kitchen table math, the sequel: Why students need to memorize, Common Core edition

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Why students need to memorize, Common Core edition

"...anything that occupies your working memory reduces your ability to think."
- Daniel Kahneman | Thinking Fast and Slow
The only way to clear space in working memory is to store knowledge in long-term memory.

Why students have to memorize things


HoppyTheToad said...

Daniel Willingham makes a similar point in his book "Why Don't Students Like School." He is a fan of having students memorize actual content, instead of being taught to "just google" everything.

SteveH said...

I think it depends on what you are memorizing. My son memorized PI to 120 numbers. He also memorized "The Raven", by Poe. The poem is a more valuable thing to remember. When he was young, he memorized the list of Pokemon. It depends on whether what you are memorizing is connected to some other sort of thinking or information. In first grade, he could find any country in the world (now he knows all of the capitals), but his teacher told us that "Yes, he has a lot of superficial knowledge." However, that has had a huge impact on learning so many other things.

This is not just a matter of freeing up working memory. It has to do with everything. When he reads any news article that talks about someplace in the world, there is a location in his memory to link it to. That's what facts offer. They offer linking mechanisms for other information to attach to. It sticks.

There is also the problem that you can read something that you don't know, but still not remember it, unless you have something in your brain to attach it to. You have to force the process with memorization. My son and I call this the "hiatus effect". He read the word one time and asked me what it meant, and I explained it to him. All of a sudden he started seeing the word all over the place. This has happened with so many words. Clearly, he had been blind to the word before some specific event got him to specifically learn what it meant. That's why I'm a big fan of directly learning vocabulary. I saw too many common words that he did not know or knew poorly even though he read a lot. I had to force the issue for SAT CR because he was missing several questions only because of vocabulary. By the time he took the test, he did not miss one vocabulary question.

In 8th grade he memorized the Periodic Table. Some would say that this is purely a rote process, but he knew how it was organized. He knew about the valence electrons. When he memorized PI, there was nothing that the numbers connect to. This is not true with the Periodic Table. He would ask me to give him two elements and he would tell me how they could combine. I suppose it's true that one could learn the table and not have any secondary (attached) benefits, but I doubt it.

I remeber one school trustee talking about having to memorize the presidents in order and how that was a complete waste of time. I don't agree. The list provides an extraordinary timeline framework for fitting in so much other knowledge. Like the periodic table, you now have a framework for attaching so much other knowledge and understanding. Many people use this technique, but it's at a simpler level, only having a few key dates to attach new information. They might read something historical and can only fit it into a slot somewhere between the Revolution and the Civil War, rather than the term of Andrew Jackson. It's not as if people think that this approach to learning does not work, they just don't like the hard work of memorizing. The only downside is that you can memorize too many things at one time and there is not enough connecting knowledge to make it permanent. A better approach is perhaps a divide and conquer method. People will learn the first few presidents, Lincoln, Teddy Rosevelt, FDR and the presidents during their lifetime. Other keys to the framework are the wars or things like the Wright brothers' first flight. However, you have to force the process and not leave it to chance.

It's not that memorization doesn't work, it's just that it's hard and it can disappear if you don't have anything for it to attach to (or attach to it). However, some think that facts and dates should only be secondary or attached to other information.

SteveH said...

This is the mantra of K-6 education where facts are mere and skills are rote; that understanding has to drive everything. My son had a thematic unit in first grade on the Arctic where they read about polar bears and a little Inuit boy. I think there was something in there about global warming too. This was all before any learning about the globe, the continents or the seas. They had no factual framework for understanding what they read. In another unit called Sands From Around the World, my son had to show the student teacher where Kuwait was on the globe.

Some educators might talk about balance, but it's just to make parents go away.

Shannon Severance said...

"That's what facts offer. They offer linking mechanisms for other information to attach to." Yes. Yes. Yes.

AND facts can offer the ability to reject and rebut untruths.

People excited about hydrogen powered cars because hydrogen was so abundant! Yes, there is lots of hydrogen in the ocean. That does not mean there is an abundance of cheap H2 to power cars with.

Auntie Ann said...

I've always figured that memorization was to learning as practicing your free-throw is to basketball. It's brain training.

linsee said...

Christian Wiman, until last month rhe editor of Poetry magazine, talked in a recent interview on WFMT about a Poetry Foundation project Poetry Out Loud, a "national recitation contest" for students on the model of the national spelling bee. Some 375,000 students paticipated in the 2013 contest.

momof4 said...

Back when the dinosaurs roamed the earth and I was in 1-12 (50s-60s), we all had to do memory work in all subjects: math facts and algorithms, spelling, grammar rules, political and physical geography, government, science terms, constellations, planets, plant and animal structure, classifications, behaviors,types of rocks, poetry, passages from famous documents, speeches,and literary works etc. It used to be a routine, unquestioned part of school.

momof4 said...

How could I have forgotton history? People, places, dates, events, famous documents and arranging all of the above on a timeline. Also, we had plenty of memory work in art/architecture history and music appreciation - from our regular classroom teachers. We learned the words to patriotic songs, folk songs, ballads, cowboy songs etc. It didn't hurt us a bit.

palisadesk said...

Stuart Buck in two recent blog posts linked to these items that are on topic and quite interesting:

Children Can't Think if They Don't Learn Facts

(an article from the UK, good story)

and this one:

Just Google It

which has a memorable explanation of why Google will not solve all problems.

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