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

Posted Aug 23 2012 11:59am

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).

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