Is “memorize” becoming a dirty word?

I’ve been finding myself thinking a lot lately about the value of students knowing things from memory.  I’ve heard it argued, from more than one source, that with the proliferation of electronic devices and the wealth of information available online, knowing things from memory is a dead skill.  The argument goes something like “Students don’t need to memorize anything anymore, if they need to know something they can just Google it.”.  And I’m skeptical.

First of all, I am NOT saying students don’t need to know how to locate information, think critically about that information’s bias, validity, and fitness for their purposes, synthesize information from a variety of sources, and so forth.  Clearly these skills are important.  However, I think these things are easier to do and done better if students have some background knowledge.  Knowing some basics about a subject is a great help in crafting good questions and searches, in understanding the results, in identifying suspect or incomplete information, and in placing the information found into context.  It’s not an either / or – either we teach students how to find good information or we teach them the information.  This is in my view a false dichotomy.

I wonder how the “no need to know anything today” perspective meshes (or does not mesh) with what science knows about learning and the brain.  This is a gross oversimplification, but the research I’ve read suggests that learning is making connections between the neurons in our brain, and that the connections which get used often become stronger, while those that aren’t used become less prominent and are eventually pruned away.  What does an education system where “memorize” is increasingly a dirty word mean for brain development in light of this model?

In my view, the whole “40 days, 40 weeks, 40 years” notion is a less controversial but still somewhat problematic perspective in the debate around memorization.  For those who haven’t heard this before, the logic is that some things we teach are totally irrelevant, and can safely be forgotten by students as soon as they walk out of the door the day they were taught (need to know for “40 minutes”).  Some things students will need to commit to memory for the duration of the course or school year (presumably due to a final exam, so need to know for “40 weeks”).  Some things are “big ideas” and important for students to know for a lifetime (“40 years”).  It makes sense to emphasize the “big ideas” in what we’re teaching, no argument there.  The controversy, though, is that there are a wide range of perspectives about exactly what those “big ideas” are.  Is “matter is made up of atoms” a 40 year idea?  Probably (though it wouldn’t be hard to find someone willing to say “I lived a perfectly happy and successful life without knowing that”).  Is “atoms are made up of protons, neutrons, and electrons” 40 year stuff?  Are the basic properties of these particles?  Is how to read a periodic table?  Well, it depends, doesn’t it?  For anyone who pursues a career in the sciences, yes. For some people, maybe not.  How precisely are we to know?

I think that there is a certain body of knowledge that is foundational to any subject.  Without knowing that “arteries carry blood away from the heart and veins carry blood towards the heart” and “the heart is a four-chambered pump made up of two atria and two ventricles”, there are huge pieces missing in understanding the human body.  To the point that I feel pretty comfortable saying that a student without this knowledge does not understand the circulatory system.  Will they ever use this knowledge?  I say probably (because it might impact their future health and medical situation or that of someone they know, and because it helps inform healthy lifestyle choices).  Others say “no, they can Google it if they need to know”.

I also think some knowledge of basic facts (yes, from memory) is essential for active and responsible citizenship.  In my view, it’s important to know some dates and names in history.  I think that if students leave high school without knowing some basics about “Louis Riel” or “World War II” or “residential schools”, that’s a big problem.  Do they need to memorize the date of every significant event in the history of our country, the specific battles in World War II, the names of all of the fathers of confederation?  No, and I don’t go into any of that in great depth in class either.  But I think that having some level of knowledge is important and valuable.

I’m not saying Googleing things is bad… I regularly pull out my smartphone or fire up a web browser to check things I’m not sure of.  I do it in front of students.  I model how to search effectively and how to assess the quality of the sites that pop up.  I’m the last one to say that we need to memorize everything.  But I think that it’s equally dangerous to say that we need to memorize nothing.

In the past, I think the education system probably tended to overemphasize the importance of memorization. The whole “teacher lectures, students write notes based on the lecture, students memorize notes for the test or exam” thing.  And I think some of what students were asked to memorize was, well, to be polite, of questionable value.  But I’m a little bit wary of the pendulum swinging too far in the other direction.  Today, you can Google anything.  Surely that doesn’t mean students need to know nothing?


About tkboehm

High school teacher. Techie. Cadet leader. Bomber fan.
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