November 11th, 2010

Memorization: It Isn’t All Bad


Larry Sanger makes an interesting point about memorization. Being something of a technology Luddite, I didn’t recognize his name—he’s one of the co-founders of Wikipedia and has a Ph.D. in philosophy.

“Whenever I encounter yet another instance of educationists’ [I’m guessing that is not a term of endearment] arguments against ‘memorizing,’ the following rather abstract yet simple thought springs into my philosopher’s mind: Surely the only way to know something is to have memorized it. How can I be said to know something that I do not remember? So being opposed to memorizing has always sounded to me like being opposed to knowledge. I realize this argument likely seems glib. The thing educationists object to, of course, is not the remembering or even the memorizing but rather the memorizing by rote—that is, by dull repetition and often without experience or understanding.” (p. 16)

Admittedly, he’s making a small distinction, but it gets at out how we often overreact. Our thinking crystallizes, holding one point to the exclusion of others. Some memorization is absolutely necessary. My mentally retarded brother, about whom I’ve written previously, needs to know his Pennsylvania phone number now that he lives here, and he is terrible at memorizing anything that matters. But is there any other way to learn your phone number? And, you need to know it. You can’t ask the bank teller to wait while you use Google to find it, at least not without causing some wonderment.

All memorization is not bad. It can be a tool that leads to understanding. It opens the door to knowledge. Sometimes even rote memorization is a necessary first step. If you’ve got it in your mind, even though you may not understand it fully or at all, its relevance, connection, and value is there to be discovered, provided it moves from short-term memory (where most things memorized by rote are stored) to long-term memory.

We should be opposed to rote memorization when it’s the study strategy students rely on most. We also need to be sure that we aren’t giving exams that measure memorization abilities better than they measure learning. But our thinking about memorization needs to be tempered with a clearer understanding of when it does and does not promote learning.

Reference: Sanger, L. (2010). Individual knowledge in the internet. Educause Review, (March/April), 14-24.