Saturday, May 30, 2009

Memorization vs Thinking

I know I am not the sharpest knife in the draw but I am not the dullest either, yet when it comes to memorization of facts, I am at a loss. Vocabulary words do not stick in my mind, no matter how much I study them. I remember studying Spanish with my son and even after 30 minutes of going over the same words, I still needed to refer to the list in my hand.

Over lunch, an English teacher was complaining that her students could not memorize a simple list of words, no matter what she did. I tried to explain my deficits to her, but she wanted no part of it. She kept talking about her "fun" activities and her constant repetition. I kept telling her that while I am sure she was fun and did lots of activities, I would be having the same difficulties. She kept saying how memorization was easy, much easier than doing a math problem or writing an essay and kept stressing how this simple process should enable all her students to pass. I couldn't convince her that everyone learns differently and what was easy for her might be difficult for someone else.

I hate memorization, probably because I am no good at it. I like understanding. I like knowing how and why things work and being able to apply that knowledge to any activity I have to undertake. When I first tried to use a graphing calculator, I tried to memorize the steps. Once I gave up on that and concentrated on the why and how it worked, I was able to do it all.

I hate it when my students demand formulas for concepts they can easily figure out, or at least figure out (if not easily) with a little bit of effort. I would rather see them rotate their page 90 degrees to do a transformation then regurgitate a formula that has no meaning to them. I am having a hard time convincing them that memorization only works sometimes, it work in exact patterns and it only works when you remember every step.

Many years ago, my husband saw a recipe for a pie on the food channel that looked interesting and he decided to try it. The problem was, he only saw half the recipe and because necessary ingredients were missing, his dish was inedible. Incomplete memorization causes the same problems.

Thinking is as vital to life as oxygen and water. Only when we get back to teaching and encouraging this will we be able to help create the leaders of tomorrow.


Marcy Webb said...

I don't believe it's an either/or proposition. Both skills are necessary for successful learning, and for success in life. That said, our post-modern education practices have made memorization anathema to good learning.

Pissed Off said...

I agree--certain things must be memorized--vocabulary and math facts are some of those things. The problem is the kids just want to memorize because that is what they have been taught.

institutrice said...

I agree, we do need both. But thinking is SO important, and they don't know how. I have been teaching my fifth graders that they need to talk to themselves, like they're talking to the kid next to them, when they do math because that's called THINKING. They were shocked, which in turn shocked me.
And memorization doesn't work if you don't understand how to use it. I took AP Calculus in HS and did not get it at all. (Except integrating - I could put it back together, but I couldn't differentiate. You'd think I coulda used integration to figure it out.) I memorized the formulas for the tests, and I could use them for the examples in the book or my notes, but I got every problem wrong on the test. I had no idea what I was doing. (Apparently I'm more of an "algebra mind". ;-) )

The problem I see in elementary school is kids don't get enough time to practice how to use a skill (even after understanding it) so it doesn't become second nature. We have to move on to the next topic, so they know a little about a lot of topics but are good at none of them.

Have you heard of Singapore Math? Apparently kids study one topic for a whole year, like first grade might be all adding and second grade is all subtracting, and the kids really truly master the concept. I think we need to try that here!!

NYC Educator said...

I don't believe in the word list. I learn words not by seeing them once, but by seeing them repeatedly. I'll see a word in a book, look it up, but it won't really become mine until I see it somewhere else and look it up again, and again.

It's silly to imagine kids who don't read will acquire language magically through memorizing an arbitrary list. Even if they manage to pass tests with those words, they haven't really accomplished much if they haven't done things with these words, specifically read and write them.

mathman42 said...

Memorization is much more difficult the older you get. Repetitive use serves the purpose of memorization as it " hard wires " the process in our brain. You can't easily derive certain formulas. They all know a squared plus b squared equals c squared as a formula but few really understand its utility. If they ever do the number of problems required 20 years ago they would " have it memorized ".

Anonymous said...

I hate memorization too. It feels like brain rape.