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.

  • Larry Spence

    Sanger is rightly skeptical about claims of how the internet will change education. But he is wrong when he says “the only way to know anything is to memorize it.” Indeed he writes that “having a knowledge of or understanding about “. . . will always require critical study.” He holds up the tradition liberal arts education as “. . . development of judgment or understanding of questions that require a nuanced grasp of the various facts and to thereby develop the ability to think about and use those facts.” But we know that rote memorizing does not promote understanding. We know that it is “bad” for students’ understanding to cram the night before examinations. In most cases they will fail to understand, remember or be able to use what they memorized.
    Experts, we know, haven’t memorized more facts than novices but they do know which facts are important, how they connect and how to organize them into applicable chunks. Sanger argues that information has to be memorized (by rote) before it can be understood. Is there any research to back that claim? I don’t think so. For his assertion to be true students, scholars and experts would have to memorize books.
    Of course we all memorize our numbers — phone, social security, and zip codes – because there is no understanding involved. To read a paper or exam by student who has memorized the text is like listening to a parrot. It’s to know that you have failed as a teacher. We learn usable knowledge in contexts where we can try it on, apply it, and learn from mistakes. Knowing the context as well as the facts enables us to create the patterns of knowledge that we remember.
    It is rewarding to memorize poems, aphorisms and speeches. Maryellen is right that we need a clearer understanding of when (or whether) memorizing does or doesn’t promote knowledge. Sanger’s polemic isn’t much help.

  • On this issue of the role of memorization in relation to learning, I find it helpful to think of memorizing as activity that is nested within a more primal and more inclusive activity that lies at the center of all learning. It is the activity long ago identified by Aristotle as THE initial motive that gets the human learning engine underway: the motive to IMITATE. Is not memorization a form of IMITATION, and, if so, isn't Aristotle's notion of imitation not as slavish copying but as creative reconstruction helpful to us as teachers? When people object to "rote memorization," my guess is that they are objecting to some notion of slavish copying because their intuitions tell them that slavish copying is a far cry from understanding and may, in fact, operate as a huge barrier to understanding. So, as teachers, we don't want our students to slavishly copy what we teach; we want them to creatively reconstruct what we are teaching, and we would be smart to recognize the utility for them of starting with activities that might sometimes include memorization but that, for their best effects, could never rest permanently with memorization. Isn't it the case that most of the time our learning occurs in stages–we built it up, as Dewey suggests–in cognitive and intellectual structures that might look something like layers if we were attempting to represent this activity pictorially. Only we would have to figure out a way to show the communication that goes on between and among the layers. But, in any case, memorization is sometimes a very useful first layer of learning because it forces the learner to pay attention to every detail of the verbal or musical or intellectual or natural structure being memorized. But efforts to learn things in ways that are comprehensive and deep could never rely on learning as a primary and permanent strategy of learning. On the other hand, memorization's usefulness in the early stages of learning should not be despised.

  • Larry Spence

    The problem with beginning to learn through mimicry is a) it is time consuming; b) it replicates; and c) it blocks further learning. Learning complex skills by mimicry is by far the most arduous way. Learning anything by mimicry locks in assumptions, ignores failures and depresses creativity. If our cultures were solely learned by imitation they would be impoverished. Indeed, the dogmatist’s goal seems to be just such a simplification of tradition. And that, of course, is what we want to avoid.
    Consider this quote from Randy Gallistel: “. . . it is odd but true that most past and present contemporary theorizing about learning does not assume that learning mechanisms are adaptively specialized for the solution of particular kinds of problems. Most theorizing assumes that there is a general-purpose learning process in the brain, a process adapted only to solving the problem of learning . . . From a biological perspective, this assumption is equivalent to assuming that there is a general-purpose sensory organ that solves the problem of sensing.”
    Perhaps this is the root of our problem. Learning is a suitcase concept filled with a variety of brain processes aimed at solving specific classes of problems. Unless we unpack it, most statements made about it appear both true and false. We dispute mysteries but make little progress. Consider that we learn some skills and information better by memorizing because they entail brain modules that work that way. Some are not. Trying to squeeze all types of learning through memorizing makes more difficulties.
    I don’t think that learning is layered. It is modular. Maybe our great advantage as a species is that we aren’t limited to imitation. Some forms of human learning necessarily entail a re-working and re-thinking of received wisdom. Thus we are able to adapt to changing conditions. And, more, we can create new knowledge and recognize that Aristotle was often wrong.