Why Memorization Gets a Bad Rap in Modern Education

It’s inevitable. Anytime I read about the problem with modern education or any type of educational reform, there’s a line slipped in among the rest that basically says there’s no need/benefit/joy in rote memorization.

It’s rarely the focus and is often the only reference to memorization in the entire article, and it gets me worked up every time, for a couple reasons:

1) I think there’s actually very little memorization happening in modern education. What these authors are referring to is the fact that we teach a lesson on X or Y or Z and expect students to remember the facts of the lesson…at least until they’re tested on it. But they’re not actually focusing on long-term memorization, teaching students how to memorize, or reviewing the memorized facts over a longer period of time.

2) Memorization of the grammar of a subject, as outlined by the classical education model, is actually really beneficial.

Let’s talk about what that type of memorization looks like:

As I’ve mentioned before, classical education focuses on depth of knowledge rather than breadth. So instead of trying to teach unit studies on every event of history over a 13-year school career — which I know is an oversimplification but pretty much sums up what I originally thought I’d be doing as a homeschooler — classical education focuses on a core set of facts that provide pegs for the information children will encounter throughout their life. (We’ll come back to the idea of pegs in a minute.)

So, as an example, Classical Conversations uses a 24-week, 3-cycle model. That means that students essentially memorize 72 history sentences, repeating the same 24 sentences every 3 years throughout the elementary years.

Many people will disparagingly call this rote learning, but it’s very different than the methods of modern education, where that information is taught and reviewed over a relatively short period of time and then set aside as new information is taught. And here’s why it works:

When a student memorizes facts about history in an intentional way, those names, dates, places and events stick in their mind. When they later encounter those same names, dates, places and events through books, news stories, and in conversation, that information fits into the framework of their mind and they experience a lightbulb moment where the facts suddenly come alive. This is why we refer to those facts as the pegs that future information hangs on.

So rather than focusing on detailed unit studies with fun, hands-on projects in an effort to capture their imagination and attention and make that information stick, we focus on the memorization of those core facts so that they’ll be ready for the facts to come alive on their own. And let me tell you, there is no better feeling than hearing your 9-year-old gasp from the backseat because she’s reading a book where they reference the Magna Carta or The Hundreds Year War or the phases of the moon, and suddenly it’s all clicked into place.

It’s worth noting that elementary school children are great at memorization, soaking up facts and figures and committing them to memory easily, and that — when done right — they actually really enjoy it too. (As anyone whose child can recite the entire Frozen script can attest!)

The idea behind the classical model is that children intentionally memorize information in the early elementary years, start asking really good questions about that information as they head into the middle school years, and then use it to form their own ideas — and to express those ideas — during the high school years.

And that’s why memorization works.