In Defense of Memorization

It’s easy to criticize modern education for focusing too much on memorization over critical thinking skills. When people hear about kids memorizing the state capitals, the comments that emerge are always something about how students should be taught think critically and that modern education is the equivalent of a collection of trivia.

This argument is partially true. While things are rapidly changing, many students are subjected every day to the memorization of facts masquerading as knowledge. I’ve written before about what it means to be smart, and it really has nothing to do with facts at all, or even critiquing text.

Still, there is something to be said for memorization, even the rote kind of memorization. Many tech gurus who speak about education argue that since we can look up anything we want on the internet, we shouldn’t need to memorize anything anymore.

But there is value in memorization. Yes, a computer may be able to retrieve information with relative speed, but if you’ve ever tried a more complicated memorization (like memorizing a stack of 52 playing cards), you know that your brain can retrieve information much more quickly than a human can using a computer.

Memorization isn’t necessarily useful in and of itself unless you’re a contestant on Jeopardy, But if you are trying to solve a complex problem, as a lawyer let’s say, and you’ve memorized the key laws for your specialization, it’s very likely that you’ll be much quicker to solve a problem than someone who has to rely on a computer to look it up. Another example is teaching students to memorize their multiplication facts. There are fun ways to get the memorization done, but ultimately it comes down to just knowing what 4×6 is without needing to do any sort of calculation, mental or on paper.

We can create a more efficient system if we encourage memorization of the building blocks to solve a problem, but then spend most of our time giving kids practice using those blocks to solve complex problems.