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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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When Rote Learning Makes Sense

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator

As a youth, I remember feeling cheated out of rich content in my education when I listened to my mother in times of sorrow or tenderness, lovingly recite entire poems and passages from books she studied in high school.

We all know that practice makes perfect, but for some reason perfection is not one of the goals of learning in most schools. In today's classrooms, students practice plenty, but are not required to retain knowledge perfectly.

The M Word

Somewhere along the way, rote learning got a bad rap. Memorization (there, I said the M word) became anathema to learning. How this came to be, I am uncertain, but what I am certain is that this shift away from memorization has undermined the effectiveness of the teaching and learning process altering whole generations. Perhaps the misplaced angst against memorization has come from the notion that memorization is reserved for teachers as a teaching methodology.

The true nature of memorization, however, is not for the teachers at all, really. It is for the students. And it is the responsibility of teachers to teach students how to use it to help them in their educational career.

The total emphasis on critical thinking has it all wrong: Before students can think critically, they need to have something to think about in their brains. It is true that knowledge without comprehension is of little use, but comprehension requires knowledge and it takes time and effort to acquire.

Bloom's Taxonomy maintains that the highest order of thinking occurs at the evaluating and creating levels which infer that the thinkers must have knowledge, facts, data, or information in their brains to combine into something new, or with which to judge relative importance or value. Therefore, effective knowledge acquisition has to come first.

The Cognitive 411

Students deserve to know how to learn and teachers do them a disservice when they do not teach them useful learning skills. Here are some underlying concepts that need to be accepted before we can continue:

  • The brain is a learning tool. This might seem obvious, but the brain is not a passive sponge. It requires active effort to retain information in short-term memory and even more effort to get it into long-term memory.
  • Learners need to know that the longer an idea can be kept in short-term memory, the more chance it can be pushed into long-term memory. This is where practice makes perfect makes sense.
  • The body is another learning tool -- another often-ignored concept. The body is connected to the brain and if you engage the body, you are engaging the brain too.
  • Learners feel an addictive sense of accomplishment when something has been memorized completely.

Memory Games

With these concepts in mind, I would like to discuss some of the memorization learning methods that make it effective and enjoyable:

Learning Aloud

Just as we use our mouths to repeat a phone number over and over to retain it in short term memory, other things can be learned in the same way. One key point here to remember is that the cycle of repetition must be short and quick and no less than three times.

Another point is that if students cannot pronounce a word, there is no way they can remember it. When reviewing flash cards orally, for example, students need to do it quickly, pausing only a second or two for recall.

If it doesn't come, then they need to look at the answer and repeat it aloud, then go on. If done quickly, by the third or fourth iteration, most students can have 100 percent accuracy. The danger is when a student gets stuck on one card for too long, all of the other information in short term memory is lost, making the study ineffective.

One way to help students learn how to do this is to do the flash cards with them, modeling the speed and what happens if the student can't remember: let them look at the answer, but making sure that that student gets a chance to respond correctly again. If the students are in a line (or even better, several lines), the first student answers a card, and then goes back to the end of the line while the rest of the students in the line give their responses to the cards one by one.

Using Rhythm and Breath

Learning text is done at similar speeds, but since the order of learning the words is important there are some effective ways to chain them together. Learn the passage in breath groups, or what can be comfortably stated in one breath. Students using their mouths, because it is part of the body and a learning tool, repeat the breath group until it is firmly in short-term memory, then go on to the next breath group and do the same. When that is done, put both groups together and repeat them.

This is best taught to students using choral repetition. The key here is to be enthusiastic and energetic, praising the students as they practice. Printing the first letter of each word in the breath group can help students remember the words as they learn them.

Jigsaw Strategies

A creative teacher can have groups of students learn different parts of the passage and then switch parts, or stand up as they say their passage, or even move to a different part of the room with each phrase. Since the body is connected to the brain, it is effective to have students do a hand signal or body movement to symbolize the content of the breath group as they say it.

Sometimes it is helpful to start at the end and add phrases in reverse order known as reverse chaining. I have seen seventh graders use this method to learn the complex logical operations and high school students learning chemistry through a chemical reactions dance.

As a Spanish teacher, I found it effective to have the students perform the action of the words they were trying to learn as they told a story, know as Total Physical Response Storytelling (TPRS). It was exciting to see students enjoying themselves while acting out and stating from memory the words to Caperucita Roja ("Little Red Riding Hood").

Memorization is not a bad thing. Students have to memorize the alphabet, sight words, vocabulary, times tables, and many other things and have fun doing it.

There's countless ways to help students learn how to memorize quickly, efficiently, and enjoyably. You can use music, song, dance, rhythms, patterns, competitions, and games. Once they know how to learn, or memorize, then students can acquire knowledge about anything they want to learn, which is in direction opposition to what critics say about rote memorization.

What are your thoughts on this post? Please share your own stories about learning through memorization.

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator
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Ben Johnson's picture
Ben Johnson
Administrator, author and educator

[quote]Students don't have to choose between memory & learning - they should do both because memory is essential to learning.

We learn best by meaningfully integrating new information with existing cognitive structures. Knowledge stored in your memory provides for this connection, organization, and integration of new with the old. Having a good memory helps facilitate this process - the more extensive your framework of existing knowledge, the more easily you can connect new information to it.[/quote]

Toni:

I understand your point. Students shouldn't have to choose a lot of things: go to school or have fun, read or understand, practice or enjoy, work or play...

A savvy teacher like yourself understands that both can and should happen at the same time, which helps students have successful experiences with school so that by the time they are in fifth grade, they choose to continue working with academics, rather than choosing to believe they are not suited for book learning.

The mental and electrochemical connections that are built through acquisition of knowledge are essential for healthy development in younger children and form the "Background Knowledge" that Marzano talks about in Building Background Knowledge. This broad foundation of knowledge facilitates the acquisition of more knowledge because the new knowledge has more dendrites with which to connect.

I need to read your book. It is obvious that you get it! Thanks for your comment. Eventually, I want to write my book(s) too. Any pointers?

Best regards,
Ben Johnson
San Antonio, TX

Claus von Zastrow's picture
Blogger 2014

Thanks for a very enlightening post. I've always have trouble with the common assertion that we needn't remember things, because we can look them up online. As you suggest, we need an extensive store of knowledge do motivate and direct our online research. Memorization can help us get there.

That said, I've found the internet to be a wonderful aid to memory. Despite my best efforts, I've never been able to commit quotations or longer passages to memory. (I envy my wife who, like your mother, has many long and beautiful literary passages by heart.) I do remember the gist of the quotations, however, and I can sniff out an allusion pretty well. A few minutes on the internet, and I can find what I need. That just wasn't possible 15 years ago.

Barbara Peugh's picture

Thank you Mr. Johnson, for giving educators a new insight. Schools today are "dummying down" cirriculum because it is easier. How sad.

John Bennett's picture
John Bennett
Emeritus Faculty in the School of Engineering / University of Connecticut

I've always reminded my students of the importance of having or getting the "core knowledge" (allows you to understand published material and make judgements of its usefulness and/or converse with experts.
I've always noted to them that this core knowledge must be in longterm memory.
I've always suggested that the knowledge must be part(s) of appropriate vision(s) to be retained and transferred to applications.
I've always admonished them that "I didn't want to fly in that airplane if desighed from memory" (look it up and evaluate if details).
BUT it does start with memorizing (as noted, the "M" word I've avoided using.
The core knowledge starts with memorization; as it is used and expanded within visions, it becomes knowledge in longterm memory.
It becomes more than what was memorized and leads to ease of use or transfer.

On another point you and others discussed, quotes and stories and explanations and poetry,etc. Will make it into longterm memory IF we are intrinsically motivated to address the task.
As teachers or parents or mentors, OUR task is not to simply assign the memorizing but to help them see the impotance or beauty that will build that intrinsic motivation.

Ben Johnson's picture
Ben Johnson
Administrator, author and educator

[quote]I've always reminded my students of the importance of having or getting the "core knowledge" (allows you to understand published material and make judgements of its usefulness and/or converse with experts.

I've always noted to them that this core knowledge must be in longterm memory.

I've always suggested that the knowledge must be part(s) of appropriate vision(s) to be retained and transferred to applications.

I've always admonished them that "I didn't want to fly in that airplane if desighed from memory" (look it up and evaluate if details).

BUT it does start with memorizing (as noted, the "M" word I've avoided using.

The core knowledge starts with memorization; as it is used and expanded within visions, it becomes knowledge in longterm memory.

It becomes more than what was memorized and leads to ease of use or transfer.

On another point you and others discussed, quotes and stories and explanations and poetry,etc. Will make it into longterm memory IF we are intrinsically motivated to address the task.

As teachers or parents or mentors, OUR task is not to simply assign the memorizing but to help them see the impotance or beauty that will build that intrinsic motivation.[/quote]

Dr. Bennett:

Your comments are right on target. For example, with computers, a person has to have quite a bit of knowledge if he or she wants to program them. Problem solving only happens after they have knowledge enough to get around in the programming language. I agree that intrinsic learning is much more powerful and enduring than extrinsic learning. Students can use rote learning (the m word) as a powerful tool to get what they want to endure in their brains. But as everything, if it is good, it is worth working for.

Thanks for participating.

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, TX

Kay's picture

Thank you for this post! Just today I was reviewing types of poetry with my students. To demonstrate some narrative elements of poetry, I recited the first stanza from "The Raven" instead of dragging out the textbook. The kids were in awe. They thought it was "cool." So cool, I think, I will have them memorize some lines as I am energized by your words of wisdom. The language is beautiful and they should be able to hear it in their souls as the words roll off their tongues.

Ben Johnson's picture
Ben Johnson
Administrator, author and educator

[quote]Thank you for this post! Just today I was reviewing types of poetry with my students. To demonstrate some narrative elements of poetry, I recited the first stanza from "The Raven" instead of dragging out the textbook. The kids were in awe. They thought it was "cool." So cool, I think, I will have them memorize some lines as I am energized by your words of wisdom. The language is beautiful and they should be able to hear it in their souls as the words roll off their tongues.[/quote]

Kay:

Good luck with your students. If you approach it correctly, memorizing poetry can be fun. The nice thing about it is that the students can see their progress right away--and students can acquire knowledge- ie internalize it and make it a part of them. Poetry has the power to do that, but so can literature and certainly music. Make sure you teach the students how their brain works and some memory strategies so they can be successful in memorizing (acquiring) the poems.

Thanks for your enthusiasm!

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, TX

Donna's picture

There are schools out there today where the principal will literally give a poor review of a teacher if they dare ask children to memorize any information at all. Where I live, entire districts tell teachers that they are specifically NOT to have children memorize the times tables, algorithms, or any other material. All learning is to be about higher order thinking skills. Even if that means that we never ask children to memorize where North America is located on a map.

I am not kidding. As a student teacher, I failed to receive my principal's recommendation for having the audacity to teach a unit on geography to third grade students. The principal told me that there was nothing wrong with my classroom management skills or even in my teaching; however, my focus of learning was on "unimportant" facts rather than HOTS.

I can honestly tell you that I would never have become a teacher today if I had known that, in many places, teachers are being told to make sure they don't teach any content - only HOTS.

Donna

Kay's picture

That is sad indeed. That is one "new" idea in education that does not make sense to me. I know lots of students who have no clue where any place in the world is because they never had to memorize or simply know facts. Half the joy of education comes from imparting wonderful facts. I suppose there are those who think Google can take care of that little problem. Well, not in a standing conversation unless you turn away from the person to log on to the net on your phone and then return to the conversation. Hopefully, the second party is waiting for the retort or reply...

Katie K.'s picture

As a German teacher, I find that I am struggling with students regarding the importance of memorizing vocabulary. Of course they are not simply being required to learn vocabulary that is out of context, rather it deals with themes we are discussing and texts we are reading. Without knowing this vocabulary, students cannot progress to the next level and discuss or write about things. This is their way to synthesize the material and really practice those Higher Order Thinking Skills.

I appreciate the memorization strategies that you shared. It reminds me of things that I should do more frequently with my students. Learning silly songs is something that they will often remember. I just have to remind them to not sing them when abroad but use the lyrics in conversation!

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