I have gotten into many conversations about whether or not students should be doing any memorization work at all when they have access to all of the information they could ever need right in their phones. In a day and age of Google and all of the other sources on information – YouTube, Wikipedia, Flickr – why should any student be required to memorize facts. It is clearly not a higher level thinking skill to commit information by rote to memory. So why should we ask it of our students?
I would argue that there is one primary reason, which is that the process of figuring out how to effectively memorize teaches a student about how his or her brain works. If we teach students multiple ways to commit a series of facts to memory, they can experiment and learn which one works for them. Is it easier for them to learn by reading the information over and over again? Is it easier if they read it aloud rather than silently? Are they more effective when they draw charts of the information on large sheets of paper? Does hanging those sheets up in their bedroom help them learn it? Do they need to take a walk and teach the lesson to their dog, speaking it aloud.
We need to teach each of these strategies in the classroom. We need to model how each is done and then have them practice that strategy at home that night with a lesson. The next day should be a time of reflection on the process. Take a quick quiz, not for a grade but to evaluate retention of the material. Then have a class discussion about whether it was an effective strategy. Find out about when and where they used it and how it might be adapted to be more effective. It is empowering for the student to go through the process of using different strategies. They begin to understand how they learn while doing a relatively simple task of memorizing a set of facts. Each student begins to develop his or her own personal strategy for tackling their next learning challenge. There is a direct sense of personal power in this understanding of how you learn the most effectively that can be translated into more complicated tasks. Because our brains change and grow, this is an important task for most years of school.
I have no desire to return to a rote-learning classroom, where there is no investigation and student-driven work. On the other hand, I want to avoid throwing this particular baby being thrown out with the bath water. Access to information is not the same as knowing how to gain control over it and work with it. We need to teach our students every possible skill that will allow them to do that, and memorization is simply one that should not be forgotten.