Brute Memorization

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Education blogger Catherine Johnson recently asked How much rote memorization do students do?

Not very much. Not much at all. Her argument, if I'm following it, is that we need more "brute" memorization than the none we push today.

[By the by, the comments as well as her post are very interesting. I often feel out of my depth when they start tossing around terms like "automaticity" and "parameters of implicit learning," but it's fascinating stuff about which I have much to learn.]

Growing up, the memorization I did was for Awana and other things I found fun (like the mustard bit from Alice in Wonderland). I did a little math drill. We ended up practicing spelling on a daily basis for a few years. Vocabulary came naturally as we read and talked and wrote. I do not recall any rote vocabulary practice until high school. And now, years later, the only words I remember from the book we memorized for the SAT are accouterments and callipygian.

So I haven't been very fond of sit-at-a-desk-memorization. I haven't found it very useful. My experience has taught me that if I need flashcards, it's probably because this is information I'll never use again after this brief period of cramming.

I crammed for my geography test to label each of the 50 States. Since passing the test, I've yet to use that information for anything. Some people enjoy memorizing geography the way I like clever phrases, but -- like the movie quotes I can recite -- such information is, from what I've observed, rarely practical.

My wall maps filled in by a few of my kids who've memorized lots of geography

The future of learning does seem to be pushing against formal memorization. And, in many cases, I can see why. As you and I know, memorization is not the same as understanding. Even so...

The more I read about memory on Catherine's blog, the clearer a slightly different picture becomes. And I think I've missed it all these years, in part, because of all the Scripture memorization I did. The other piece is the beauty of Sonlight.

First, I didn't think much of memorization because I was pretty good at it. Doing Awana helped hone my recall skills. I learned to repeat passages of the Bible to myself over and over again to create mental memory pathways (or whatever they call that). I had learned so much Scripture by heart that when it came time to regurgitate information in classes, I had the tools I needed to rock it. Honestly, for academia (and certain parts of life), this skill is huge. Practicing memorization is a good thing because it develops a skill critical to certain situations and helpful in many. If you're not sure what to have your children memorize, Scripture is a great place to start.

Second, Sonlight's curriculum naturally helped me learn/remember stuff. This literature-rich approach to learning works! It worked so well, I didn't even notice it happening. Simply by reading great books and talking about them, I was constantly asking my brain to remember the important information. As I recently learned, this is what makes testing so valuable.

All that to say, "Memorization is good. Don't fear it." the same breath, "You shouldn't have to force much memorization."

Sometimes, and for some seasons, "drill and kill" is the way to go. I know it helped lay a solid foundation for me in spelling and math. But then, one year, I had to switch math programs. The old method no longer worked.

I still have much to learn about education and pedagogy. But throughout these years of reading and blogging about education, the one piece that's proven true again and again is that Sonlight is a fantastic way to learn!

 ~Luke Holzmann
Filmmaker, Writer, Guardian

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  1. Pingback: Learn It Quick Schemes | Sonlight Blog