Why bother memorizing anything if you can carry your exo-brain around with you on your phone?
Educational theory today suggests that memorization is an outdated practice. Why spend time memorizing when you can just Google it? The lure of easy ‘knowledge’ is a tap away and seems to make committing knowledge to heart a senseless waste of time. ‘Progressive’ educators, led on by the experiential learning mantra of John Dewey, have been trained to disdain memorization in the classroom. Students are trained to go for ‘higher order skills’ such as analyzing and synthesizing, rather than frittering time away with supposedly ‘lower order skills’ such as knowing and memorizing. But how do you analyze and solve problems without a solid base of knowledge? Raemon Matthews, trainer for the U.S. Memory Championships, states that, “…education is the ability to retrieve information at will and analyze it. But you cannot have higher-level learning – you can’t analyze – without retrieving information.” He maintains that you cannot learn without memorizing, and if done properly, you cannot memorize without learning.
The more factual knowledge people have about a topic , the better they can think about it critically and analytically. In 1946, a groundbreaking study demonstrated that the reason expert chess players chose better moves than weaker players was not because they were better analytical thinkers. It was because they had a vast knowledge store of typical chess positions, acquired through memorization, that they could draw on. Committing knowledge to long-term memory is virtually unlimited. The more knowledge you have stored in long-term memory, the fewer items take up valuable space in working memory. This is why students who have trained their memories perform better on tasks that require analysis. In other words, memorization is not antithetical to critical or analytical thinking, instead it forms the foundations for it.
Not quite convinced that memorization is fundamental to learning?
- Memorization produces and trains mental industriousness. It trains the mind to pay attention and focus
- Students who were required to memorize from an early age often have more capacity to focus on educational tasks in higher level studies
- Students who complete exercises aimed at building short-term memory have seen improvement in their working memory and capacity to learn
- Memorization benefits the hippocampal foundation, a key structure in the brain for episodic and spatial memory
- Simply knowing equations, functions, and definitions, (rather than having to look them up) saves brain power which can then be used for analysis and synthesis
- Students who have greater focus and have trained their working memory through memorization have increased creativity
- Memorization is a healthy life-long habit that can delay typical cognitive decline by seven to fourteen years.
Most importantly, I have consistently observed that it produces joy in children when they have mastered something challenging. How often does a child turn and say, “Mom, look what Google said!” Merely reading facts from a bottomless pit of information brings no personal pride in achievement. Reciting the periodic table, a speech by Lincoln or Churchill, or a poem by Wadsworth Longfellow, on the other hand, does.
What kinds of memorization do your students do?
The art and science of memory is about developing the capacity to quickly create images that link disparate ideas.”Tony Buzan, Inventor of Mind Mapping
For memorizing facts, there is nothing more enjoyable, fun, and stunningly effective than the link-and-story method. Memorize Academy has perfected this strategy by joining it with ‘whiteboard animation’. This technique uses “visualization and association to leverage the astonishing natural power of their visual memory”. In other words, the images just stick so well that memorization is a breeze. One of the fourth grade students in my homeschool chemisty co-op just told me, “I know the first 30 elements of the periodic table like I know my name!”
I have tried this with students as young as grade 3 all the way to high school and it worked superbly for all of them! Even years later, I can still recall the story line that links each element to the next. Here is a sample video of the ‘How to Memorize the Periodic Table’ to give you a taste for the link-and-story method. With this method you can memorize the entire periodic table in around three hours.
For more, check out Memorize Academy for the complete list of memorization programs, which include the entire periodic table, 195 countries & capitals, books of the Bible, as well as an advanced memory coaching. (Yes, I am an affiliate – but only because I have used it for years and my students love it as much as I do:)
Why memorize poetry? Michael Knox Beran wrote a striking essay, In Defense of Memorization, in which he demonstrates how memorization is not the “drill and kill” progressive educators make it out to be, but instead empowers children. “If anything, it is the progressive liturgies – with their “diversity” drills and cult of self-esteem – that embody a narrow and intolerant ideology, one that imprisons kids in the banal clichés of the present and puts much of the past off limits, as though the moral and spiritual inheritance of Western civilization were somehow taboo.”
Here are just some of the additional benefits of memorizing poetry:
- Activates language capability
- Builds into children’s minds an ability to use complex English syntax
- Classic verse teaches students about order, measure, proportion, correspondence, balance, symmetry etc.
- Increases the breadth and depth of vocabulary, leading to greater comprehension of difficult material
- Vocabulary memorized in poetry stays at ‘mental fingertips’ for use in speech and writing
- Content of poetry fosters a ‘cultural literacy’ since poetry is often a “pithy expression of the culture’s accumulated wisdom” (Knox Beran)
Finally, Brad Leithauser presents a profound argument for how poetry changes not just our brain, but also our heart: “The best argument for verse memorization may be that it provides us with knowledge of a qualitatively and physiologically different variety: you take the poem inside you, into your brain chemistry if not your blood, and you know it at a deeper, bodily level than if you simply read it off a screen.” Read his whole article “Why We Should Memorize” in The New Yorker here.
Here is an example of a poem we memorized by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. We used the the Mensa for Kids Poem #10 template. I then broke the poem down into three practice lessons, which left students to fill in the missing words. After several rounds or practice and dedication, the students were able to recite the complete poem.
You can find more tips on how to memorize poetry as well as a list of 10 classic poems to commit to heart on Mensa’s A Year of Living Poetically.
Memorizing famous speeches has been a practice since the ‘Golden Age of Eloquence’ in Ancient Greece. Here is a collection of excerpts of great speeches for students to memorize including Roosevelt, Lincoln, Susan B.Anthony, Elie Wiesel, Martin Luther King, Mother Teresa, Indira Ghandi and more.
I will sign off with this quote and hope that you will continue to reflect on the role of memorization in your student’s education.
Our ability to find humor in the world, to make connections between previously unconnected notions, to create new ideas, to share in a common culture: All these essentially human acts depend on memory.Joshua Foer
Beran, M. K. (2004, Summer). In Defense of Memorization. City Journal. Retrieved from https://www.city-journal.org/html/defense-memorization-12803.html
Foer, J. (2012). Moonwalking With Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything. New York: Penguin Books.
Klemm, W., Ph.D. (2007). What Good Is Learning If You Don’t Remember It? The Journal of Effective Teaching,7(1), 61-73. Retrieved July 16, 2017, from http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1055665.pdf
Wexler, N. (2019). Why Memorizing Stuff Can Be Good For You. Forbes. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/nataliewexler/2019/04/29/why-memorizing-stuff-can-be-good-for-you/?sh=2abb4c3e3c4f