Forgetting to Remember

April 6, 2018

Memorization often evokes painful recollections of times table drill and kill, nerve wracking poem recitation, and blank maps.  These industrial era education norms birthed a generation of school haters, which have helped shape current pedagogical theory for the better.  In the process, many educators have de-emphasized memory, a crucial tenant of building knowledge.    Although teachers over-emphasized memorization in the past, eliminating it from educational practice has harmed student learning.   Building memory helps students connect with their primeval self, process information, and think.

From our early days as hunter-gatherers, humans relied on memory to retain and process vast amounts of information.  They navigated continents, internalized thousands of plant species, and passed their knowledge on to younger generations, who needed to memorize it for survival.  Had our brains not evolved to meet the demands placed on it, our species would have long ago gone extinct.  To a certain extent, technology has eliminated the need to retain certain information.  Siri can instantly perform mathematical calculations, recall historical dates, and translate between languages.  Elementary school teachers often cite these (and other) examples to justify memory exclusion.  What they fail to account for is that building memory creates mental stamina to optimize the brain’s power.  Just as sedentariness leads to muscle atrophy, failing to cultivate memory hampers mental processing.

Acquiring knowledge is only useful if it can be efficiently retrieved and processed.  In isolation, memorizing the chronology of U.S. Presidents or parts of a cell have little utility.  Committing them to memory, however, helps us access more complex information.  Consider the following scenario:


While watching The Post, the character played by Tom Hanks mentions Presidents Eisenhower, Truman, and Johnson within a 30-second span.  The viewer who has modest knowledge of historical dates and the linear progression of U.S. Presidents can create instant associations to better comprehend the movie’s storyline.  Those who don’t know the succession of U.S. Presidents in the second half of the 20th century suffer minor processing delays that prevent them from better understanding the conversation and unfolding plot.


While reading a Biology textbook chapter, a student can research any terminology they don’t know.  However, taking time to look up words such as Mitochondrion, Allele, and Vacuole prevents them from experiencing cognitive reading flow.  Fatigue ensues, lessening their likelihood of drawing connections and being inquisitive.  When people are burdened by the petty interruption of researching assumed knowledge, they struggle to think.

Strong memory in any discipline allows a person to think deeper within that field.  The person watching The Post can frame the story in historical context and compare it with current political events, because they’re not expending mental energy trying to construct timelines.  Great spellers can read more advanced books, because they can infer meaning in words they’ve never seen.  Conversely, maintaining a conversation in a second language is nearly impossible when trying to process vocabulary and verb conjugations that haven’t been memorized.

In the past, humans relied on their memory to navigate city streets, remember phone numbers, and recall important dates.  We now have machines that do these things for us so many people – especially children – see no purpose in committing anything to memory.  If the United States has any hope of building an enlightened, highly educated citizenry, this mentality must reverse.  Schools are the vehicle to guide the change and elementary instructors must be enthusiastic drivers.

Learning any subject can be either dull or dynamic, depending on how it’s presented.  Memorizing volumes of disconnected facts and terms tends to make content seem dry and lifeless.  For a generation, educators sought to avoid this, ignoring memory and focusing solely on captivating children’s curiosity.  Although well intentioned, this antithetical approach ignored a vital component of the learning process.

The best elementary school teachers understand that building memory and enjoying schoolwork aren’t mutually exclusive.  When managed well, memorization makes challenging content more accessible and learning experiences more enjoyable.  Careful to balance memory acquisition with dynamic learning experiences, they build small retention exercises into each subject area and communicate its purpose.

Understanding that memorization activities are an appendage – not the crux – of their studies, students see times tables, reciting poetry, and filling in blank maps as gamified challenges, not laborious chores.  Math problems become fun because they can compute, reciting poems brings them serenity in moments of duress, and knowing the geographical location of all 50 states gives them a greater context to understand and appreciate American history.  In the process, they nourish their brain, so that it functions according to its ancient design:  Civilization’s most powerful information processor.