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In the Age of Google, Should Schools Teach Memorization Skills?

As school is about to resume, peo­ple are remind­ed of their strong opin­ions about how to fix schools: more fund­ing, bet­ter teach­ers, less gov­ern­ment inter­fer­ence, more gov­ern­ment inter­fer­ence, etc. But the one obvi­ous, and nev­er-stat­ed prob­lem, is that stu­dents don’t remem­ber what they are taught. In spite of all the “teach­ing to the test” that par­ents and teach­ers com­plain about, stu­dents still don’t remem­ber the very things they were taught as answers to test ques­tions.

The rea­son they don’t remem­ber is that they are not taught how to mem­o­rize. Why is that? First, there is a cul­tur­al dis­dain for mem­o­riza­tion skills. Who needs mem­o­ry skills today? Not only do we have books where we can look some­thing up, but now we can always just “Google it.” But Google can’t learn a for­eign lan­guage for you. What about stu­dents try­ing to pass high-stakes exams? Google isn’t made avail­able. And can Google make busi­ness­peo­ple more knowl­edge­able and com­pe­tent?

Being able to find infor­ma­tion is not the same as know­ing it. Access to the Inter­net is not always avail­able or prac­ti­cal. Stu­dents become men­tal­ly lazy when they can look stuff up instead of mem­o­riz­ing. Mem­o­ry needs exer­cise or it atro­phies like a mus­cle. Mem­o­ry-con­test com­peti­tors train for months to become men­tal ath­letes, but when they stop train­ing, their mem­o­ry capa­bil­i­ty shriv­els back to a more ordi­nary lev­el.

Worse yet is a teacher prej­u­dice against mem­o­riza­tion. That is so “old school;” the hip thing in teach­ing is to focus on crit­i­cal and cre­ative thinking?those high­er lev­els of think­ing so esteemed in Bloom’s Hier­ar­chy of Learn­ing. But mem­o­ry is cru­cial for pow­er­ful think­ing. I agree that the ulti­mate goal should be to teach peo­ple how to think, solve prob­lems, and cre­ate. Cen­tral to these capa­bil­i­ties, how­ev­er, is the abil­i­ty to remem­ber things. A per­son can’t think in a vac­u­um. Crit­i­cal think­ing requires knowl­edge and acquired think­ing and prob­lem-solv­ing skills. These things require a pow­er­ful mem­o­ry.

Think about all the time and mon­ey we spend try­ing to learn, whether it’s in school, on the job, or any­where else. What good is it try­ing to learn some­thing if you don’t remem­ber it? The only ben­e­fit I can think of is that such tem­po­rary learn­ing makes it eas­i­er to learn some­thing a sec­ond time.

The more one knows (remem­bers), the more intel­lec­tu­al com­pe­ten­cies one has to draw upon for think­ing, prob­lem solv­ing, and even cre­ativ­i­ty. Soci­ety does not need a work­force of trained seals, but it does need peo­ple with knowl­edge and skills that they can apply appro­pri­ate­ly to dif­fer­ent sit­u­a­tions. U.S. man­u­fac­tur­ing com­pa­ny exec­u­tives are com­plain­ing that, since man­u­fac­tur­ing tech­nol­o­gy is so com­pli­cat­ed, they have to rely on for­eign work­ers who have bet­ter edu­ca­tion­al back­grounds than do most U.S. stu­dent. The same prob­lem exists for recruiters to grad­u­ate edu­ca­tion pro­grams at U.S. col­leges of engi­neer­ing.

Think back to your own school days. How many teach­ers explic­it­ly taught you how to remem­ber effec­tive­ly and effi­cient­ly? Your teach­ers may have used a cou­ple of acros­tics and lim­er­icks, or warned you not to cram, but chances are that was the extent of your for­mal edu­ca­tion in how to learn. The empha­sis in school is always on what to learn. Who teach­es how to learn?

The prob­lem is that learn­ing is hard for so many peo­ple. They have not learned much about how to learn from par­ents or teach­ers, or on their own. When learn­ing is hard it’s not fun, so stu­dents avoid learn­ing until it is absolute­ly nec­es­sary. These stu­dents miss out on all the fun and rewards of life­long learn­ing.

Of the many things that influ­ence learn­ing effec­tive­ness, let me sum­ma­rize a few:

  • Degree of inter­est and enjoy­ment. Too often, peo­ple have lim­it­ed inter­ests, which lim­it what they learn. It pays to devel­op inter­est in many things. The dri­ve to learn is killed by telling your­self that some­thing is unin­ter­est­ing or bor­ing. School chil­dren and young adults do this rou­tine­ly.
  • Pay­ing atten­tion and think­ing about what you are try­ing to learn. Think­ing involves relat­ing new infor­ma­tion to exist­ing knowl­edge by ask­ing and attempt­ing to answer ques­tions. This is a part of the next item in this list.
  • Active engage­ment. This relates to the idea of learn­ing by doing, either men­tal­ly or phys­i­cal­ly. Strive to iden­ti­fy mean­ing and gain insight. Get­ting involved with and apply­ing what you are try­ing to learn is much more effec­tive than pas­sive­ly watch­ing a video or lis­ten­ing to a lec­ture with­out tak­ing notes or oth­er­wise engag­ing with the mate­r­i­al. This point applies to lazy read­ing, too.
  • Striv­ing for con­tin­u­ous improve­ment of learn­ing skills and knowl­edge expan­sion. Learn­ing-to-learn skills are cumu­la­tive and, I think, super-addi­tive. With­out con­tin­u­al striv­ing to become a bet­ter learn­er, you will reach an “O.K.” plateau that keeps you from expand­ing your learn­ing and mem­o­ry capa­bil­i­ties. You will nev­er know the sat­is­fac­tion and joy you have missed.
  • Know­ing mem­o­riza­tion prin­ci­ples and tricks. There are lots of tech­niques to help you absorb new infor­ma­tion, many of which are not that hard to learn.
  • Con­fronting chal­leng­ing learn­ing mate­r­i­al. When you make a con­scious deci­sion to learn hard mate­r­i­al, you can move out of your O.K. plateau and begin expand­ing your learn­ing and mem­o­ry capa­bil­i­ties. Delib­er­ate prac­tice must be dif­fi­cult in order to gain max­i­mum ben­e­fit. It’s like the phys­i­cal-exer­cise mantra: “no pain, no gain.”

Knowl­edge is pow­er, and is acces­si­ble to every­one who knows how to get it — which includes mas­ter­ing basic mem­o­riza­tion skills.

Bill Klemm— W. R. (Bill) Klemm, D.V.M., Ph.D. Sci­en­tist, pro­fes­sor, author, speak­er. As a pro­fes­sor of Neu­ro­science at Texas A&M Uni­ver­sity, Bill has taught about the brain and behav­ior at all lev­els, from fresh­men, to seniors, to grad­u­ate stu­dents to post-docs. Por­tions of this arti­cle were excerpt­ed from Dr. Klemm’s new book Mem­o­ry Pow­er 101 (New York: Sky­horse).

Relat­ed arti­cles by Dr. Klemm:

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