternoon. We wandered onto the subject of how his schooling was much different than the education his children are receiving. My tech guy grew up in India. He said that when he was in school he was given a lecture and a set of facts and was instructed to memorize them. Success in school, for him, relied on how well he could regurgitate those facts onto his test. Whether he could apply that knowledge in a meaningful way was irrelevant.

I feel that this kind of learning is pointless. Knowledge must be applied in the real world to fully grasp what it is one knows. My pedagogy is designed around the assumption that students learn best by confronting and engaging “real world” problems collaboratively.  Great chefs, for example, do not become great by simply spouting off all of the ingredients to a complicated dish. To become a great chef one must go through the process of trial and error, often times gleaning helpful hints and bits of wisdom from other chefs, until he can cook the damn thing to perfection. In school, success comes when the students collaborate to develop a solution to the problem and carry it out in real time.

I also believe that if the means in which a student learns instills positive, rigorous, and Ethical work habits, the end result will be positive, rigorous, and Ethical itself. Rote memorization does not mean a student will know a subject with any significant depth. Memorization is necessary exactly because it provides students with a tool to store important background information that can be accessed when delving deeply into a complex concept. Memorization also teaches academic rigor and instills important intellectual habits. When used as part of a larger, more comprehensive Project Based Learning process, the goals of the project will reflect the student’s hard work.

In his article “When Rote Learning Makes Sense”, Ben Johnson lists a few things to keep in mind about memorization:

1) 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.

2) 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.

3) 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.

4) Learners feel an addictive sense of accomplishment when something has been memorized completely.

The Reality

I never know what kind of students I will inherit from 11th grade. The first few weeks require exhausting exercises meant to diagnose the abilities of my classes. What I have noticed is disconcerting. Imagine for a moment a chef whose knowledge of cooking ends at turning on the oven, boiling water, mixing in and stirring pre-measured ingredients. This is the trend I am beginning to see in my classes. My students would rather follow directions than create them. They know how to cook but do not understand why the dish tastes good. This is an ugly symptom of a standardized test phenomenon which holds that the only thing that matters is bubbling the right answer on the scan-tron.

I began a crusade to introduce my students to higher level vocabulary, not so they could barf the definition back to me, but in an effort to get them  to understand the intrinsic value of learning how words work in society and why. When I quiz the students on the words, unfortunately, the scores are dismal. One student asked if I could give her a study guide for the WOD quizzes. She wanted the definitions and the sentences provided to her. According to her, I am the only teacher she has had that makes her look words up in a dictionary and memorize things. Most disturbing of all was when a student admitted to typing the word into google, clicking on the first website she saw, and writing the definition down from there.

I have learned a valuable lesson here. I need to adapt the way in which I go about teaching higher level vocabulary. Beyond that, however, I am beginning to discover that a focus on Project Based Learning, if not done correctly, can contribute to a culture of passive learning for some students while empowering others to thrive. When that happens, PBL has failed in it’s mission to create an equitable and rigorous learning experience for all members of the class. If administered without careful scrutiny by the teacher, Project Based Learning can emphasize a particular kind of social intelligence while unintentionally sacrificing other important mental tasks like study skills, memorization, and deep, sustained thinking. I can’t help but think that we are pushing PBL hard without providing the proper training and, therefore,  inadvertently developing a “shortcut” culture.

When I ask students to explain an opinion they present to the class in a more detailed way, or hold them accountable for any number of ideas, the students come up empty or feel like they are being attacked. When it comes to articulating the issue to others, the students lack a coherency stemming from an unwillingness to obtain a working knowledge of hard and fast facts and lexicons. In other words, my students have become accustomed to getting by without reading widely, thinking deeply, internalizing, processing, and storing information in their long term memory. How could they have a deep educational experience if they lack the language which, presumably, provides meaning to the experience?

Take my IT guy’s schooling and reverse it. That’s what I was dealing with. My students can complete a project as long as the individual components of it are handed to them. It is as if a Master Chef, after falling sick one day, orders his protege to take over. Upon entering the kitchen ready to cook, the protege becomes lost because he never learned the names of the ingredients, where the ingredients were kept, or how much of each ingredient to use.

This is one of the unintended consequences of PBL. A project can become so massive, especially when teachers are dealing with 200 or more students, that the teacher provides the components of the project to the students instead of having them go through the tough and messy mental work themselves. Teachers are so focused on the end result that they fail to instill sustainable fundamental intellectual and work habits along the way. It is frightening to think about this “ends justify the means” message it sends to the students themselves. Project based learning is the only equitable way to reach all students in deeply meaningful ways, but we must not sacrifice the process of acquiring rigorous intellectual habits like deep reading, frequent writing, memorization, and engaging in debate at the alter of standardized tests. When part of a larger “Real World” problem based approach, positive intellectual habits, including memorization, will allow the students to create the change they ultimately wish to see instead of simply following others there.


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