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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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