Sunday, July 19, 2009

Memorization in Schools

As part of the discussion taking place about the need for 'Big Picture' thinking and learning in our educational system, part of the argument against what is presently happening in classrooms has been too much memorization in order to do well on the next test. But good points are brought up that there is a need for memorization. Perhaps the best example is how medical doctors need to memorize human anatomy, which is obviously relevant and vital to a doctor's work.

I wanted to make the distinction, though, between the two types of memorization that educators need to worry about: short-term versus long-term. We should be looking for the latter type in education, rather than the former.

Here is my full comment on my friend Zenpundit's post about big picture thinking:

"The notion of memorization has come up in a few comments. I agree that a certain type of memorization is necessary in education, and that is memorization for the sake of learning and eventual application (i.e. long-term memory). The example of medical doctors needing to memorize human anatomy is a prime example. But this is very different than what takes place in, say, most history classes, which is memorization for the sake of passing the next test. This is why most cannot come up with dates and events, because the focus of the individual was solely for the short-term when they ‘learned about’ those dates and events in school, in order to pass the test.

Students freely admit this, and I and most of my teacher friends know this to be true because we did the same thing when we were in middle school and high school. There was no importance/relevance given to us to make us want to try and raise the level of our learning to long-term memory, and many teachers will explicitly state ‘you need to know this for the test.’ If that is all that is required, and if that is all the motivation students are given, then of course we should expect nothing more than short-term memorization.

I tell my students on a very regular basis that they need to challenge me as a teacher…ideally on a daily basis. They (students) need to ask me, and often they do, "What is the point of me wanting to learn this stuff today?" If I cannot give them any reason that will some how connect to their life in any way, then I need to ask myself if this should really be in the curriculum. They may not agree with my argument or reasoning as to how it affects them, but they at least will acknowledge my effort to make a connection. Why should students need to learn something if it truly does not matter for them in any way? A lack of relevancy inevitably leads to short-term memorization for the vast majority of students."

In a high-stakes testing environment, we are teaching to the test. And we've got to change how we approach this by offering students the reason for learning what we are teaching them, by giving them reasons beyond "doing well on the test" for them wanting to learn the material and skills. We are absolutely shooting ourselves in the foot with the approach we have been forced into in our classrooms, and many students are being ripped off in terms of the quality of their education.

WE MUST AVOID BECOMING A TEST MERITOCRACY AT ALL COSTS. It leads to a largely short-term memorization approach from students, devoid of creativity and innovation and application of long-term learning and strategic thinking.


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