Is Rote Memorization Underrated?

| February 3, 2011 | 1 Comment
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That’s the hot-button question posed by Justin Snider on the Hechinger Ed blog.

Why are rote repetition and memorization underrated in America? As I say on the radio show, they’ve gotten a bad rap in part because they lend themselves too well to standardized testing. It’s much easier — faster, cheaper — for me to determine whether you know when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor (December 7, 1941) than whether you can convincingly explain how and why the Treaty of Versailles set the stage for World War II. Yes, the curriculum has narrowed (even Arne Duncan admits it!), the “what-gets-tested-is-what-gets-taught” phenomenon is very much alive, and there’s a lack of critical-thinking skills among today’s young people.

These sad facts, however, are more the result of our over-reliance on multiple-choice tests than anything inherently evil about repetition or memorization.

Readers tended to concur:

  • “It is my opinion that when we got rid of drill and kill we may have thrown the baby out with the bathwater in education. As an ESL teacher I saw many remarkable skill levels in children who came from nations where memorization was part of their education.”
  • “I find that my ability to perform mental math beats the calculator-wielding kids hands-down every time.”
  • “Well, if you don’t know your facts you cannot understand the concept and you certainly cannot move on to harder ideas such as division, fractions and certainly not Algebra.”
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  • http://twitter.com/teacherjim Jim Walker

    I call it walking around knowledge. Knowing math facts makes it easier to to figure out that if I am 100 miles from my destination and traveling at average 65mph it will take me about 1 1/2 hours. Knowing that Paris is the capital of France and was invaded by Germany in WW II gives me context to understand a news story.
    I don’t remember learning most of my walking around knowledge, except math facts, directly in school. Most of it was learned because I was interested and curious. I am a special ed teacher and most of the time we spend prepping students to take high stakes test, they may not ever pass, could be spent working on projects that students are interested in and will develop their walking around knowledge.