In the 40 years that I have been teaching, I have seen a lot of changes in the world of education. In my earliest years in the classroom, rote learning was the primary way that knowledge was transferred from teacher to student. Rote learning relies heavily on the repetition of material for the purpose of memorizing it. This teaching technique was widely used across all disciplines. Students memorized important dates and events in history class, entire music pieces in music class, famous poems in language arts class, and math facts and equations in math class.
Over the last four decades, there has been an obvious shift in education away from rote learning. The emphasis has shifted from rote learning and the basic acquisition of facts to an emphasis on higher-order thinking skills and critical problem-solving. It seems as though "rote" has almost become a bad word in education.
It is true: we live in a totally different world today than the world as it was 40 years ago. Students can now use Google to find the dates of important historical events. Teens can ask Alexa to recite Marc Antony's famous speech from Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. And learners of all ages can use any number of mobile apps to help them with their math homework. Our modern world certainly calls for changes in how we approach teaching and learning, and this must include an emphasis on those higher-order, critical thinking skills. This shift to modern education for the modern learner begs the questions:
Is memorization still a skill worth developing and practicing?
Are there benefits of memorization to the modern learner?
What place does memorization have in education today?
It is my firm conviction that even in the modern world of information available at our fingertips, memorization still ought to be a critical component of education.
Benefits of Memorization
Each year, my fourth-grade students memorize multiple historical documents, all of the U.S. states and capitals, math facts, and a catechism. Though rare in today's elementary classroom, I want my students to practice committing things to memory in a way that will be meaningful for them far beyond my class.
I've seen the power of memorization at play in every discipline that my students engage in. Memorized vocabulary aids reading comprehension. Memorized times tables aid higher math operations. Memorized music pieces aid in creativity. Memorized poetry aids with rhetoric and elocution. On the flip side, I've also seen students struggle in all of these areas when they have not practiced the discipline of memorization. The deeper and broader a student's base of knowledge is--developed through memorization--the more fluent, creative, and expansive they can be in novel situations.
It is not just my own personal conviction that memorization still matters. Current cognitive research, too, suggests that memory is crucial for accessing and operating in higher-order decision-making and problem-solving.
Memory and Dual Process Theory
Current cognitive research suggests that our ability to reason and make decisions takes place in the interplay of two systems. System 1 is the fast, automatic, unconscious process we use to make everyday decisions. System 2 is the slower, more effortful, conscious system we use to analyze a novel or complex situation. It is these systems working together that provides our most intentional, accurate, efficient thinking and reasoning. A recent study conducted among medical students in their residency concluded that System 1 (the automatic, easily accessible process) is an indispensable element of decision-making. This study also determined that "complex cognitive operations eventually migrate from System 2 to System 1 as proficiency and skill are acquired and pattern matching has replaced effortful serial processing."
Though the comparison is certainly not apples to apples, I believe this research speaks to the need for memorization in education. In short, a child's ability to think critically and problem solve is inextricably connected to their base of easily-retrievable knowledge. Memorization in grade school can provide students with an expansive mental toolbox that is used in that System 1 type of thinking that is vital for System 2 types of thinking (analysis). As students memorize math facts, poetry lines, and historical events, the mental work it takes to commit these to memory often places them in long-term memory that is easily retrievable and accessible. This can help not only with future recall of those facts but can also strengthen the mind's ability to build on that information and transfer it to new situations.
More than Just the Mind
What's important to keep in mind, though, is something that goes beyond one's mental faculties. I believe there is a spiritual foundation for memorization. The Psalmist writes, "I have hidden Your word in my heart that I might not sin against You." I understand "hiding God's Word in our hearts" to mean committing His truths to our minds, and in a beautiful, mysterious way, memory becomes a matter of the heart.
I've experienced this first-hand. I attended a Christian university in which I was encouraged to memorized Bible passages. This was a novel practice to me at the time, but I can still recall so many of those memorized verses now over 40 years later. These deeply embedded truths have served to strengthen and sustain me during difficult times. They have been a wellspring of life. Over and over again in the Old Testament, God told His people to remember the ways He had moved in their lives and shown His presence. Memory matters to God. He gave us the ability to remember. He designed every intricate detail of how our minds work. And so, I believe, memorization will always be an important part of education.