Monday, January 12, 2009

What about Memorizing?

It’s a question I get every time I lead a training. “What about memorization? Aren’t there things kids just need to memorize?” This is usually followed by the comment, “Like the multiplication tables, for example.”

Learning’s core processes include experience (the input of new sensory data), comprehension (labeling and sorting of new data), elaboration (blending of new data and known concepts), and application (expression of understanding via communication or use). Let’s examine memorization in relation to these core processes.

Obviously, to memorize something you need data. For example, if I want students to memorize the Bill of Rights, I need to give them the data—a copy of the Bill of Rights. Students then rehearse the information, repeatedly saying the words in the correct order. They engage in comprehension with multiple rehearsals.

What if I stop there? After sufficient time for rehearsal passes, I can give the students a test that requires them to recite the Bill of Rights. Then I can move on, satisfied that, for the moment, the students have committed the data to memory.

But what is lost by stopping there? What value would the remaining core processes—elaboration and application—have? Remember that elaboration blends new data and known concepts to construct understanding. If the Bill of Rights, or any other memorized data, possesses additional value when understood, then I should proceed to engage my students in elaboration.

And understood data possesses value for application. For example, students may communicate their understanding by illustrating the Bill of Rights or identify situations in which the Bill of Rights is illustrated, violated, or could apply.

If my goal is simply getting the data memorized, getting the data into the students’ heads, then stopping with mere memorization may be acceptable. But if I want the memorized data to become a part of the students’ thinking and living, memorization is not enough. I need to engage students in constructing understanding of the new data and in seeing it/applying it in real life.

James H. Stronge (2007) reaches a similar conclusion:

Effective teachers emphasize meaning. They encourage students to respond to questions and activities that require them to discover and assimilate their own understanding, rather than to simply memorize material (Marzano et al., 1993). A study of 3rd and 8th graders found that students who received instruction that emphasized analytical, creative, and practical thinking performed better on assessments than students who received instruction that emphasized memorization or analytical thinking only (Sternberg, 2003). Eisner (2003/2004) explained that effective schools, and thus, effective teachers emphasize critical thinking, and they cultivate a propensity for applying critical thinking in order to make good judgments (p. 74).

It’s not that students do not need to memorize. It’s that memorization is insufficient for subject matter we actually want them to learn. Yes, learning involves memorizing, but memorizing does not equal learning.

References: Stronge, J. H. (2007). Qualities of effective teachers, 2nd edition. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

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