kitchen table math, the sequel: Why students have to memorize things - revised

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Why students have to memorize things - revised

I've been trying to get this post right, and it's getting closer.

I'm sensing an uptick in anti-knowledge sentiment, so I need a rebuttal.

23 comments:

palisadesk said...

I'm interested to hear your perception of an anti-knowledge uptick, as I have definitely seen a trend the other way. Mind you, my observations are local and specific, but they do spring from observations of implementing ideas from Elmore, Hattie and others.

Where we get into extended discussion -- without any real resolution -- is on matters such as "how much specific knowledge should we teach on a particular topic or unit, how shall we integrate it with application, how best do we help student form a a cognitive structure they can add to? And how do we do this in a very limited time (instructional time is always limited)?"

We know we cannot outsource to parents (low-SES community) and children lack much basic knowledge,which we need to teach explicitly.Prioritizing and selecting are matters on which we disagree among ourselves.

SteveH said...

I see a difference between what many educators say and what they do. Our high school is not anti-knowledge. It is fully driven by an AP curriculum. This (finally) drove out CMP math in our middle school. The mere facts and rote skills world is still K-6, but it's been like that for ages. A neighboring town's high school has a definite anti-AP attitude, but kids do well because the parents make sure of that. They still offer AP classes.

Just because educators say things doesn't mean that they are happening, or if they are, then it might be only for a small group of students. Instead of arguing a general point, I think it would be better to analyze specific cases and details.



Catherine Johnson said...

I'm interested to hear your perception of an anti-knowledge uptick, as I have definitely seen a trend the other way.

I could be wrong...I've just recently stumbled upon various anti-knowledge statements.

The Times ran an editorial this weekend saying that Common Core would get rid of 'rote memorization'; then I saw a Marissa Mayer essay on The Edge saying that knowledge doesn't matter now that we have the internet; and after that I came across the fact that TED has apparently given a big award to a British education expert who is pushing the idea of not teaching knowledge because we have the internet....

Beyond that, though, the word "memorize" is still a dirty word in these parts.

It can't be spoken.

Catherine Johnson said...

Instead of arguing a general point, I think it would be better to analyze specific cases and details.

I think the general point matters because the 'zeitgeist' (for want of a better term) crowds out the research and focus we need on the questions palisadesk just posed.

When people say one thing and do another, they don't do the other thing well.

The class I teach is a perfect example. I have no idea what to teach or when, and I have no one to tell me because no one works on this (any more). No one writes curriculum geared to moving content and skills into memory.

The fact that palisadesk and her colleagues have to try to figure this out on their own means that they are getting no help from researchers or from publishers.

If you look at the 'extremely fast learning' post, you see at once that we need to know what students need to know: exactly how much knowledge organized in what sequence is best? (That question may be closer to an answer for math than for other history and English; I don't know.)

Catherine Johnson said...

Our high school is not anti-knowledge. It is fully driven by an AP curriculum.

Right --- but that doesn't mean the teachers are actually making sure content makes it into students' memories.

I've now heard three different stories of teachers here (in my public school and at Hogwarts!) simply telling students they wouldn't 'get to' the whole AP curriculum, so if students wanted to do well on the exam they'd have to teach themselves the subjects not covered in class.

My district's approach is to explain things to students, then expect them to remember them when time comes for the test.

Explanation = memory.

That's the philosophy.

Catherine Johnson said...

Last night I went to a fun 'Latin enrichment' course taught by a student who graduated from our high school.

He told us quite a bit about Latin, and at some point it became obvious that we weren't remembering it.

The subject of 'drill' came up -- the word was actually spoken -- and the young man teaching the course looked apprehensive. He clearly thought that memorization and drill were bad things in some way -- not because he himself thought they were bad, but because he assumed we would think they were bad.

If memorization is a bad word, the school isn't going to spend a lot of time figuring out how to help kids remember content.

That has to be done at home, out of earshot.

Catherine Johnson said...

Last but not least!

I talked to a friend who has her child in a progressive private school nearby. She says he has learned ***nothing.*** The school has massive grade inflation, so there's no grade pressure to memorize content, and he hasn't retained anything he's been taught. (Plus he has at least two tutors reteaching content.)

Because the school is progressive, all students do for the entire day is discuss. They discuss and think.

I told my friend about the 'Teach Like a Champion Schools,' where kids are getting a huge amount of supervised practice during class time, and she said that's exactly what he needs.

He would enjoy those classes, too.

SteveH said...

"When people say one thing and do another, they don't do the other thing well."

But the people who talk are not necessarily the ones deciding, or it may be that they are only talking about one class or group of kids. There is a whole lot of talk going on, but the reality of what's happening in schools could be quite different. We never hear about all of the teachers methodically going through textbooks and assigning nightly homework. In our high school, those classes are impervious to the silly talk and CCSS. If I heard that the high school was considering an integrated math sequence for all, that would be a real problem. Hearing some teachers talk about the glories of project-based learning is meaningless because they are not in charge.

I'm not saying that there are no systemic problems caused by the general level of edu-thought. I am more than happy to fight those battles, but the best outcome one might hope for is more parental choice.

SteveH said...

When does memorization become something else? My son had to draw crayon pictures of over 100 science terms in 6th grade. They were tested on them. He could have gotten to the same point using simple memorization. Active or direct memorization can be a powerful and efficient tool. By calling them rote skills and rote facts, many discount their linkage to understanding. But of course, these classes expect students to remember things.


"but that doesn't mean the teachers are actually making sure content makes it into students' memories."

AP classes require a lot of memorization as part of the fast pace needed to cover all of the material. Helping students with this process is different than the problem of curricula that think that facts are mere and skills are rote. They don't even try. They design the courses to avoid them.

SteveH said...

"I've now heard three different stories of teachers here (in my public school and at Hogwarts!) simply telling students they wouldn't 'get to' the whole AP curriculum, so if students wanted to do well on the exam they'd have to teach themselves the subjects not covered in class."

I like this because it's a specific problem. My son has three books to read this summer for AP English. The AP test is in May and there is a lot of ground to cover. He has AP Spanish work. No teacher is allowed to tell students that they will have to cover missing material. They give a real AP test to the students by the end of April - and that is part of their grade. Parents hear what others say about how well teachers prepare their students.

My position would be to tell the school that leaving part of the material up to the kids is unacceptable - not that it would have any effect.

SteveH said...

"He clearly thought that memorization and drill were bad things in some way -- not because he himself thought they were bad, but because he assumed we would think they were bad."

Memorization is a waste of time if it doesn't work. But what does work mean? If you had to memorize all of the presidents in sequence and then you forgot many of them after a year, is that a failure? What if you remembered half, but generally knew where the rest fit in? What are we comparing this with? Thematic learning? Dependence on the internet? Even with an internet connection in hand, people will miss learning opportunities because they won't look things up. I do look up lots of things, but I can't imagine what I would do if I knew a lot less facts. The internet is a huge and important new learning tool, but it's no excuse for low expectations.

SteveH said...

"has her child in a progressive private school nearby"

Almost all of the K-8 Waldorf students struggle when they get to our public high school.

Anonymous said...

Of course even if you memorize the presidents in order in HS, they get scrambled in your brain after a while. But even scrambled, it's better to know the approximate order they came in, so you can connect them with important events and trends in US history. Then, if someone or some book or some TV show references "Millard Fillmore" you can put the comment in context.

Catherine Johnson said...

re: memorizing the presidents of the U.S., that ties in to my point because memorization is a dirty word (and it is a dirty word here), no one is paying any attention to what and when to memorize (and how to memorize most efficiently)

If you're taking the brain into account (leaving aside values now, just talking about the brain), is it a good idea to memorize the presidents of the United States?

If it is, is it a good idea to 'overlearn' them to the point that the names don't become scrambled in memory?

Basically, no one is working on these questions.

As a college instructor, I have no idea what content I should be trying to move into students' long-term memory (if any).

I say 'if any' because it's possible to teach writing without any terminology at all, it seems. (Morningside teaches formal grammar after students learn to write).

When it comes to literature, I feel a bit more confident of basic terms students should know and remember and carry with them into life....

gasstationwithoutpumps said...

I'm not a big fan of memorization. I have a terrible memory—particularly for names or dates. Memorizing the list of presidents or all the state capitols seems to me a pointless waste of time.

Part of the reason I went into math as a student was that there was almost no memorization involved. I later moved into computer science and computer engineering for similar reasons.

That is not to say that you don't need to know things, just that what you need to know you learn by looking up and using the ideas, not by upfront memorization in case someday you might need it.

The key to learning stuff well is to use it (preferably for something real that you care about). I have never needed to know whether Lincoln's presidency was before or after Franklin Pierce's (I just looked it up—Pierce was 14th Lincoln was 16th), and I don't really care.

I do use inverting and non-inverting op amp circuits, and I have no trouble remembering the theory of how they are designed (that's much simpler than a list of 44 names, and much, much more useful). Students who try memorizing formulas about op amps, rather than using and understanding the theory, are much less likely to be able to do successful designs.

lgm said...

The anti-knowledge people here are the parents. The Principal's remarks at High School Open House last fall started with sports ( a plus to the audience), then went to hard work in academics as he told the parents that the students do not know enough facts to be successful. I beleive he was referring to exam essays such as the DBQ on Regent's Global History as well as the AP written work and the general in class tests. He mentioned that many know general info, but specific facts that could be included in essays were a weak point. That was followed by the announcement of the Regent's decision to mandate quarterly cumulative exams in Regent's Science courses. So, the admin is behind acquiring more facts, but given that they don't issue texts for many of these courses I really don't see how it is going to happen in the full inclusion environment where all knowledge comes from the teacher or the explanations in Castle Learning.

After I stood up at a Board meeting and asked for the restoration of Math Club, I had parents pull me to the side over the next few months and explain why Math was unnecessary. Everyone of them did not want their offspring to put the necessary study time in, and all had found careers that their child could make $100k in mid-career with just Regent's Algebra 1. To them, it was foolish to spend more time on math or fund a STEM career that req'd college, because there are enough jobs that pay better with less education and don't require unpaid ot. The math ed is best left to the elites in their mind, and they don't want to fund higher level courses.

On leaving course content out. That's done routinely here in order to game the test and get as many as possible to pass. If a student wants to do well and there is no honors section, they need to get the prep material and do the missing units at home. The SAT II Chem test vs the Regent's Exam in Chem was the eye opener for my child.

froggiemama said...

Thank you gasstation! I never could have said it as well.

There is a big difference between memorizing something and KNOWING something. And I think some of the controversy here stems from confusing the two. I am adamantly against memorization, but I believe strongly that students (and all of us, in fact) should know lots of things. You know things when you have to use the information because that is what forces you to integration that information into the data structures in your brain. For example, my first grade kid memorized a lot of addition facts this year. She is really good at memorization. But she didn't KNOW addition - she didn't know it in her bones, as I like to say - until we spent a lot of time with her, first doing finger counting, and then doing some mental math strategies.I personally think her teacher should have done the finger counting and the mental math, and perhaps some other strategies, BEFORE asking the kids to memorize the addition facts. I wonder how many other kids in her class didn't ever get addition "in their bones".

SteveH said...

"Basically, no one is working on these questions."

This is true. Most think it's good to remember stuff, but many don't like memorization. Nobody would argue that remembering more things is bad. One might argue that the common memorization of lists does not work well for many people. Is the goal just to improve that process? It depends on the details.

This is not just about factoids. When I taught, I was very concerned that students remembered key facts and concepts. I wanted to drill a few things into their heads so that they would stay there for a long time. For computer science majors, that list was longer than for college algebra students majoring in Nursing.

I think that "memorization" is a poor word to use. Also, people forget things if they aren't used, even if they are overlearned, either through direct memorization or thematically. However, for things like geography and history, which you encounter everyday in the news, I think that working hard on remembering things is very important. For math, I know that double angle trig identites exist, but I see no need to remember the formulas. I do, however, need to "remember" what I can look up.

SteveH said...

"KNOWING something"

Knowing is remembering. That is not understanding. If you are talking about understanding, then a big argument in education is whether you get there from the bottom up (with facts and skills) or from the top down (with thematic or project-based learning).

In math, full understanding can only come from mastery of skills. I'm not talking about memorizing the times table or the standard algorithm for multiplication. I'm talking about things like the transition from manipulating fractions to manipulating rational expressions.

There are many levels of understanding, and just stopping at memorizing lists or times tables is just plain bad teaching. The solution is not to flip the process around and come at skills and remembering through thematic or project-based approaches. The facts and skills never get done. This is clearly seen with curricula like Everyday Math and TERC.

For everything one has to remember in math, the only path is via memorization and mastery of skills. Understanding is meaningless otherwise.

Lsquared said...

froggiemama said "I personally think her teacher should have done the finger counting and the mental math, and perhaps some other strategies, BEFORE asking the kids to memorize the addition facts."

There's actually a lot of research on how to best get children to memorize math facts, and it agrees with you. Edward Rathmell summarizes a lot of it here. Notice that this isn't a debate about whether children should memorize math facts, it's a debate about what is the best way to get children to memorize and retain math facts"

Lsquared said...

Oops--I forgot the link:
http://thinkingwithnumbers.com/QuestionsAnswers/index.html

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