scary creature

Not as scary as he seems . . .

If you’ve been exposed to the fashionable education set, you’re likely aware of its widespread aversion to “rote learning.” You may have heard, for instance, the inhumane, even fatal implications of such practices as “regurgitation” and “drill and kill.” I know I’ve heard these terms over and over, dark clouds seemingly floating out of the K-12 system and into the minds of students who come to fear the memorization bogeyman. I’ve observed the bogeyman continues to haunt at least some college students, who recoil in suspicion when they’re expected to commit something to memory, and may argue that requiring “regurgitation” (as they see it) is bad teaching.

And I say no . . . not necessarily. In my own case, I mostly taught college writing and literature survey courses, and memorization wasn’t a large part of our curriculum. I did, however, try an experiment in which I offered an opportunity to memorize a poem and recite it in front of the class. A few students took me up on the offer, and the assignment seemed a small personal triumph for them. I also had students comment to me that they were required to memorize some Shakespeare in high school, and rather than recount the incident with disgust (as you might expect from those who’d “regurgitated”), these students seemed proud of their accomplishment and grateful to be challenged that way.

Of course, such assignments as memorizing and reciting verse were commonplace in elementary school years ago. Why is this kind of teaching out of fashion? I think, for one thing, the word “regurgitation” suggests that acquiring knowledge isn’t always pleasant. I hear repeatedly that “learning should be fun,” especially for children; but it’s not always fun. That’s okay (is it realistic or humane, in any case, to raise children’s expectations to a vision of unending, lifelong fun?). In fifth or sixth grade, I may not have enjoyed memorizing and reciting all the US presidents, but looking back, I am glad to have done it; of course that knowledge has come in handy. Likewise states and capitals – countries and capitals – all the prepositions – the multiplication tables – again, surely this “drilled” knowledge doesn’t “kill” students or their souls; it doesn’t suck the love of learning from them and doom them to a stifling life of un-fun, robotic un-creativity.

That’s another reason folks aren’t in favor of rote learning: it’s said that students’ creativity, comprehension, and reasoning skills suffer under “drill and kill” techniques. I don’t agree. I believe creative thought, deep understanding, and reasoning spring from a mind grounded in knowledge; and certain basic facts are tools serving as foundational, gateway knowledge on the path to higher comprehension. We also must admit (mustn’t we?) that some facts, serving that foundational purpose, all educated people should know. And how could one master these mental tools if not for learning by rote? (One could argue, very persuasively, that our enabling students’ ignorance of such basic facts is one real “killer” in American education.)

Obviously, deep, well-rounded learning and critical thinking cannot stop at memorization, and I wouldn’t advocate for Gradgrinds in the classroom. But memorization absolutely can be and often should be an important step on the way to deep learning, and memorization can be a useful, edifying, and even beautiful activity in its own right.

Image via mrg. bz /jeltovski

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