Should We Forget Memorization in the Age of Google?

Dr. Jeff Walton serves as executive director of the American Association of Christian Schools, headquartered in Chattanooga, TN. He is the editor of Journal for Christian Educators.

This is the fourth in a series of five posts by Jeff Walton commenting on “five truths” of progressive education identified by Maya Thiagarajan in an Education Week blog on August 15, 2016.  Thoughtful Christian educators reject many of the practices of progressive American education because progressive principles and practices sometimes conflict with biblical truth about the nature of children and the nature of learning.  Maya Thiagarajan is an American-educated English teacher who has been teaching in Singapore.  She is the author of Beyond the Tiger Mom: East-West Parenting in the Global Age.  In her Education Week guest blog on August 15, 2016, Maya frankly discusses five “universal education truths” that as an American teacher she believed and “religiously” followed until her move to Singapore in 2010.  In earlier articles, I commented on the first three truths.

Truth #4: “Making kids memorize stuff is not just unnecessary in the age of Google, it’s downright bad pedagogy. Twenty-first century learning is not about ‘knowing’ information, it’s about analyzing, synthesizing, applying, and creating. ”

In Singapore, and perhaps across Asia, many parents and teachers still harbor a deep reverence for the power of human memory….In his defense of a ‘knowledge rich’ curriculum, the former Singaporean education minister Heng Swee Keat said, ‘If creativity is about connecting the dots, you need to have solid dots in the first place, or you will have nothing to connect.’ Kids here memorize a lot of information, and they know a lot. Perhaps the emphasis on memorization in Singapore is excessive and comes with opportunity costs, but it has certainly challenged my paradigms.

In American education, the memorization-application pendulum swings, and debate (healthy, in my view) continues.  This is true in Christian education as well as in public schools. I have many times heard or read some form of the “students no longer need to learn facts in the Internet age” statement. To that statement I echo Dr. Keat’s response–How will students connect the dots in learning if they have no dots to connect?  On the other hand, I have many times observed in Christian school classrooms and have come away discouraged by the complete reliance on memorization and regurgitation of facts and missed opportunities to lead students to comprehension, application, and deeper understandings.

Often, students are memorizing multiple “dots” and struggling to retain the information about the “dot” with no connecting information to provide structure and understanding.  I have particularly observed this in math classes.  I have observed scores of classrooms where teachers required students to memorize an algorithm (a step-by-step process) for solving a type of math problem while missing excellent opportunities and making no effort to help students understand why the algorithm works. I have even sometimes witnessed teachers refusing to answer the why questions of inquisitive students, telling them to “just follow the formula.” That’s a tragedy. In those classrooms, only those students with excellent abilities to memorize and retain will make progress. Most will flounder, frustrated and confused because they can’t keep all of the dots straight and have no structure of comprehension to connect them.

So, do students need to automate information (memorize), or do they need to comprehend and apply factual information? I hope your answer is “yes.” Students need both. Learning facts provides the dots the student will connect. Comprehension and application and higher-level learning activities provide the connective structure that allows students to make sense of and retain the dots.

By itself, memorization is a form of learning and is a skill that students can and should develop. Wise teachers and school leaders will judiciously select the important factual content and will provide age-appropriate explanations and activities for comprehending and applying that information. For instance, when teaching junior high and high school history classes, I required that students memorize fewer than ten really significant dates in a school year, but they also memorized some key paragraphs from notable historical documents (more significant and worthwhile learning, in my view). We also thoroughly analyzed and wrote about those passages. In my high school math classes (most of my teaching experience) students memorized only a few commonly used formulas and spent a good amount of class time in completing exercises (automating fundamental skills) and complex problem-solving activities. Interestingly, my ninth- and tenth-grade students also spent time doing flash cards involving basic operations with fractions because many had not automated processes with fractions…so they struggled with more advanced math because they didn’t have the more basic dots to connect.

I’m sure the memorization-application debate will continue.  Wise teachers will reject the notion that we can “forget memorization” in a digital age but will also understand that memorization merely provides the dots that students must connect with more complex learning.

Reference:

Thiagarajan, M. (2016, August 15). Five lessons from teaching in Singapore. [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/global_learning/2016/08/five_lessons_from_

teaching_in_singapore.html?qs=teaching+in+sigapore

Dr. Jeff Walton serves as executive director of the American Association of Christian Schools, headquartered in Chattanooga, TN. He is the editor of Journal for Christian Educators.